Before Nutmeg there was Whisper

Nutmeg at about 18 months

Yes, this blog is about Nutmeg, my chocolate lab. I’m telling the story in the spirit of my favorite television show, How I Met Your Mother. While this photo is of Nutmeg, today’s post is about Whisper.

Kids. This is the story of how I met your doggie. Not just about how I met her, but about her life and her perfectly ordinary dogginess. The story begins when I was a kid – just five years old. On my fifth Christmas morning, there was Whisper.

Whisper was a purebred mutt: 57 varieties of dog rolled into one. As we stood over the puppy’s gift box, my mom “suggested” we name the dog after a character in a book we’d recently read as a family: The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber. Please, if you haven’t read The Thirteen Clocks, do it at your first opportunity.

One plot twist in the book involves a spy named Whisper, and there’s a memorable verse that informs readers of Whisper’s fate. For our love of the book (and my mom’s authority) we unanimously accepted the dog’s name.

Whisper and Me

As the youngest in the family, I didn’t impress our new dog. For years I was clearly no more than her peer in the pecking order of our pack.

Whisper joins the family at Christmas

What a Christmas! We opened a cardboard box, and found a most adorable mutt-puppy.

She was extremely intelligent which served her well because we were too stupid to keep her on a leash. She’d vanish for hours, mooching off of neighbors who enjoyed her visits. She learned a lot of tricks: She could sit, lie down, roll over, sit up (beg), shake hands, catch, and flip a cracker off her nose into her mouth. She learned to sneeze on command and would go to her box in the basement when we told her to.

Most amazingly to me, Whisper learned that the command over meant move to the side of the road. This was critical because she ran alongside when my brother or I road a bicycle, putting her in the road a lot. We’d yell over when cars approached, and she always made it with time to spare.

Whisper’s repertoire of tricks won her “best in show” at a mutt show sponsored by the YMCA. She behaved well with the crowd of dogs and people, but this belied her dark side: she had a police record because she played aggressively.

Whisper and the Neighbors

Whisper soaks up heat from the radiator

More than any dog I’ve known since, Whisper curled up tightly and tucked her nose underneath. She was the perfect size for a lap dog, but Mom wouldn’t let her on the furniture. The restriction made me hungry someday to have a lap dog of my own.

We’d play games and sports with neighbors in a park behind our house. When Whisper joined in, she’d be overzealous and bite – not nip – people running. Worse, though I can’t remember a specific incident, she bit more than one visitor to the house.

When I was nine my family moved for a year to Milan, Italy. My parents rented the house to strangers who agreed to keep Whisper while we were away. The dog did fine and obviously hadn’t forgotten us when we returned, but I always wonder what she felt losing her family for so long and then getting it back.

Why I’m a Dog Person

Whisper’s love for team sports in the park resulted in a horrible accident when she was quite young. In a baseball game, a kid threw a bat after smacking a long ball and the bat hit Whisper in the head. She squealed and went into convulsions: Her muscles stiffened. Her eyes glazed over. She foamed at the mouth. She rocked from side-to-side. She moaned. Then it passed.

Over the years, she had more convulsions. She knew when one was about to start and would look fearful, and we’d sit and comfort her until the convulsion ended. My dad, a neurophysiologist, hooked Whisper up to electrodes and recorded her brainwaves as part of a databank of EEGs of epileptic dogs.

Whisper howls along with harmonica tunes

Either because certain loud noises hurt her ears, or because she was musically inclined, Whisper howled along to my brother’s trumpet or my harmonica. I hope it was the musically inclined thing; otherwise, we tortured her a lot to get her to perform with us.

Whisper would run alongside when we went horseback riding in the woods. On one trip, she suddenly started squealing in agony, and I jumped off my horse to see what was wrong. The dog had stepped on the trigger of a steel jaw trap and gotten her toe caught. Only a few months earlier I’d learned trapping at Boy Scout camp or I wouldn’t have known how to free her. I draped her over the saddle for a few minutes until she made it clear she was good to walk.

Whisper taught me the meaning of devotion and loyalty. Whatever mistakes I made with her; however I might have abused her (bratty kid that I was), she never seemed to think less of me. And, when she needed me, she’d tell me so and she’d thank me for being there. I don’t know any human as devoted with so few strings attached; I’m certainly not that reliable.

Wing Dog

When I was in college, I’d take Whisper to campus and let her walk free down hallways in an all-girls dorm. Naturally, she’d walk into any open room and become the icebreaker. On one such trip, she stopped to sniff along a sidewalk and we got separated by about 20 feet. I turned to wait and saw her look toward me without seeing me, turn to look the other direction, and then look panicked. I called to her, but she didn’t hear. As she started to hurry in the wrong direction, clearly trying to find me, I hustled back and tapped her on the butt. When she spun and recognized me, there was obvious relief in her eyes. I had to acknowledge her advanced age and the nearsightedness and deafness that had come with it; I died a little bit inside.

Whisper died within a year of that incident. No dog I’ve had since has lived past the age of ten – not even two-thirds of Whisper’s age. I can’t help comparing every dog to Whisper. With her tendency to bite people, she wasn’t the best. But, of course, she was the first. That first made it very hard for me to live without a dog.



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