For Dog Lovers - My Dire Wolf
For my second birthday, my parents gave me a new dog, also around two years old. He was a stray who had jumped into the back of my dad’s pickup truck and had successfully remained hidden for the hour-long journey from town to the oil rig that my dad was roughnecking on at the time. He wasn’t discovered until my dad arrived at the rig and opened the tailgate of his truck to get his tools.
He was in pretty rough shape but from what we could tell, he was part wolf and part Husky, with yellow eyes and shaggy white fur. My parents asked me what I wanted to name him, and I immediately thought of my very favorite thing in the world.
“Cocoa!” I shouted with glee.
My mom, seeing the obvious disconnect between cocoa and my solid white dog, changed the spelling of his name to “Koko,” and if someone asked her where she got the name, she would tell them that it was Alaskan for “Sled Dog.” It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned that Koko is not Alaskan for Sled Dog. Also, “Alaskan” is not a language.
As a toddler, I crawled all over my fluffy white wolf, pulling his hair and ears while riding him like a horse. From what I’ve been told, he never bit me or even growled at me. Instead, from the time that I was a baby up through my teens, he guarded me like I was his only reason for existence. Every night he would position himself on the floor of my room, exactly between my bed and the doorway. My mom loved to tell the story about how, when I was a toddler, I toddled into the street and Koko immediately snapped his jaws onto my diaper and yanked me back onto the sidewalk. She tended to gloss over how I was able to toddle into the street on her watch, but that was beside the point. I was in safe paws.
Koko rarely barked, but when he did, there was usually a damn good reason. One day, I remember my mom opening the front door to let a repairman in. Koko wasn’t having it. The repairman, seeing Koko’s extended claws, raised fur, flashing yellow eyes, and bared teeth, stood frozen in the doorway. My mom told the man that she didn’t feel comfortable letting him in and that his company would have to send someone else. He looked relieved and left immediately. An hour later, a replacement arrived much more to Koko’s liking. To this day, Mom is convinced that Koko saved her from whatever the first repairman’s horrible intentions were.
Thanks to Koko, some evenings were more exciting than others. Our family would be watching Cheers, Mash, or The A-Team and suddenly, Koko’s ears would shoot straight up. He’d cock his head side-to-side, stand up, face the front door, and start his low rumbling growl.
Maybe my dad was dressed or maybe he was dashing out of his bedroom in his underwear. It didn’t matter, he was ready to kick some ass. He’d yank on his cowboy boots, grab his shotgun—always at the ready in our coat closet—and throw open the front door to let Koko bound out first. The sight of my dad in his boots and tighty-whities, staring down the barrel of his shotgun while pointing it in the direction that Koko had disappeared into the dark, will be forever burned into my brain, along with the theme song to Deliverance.
My mom would do her part by standing on the front porch and offering her observations, usually in her nightgown while pointing with her lit cigarette.
“I think I see something moving over there! No wait… There! No wait…” (long pause) “Shhhh! I hear something!”
Eventually we would hear yowls or yelps in the distance, sometimes human, sometimes not. I’m pretty sure that the human yelps were teenagers doing whatever delinquent teenagers do at night in an empty field, only to be surprised by my wolf-dog jumping out of the tall grass and sending them running for their lives. My mom is convinced they were all “robbers and killers.” She often bragged about how we didn’t need to spend money on an alarm system when we already had a much more effective alarm dog.
After the teenagers or robbers or killers or mountain lions or whatever had fled the premises, Koko would return. Our family would go back inside, Dad would kick off his boots, return his shotgun to the coat closet (not bothering with the safety), and we would resume doing whatever it was that we had been doing, as if there had been no interruption.
Koko’s other talent was his side gig as an accomplished escape artist. This put us on a first-name basis with the dog catcher, who only had to whistle and call Koko by name to catch him. Koko, thrilled that his private limo had arrived to take him to the dog party downtown, would barrel full speed toward the dog catcher, bark at him in greeting, and leap gracefully into his truck.
No matter how hard we tried to make Koko stay in our backyard, he would find a way out. I suspect he enjoyed the challenge. One time my dad spent a whole lot of money and effort installing a new electric barrier. He turned it on and then touched it to see if it worked. From my bedroom, I heard him scream.
Confident that he had finally found a solution, he let Koko into the backyard and waited with his chin raised and arms folded in a posture of vindication. Koko immediately walked up to the new barrier, sniffed it, and then walked under it, his thick fur thoroughly protecting him from the electrical current that was supposed to have been teaching him a lesson. As I stifled a giggle, I watched my dad’s face reveal an array of emotions, starting with surprise, veering into anger, and ending with resignation. Dad hadn’t said a word, but as much as his face could speak, it said: “You’ve got to be kidding me”; then, “Unbelievable!”; and finally, “Respect, Bro” (with the requisite sigh). Sometimes nature simply will not be contained.
We eventually moved to the country and, free from HOA restrictions, my dad installed a large dog pen/prison. THIS, he was certain, would contain Koko.
Koko was getting older by then and was no longer able to soar over the top of a tall fence. Instead, he got resourceful and learned how to lift the latch on the new gate with his nose.
Koko died when we were both 16 years old. His eyes were white with cataracts by then and he was going deaf. He had lost interest in escaping and spent his days either inside with my mom and the A/C, or outside lounging in his kiddie pool.
One fateful day, my beloved beast got a wild hair and set out for one last adventure. My dad had long ago installed a nose-nudge-proof latch, so Koko used a trick he had been saving and just dug his way out of his pen. Maybe it was because of his poor vision and hearing, but he was hit by a car not far from our house. In retrospect, his death seemed like a fitting way for this magnificent and legendary creature to go, tempting fate to the very end.
I’ve had several dogs since Koko, all of them large and spectacular in their own way. I’ve always been a big dog kind of gal. Nevertheless, as I’ve aged, my preference has skewed more toward an old-lady smaller breed that I can more easily take with me in my dog-friendly city. One that is less menacing, ridiculously cute, sheds less, and has smaller poops. These days, my lifestyle rocks two Boston Terriers.
But Koko will always be my first love, my guardian angel, my blueprint for dependable relationships, and my fiercest protector. His importance in my life cannot be overstated and I am grateful that I had the gift of his presence throughout my childhood.
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