Remembering Jefferson: Beagle, Friend, Terror

April 25th marked one year since I lost Jefferson, beagle and beloved terror. I write to remember him. Doubtless some of you are thinking “It’s only his fourth column and he’s already eulogizing dead pets. Spiraling into narcissism are we?  And isn’t this supposed to be a culture blog?” Fair enough. One defense: My dogs have been an education in politics and economics:  When two dogs get new the exact same toy, each still wants the other’s; that a toy may be abandoned for months, but as soon as one rediscovers it, the other demands it; that the keeper’s love and attention are always a zero sum game; and that my basset hound, like a French royal unwary of the guillotine, can laze about while demanding my servitude. Another defense: Life is often hideous and crushing; appreciating its blessings softens its blows. Jefferson and I shared plenty of both, and I’m better for it.

Jefferson was a beagle’s beagle (with possibly a little foxhound mixed in): avid hunter, neurotic demander, chaos on four legs. A definitive anecdote: One afternoon, two dumb-dumb tourists picnicked in a favorite dog park upon ground perpetually befouled by urine and feces. They took a few minutes to retreat, but not before Jefferson indulged multiple drive-bys, snatching their food in perfect glee.

jefferson at starbucks 2Jefferson was roughly one when I adopted him in 2002. The rescue called him “Fred.” He had freckled tricolors and a melodious bay (prompting the nickname “Smooth Jazz Beagle”), along with a flinty Calvinist disposition (God clearly favored him) and long legs allowing him to jump where he shouldn’t. Too peripatetic and imperious for “Fred,” I re-named him Jefferson (he’d only been “Fred” for a few days), after our Founding Father. It suited him. He declared continually his independence and exalted Locke’s labor theory of property rights (to which Mr. Jefferson arguably subscribed)* by claiming anything mixed with his labor (like the bathroom trashcan’s recurring potluck). Jefferson loved the hunt. At home, he bellowed at anyone approaching the house; outside, his nose stayed grounded and eventually discolored like worn leather. His bossiness won him the nickname “El Jefe.”

Matching Jefferson’s vigor and charm, however, was insuperable anxiety. Something terrible marred his puppyhood, something he could only describe by distrusting everyone, even me. He hated being held, and only permitted it at the vet’s office, when intimidated (almost never), and after cancer had all but conquered him. He bit me several times, the last time requiring three stitches. For this he did animal control-enforced house arrest (the hospital snitched him). Thereafter I sought behavioral counseling at Cornell (for him, not me). There I learned he was “inappropriately socialized as a puppy” and therefore read play as aggression. Perhaps this is why he preferred people to other dogs.

Cornell recommended fluoxetine and dog-appeasing pheromone collars. They (plus an antidepressant supplement) helped. Jefferson mellowed. But he still pissed inside to vouchsafe his property claims (it all belonged to him) and the contentment that came from (to paraphrase the carpet-cleaning neighbor Jefferson kept busy) things smelling like him, and perhaps to taunt Hunter. Indeed, during his last few months, Jefferson upped his game by urinating repeatedly in the middle of my bed, making it indisputably his. Hunter indulged (however decreasingly) Jefferson’s pretentions to alpha dominance while maintaining a mostly skirmish-free détente (barring the occasional treat or toy row and Hunter’s mealtime power posturing).

jefferson at starbucksJefferson’s devotion was fierce, if nuanced. He’d nudge a new toy beneath my leg and then remain, guarding it, growling at my attempts to move it. He’d cozy up to snooze, but growled and snapped if I petted or scratched him improperly (properly proved forever a moving target). Still, I know that Jefferson would have killed or died defending me from any attackers (whereas I suspect Hunter might just tailgate and watch the fun). Jefferson loved me, but heaven forbid I know it. He was El Jefe.

Cornell also recommended a “nothing in life is free” approach to our relationship (as did others). Quid pro quo: Make him sit for everything, even affection. That never really took. For better and for worse, Jefferson owned me. And I cherished the Darwinian irony of the supposedly less evolved creature lording it over the supposedly more evolved one. So when I had to (however adroitly) carry him into the house as he writhed like the Tasmanian Devil because I’d foiled his hunt for the varmint(s) occupying the backyard woodpile, it was okay. We were both allergic to discipline. I’m reminded of Andrew Sullivan’s observation about the breed:  “Yes, that’s a beagle: ornery, disobedient, mischievous, and profoundly loving. My kind of person, and my kind of dog.”  Jefferson was goddamned difficult, but I loved him better for it. And learning to do so helped push me from lingering adolescence into cautious adulthood.

*Thanks to Professor Hunter Baker for consulting on this point.

James Harberson

I used to be a criminal defense lawyer. Now I write comedy and horror screenplays.

  • Whenever my dog frustrates me, I’ll think of this and just take him for a walk while I still can.