The Smartest and Dumbest Dogs I Ever Owned: The German Shepherd and the Norwegian Elkhound

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The smartest dog I ever owned was a pure white female German shepherd pup. The dumbest dog to ever join our family was a Norwegian elkhound, also a female pup when she first arrived. Both animals were purebred but purchased without papers. Silver (the shepherd) was my first try as an adult dog owner; Smokey (the elkhound) was my second…and my last.

After Smokey’s departure from this vale of tears in 1972, I was done with dogs of the domestic variety. My canine track record, in a word, sucked. There seemed no point in pushing the issue any farther.

Cindy the tortoise shell kitten wandered out of the Oregon rain and into my heart a mere year later. Turned out I was a cat man.

It didn’t start out that way. My first wife and I bought our first home, a little two bedroom place in Belgrade, Montana, early in 1966. There was a sizeable back yard, which we promptly fenced, using wonderfully cheap 1″ x 4″ boards offered in a local classified ad for $155 per thousand board feet. With the posts set close enough together and the boards applied in a “box weave” pattern, the homestead was looking downright fancy.

All we needed to make it perfect was a dog.

As it happened, neither of us had grown up comprehending the concept of “indoor dogs”. Canines were great as watchdogs, fine as companions, but not designed to sleep in the same space with humans unless the temperature dropped to 40 below, producing one of the fabled “three dog nights” where nobody was expected to sleep alone, not even critters.

This meant we weren’t interested in little lap-yappers. Not our thing. Nunh-uh. Collie at the smallest, didn’t need or want a giant breed, settled on a German shepherd. Because of Rin Tin Tin? Possibly. I’d never seen the TV show, not having grown up with a TV in the house, but my bride had. I had read RinTin Tin comics; those were interesting.

We found a classified ad from a local breeder. Purebred German shepherd puppies for sale.

With Silver, as we named her, it was love at first sight all the way around. $35 and she was ours unless we wanted to register her, and then it would be $200. Which was not a problem, since we had spaying in mind, not litters of dozens of little Rin Tin Tinlets running around, eating us out of house and home.

Silver was allowed in the house much of the time and in the truck cab with me any time I was running errands without my spouse.

Life was good.

Until….

My itchy foot fired up by October. In November, after dropping out of college (which absolutely horrified my mother) and moving to Big Timber to sell livestock feed on a rural route, things weren’t looking so peachy.

The banker who promised to bankroll my new business venture lied. With the Belgrade house on the market but not selling and less than half the capital needed for inventory, we ended up living in a tiny upstairs apartment.

This was no place for a vibrant, healthy, active six month old German shepherd.

We did what we could, but with Vicky pregnant, me working 108 hour weeks trying to pry dollars out of ranchers’ wallets, and Silver often chained outside the apartment building, it was obvious something was going to have to change…and soon at that. Every once in a while, I’d take her with me for the day on the routes, but I had to know where I was going for that to be a good idea. For example, one rancher owned a huge jet black German shepherd male he called Satan. The name fit. He and Silver did not like each other.

No, it couldn’t possibly work long term, not long enough for me to make my mark and eventually get us our own house. Something would definitely have to change.

The final straw broke my camel back as I was turning the final corner, heading toward home late one Saturday afternoon. I always worked six days a week, usually from before dawn until well after dark, but this time I’d knocked off a bit early. It was still daylight out.

I saw it happen, but I was still too far away to influence the outcome.

Two standard poodles, tall char-gray bullies, jumped my pup on her chain. White against near-black, one on two and that one no more than 2/3 the size of either poodle. And she was hampered by her chain.

She whupped ’em both.

Right now, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. My Silver girl kicked those poodle butts faster than Iron Mike Tyson could bite off an ear in the boxing ring.

Yes, I was proud of her. Still am. But it couldn’t go on like this. Vicky agreed: It broke our hearts to say it, but we had to find Silver a new home. A good one; it had to be a good home.

A couple of weeks later, it was time to head on over to Deer Lodge to visit my wife’s parents for Christmas. Silver rode in the back of the truck–not on top like she belonged to Mitt Romney, but with things arranged to shelter her from the wind.

We stopped at Bozeman to gas up. The attendant took one look at Silver and his jaw dropped in amazement.

“What a beautiful dog!” His exclamation was sincere. We could see that, and so could the shepherd.

“Her name is Silver,” we told him. “Unfortunately, we need to find her a good home.”

He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “How much?”

“No charge,” we assured him, “if it’s the right person.”

Which he turned out to be. Twenty-six years of age, living alone in a good-sized house with a yard in Livingston…and his next door neighbor was a professional dog trainer. We talked for maybe twenty minutes, reassuring ourselves and filling him in on Silver’s history and personality…and then we explained the situation to our beautiful girl.

The best thing of all? She was cool with it. She understood everything we told her and accepted the changeover; I’m positive she did.

Of course, you always want to know for sure about something like that, right?

On the way back to Big Timber a few days later, we stopped in at the same gas station. Silver’s new owner was fortunately on shift.

“How’s it going?” We asked.

“Great! You wouldn’t believe it! The first day, one lesson, and she learned to sit and stay for two hours! Never budged! Smartest dog I’ve ever seen or even heard of in my life! And my neighbor the dog trainer says so, too!”

Mixed emotions? Sure, but mostly good. In fact, mostly fantastic. Okay, so we weren’t exactly doing the Heaven on Earth thing in our financial lives right then, but we’d earned an A in Matchmaking 101.

Silver

Losing Silver, even to a great home, hurt. We knew we’d be looking for a new puppy the moment I could get our money and living quarters back on track.

By the following spring, 1967, we figured we were ready. I’d been promoted to District Manager with the livestock feed company. This was salary plus commission rather than straight commission, so we had a bit of steady income we could count on. Beyond that, we’d moved from the miniscule Big Timber apartment to a full sized two bedroom house on a full basement near Vaughn, a dozen miles west of Great Falls.

Our new puppy, whoever she was, could sleep in the basement. That would work.

Back to the classified ads.

This time, it was a litter of Norwegian elkhound pups that got our attention. The breeder was a full hour’s drive away from our home, but he didn’t mind us showing up on a Sunday, so it was all good.

When we got there, however, we found a rather curious situation. As with the breeder who’d sold us Silver, this man raised purebreds…yet he did not acclimate them to humans. The mother dog knew people well enough, but she’d birthed her litter out in the barn or some such–well away from the house, anyway–and there they’d stayed, right up until the puppies were ready to be sold.

Oooooops.

Still, the puppies were as darling as only puppies can be…and of course we simply had to take the runt of the litter. I don’t remember the price. What I do remember is poor little Smokey (yes, a girl dog we named Smokey) barfing in the car all the way home.

Terrified at being torn away from her mother, grabbed by alien beings like that? Ee-ew!

For the next several nights, I slept with her in the basement, on the floor. Leaving her alone in this new environment with no body contact…unthinkable. She made it clear it was unthinkable, too, whining piteously in separation anxiety if I so much as dashed upstairs to use the bathroom.

Fortunately, she got past that stage fairly quickly, realizing that yeah, this was her family now, deal with it, where’s my food?

Once again, at least on the dog front, life was good.

On the financial front…not so much. Our hopes, initially sky high, began coming rapidly back to Earth. By September, I’d had to quit my job, just two days ahead of the already announced descending axe. I’d failed, utterly failed, unable to recruit and train any new route salesmen for my new District…except for one, who turned out to be worse than no recruit at all. He never made a sale that I didn’t personally close for him.

Come fall, we were living in Deer Lodge. The underground phosphate mines west of Garrison took me on, and I car pooled to work.

At least we were still living in a house, and not a bad one at that…but it was Deer Lodge that showed us Smokey’s true lack of intellect. She was a sweetheart but dumb as a box of rocks.

Whenever she got a chance to run, she took it. Nothing dumb about that. Nothing wrong with a desire for freedom. But you just knew, whenever she was out and about, she was going to do something ignorant.

Dog-appropriate, but ignorant all the same.

She escaped once during hunting season. Made it all the way across town. One of my inlaws picked her up at the side of the road where she was gorging on deer guts that had been dumped by a lazy hunter.

I drove over in our ’65 Chevy Impala Super Sport to pick her up. Classy car. She hurled a lot on the way home. One look at the results made it clear: Yep. Deer guts, all right.

In Deer Lodge, she slept in the living room…and did wake us once, whining when the place was filling with acrid smoke from a plastic salt shaker left too close to a burner on the stove. We’d been partying and somebody forgot to turn off that burner. Smokey possibly saved our lives that night, or at least the life of our 18 month old daughter who slept in the room closest to the kitchen.

Okay, maybe not quite as dumb as a box of rocks. Silver had set the bar awfully high, okay?

Then came September of 1968. With my father-in-law’s sensible encouragement, I decided to head back to college, finish getting a four year degree–this time in psychology, since my previous majors of Auto Mechanics and Agriculture hadn’t worked out all that well.

One problem with that. There was no such thing as student married housing designed to accommodate dogs.

Uh-oh. Here we go again.

The inlaws agreed to keep her for the time it would take me to finish my schooling. Close to 20 months in a little pen out back, being overfed and otherwise pretty much ignored except during our infrequent visits.

But we could rationalize it, right? It wouldn’t be forever….

And then came Spokane, Washington.

We’d been living in the city for a couple of years by the time we made the decision. At our first little rental house, things seemed to be working out. We had two young daughters by then, both of whom spent time with her. There was a tiny room out back that I used as a mini-shop for refinishing furniture, so Smokey got to hang with me a bit, too.

The move to the bigger place, one we bought with considerable excitement…that’s the one that did her in.

I never knew why, but in the presumably better neighborhood, she turned into one of those barking dogs you can’t shut up at night. Having her sleep inside again like we’d done in Deer Lodge would have done the trick, but we simply weren’t wired to be able to go that route. Why not?

For the life of me, I can’t say. Don’t remember he reasoning

We tried everything else, though. Even got a dog for the kids and to keep Smokey company, but made a serious mistake–Dalmations, we discovered to our considerable chagrin, have pretty spots but are nervous critters, not the calm canine you want to hang out with your preschool children.

Now we had two barking dogs.

I’ve never been able to tolerate people who let their dogs bark all night, irritating the neighborhood for no good–or at least no apparent–reason.

We had no hope whatsoever of finding good homes for either of these mutts.

Dang.

Finally, we threw in the towel. I hauled both dogs off to the pound. The young Dalmatian had a decent chance of getting a placement. Smokey, at five years of age, had none. I observed the loathing in the eyes of the pound attendant who took the elkhound’s leash, chalked it up to experience, and drove home, trying not to think about it.

That night, for the first time in months, we slept through till dawn without having to de-bark a dog even once. I did not have nightmares.

But I didn’t forget, either.

Nor did Smokey. During the winter of 1975-76, I saw the elkhound again. In a male body this time, larger and burlier than runtlet Smokey had been, but clearly the same Soul. It was a cold night, snow on the ground. I was heading in to a Jaycees meeting when I saw the dog down at the far edge of a long steel building.

“Smokey?!” I called, and my box of rocks friend came running at top speed.

It could have been a charge. An attack. And it almost was… but it wasn’t.

He charged into my arms, not bowiling me over since I was braced and ready, but holding nothing back. The jaws gaped, closing on one forearm where I was hugging the big elkhound around the chest.

Closed…but not hard enough to break the skin. Not quite hard enough to even tear through my winter coat.

We communed another minute or two, then went our separate ways.

Later that night, Smokey came to see me in a dream. That works well at times, in part because critters I know well seem to be able to speak English there. “I thought of biting down,” he (now a he) admitted, “but decided, what’s done is done.”

Or words to that effect.

Hm. Hey. Whoa. I just proofread this part. This supposedly uber-dumb dog survived five years of mediocre ownership with us, saved our lives once in the process, reincarnated, and in the end balanced the scales between us by Soul traveling in the dream state.

I got this wrong. The title should not have been about the smartest and also the dumbest dogs I have known. It should have been written from the dog’s viewpoint with a title like, Inadequate Owners I Have Known.

Well. As soon as either Silver or Smokey learns how to type with those nonretractable claws, maybe it will be.

Smokey

2 thoughts on “The Smartest and Dumbest Dogs I Ever Owned: The German Shepherd and the Norwegian Elkhound

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  2. Thanks, allx. I never thought about a Donate button. When I started writing online 6 years ago (at another site which I did not own like I do this one), I needed every penny we could garner. The host company shared revenue, but (among other intermittently irritating things), it never did get to be a terribly significant amount.

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