Author of Southern Stories



The Tale of the Tuscan Terrier

To be perfectly honest, my attitude about dogs is about the same as most folk’s attitude about doctors or lawyers.  While I’m generally suspicious of the whole group, my dog (or doctor or lawyer) is somehow different.  More trustworthy, loyal, friendly, courteous, kind, etc. than the rest of the breed.  My wife, on the other hand, is an unconditional dog lover.  She imbues them with remarkable (and mostly undiscovered) traits that reflect their superior personalities.  She’ll sit for hours watching reruns of “Miracle Pets” on TV, declaring each time that any dog of ours would rise to the same level of heroism in a similar situation. 


We have two dogs which, as a compromise to my wife, I allow to stay inside most of the time.  Mine is a fine short-legged Jack Russell terrier, clearly one of the finer examples of her breed.  We’ve had her about three years, having been given the pick of the litter from a friend out in the country who raises them.  My children christened her “Maggie” based on the fact that she was born with a fine flowing dark bit of hair around her eyes that for all the world looks like eye shadow.  (Or the Eye of Horus, depending on your orientation.) 


Maggie is everything one could want in a pet.  She sits quietly by as I read the newspaper, waiting to be petted.  Every morning she bears silent vigil at my feet, waiting for me to finish my cereal so she can lap the last bit of milk out of the bottom of the bowl.  She protectively barks at deer in the yard and strangers in the driveway.  She sleeps under our bed, ready to lunge at any intruder who might threaten her masters.


My wife’s dog, on the other hand, is a mutt.  She was also a gift from another friend who lives in the country.  He’s a dog lover, too, keeping more than a hundred of them around his house and barn.  They’re all named, all well fed, their personalities analyzed, and quite well cared-for.  Perhaps needless to say, with a hundred or so dogs, accidents do happen.  They are not exactly pure-bred.  We were presented several to choose from including Peanut, Weasel, Sparkplug, Zona, and others. 

My wife and daughters settled on a sort-of brown small animal named Trixie.  Given the fact that Trixie was a male, they promptly renamed him Randy, and whisked him off to a loving home.  No longer was he one among many.  He suddenly had his own L. L. Bean dog bed, his own food and water dishes and a new master—my wife—who keeps insisting that she “rescued” him.


I don’t need to describe Maggie.  She is a lovely short-legged Jack Russell.  Randy, on the other hand, tends to defy easy description.  We were told that he is part Chihuahua, part Mountain Feist, and part Pomeranian.  He’s short, about 10 inches tall, has the color of a Halloween Jack-o-Lantern in mid-November, and has a remarkable tail that instead of stretching out behind him, curves up and to his right in a somewhat obscene curlicue.  His back legs are longer than his front, so when he walks his rear sort of yaws to one side, giving him a peculiar sideways gait.


One of Randy’s most distinctive features is his head.  It looks as if someone took a round ball of clay, and as a total afterthought, stuck on a snout and ears.  Unlike Maggie’s sleek aerodynamic head, Randy sports what could be dunce’s cap cut open and lined with teeth.  About his only redeeming physical feature is the fact that his mouth, like Maggie’s eyes, is lined in black.  Like a drawn-on mustache, however, the coloring extends back toward his oversized ears giving the impression of a permanent sardonic smile.   Despite all of this, we’ve both come to love him.


The problem with owning an off-brand dog is one that few people consider in advance.  We have place in Highlands, North Carolina, a most pleasant and dog-friendly community in the western part of the state just north of the Georgia state line.  There is one main road that runs through the center of town, but for the most part it’s a village of quiet streets and lovely mountain views. 


One’s of Highland’s seemingly favorite pastimes is dog-walking.  Invigorated by the mountain air, you simply hitch your dog to his leash and set out.  You can walk fast or slow, depending on your mood, stopping every now and then to pass the time of day with your neighbors and friends. 


We discovered very early that nearly everyone loves to admire your pets.  I’ll be strolling down Main Street, Maggie tugging ahead of me on her leash, and hear comment after comment on “What a beautiful Jack Russell terrier.”  On the other hand, folks tend to take one look at Randy and say, “What a…, uh…, an interesting dog.”  This inevitably leads to the next question, “What kind is he?”


Now, I’m generally a truthful person, and for the longest time I’d respond that he was a supposed mix of Chihuahua, Pomeranian and Mountain feist.  The usual reply would be, “Oh,” then a pause, “Chihuahua, that’s like the Taco Bell dog, right?”  More or less correct, but I hear he (or she) was not the best example of the breed.


As for Pomeranian, those who chose to comment would usually say something to the effect that Pomerania is a country in (take your choice) South America, Eastern Europe, or a county in Northern California (which might as well be a foreign county).  In truth, it’s a geographic area on the Baltic Sea which is now part of Germany and Poland.  I never bother trying to correct people. 


Explaining the Mountain Feist part is a bit more problematic.  My dictionary defines a feist as “A nervous belligerent little mongrel dog.”  It may well be true, but he is a member of the family and I try to avoid bad-mouthing my pets.  And if someone  really presses the issue, I don’t want to tell them that “feist” (or the variant “fice”) comes from the Middle English word meaning flatulence.  It just gets too complicated.


So I came up with a solution.  I was strolling down Main Street one fine afternoon and was (again) asked about Randy’s breed.  I replied promptly.   “He’s a Tuscan Terrier.”  After a brief puzzled look and a short silence, the reply was, “I’m not sure that I’ve heard of that breed.”


With a somewhat superior look on my face I said, “Well, they’re all the rage.  The breed of the New Millennium.”    If by this time the curious questioner had not been sufficiently embarrassed at his or her utter lack of sophistication, I launched into a complicated tale, which changes slightly every time I tell it.


“You see,” I said, “Tuscan Terriers are an ancient and noble breed that trace their roots to the great swine flu epidemic in Northern Italy in the late Fifteenth Century.  As you know, for hundreds of years, pigs had been used to sniff out the prized Tuscan white truffles, and were the source of much wealth for this area of the country.  With the swine flu, most of the pigs died, and once-rich farmers were suddenly struggling to feed their families as their main source of income disappeared.


“One day a man named Geppetto Pinocchio discovered his prized house dog digging under the roots of an oak tree and coming up with the precious truffles.  Not revealing his secrets, he began to breed his dog to other similar ones, and within a decade the breed was defined.  It’s only been in the last ten years that Americans have discovered this marvelous and highly intelligent animal.” 


It may be hokey, but it shuts ‘em up.  I never have to explain that Pomerania is not Brazil’s neighbor, or that you pray that you dog is in fact not feisty.  The most common response is, “Yes, I’ve heard of that breed and was thinking about getting one.”

(I usually reply that they are very expensive.)


So, my dog-walks in Highlands these days are quite relaxed.  The dogs and I get our exercise, and we can dispense quickly with trying to explain Randy.   I knew I’d finally arrived when the other day I was walking down Main Street and overheard one of the bench-sitters say to another, “Tuscan Terrier.  It’s a new breed.  Everybody wants one, but I hear they are awful expensive.”


I was tempted to ask him to make me an offer, but hey, Randy’s family.


This article appeared in a 2006 issue of Splash magazine.