Howard's Trip

Formerly: 'Roadstory News, an ongoing travel log'

Tribute to Pepper the dog - and a life well lived.
August 11, 1995 - May 13, 2010
What a wonderful friend he was to me.

Pepper was one of the best friends I've ever had, and for about ten years, my only companion.  But beyond that, Pepper was a really terrific little creature any way you care to look at him.  I know, I know, everyone thinks that their own dog (husband, wife, child, etc) is the very best and we're all hopelessly biased, BUT, I think after reading this you will agree that Pepper was truly extraordinary, or at the very least worthy of my recognition here.  [some pictures are links]

Pepper was a Border Terrier, a fairly rare breed in the US, originally developed in the border country between Scotland and England for hunting with Beagles.  Terriers will all "go to ground" after prey but most were bred with short legs to better navigate a burrow.  Terriers are tenacious, fearless, and great problem solvers.  Attacking a fox underground and either dispatching it or dragging it out alive takes a singularly determined animal.  And most terriers have exceptionally large teeth and powerful jaws for just such a purpose.  But Borders were bred with longer legs so they could keep up with the Beagles on a hunt and their proportions look a little more natural than the shorter-legged Cairns, Scotties, and others of their type.  Borders are also a little more obedient and slightly less headstrong than the others.  I chose the breed, way before I had appropriate space for one, for their small-to-medium size (10-16 pounds), their active nature, and because I liked the ones I had met at dog shows.  Pepper cost me $700 in 1995.  The going rate now is around twice that.

Pepper was the biggest of his litter and was 22 pounds in his prime.  As he softened with age, he wound up around 30 pounds, twice the size of the breed standard.  The breeder I bought him from was called "Aztec Borders" so his full name was Aztec's Red Hot Chili Pepper.  "Pepper" for short.  I was single and working when I bought him and I had just bought a house in San Bruno (near SF), California.  But I was fortunate to work in an office where I was allowed to bring him to work as soon as he was house broken.  And he was fortunate to have me with him virtually all of the time.  I took possession of him at eight weeks of age and immediately put a huge amount of effort into training him.  So he was not able to develop any bad habits and learned very quickly.  I used a training method that I learned in the book, "How To Be Your Dog's Best Friend."

Everyone knows that by feeding a dog from the table, you teach him to beg, or at least to stare hopefully at humans who are eating.  But Pepper and I were a family of two for ten years!  So when I had something good to eat, there was no way I could not share with him.  So I spoiled him.  But he was not allowed to be aggressive in his begging, or to steal food.  It bothered some of my guests when Pepper would watch them eat, with that hopeful look in his eye, but they were allowed to spoil him too!

As soon as he had his shots, I took Pepper to a dog park just South of San Francisco called Ft. Funston.  There are hiking trails among the dunes, access to an endless beach, and a hang glider launch.  We went regularly for nearly three years, usually right after work.  There he ran free with other dogs and learned the ways of canine etiquette.  After hundreds of contacts with other dogs and people, he was well socialized, and game for any kind of play.  He must have been able to smell the place because he would be insane with excitement within a half mile of it.  By the time he was out of the parking lot and off the leash, he would charge, barking, at any dog he could see.  He hadn't the slightest concern for size or temperament of other dogs.  He'd run flat-out, right at them, but then veer to one side as he flew past, barking maniacally as if inviting them for a game of chase.  They would often oblige and he made many friends there, as did I.  One startled owner commented, "he's bigger than he looks!"  He once met a brace of full-blooded timber wolves there and Pepper wouldn't go to the communal water bowl until they had finished drinking.  But he regularly rolled in the sand playing with a huge Akita, a wolf/malamute cross, and countless large and small dogs.  He was attacked only one time, by a really nasty pit bull who tore his skin but didn't break any bones.  Pepper had submitted to the dog, but the gesture didn't work.

Pepper didn't take to water immediately.  He'd run through tidal pools but was a bit intimidated by surf.  Then one summer when he was around a year old, I went canoeing  with my brother and his family.  His son Colin was about ten years old and he and Pepper spent a good many hours playing in shallow water; splashing, teasing, running, the way kids will.  From then on, Pepper was hooked.  Water was "fun."  After that, we couldn't walk by a swimming pool or beach, especially one with splashing kids, without Pepper desperately wanting in on the action.  Eventually, Pepper would swim in two oceans, a gulf, a sea, and rivers and lakes too numerous to count, including the mighty Mississippi.

I took Pepper with me everywhere I could, and I avoided places where he wasn't welcome.  So we bonded in a way that seemed very special to me, and I think to him too.  He was a model of obedience and could learn tricks almost instantly.  He learned to jump through a hoop like a circus dog.  And he could roll over in either direction based on which hand signal I used.  I did all of his training with treats and praise.  Negative re-enforcement was reserved for things he wasn't ever supposed to do, like chewing up my glasses or running in the street, and even then, I never hit him.  Well... I did whack him once as a pup when he peed in my lap but I felt so bad about it that I never did it again.  He could heel without a leash, but around auto traffic I used a leash just in case.  He loved to chase any kind of critter like a squirrel or cat and knew the names for both.  He was so obedient, that if he saw a cat, I could take him off leash, tell him to "get the cat!" wait until he was running full speed 30-40 feet out, and call him back with two words, "Pepper, come!"  He chased hundreds of squirrels but never caught one.  Once, he jumped over one while chasing another.  Pepper would occasionally pick a scrap of food up off the sidewalk as we walked. I would say one word, "off," and he would spit it out.  I've never seen another dog do that.  He seemed to love obeying me.  I trained him to stay off of furniture so well, that later in life, when I wanted him to join me on the sofa, he could never get comfortable with it and would jump down at his first opportunity.

In August of 1998, when Pepper was just three, we began our full time RVing lifestyle.  My other essays detail the various aspects of that lifestyle so I'll continue to focus on Pepper here. Over the next ten years we would make over 600 stops together, all over the United States and Mexico.   I anticipated doing a lot of bicycle exploring so I rigged up a basket so Pepper could come along.  I covered the passenger seat of my truck with a beach towel and that's where Pepper would ride.  He had zero interest in scenery, but was fascinated by any kind of livestock.  I pointed out cows and horses to him, until he knew those words too.  He could be curled-up asleep, and I would say the single word, "cows!"  Pepper would leap to his feet with a bark, his feet braced on the dashboard, his head swiveling frantically to locate the treasure.  When he found them, he would wag his tail and growl.  I'd roll down the window a little so he could smell the air and bark at them if they were close.  We circled the United States seven times amusing ourselves with "cows!" and, "horses!"

Most RV parks in the U.S. have strict leash rules for dogs, which seemed unfair for such an obedient animal.  But we'd usually find a remote piece of grass or dirt where we could play Pepper's favorite game, "fetch."  Pepper's mouth was scarcely big enough for a tennis ball, but he could get it in and hang on.  His jaws were so strong and he was so tenacious, that I could pick up the ball with him attached and swing him around by it.  Highway rest areas have leash rules too but we quickly found that they are rarely enforced when you're in the middle of a big lawn and obviously having a blast.  We developed a great game involving two tennis balls.  We'd walk to the middle of a (hopefully) big field and take off the leash.  I'd throw a ball (and I mean REALLY throw it) and Pepper would retrieve it.  As he jogged back to me, I'd turn and face the other way.  That would signal to Pepper that the next ball would be going in the direction that he was already traveling.  He would then accelerate to a full run, and just before he reached me, I'd let fly with the second ball.  As he flew by me, he'd drop his ball at my feet, bark once, and retrieve the second ball.  We would do that again and again, changing directions over and over, with Pepper running continuously until he was worn out.  I'd make sure he was paying attention by occasionally throwing the ball in an unexpected direction, or fake a throw and hold the ball.  If I stalled, he'd bark furiously until I resumed.  We'd often draw spectators with this game.  And Pepper could get a serious workout in as little as 10-15 minutes... not usually enough time for an authority to enforce the leash rules!

I like to hike so where dogs are allowed I'd take Pepper with me.  As in traveling, Pepper was always on the lookout for other animals, including humans.  Though he never ran far ahead like other dogs I've owned.  My rule was that he had to stay in sight, but it was usually Pepper who would check in with me rather than my having to call him back.  As he aged, he became much less interested in other dogs, and more interested in people.  He would typically walk right by an inquisitive canine in hopes of getting pats on the head from the dog's master.  And I learned that he must be looking them right in the eye.  As someone approached us, I could see their eyes on him and as the gap between us closed, a smile would spread across their faces.  People would instinctively bend down and give Pepper's ears a scratch.  A cute dog like that is supposed to be a great chick magnet.  And the most beautiful women seemed to adore my dog.  But after the cooing and scratching was over, they would stand up and walk on without giving me a glance!

It's actually amazing that Pepper lived as long as he did considering some of the dangerous mistakes he made.  Once, we were walking across some kind of dam in California that had a steep slime covered concrete incline.  Pepper inexplicably decided he could walk on it and slid, accelerating, to the bottom where he ran out in some talus, mostly unhurt.  It was a chore to rescue him.

Another time, was a morning in Georgia.  I was shaving in my trailer and thought I heard a hissing sound.  I investigated and found Pepper under my kitchen table having a seizure.  He was on his back and had peed himself.  I had heard that some dogs had seizures so I passively waited for it to end.  Until I noticed the electric heater cord in his mouth!  I panicked and dragged him out so forcefully that I inadvertently unplugged it.  The poor guy staggered to a corner to hide and tipped over his water bowl getting there.  Within a couple hours, he was ready to play ball.

On one of our trips to Mexico, this time to the Pacific Coast in Jalisco, some friends and I went to an abandoned luxury hotel to explore and investigate camping opportunities.  It was built on a cliff, with multiple levels, arches, patios and complex architectural features.  Pepper wasn't on leash and he suddenly ran ahead, jumped up onto a low wall and disappeared over the precipice.  Some of the drops were 30-50 feet so we ran to the edge to see where he had fallen.  This one was a window well and only about 10 feet deep with palm fronds at the bottom that cushioned his landing, so he was dazed but okay.  I climbed down, carried him back up and put him down.  And damned if he didn't immediately run over to another wall and pull the same idiotic stunt.  And again, he got off easy.  I don't know what got into him, but he was on the leash for the rest of that tour.

Another time, I was throwing sticks for him to retrieve in the Russian River.  We were in a wide, slow spot above a narrow 200 yard rapid.  The current caught the stick he was after and down the rapid he went.  I lost sight of him as I ran down the bank to some slow water where he would wind up.  He was there, on the right side of the river, stick in mouth, ready to go again.

Some of his misadventures weren't Pepper's fault.  I spent a lot of time in Mexico taking Spanish classes.  I would tie Pepper to my trailer and usually come home for lunch to see him.  But one day, I went out for lunch with my classmates and left Pepper for most of the day.  He had friends in camp who would check in on him, so he was usually fine.  On this day, I returned home and Pepper was gone.  I ran around the campground calling for him and asking the other guests if they had seen him.  I was hoping that someone had taken him off his tether to play some ball, which my friends were permitted to do.  A big RV convoy of Americanos had arrived and the campground was suddenly full.  San Miguel de Allende, GTO is a bustling city of 100,000 people, with lots of cars, taxis, busses, street dogs, and other hazards.  After ten minutes of searching locally, I headed out to the busy Ancho San Antonio fearing the worst.  But before I reached the street, along came a group of about ten gringos with Pepper trotting along in front!  He ran to greet me and I was overjoyed at seeing him and thanked the people for bringing him home.  The conversation that followed left me dumbfounded.  They said they were with the convoy, had been playing with Pepper in the campground, decided to go to town (a mile each way), and Pepper had gone along with them.  He was running under moving busses, and a cop had nearly run him over.  They said they were so sure he would be hit by a car that they couldn't watch!  Several of them covered their eyes to show me.  No one would admit to untying him, but they somehow knew that he belonged with my Airstream, and "yes" they had noticed his collar and I.D. plate.  I asked if it had occurred to anyone to put a leash on him or return him to the campground or otherwise get him out of obvious danger.  Their excuse; "we didn't have a leash!"  If I hadn't been so happy to see him, I would have given them a piece of my mind instead of thanking them.  Tourists often seem so giddy with excitement that they forget to think.  And the Americans are the worst of them.

Once when hiking in the hills east of San Diego, Pepper bounded into the brush fifteen or twenty feet off the trail in pursuit of a chirping ground squirrel.  He stopped and as he looked for the squirrel, the chirping was replaced by the unmistakable buzz of a rattlesnake.  And it sounded like it was coming from the exact place Pepper was standing.  I didn't know what to do, but I told Pepper to "Stay!"  He stood still, and in a few seconds the rattling stopped.  I didn't dare approach, so I waited another half minute and issued the command, "come!"  He came, and that was the end of it.  I wondered if the snake and Pepper were after the same squirrel.  After that, we had several more encounters with rattlesnakes but I always saw them first and was able to restrain Pepper.  I had hoped Pepper would be naturally afraid of snakes and avoid them.  So when I would see a non-venomous snake I'd watch Pepper to see what he would do. Unfortunately, he was inclined to approach them and smell them, a practice I discouraged.  So much for healthy instincts.  On hikes where I expected to see rattlesnakes, I kept Pepper close or leashed.

Dogs can read facial expressions, but they are even better at reading posture and body language.  And you can take advantage of that skill by deliberately communicating with hand signals and posture.  My favorite canine language adaptation is to look right at the dog, quickly lean over, and put a hand on each each of my bent knees.  In dog language that means, "let's play!"  It also means, "I will now act aggressively, but I don't really mean it."  This posture even works with dogs I don't know.  Some might be tentative at first, but most are game for some kind of pretend conflict game.  Obviously I used it often with Pepper.  We'd be hiking, and when I'd see him turn around to make sure I was still with him, I'd quickly do the "let's play" posture.  Pepper would immediately turn and charge, teeth bared and snarling ferociously in a very convincing faux attack.  If I didn't know better it would have scared me.  Then he'd bound ahead and look back again.  We'd go through this charade again and again until one of us tired of it.  My brother Ric commented once that Pepper was the most "ready to play" dog he'd ever seen.

Pepper would probably not have done well in a conformation ring.  His coat was too soft and curly and he was probably too big.  A few people who saw him even disputed his lineage.  I suppose it's possible that I was sold a mutt, not that it would have mattered much.  I had no intention of showing him and had him neutered as soon as he was old enough.  I think I would have loved him just as much.  I met his parents, both champion show dogs, before I bought him, and he looked a lot like his mother when he grew up.  Not so much like his father... hmmmm.  I've been unable to relocate the breeder to ask her about that.

We were camped one winter on a beautiful Mexican beach called Tenacatita with a lot of kayakers.  They were all happy to let me try out their boats but I didn't like any of them.  They all fit way too tight and they didn't have room for my dog.  Then a guy showed up with a yellow Folbot that had plenty of room for us both.  So a year later, I bought one just like it.  Pepper was a good passenger as long as I paddled alone.  When I would paddle with friends, Pepper would look at the other boats and whine incessantly.  We could never figure out why he did that, but I suspect that since they were in a different boat, he thought he was being left behind, and was protesting.  Or maybe he wanted petting and was frustrated by the gap of deep water.


In 2005, a human named Marilyn Clark joined our little pack.  Marilyn loves dogs, in fact she especially loves terriers and once had a couple Scotties herself.  Marilyn liked Pepper immediately, and Pepper liked her, but he was a little reluctant the first few times he was expected to walk with her away from his dad.  Pepper quickly learned that Marilyn was a much better cook than Howard and could always be found in the kitchen when meal-times came around.  I lost a little bit of Pepper to Marilyn but he never seemed jealous of my attention to her.  I think he liked having two humans better than one.  So Pepper was a winner in this new relationship too.  Six months after Marilyn and I got together, she was fawning over Pepper and didn't know I could hear her when she whispered to him, "You're my dog now, Fahrquahar."  I don't know where she got "Fahrquahar" but that was her pet name for him from then on.

Marilyn solved a mystery about Pepper.  For years I wondered why Pepper did a strange head bobbing ritual over his food bowl.  Other friends had seen him do it and they wondered about it too.  I hadn't the slightest idea what he thought he was doing.  Marilyn took one look and said, "He's burying his food."  Of course he wasn't really, there was no dirt to bury it in.  But the motions he was making were exactly like the ones he might make if he was pushing dirt over a bone with his muzzle.  And he never did it over an empty bowl.  So he must have developed some kind of instinct based ritual.  We would also occasionally find a treat or chew-stick tucked away in a shoe.

Pepper was such an active dog that he started showing signs of arthritis when he was around ten years old, but he remained active and vigorous until he was about thirteen.  He got an ear infection in Mexico during the winter of '08-'09 which left him totally deaf.  I used hand signals to communicate with him from then on, but I think he lost some of his connection with people when that happened. He even seemed to forget some of the hand signals I had used along with my audible commands. The only silver lining to that dark cloud was that he finally stopped his howling when I played harmonica.  I had been playing for about ten years when Pepper was born and I've continued to this day.  Most dogs will howl on hearing the high frequency harmonics of free-reed instruments but Pepper developed a conditioned response from living with me that was too obnoxious to describe.  And our trailer wasn't big enough to get away from him.  I played anyway and I'm sure some neighbors thought I was torturing him.  Maybe I was.

He also had a very scary episode of "Idiopathic Vestibular Syndrome" which looked exactly like a stroke.  We rushed him to a vet who medicated him and he slowly recovered.  We noticed the cancer on his jaw about a year before he died.  We had it biopsied and decided that he was too old to treat with such major surgery, and that we'd just take whatever time we had left with him.  The hard mass eventually enveloped a quarter of his mouth and became infected.  It buried his teeth, offset his jaw, displaced his tongue and we were amazed that he could eat even soft food.  We treated him with injectable antibiotics and oral pain killer.  He coughed for a couple months until two nights of nearly continuous and painful sounding coughing was the last straw for Marilyn and me, so we had him euthanized.  He hated being left and still loved riding in the car, and even seemed to enjoy his final ride to the vet.  He would play too, even though he could no longer pick up a ball, but the excitement would make him cough so we stopped playing with him about a month before he died.

Sometimes it seemed like my purpose in life was to drive this little dog around and entertain him.  Not that I'm complaining.  Losing him was (and is) an awful experience for me.  I dreaded it and hoped when the day came I would be relieved that his suffering was over.  I was not, and I'm grieving terribly for him as I write this.  I'm no psychologist but that's probably WHY I'm writing this.  I'm struggling with guilt over ending the life of a creature that I loved as much as myself and who depended on me completely.  I look for him compulsively and even think I see him sometimes.  I miss the feel of his fur, the sound of him breathing at night.  I've lost all my other dogs to moving away from home, divorce etc., though I did help to euthanize one of my brothers dogs years ago (I was the trigger man).  And that was horrible but in a different way.  So I suppose my degree of pain should be expected by anyone in my position, but it wasn't expected by me.  Marilyn doesn't want another dog because she doesn't want to go through the inevitable again.  I'll wait and see how I feel in a year or two before I try to convince her otherwise.

A dog-loving friend offered the following condolence for my loss of Pepper, "I have sometimes thought of the final cause of dogs having such short lives and I am quite satisfied it is in compassion to the human race; for if we suffer so much in losing a dog after an acquaintance of ten or twelve years, what would it be if they were to live double that time?"  -Sir Walter Scott

In this recent shot of Pepper looking through his dog door, you can see the cancer starting to grow on the right side of his jaw.



I don't have a place for comments here but I'd still love to hear from you if you care to share your thoughts.  So if you're inclined to comment, ask a question or just say "hi," please send me an email.  I love to hear from old friends, new friends, fellow woodworkers, dog lovers, and travelers.