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Jack Russell on ice, shaken, not stirred

December 26, 2005|by TIM ROWLAND

A couple of weeks ago, we had about three inches of snow. Then, the ground-surface plummeted to 20 degrees, while up in the stratosphere, the air warmed into the mid-30s. Along comes a major storm system, in which precipitation from way up high fell as rain, but froze upon hitting the earth's surface, creating a quarter-inch crust of solid ice on top of the existing snow.

As any weatherman can tell you, these are the perfect meteorological conditions to own a dog.

Not a reserved or careful dog, but one of those energetic, edgy, hyperactive, Joan Rivers dogs. An act-first, think-second dog. Not a wise and philosophical dog, but an unschooled and utterly pigheaded dog who believes he can alter the rules of nature and physics through the sheer force of his will.

Enter Jake Biscuit.

As has been well-documented here, this is a Jack Russell terrier who defines the term "wound a little too tight" in its purest sense. He is less Jack Russell than he is Jack Hammer. Say the word "outside" (the only two-syllable word in the English language that he's been able to noodle through) and he sets about whining and quivering and his eyes bug out like a cartoon coyote. In fact, he is the only dog I know of that can break out in an anticipatory sweat.

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The cat named Colonel Sanders - who could teach Henry Kissinger a thing or two about dignity - will watch this performance with the disdain of a parent whose youngster recently has discovered rap.

After watching the dog for a few seconds with a sour expression, the cat slowly will turn his head to look at one of us, as if we are responsible for this atrocity and really should consider putting him out of this peculiar ecstatic misery once and for all.

The instant the door actually opens, the dog catapults into the world at large with the force of a thousand cannons, although about 10 feet into the journey, he will slam full on the brakes because he, at that point, has realized he has forgotten his ball. At this point, the animal nearly splits in two, so great is the anguish at the dilemma he faces.

Should he run back inside to get his ball, there's a chance the door could close behind him and his shot at the great outdoors will be lost. On the other hand - what good is the outdoors without a ball? So he stands there, straining mightily in both directions and fretting terribly over a problem that clearly is bigger than he is.

But - and call me a kindhearted pet owner if you must - on days when there is a thick crust of ice on the snow, I always MAKE SURE he has his ball beforehand.

This is not sport on my part. I mean, he has to be exercised, right? And his preferred method of physical exertion is to fetch a ball, no? Therefore, who am I to deprive him of his most deeply cherished activity? And if others feel differently, well excuse me for being the nice guy that I am.

So I launch the tennis ball.

It arcs over the frozen snow, and Jake Biscuit will take a deep breath of oxygen and then fly out of the shoveled path on his way to the prize. It all works out as he's planned it for the first second and a half. The complications set in with his first course correction. Being a trained varmint pursuer, he's bred to turn on a dime. And he expects to turn on a dime. But with ice underneath, it is worth the price of admission to watch as this dime turns into a quarter, then a dollar, then a $20 and in a split second into all of Fort Knox.

His tiny little brain has calculated 20 degrees left, and for the life of him he can't understand why he still is going straight. The animal is not designed to cognitively negotiate environmental factors; all he knows is to try to turn harder. So he sets the turn at 30 degrees. Still, no response. Angry now, he tries for a more severe angle.

It's usually when he passes 45 degrees that disaster strikes.

At this point, any semblance of control vanishes and he begins to spin like Dorothy Hamill. I confess to feeling a touch of guilt here because with each 360, his eyes for the briefest of instants will catch mine in a forlorn plea for me to do something.

But it is too late. Too many variations are in play. Each paw gets conflicting messages from the brain and they end up going in four different directions until they give out completely and he belly-flops onto the ice and off he slides into the distance, past my neighbor's house, past my neighbor's neighbor's house, past my neighbor's neighbor's neighbor's house, until he disappears altogether behind a far-off hedge.

Some time later, he'll come gingerly tiptoeing back. He will have retrieved the ball - he's too proud not to - but he has lost his taste for the game. Pity, because I haven't.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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