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by Christine Cunningham, Alaska


It was 3 o-clock a.m. when I awoke to a gnawing and scratching sound. My blood ran cold...

Loose in my house was a wily English setter pup, and the sound was coming directly from my new leather couch.

This is not just any new leather couch, it is a grand piano of leather couches, a couch that, for those who cherish a well-made nest, is sought after. When I found it, the sense of accomplishment brought tears to my eyes. It is not just a beautiful, soft, whiskey-colored leather, high-backed, pin-tucked couch that brings to mind parlors full of sophisticated people and conversation. It is even prettier than that.

I jumped out of bed and ran into the living room. My little setter looked up at me from my couch with an expression of having been disturbed. She had been licking my couch! She had not chewed it yet, but she was planning to. Since I am not a dog, I do not really know what goes on prior to the act of chewing. Usually, by the time I arrive on the scene, some object of my affection has already been destroyed. I never know how long it took or what preparation was involved.

There is not a lot of literature on what dogs do to warn us that they are about to chew. Officers of the law say, “We have to catch them in the act,” but are helpless until it is too late. There I was, at three-o-five in the morning, with no hotline to ask, “Do dogs lick before they chew, or is licking the act itself?” Would she be content to lick the couch or was licking the gateway activity to chewing? Actually, did I even want her to be licking the couch?

“Parker,” I said. “Mom does not want you licking the couch.” She cocked her bronze-speckled head as if to say, “But I like licking the couch.” I did not want to be unreasonable. But, if there was even a two percent chance that licking would lead to chewing, I wanted it to stop right then and there. I considered wrapping the couch in plastic. We compromised. I scooped her up, carried her away from my couch, and gave her an appropriate chew toy. “See?” I said, “Chewing on appropriate chew toys is fun.” The pink rabbit hung from her mouth and her expression clearly said, “This 'appropriate' chew toy is boring.”

I tried another tack: “We don’t lick couches in this family,” I said. It was getting late and obviously I was not at my sharpest. Expecting my dog to understand my made-up-on-the-spot family creed was a little off-base. In addition, setters are known to dislike a condescending tone. The tilt of her head and the way she let the chew toy drop from her mouth from lack of interest made me think that we were getting nowhere.

If I just went back to sleep, she’d probably get right back to what she was doing–whatever that was. In the light of day, it may have occurred to me that the word “No” has more impact than complex sentence structures. And, I may not have given as much thought to whether my command was justified. For the sake of the couch, I should have, “Just said no.” Don’t chew it. Don’t lick it. Don’t even look at it.

I didn’t buy the couch so that it could be employed for any purpose. It was just there to adorn a room in the house that I don’t use. It was, by no means, a giant setter salt lick.         

“We don’t sit on couches in this family,” I thought. We just put the couch where it’s supposed to be because society wants us to have respectable couches. It’s my retirement couch. When I cannot spend all day at work or in the field or in front of a computer screen, I will go and sit on my couch.  

“I’m going back to bed,” I told Parker. She hadn’t eaten the old couch I just pitched in the yard–the couch that I would have gladly given her as a chew toy. So maybe she wouldn’t eat this one. It was five-o-clock in the morning by the time I finally finished this column and a pot of coffee. Parker sat at my feet–the way setters have done for centuries when not in the field pointing upland birds. I looked down at her, prepared to admire her good setter looks. She was licking the floor.

Parker and the pigeons

Parker at range

Parker and the Pigeons

Parker at the Range