Balto is a fine specimen of priss. The finest in the land.
He won’t sneak off with your slippers; roll in a skunky carcass; steal the cat’s dinner; or otherwise break farm rules. He is solicitous and respectful, submissive yet protective. He’ll trot forth on cue, run fast when we ski—16 miles in one session, at a full gallop in two feet of snow—and always rejoin the posse after a sally of advance scouting.
He is a good dog. If there were a dog rebellion, he very well might side with the humans. Balto is that kind of good.
And he knows it. He would like readers everywhere to recognize his A+ efforts. It is no surprise that he has been called Teacher’s Pet, but that overlooks his essential complexity. After all, being good—and being aware that one is being good—can be a heavy burden.
Self-consciousness can lead to stasis as surely as self-awareness can lead to growth. Poor Balto, it is hard being good.
Which is why we might take such delight in his impromptu video stunt, even as he frustrated my attempt to film the real star of the show, the chisel plow.
That morning Balto had sensed my eagerness to watch the field being chiseled for the first time. When I jogged up to see the big iron at work, he sidekicked up the hill. Together we got in position to film. (Good dog.) But after a few seconds of action, Balto derailed the program with his signature nudge. First nose, then paw, then nose again. A wag, seen fleetingly at 12 seconds, seemed to say, “Maybe I could do this improv thing.”
For once Balto colored outside the lines. He let it all hang out, setting decorum aside.
Impish moments like this, rare enough to be surprising, reveal Balto’s inner humanity, for lack of a better word. It is refreshing to see impishness in people and animals—a sparkle in the eye and a flash of mischief. Imagine the Wee Folk in old Irish tales, though Balto might fancy himself some other brand of imp. He is mute on the subject.
I wonder if mischievousness in dogs is a symptom of their long coevolution with people, picked up from us primates around the proverbial campfire.
In any case, for all the above reasons—priggishness and impishness, confidence and diffidence—we love Balto. We should note for the record, however, that despite the praise he garners day to day, he lives simultaneously under a cloud of suspicion. Farmer Stephen accuses Balto of malingering while the other dogs are out working. It is hard to prove. After all, the complex mind can be fully engaged while the body lies in apparent repose. When you are thinking, you are working.