This is Frankie, our almost-10-year-old Australian Shepherd. Some of you have met Frankie - if you have, you'll probably never forget it. We have had him since he was 8 weeks old, which means everything that's wrong with him is our fault.
Frankie is an original. He can't stand being left alone, unless it's in the car, and broke off most of his teeth as a puppy chewing his way out of crates until we wised up and started taking him to doggy day care during the day and everywhere with us the rest of the time. He's an escape artist: we came home once to find a metal crate perfectly intact and Frankie loose outside it. He knows how to turn a doorknob and push open a door, and once opened the deadbolt on the front door. He's a patient and sweet big brother to Petunia the cat (who loves him more than anything), and lets her eat from his bowl when he's trying to have supper and snuggle up to him when she wants to get warm. He can catch any ball thrown, and outrun almost any dog in the process. He is more in tune with my stress level than I am, and tries to jump in my lap whenever he senses that I'm sad or stressed or angry. He is a lovely, lovely boy and we can't imagine our lives without him.
There is one thing in the world that makes Frankie happier than anything else. Something he will ignore the rattle of food in his bowl for. Something he will pass up an opportunity to bark at the geese next door for. Something that will distract him from anything he might be doing, and that's a B-A-L-L.
We haven't been able to say the word "ball" for years, because it generates just too much excitement. For a while we could spell it out, but that only worked for a while. Now we use a variety of foreign languages, or just say "that round thing" or when we're really at a loss we call it "a you-know-what."
Frankie is very hard on the balls we do give him. (I almost can't even type that word, I'm so conditioned to avoid it.) Tennis balls last 2.3 seconds. Hard plastic street hockey balls, 2.3 minutes. So-called indestructible red rubber balls, 2.3 hours. In his stocking last Christmas he got a package of guaranteed chew-proof balls - the first one took him minutes to destroy, and he only got faster as he went. This is especially impressive if you remember he is missing most of his teeth.
There seem to be some general guidelines that Frankie follows when it comes to B-A-L-L-S.
(1) Once an object has been identified as ball-like, any portion of it is just as ball-like. This means that if Frankie demolishes a ball into little bits, each bit is as much of a ball to him as the original, even if it's no bigger than a nickel. We can be busy gardening when we feel a plunk on our shoe and look down to see a minuscule fragment of slobbery red rubber and a dog, tongue lolling, butt wiggling, willing us with every doggy fibre to play ball.
(2) If no ball is available, any other spherical object will do. Because Frankie's so hard on balls, we sometimes run out. But he's a clever boy, and really good at finding substitutes. He will jump up to snag an apple from the tree. He'll throw a pine cone at our feet, hoping we'll see it as a sort of elongated ball. He rolls stones along the ground with his nose the way he does real balls, even rocks as big as a cantaloupe.
(3) If nothing spherical is available, any object remotely round may be substituted. In a pinch Frankie will resort to rolls of tape: masking tape, packing tape, duct tape. Empty jars are fair game. And he snags garden buckets when we're not looking and plays with them.
I'm not sure if it is a sign of superior intelligence or sheer desperation that Frankie's notion of round is so broad. All I know is that if Frankie is in a ball-playing mood, I had better keep my roll of tie-up tape in my pocket or I am likely to see an entire orchard festooned with green plastic ribbon.