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The Yankee Express

Luke’s personality emerges; tales from the fox den

Keeping up with the big guys.

By Amy LeClaire

Luke Valentino, at just over four months, is growing up before our eyes. I could write about how nicely he’s acclimated to our family’s routine or how he’s already learned to swim, and walk on a leash. I could write about how he sits and lowers his head to the girls at the bus stop, adopting a child-like gentleness while he identifies with them (you’re small, playful and present just like me – let’s be friends!) I could write about his accomplishments over the past four months, but there’s something more noteworthy about Luke, something worthy of a mention. 

 Luke and Mandy play rough.

  His dog personality is simply irresistible! “Who Luke is” is so much more than “what Luke does.” Every dog I’ve owned has had unique traits; quirks and special tendencies that have left a tattoo on my heart. Max was my carefree mongrel who followed me to school every morning. “Go home, Max!” I can still hear the chants of my neighborhood friends. Max did not go home. Max, a dog of the 70’s, chose his own path. Duke was my massive German shepherd. He was macho and reserved, a 90’s man who carried a log around in the yard. Lincoln was The King, the inspiration for this very column, the robust athlete of a dog with paws as big as his heart. After he passed, I couldn’t imagine loving another dog again. 
I held off for some time, until my heart began to swell with longing. I missed the happy wiggle. I missed walking up the basement stairs to be greeted with the elation of a sibling parted at birth with her twin—to finally reunite at the airport of our home. A dog’s love is unconditional and constant. They know you. They see you. They love and forgive you. I missed all that a dog brings. Never would I have imagined that a puppy named Luke Valentino was about to bring even more with his new brand of love. 
“What’s that, Luke?”
I follow the path of his gaze while we sit together on the front steps. Luke’s latest study happens to be an ant, one foolishly tiny yet surprisingly quick. The ant seems to sense my puppy’s overbearing glare yet—caught in an ironic defense—the creature is too small to be caught. Luke stretches a slow paw across his moving body, but fails to grip the bug. Even more promising; he is more interested in watching the ant fumble along a groove than he is in killing it. Luke, otherwise known as Professor Luke, is the most curious and intelligent puppy I’ve ever owned.  
“How is it possible, Mom, for a living thing to be so small?” He looks up at me for a split second to acknowledge the discovery, the mystery that is the ant. 
“That’s an ant, Luke.” The teacher in me points out the obvious while my puppy continues to watch and learn. His curiosity and “chill” temperament are qualities I’ve come to adore. He seems to study the way the world works and, alternately, lets me know when it’s not working. 
A hanging set of “door knob” bells designed to teach a pup how to “tap and ring” to go pee outside are no exception. I hung them during early training stages. Luke barked with the fury of a Chihuahua. I went on to explain my reasoning to a pup, perhaps, too intelligent for his own good. “Look, Luke. If you tap the bells (I demonstrated) you can tell Mommy you have to go pee-pee.” My aim to teach a lesson was not lost on Luke. His bark faded to a grumble. He loves to learn. He aims to please. He simply didn’t want to do either with the aid of bells. He dug in his puppy heels, and barked some more. “Those clinkers don’t belong on a door! You can achieve the same result supervising me more closely!” I took the set off and let them fall to the ground. I took the jingle out of their jangle, hoping to appease my skeptical pup. He inspected them with a peculiar nose; poking the bells, backing off, and grumbling with irritation. “Let’s put them away, Luke.” The bells have long since become a play toy.  
Luke has become a star student in our family, seated comfortably “at his spot” with an inquisitive bear cub face. “What’s today’s lesson going to be about?” One lesson happened to be about how other dogs walk on a leash. Luke had been sitting outside on the front steps one morning doing what he loves—watching. There were fluttering birds, skittering squirrels and, more pertinently, dogs of all shapes and size strolling by. He narrowed his gaze and glanced up at me. “The doggies are going for a walk, Luke.” I capitalized on another teachable moment. “See how they don’t bite their leashes.” He broke into a miniature puppy smile. “I think I can manage that.” My dog training wheels began to turn.   
  “Hey! Do you mind if we catch up with you?” Shamelessly, I invited myself to join the 8:00 a.m. dog walking group. My puppy needed friends. He needed to interact with dogs that don’t think like him. 
The Dog Moms welcomed us to walk with their eclectic mix of dogs: There is Oscar, a bashful Dachshund-Chihuahua mix; Lexi, a dainty Rescue who loves to play chase; Maui, a bossy Frenchie who makes her role in the group clear; and Okemo, a regal Husky with ice blue eyes and a territorial stride. 
“My name is Luke Valentino!” Luke fit right in. He trotted alongside the pack with confidence, boasting his best walking behavior. He even conformed to Maui’s insistence that, ahem, he not accept any treats from her mom. “That is my mother and those are my treats.” She snarled in his face. Luke accepted Maui’s sense of entitlement with a casual attitude. After all, he was the newbie in the group. “I got you, Girl. Where we all headed?” 
Though calm and cooperative on walks, Luke shows a different side while playing with other dogs. “Bring it on. I’ll go easy on you.” He jumps on the back of Mandy, a one-year-old Golden who’s as patient as she is playful. He shows his teeth to Lexi, who dodges him in a game of chase. He barks playfully at Bruno, a Senior Golden who hasn’t the energy for him. “C’mon! Let’s wrestle!” Luke crinkles his snout and shows his teeth. He loves to play rough. His tenacity, though cute, had me frightened a few times. Read on. 
  A new fox family had just moved into the hood, creating homes beneath my neighbors’ sheds, and swapping dens as foxes do. I knew Luke sensed their presence. Meanwhile, we all saw glimpses of fox dashing through our yards, sometimes carrying a rodent or, more sadly, a chicken. They were a source of intrigue, as wild animals are. Still, they were wild, and caused a stir. “Did anyone notice the chicken feathers? I think the fox are back. Whose house are they at now?” 
My concern lied on the safety of my pup. What if little Luke (under twenty pounds back then) had simply wanted to play with pups unmistakably his own size? He had been more and more drawn to the fox den; wandering closer and closer to the forbidden area. His curiosity, I feared, could kill him. What if the parents had come home to find a zooming pup in the mix of their family dynamic? Worse, what if Daddy Fox, clever and wise, tried to lure my pup to his crib for a tenderloin feast? 
I hauled the pitchfork out of the shed and set it down with the force of a character from a Steven King novel. I even made eye contact with Daddy Fox. He stood pensive and thin, standing twenty feet away from me to protect his young while I gave him a piece of my mind.  “Go Away.”
My measure, even in its grand audacity, proved no comparison to Luke’s confrontation with Daddy Fox. The incident, captured through the eyes and care of my son, Ben, has brought life to a family folktale, a story told and retold about the adventures of a protective pup and a sly fox.
Luke had been loose in the yard when Daddy Fox dashed across our driveway. All training bets were off for a three-month-old puppy who had grown protective of his yard. “You don’t belong!!” He barked and shot across the street after the fox. Ben followed and supervised an interaction that took place atop the hill of my good neighbor’s lawn.  Both animals, in ruthless opposition, stopped and stared at each other, a mere fifteen feet between them. Daddy Fox hissed. Little Luke barked and barked some more. He refused to back down. He lowered his puppy voice to that of a huskier, older dog. He stood his ground, unaware of his miniature size yet innately conditioned to protect his family. He puffed out his puppy mane, and did his job. Had the fox discerned the puppy in the puff? Perhaps, but he still ran off, his fluff of a tail tucked between his legs. Ben was able to catch Luke in a follow-up race, and relieve himself of a plausible alternate scenario: a horrifying Choke Out between Fox and Puppy. 
The incident had me spooked. A few days later, I opened the front door to haul in groceries. I placed them on the counter then went back outside to chase after Luke, who had dashed outside when I came in. “Luke!” I called his name, but he didn’t come back (such was out of character for my rule-abiding pup). I ran to the back yard.  My heart pounded. I scanned the fox den area. An eerie quiet surrounded my yard. I moved to the other side of the house. Still, no Luke. 
Visions of a slinking fox returning to his den caved in on me. “He just wanted to play with your pups. He won’t hurt them.” Crazily enough, I found myself persuading the fox to let go of my pup. I began to sweat. I cried out his name some more. “Luke, come!” I jogged around my entire house a few more times. Finally, I decided to go back inside and come up with a plan, a Call Out to the community. 
“Luke!!!” There he stood wiggling and smiling up at me. He had never left the house! “Momma, I heard you calling and calling my name! I’m right here! Is everything okay?” I kneeled down, picked him up and flattened him to my belly like a frog (our signature hug). He licked my entire face as he always does and I felt his little heart pump with pride. “Oh, Luke—I thought you…” 
He smiled innocently, as puppies do. “I’ve been here the whole time, Momma. I heard you calling my name. I tried to find you, but I was door-blocked.” 
“I thought you—“ I closed my eyes, truly grateful for my own mistake. “Never mind, Luke.” 
The fox story, like all things involving Luke, came with a happy ending, and, thankfully, the family seems to have moved on. 
*Please note – my own family has since taken several training and safety measures to keep Luke safe and protected in our yard!  
Stay tuned for more on Living with Luke.