I took this picture while at the Medieval Market. Why the blurry picture of the dog? Well, it’s blurry because many people would find a stranger taking a picture of their dog a little odd, so I did it as quickly as possible to escape detection. But why take the picture in the first place?
When I saw this dog, it immediately sparked a strong memory of my childhood, an explanation of which involves a nerdy childhood secret: I always wanted a pet wolf.
I wanted to be many things when I was a kid: soldier, knight, Jedi, adventurer, pirate, samurai, gladiator, Army Ranger, cowboy, explorer, Cavalry trooper, etc., etc. Pretty much anything where I’d have a gun or sword in my hand. But the idea of having a loyal animal companion was a common feature of these little play sessions. I can’t say exactly where this idea of having a wolf came from, but I definitely know one huge influence on it: the character Snake Eyes from the GI Joe franchise. Snake Eyes was awesome. He was this hard-core commando who dressed all in black and carried all manner of bad-ass rifles and sub-machine guns and grenades. That alone was enough to intrigue me. But it got better: he was also a ninja, and carried a sword. So he didn’t just have gun OR a sword. He had a gun AND a sword.
And he had a cool back story about studying ninjutsu with an Army buddy’s family, and the perceived usurping of his friend’s position in the clan. The buddy eventually became the GI Joe “villain” Storm Shadow, and he was framed for the murder of one of the ninja clan’s masters. In plot lines complex enough to be worthy of the tawdriest soap operas, these two are forever shifting between allies and enemies, and various shades in between.
As it stood, I think Snake Eyes would have been an immortal bad-ass character. But the icing on the cake was that Snake Eyes had a pet wolf named Timber.
The action figure came with Timber as well.
I played a lot of Army as a kid, and I played a lot of GI Joe as a kid, as well. And when I did, invariably I was Snake Eyes. Playing Snake Eyes allowed me to combine play at guns with play at swords and karate fighting and infiltration and explosions. Awesome! The only thing cooler was Star Wars, which allowed me to combine play at guns with swords and magic powers and spaceships and aliens and monsters.
My play as Snake Eyes had to be as real as possible, so I would need a stand-in for Timber. Obviously, the most qualified candidate was the family dog. All kids should grow up with a dog in the house; they’re great companions and teach lots of valuable lessons. I’m eternally grateful to my parents for getting a puppy when I was young, who grew up with me and was around for a long time. I loved this little dog, and I shed tears when the day came, over 16 years later, when we had to put her to sleep. When I went out to play GI Joe, the family dog came along and played the part of Timber to my Snake Eyes. The dog did it’s best, but when you’re a small female cocker spaniel named “Cinnamon”, filling the shoes of a ninja assassin’s feared wolf is a tall order.
Fearsome and awe-inspiring she was not. But she didn’t complain, and seemed to enjoy the time outside, and I have fond memories of those days of her and I running through the snow, fighting imaginary henchman from GI Joe’s nemesis, Cobra.
The wolf-as-sidekick meme is a powerful one, though, and it pops up again and again. There’s lots of precedents, but another one that appealed to me strongly was the 1930’s pulp fiction hero The Phantom, who had a wolf companion named Devil.
Even Batman got in on the action with “Ace, the bat-hound”; arguably a much weaker execution of the concept.
But I wasn’t aware of those when GI Joe lit up my imagination in the early ’80s. It’s come up more recently, too. Recently, I’ve enjoyed the excellent Game of Thrones fantasy series by George R.R. Martin. The books features a knightly family called the Starks, who have the wolf as their sigil.
The Starks find a slain she-wolf, with the pups still suckling. Taking it as a sign, the knight’s children adopted the pups.
By the way, these stills are from the kick-ass HBO television adaptation, which I recommend as heartily as the books.
Wolves are fascinating symbols, and I think humans have a deep, almost spiritual connection to canines. Canines exhibit those noble virtues of strength, loyalty and unconditional love. They have great power as individuals, but are willing to work as part of the team. In fiction, they almost always have those qualities we wish all humans had, so a human-canine team has a certain romantic quality to it.
There’s even real-world analogues in the military.
Ninja sword sold separately.
The Army’s official position is that these dogs are tools that have excellent senses and can be trained to execute tasks that limits risk to human personnel. But the Joes on the ground feel much differently about these animals: they live with them, and play with them and love them as fellow comrades-in-arms; they see them as much, much more than just tools.
Military dog handlers get it. They get being a soldier, and they get the camaraderie that a dog provides, and they get the value in having a companion that bears the same hardships and austere environments, and does so uncomplainingly. They have the closest real-world experience to having a wolf pet, like all the fictional characters I’ve mentioned.
I’m not that hardcore. But since I’ve been an adult, I’ve tried to turn myself into a poor-man’s Snake Eyes. I’m not a ninja, but I’ve studied some jujutsu and other martial arts. And I’m not a commando, but I’m pretty competent with a rifle and pistol. And I don’t have a pet wolf, but have a dog with the long, pointed muzzle of a wolf, who enjoys running through the snow with me:
She’s much closer to a wolf pet than Cinnamon, at least in appearance, due to her partial German shepherd heritage. Her name’s “Stella”, which isn’t quite a ninja-dog name, but it’s closer than “Cinnamon”.
She’s lazy when she chooses to be (which is pretty much every opportunity).
Like Cinnamon, she’ll play commando with me.
There’s evidently an actual market out there for genuine wolf-dog hybrids. While on the surface, that sounds awesome, the adult Hessian realizes that bringing an animal with such a wide wild streak into your house could be dangerous. So, I like the idea of a domesticated dog, one that appreciates the human-canine connection, but looks like a wolf. The interwebz have informed me that for the Game of Thrones tv show, they used Northern Inuits.
My vote for our next dog? A Northern Inuit. Or at least a dog that looks wolf-like, like that animal featured at the beginning of this post.
And I’ve extracted a promise from my wife that the next dog we get will 1.) be male, and 2.) named by me. I intend to name him after another pulp fiction hero of mine: Conan the Cimmerian. He didn’t have a wolf, but could’ve used one… to, you know, fend off all those other wolves.
So, trying to turn into a childhood comic book hero… lame? Maybe; but who doesn’t want to grow up to be their childhood hero? I’m pretty sure both of my older brothers dreamed of being Evel Knieval (Edgar, straight up, that’s why you bought that little green motorbike, isn’t it?). But what is adulthood for, if not to realize childhood dreams, even if only in some small way? A lot of adulthood is managing bills and checkbooks and raising children and running a household. Clearly, those things should, and do, come first.
In any case, I’m going to find little ways on the weekends to unleash my inner Snake Eyes. And that means, either through a profession or a hobby, I’m going to make sure I always know how to swing a sword, shoot a rifle, and take down an opponent with my bare hands. And my wolf(ish) companion(s) will always be there to back me up (right, Stella?)