Life or Ram

1996 - 2012

An essay in canine biography

“Give me your paw, my Ram, for luck.

I have not seen one like it anywhere.”


Sergey Yesenin, “To Kachalov’s Dog”


Ram was born on June 16, 1996. We don’t know the names of his parents nor his original last name. i.e., the last name of his first owners. He lived with a family of recent immigrants in a cramped apartment in Framingham. There he learned Russian. But unlike his owners, he was undocumented. That is, he was not really allowed to live in that apartment building because he was a dog, even if still a puppy at the beginning. But it was not his fault. He never learned how to read, never mind follow the legal rules of some apartment complex. He had to go out for a walk in a bag – his owners were aware of the rules and were trying to avoid being snitched on. With all this, he was an American cocker-spaniel, even though he knew Russian. There is some doubt whether he was a 100% American Cocker Spaniel worthy of going to a dog show, not that he ever wanted to. But he was quite spanielish and his color, defined as parti by the American Kennel Club (part ivory, part tan in his case), was pastel-warm.

He probably guessed that sneaking out for a walk in a bag was not the way to live for a real dog, even a small one. And he certainly figured out that something was seriously wrong when a judge decided that he should be kicked out of the apartment, because somebody did snitch after all. He was not the only dog in the family. The other dog was much bigger, older, and was black. His name was Mar. Ram came later, and ovine association notwithstanding, his given name was simply Mar in reverse. Mar, however, could stay, the judge said, because he was medically necessary for the grandpa, who was sick. Ram was not necessary for anything, so he had to go.


One day, or rather night, when Ben and his dad were skiing at Nashoba Valley (Ben was a pretty good racer, and Dad skied from time to time, but mostly just drove Ben to his practices), a phone call came. It was Nina calling Mom and saying there was a dog that needed rescue. Nina would gladly adopt a dog herself, but her old dog would take the appearance of a young newcomer too hard, and she could not do that to her dog.  When Ben and Dad returned home late in the evening and heard of the offer, Dad was silent, but Ben started jumping up and down crying: “We’ll have a dog! We’ll have a dog!” Dad was outvoted and the next Sunday they went to see that dog. All three generations of the family were there in the small apartment, plus the big and dignified Mar, plus the prospective foster family. But little Ram was pacing nervously among all the various legs of people, chairs, tables, and big dogs, looking in the eyes of those who had eyes. He knew something was afoot. And when his leash was given to people whom he was seeing for the first time, he understood. Mom and Dad turned around and wanted to go, but Ram’s first Mom said: “Don’t you need to leave at least something in exchange for Ram, by tradition, at least a quarter?” Dad was embarrassed. He had never heard of such a tradition. He awkwardly fumbled in his wallet, looking for exactly that – a quarter. He was not about to improvise and try to exchange Ram for something else, lest he would break the tradition in some other unexpected way. Minutes later Ram was sitting in a car riding to his new life.

War and Peace

Ram did not have his own bed in his first home, but he had something better. He had a 12-year old girl who shared her bed with him. In his new home, he quickly figured out  who was his new 12-year old. That was Ben, of course. Ben was only too happy to oblige. That marked the dog as his.

The next day, however, Ram looked around more carefully, and forever chose Mom as his master. That was when all in the family understood the meaning of a common Russian expression: “Why are you trailing me like a doggy?” None of them had had a dog before. Naturally, in the evening, Ram followed Mom to bed, too. That was fine with her, but not so much with Dad, who liked a bit more space on his queen mattress. To fight this brazen invasion, Dad invoked a famous anti-war authority – Dr. Benjamin Spock. Dr. Spock had already carved a prominent niche in the history of the family. He wrote (and I don’t quote, because I don’t remember what exactly he wrote; moreover, his book was in a Russian translation and very hard to get like anything else of value in the old country), so he wrote that if parents want at least some normalcy, they should not allow their baby to steal the whole night from them by refusing to go to sleep until after interminable swaying, cajoling, lullabying and such, and then repeating this procedure at any given time upon request (expressed by crying). In addition, Dr. Spock wrote that parents should not feel guilty if the baby, when refused its usual bedtime rites, cries for a while, say for an hour or two. Sure enough, when Ben’s older brother rose up (literally, in his crib – he was a baby at the time) requesting his usual share of services, he was allowed to cry to his heart’s content, which actually was achieved in only 45 minutes. The next night heart’s content arrived already after 20 minutes and by the third attempt he had conducted a thorough cost-benefit analysis with the conclusion that crying in a Spock’ed environment does not pay. He was now on his way to eventually becoming a tenured full professor of law.

Ram was, if anything, more perceptive. Instead of being admitted to the master bed, he was locked (by an overeducated Dad) in the adjacent master bathroom. Intermittent squeals and indignant scratching lasted for maybe half an hour and then stopped. The following night, no further Spocking was needed. Ram got his own pad in the master bedroom and stuck to it from then on. Clearly, some kind of prestigious professorship would have been in his future, had he been able to get a proper undergraduate education. But that was not to be, as will be seen later.

Dog bites… dog

Good as he was with humans – after all he lived among quite a few of them in a near-tenement – walks in a bag were not a good way for Ram to meet other dogs. To start with, sniffing opportunities are severely curtailed from behind a zipped zipper. Not surprisingly, he lacked canine social graces. When he discovered in his new neighborhood  Mr.Topjian’s dog Buddy, their first (and last) rendez-vous was a disappointment for both. Buddy (and Mr. Topjian) lived across the street from Ram’s new home. He was, apparently, a mutt the size of a high-end golden retriever, that is twice as big as Ram in every linear dimension. (Those who still remember high school math may reasonably conclude that Buddy was eight times bigger than Ram by volume).

Ram had not attended high school. Nor for that matter middle school either. He was not even ever enrolled in any kind of doggy education, puppy or adult. The only extra bit of intellectual baggage he had was some Russian, but that turned out to be of no help in this predicament (perceptive readers have probably guessed that Mr. Topjian was Armenian). As a result, when Ram saw Buddy on the street, the first and only thought he had was the overwhelming desire to repel an insolent intruder. And Ram charged… For a second or two it was impossible to determine whose squeal and roar was coming from which part of a double-dog sandwich. By the time Mr. Topjian and Mom managed to separate the ultimate combatants, battle scars for future bragging rights had already been administered. Ram had bloody spots on his face (I insist on calling it “face”), a couple of his paws and his rump. But you should have seen the other dog… No, seriously, Buddy did not get away unscathed at all, which, contrary to what you probably just thought, did not bring me any satisfaction. I’d rather, all dogs on our street lived in peace and harmony (ok, just a little bit of satisfaction). From then on, whenever there was a chance that Buddy might be at large, Ram would only go out on a leash. It was also decided that Ram’s education was not optional: we tried ignorance and it was too noisy and messy.

Analyze This?

A devoted student of Woody Allen’s oeuvre might be tempted to conclude that the iconic Manhattanite has covered the length and breadth of the yuppieland psychology trade, even veering occasionally into its animal extensions (as for instance, in a celebrated case with sheep). That student would be devoted too blindly. The wide world of dog psychologists still awaits its own “Annie Hall.”  Sure, Cesar Millan, the Mexican dog guru, stepped into the breach, but we needed to have somebody closer to home to help solve Ram’s “dog” problem.  Perhaps not surprisingly, no couch is ever used by dog whisperers. It would be awkward to put it in the middle of a town patch of conservation land woods, where Ram’s therapy sessions took place. Moreover, it would not be helpful in learning the “heel” command, which involves walking at a brisk pace. Our dog whisperer…  (I hate the way the English language with its unisex profession words leaves you in the dark about the sex of the person you are dealing with. And some illiterate dimwits have the gall to call English sexist. I would love to be able to say “dog whispererin” here, as the precise Germans might, or “dog whisperienne” for a cool French flavor. And how about a snobbish and slightly risqué “dog whisperatrix!” But no, if I wanted to convey in English that our whisperer was a woman, I would have to come straight out and say something like “a female dog whisperer” –  a linguistic and literary abomination, unless I later drop a hint using “she.” ) So, “heel”  was the first exercise our whisperatrix suggested for Ram, and he mastered it pretty quickly. Especially when passers-by, such as they were in the forest, did not include other dogs. But with other dogs things were not quite as smooth. Even a simple sniffing ritual, a starter in any non-adversarial canine relationship, did not work as hoped.  After the first session, the main advice the whispererin gave us was to neuter Ram. That way sniffing would become less confrontational and it would also cut down on “marking” carpets around the house. It would as well surely eliminate the annoying humping of Mom’s leg when all she wanted was to watch TV in peace.

As the Clintons go…

It was a fabulous time to be neutered. Newspapers and other media, such as they were in those pre-Google, pre-FB, pre-Twitter days, were full of reports of the impending and then just completed fixing of Buddy Clinton, a mixed-breed inhabitant of the White House. The excitement was ramped up by paparazzi’s desperate attempts to sniff out what Hillary Clinton might think of these goings on. Failing to obtain a quote, the best reporting was provided by a cartoon, in which the first lady was inspecting her two male companions, trying to decide which one merited neutering first. It was never revealed what transgressions of Buddy’s brought him to this point, whereas Bill’s naughty pranks were wistfully exalted in the best-selling Starr Report. But Buddy’s bark was no match for Bill’s “I feel your pain” silver-tongue come-ons. So, under the knife he went. Ram’s simultaneous transformation, while unheralded, delivered most of the expected benefits – for his humans, that is. Still, peaceful coexistence with non-humans remained limited to visits to the Scrub-a-Dog styling parlor, a neutral (no pun intended) ground for all its pampered clients.   

Running with the Sages

It is a well established scientific fact that dogs hunt and 99% of them hunt squirrels. To know that, unlike with global warming, there is an undisputed consensus on this among scientists, it is enough to look at the cartoon section of any newspaper.  (This dates me, of course. It’s been a while since “global warming” was renamed “climate change”. But I digress.)  A high and well deserved proportion of the funnies feature dogs, who all hate squirrels. Ram was that freak of nature 1-percenter who paid squirrels scant attention. He had a point. The point was that rabbits outnumbered squirrels in his neighborhood by a ratio better than 10 to 1. Moreover, they came in different sizes and speeds, not to mention that their mobility was limited to a two-dimensional topological space, just like Ram’s. True, the most enticing ones, the smallest and slowest of them, could be shifted a short distance in the third dimension, a situation described by a prominent Oxford mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson as a “rabbit hole.” Still this posed little additional obstacle to Ram. He enjoyed digging on the edges of a hole, and chased little buggers out on a few occasions, once right next to the entrance of the house. And what about practically permanent residents occupying a comfortable den on the border of the yard and the town-owned swamp (ok, wetland) – corpulent woodchucks producing a brood of little round woodchuckies every spring. Yet, with their rocking waddle they were surprisingly fleet-footed. There were also wild turkeys, hawks, ducks and legions of smaller birds. The one type conspicuously missing was his namesake – the woodcock. Ram was never able to catch any of them, never mind those birds who could actually fly. But then it’s an open question whether he really wanted to. After all, his breed was designed to rouse woodcocks into the air, but to pick only the birds already felled by the dog’s human helpers. 

With the passing of Buddy several years later, Ram had the neighborhood to himself. He regained a certain freedom of movement which he sometimes used not wisely but too well. He knew by then that to actually catch a rabbit was an impossible dream. But he discovered on his own the wisdom propounded by over-literate humans in nearby Concord: the journey is more important than the destination. Accordingly, in pursuit of some especially magnetic rabbit, or possibly even the idea of a rabbit, he plunged with abandon to the very brink of the wetland, aptly named “Idylwilde” by ancient farmers. He would come back dirty and wet but thoroughly alive. He would also sometimes just take off across neighbors’ yards and disappear for up to an hour. All doors had to be kept open in the house regardless of the season – it was impossible to predict which direction he would be coming back from.


At the age of 4, Ram had his only professional picture taken. Once his image was revealed, it became clear that he was a reincarnated avatar of somebody quite different. A famous Russian bard once noted that “a Parisian spaniel is a likeness of a French king… with a wig slightly askew and benevolence in every move.”  Ram aimed higher. And “spaniel” meaning “Spanish,” his true nature was prophesied by a Spanish artist three and a half centuries earlier. Francisco de Zurbarán dedicated his life to capturing an exalted feeling of sacred serenity. He made numerous desperate attempts to depict Miriam bat Yehoyakim as an otherworldly apparition and yet somehow also of this world. Finally, he succeeded. Shoulder long dark tresses, a delicate button of a nose, a baby face turned at three quarters and slightly up. But above all, eyes: dark and wide open, full of quiet contemplation and expectation of something invisible but supremely assured. By 1660 Don Francisco had produced his masterpiece, Girlhood of the Virgin, now at the Hermitage Museum.

A Burlington photographer did not have to go through any of those tortuous tribulations. All he had to do was click his camera and out came an image possessing all the same qualities Zurbarán so ardently pursued for many years. Ram was Miriam. Sure, the tresses were blond and the nose was even more of a button. But if you are that picky, look up the definition of avatar or better yet, compare the two most famous avatars – Krishna and Rama, who if anything look less alike than Ram and Mary, then return to continue reading Life of Ram . (And is it just a coincidence that Ram is what Rama is called in contemporary Hindi?).

On Golden Dogpad

Ram was trilingual. Like every dog, he understood doggy, a multi-media language that included sounds of all kinds, as well as а huge number of smells. You know those cartoon dogs with paws frantically swinging in place for a while before the whole dog is rocket-propelled forward. That’s what Ram would do at the remotest vibe of the garage door opening, to reach the door from the garage to the house and line up in front of it as a one-member honor guard. As for Russian, he was not deliberately taught any additional words. But like a red-diaper baby of Yiddish leftniks, who learned to understand the “jargon” even when his parents used it to hide things from him, Ram learned some essential Russian by himself. It was enough to say in Russian “let’s go” [poshli] that he would materialize by the door and would surely open it himself if he could only reach the doorknob. In English, he understood “heel” and “sit” even though he did not always feel like obeying. True, not a huge vocabulary, but remember, he never sat for the SAT.

As years went by, Ram started losing his polyglot ability. That is, he simply grew almost completely deaf. Age can do that of course, but cocker spaniels have it even worse than most. Their big floppy ears cover damp caverns which daylight never reaches and breeze never fans. Nasty microscopic creatures, the Al-Qaeda of the aural world, take advantage of this failed terrain and move in. No amount of Q-tipping can completely eradicate this menace. At best it can barely contain it. He still ran, did not walk, when heading somewhere on purpose, albeit slower – no more Wile E Coyote-style running in place.  And he could still run upstairs too, but descending was now a careful one paw after another sideways step-slide.


“Ram has a bad valve and murmurs in his heart. He may also have colon cancer. Would you like him to get biopsy?” – asked Dr.Smith with a mild German accent. She was of course a “doctoress” and Smith was not her maiden name [see sexist linguistics discourse way above]. “Otherwise, he is holding up remarkably well for his advanced age. No arthritis or anything like that,” she added wrapping up his annual “senior dog” examination. “And what if we find cancer,” his parents asked, “would we then go through all the painful therapy for this 15-year old dog?” That was not something that made sense. Dad recalled a Lincoln-Douglas debate topic Ben’s brother worked on 20 years earlier: “What is more important: the length of life or the quality of life?” In competitive debate, one had to argue either side of the issue, depending on the draw. In life, a gut decision had to be made. Ram was given a reprieve from high tech medicine. Still, several ugly growth spots on his beautiful fur needed to be removed. Otherwise, he would have to wear an Elizabethan collar for the rest of his life. His non-perfect heart was strong enough to take him through the surgery. 

For some time after Ram’s 16th birthday, his plumbing required careful nurture with a strict diet of chicken meatballs and white rice prepared by Mom. He would also slow down sometimes and even need a push to climb up to his favorite spot on the couch in front of the TV (which he preferred to watch looking in the other direction or with his eyes completely shut for a nap). Suddenly in August he seemed to be cured. He also resumed his running ways almost to the level of his puppyhood. It appeared that a cat-like second life was beginning for him (he hated cats). And then… he stopped eating. Completely. Then he also almost stopped drinking. And then he stopped moving. He could not even lie down in his crate for long. He was just standing in place, his gaze not fixed on anything and yet immobile, not reacting to people around him. He was rapidly losing weight. On the day he turned 16 years, 2 months, and 10 days old another life decision needed to be made. After talking to the doctor at a big veterinary hospital in the neighboring town, Ram was given what people can get only in a couple of states – a liberating end. With hands of all three family members touching him he raised his head to look up for the last time and expired.