The Ballad of John Henry

People have two reactions when they meet our dog: “He’s SO CUTE!” or “HE’S SO WEIRD LOOKING…AND CUTE!”


Personally, I was one of the latter group. I may even have foolishly said that pugs were weird looking and I would never have one. And then, in the animal rescue shelter, here we were – being offered a kinda-sorta-pug. The rescue shelter manager had asked what we were looking for in a dog. Our list was simple:

  • Small
  • Lazy
  • Likes to be cuddled

He didn’t hesitate: he took us straight to our little guy with the squished face. And that’s when the little faker began his mind games. Lazy? Sure – he wandered slowly around the fence of the enclosure we took him to; he couldn’t  jump up to my wife’s lap; he looked confused and a little sorry for us as we threw things for him to retrieve; he made his home away from the sun and near to the water bowl. This is clearly one lazy dog.


We signed up, then and there.

Just to be clear, in reality, our tiny beast can outrun large, angry dogs at the dog park. He can leap up onto our bed whenever he feels like it. He enjoys long games of tug o’ war and fetch. He climbs fences like a goat climbs cliff sides. The devious fur ball played us like the naive, pet-free simpletons we were.


Naming a pet is a frivolous and fun act – it also makes a great party game for those of us who aren’t very good at games (or parties). We had an inexhaustible supply of cool/fun/wise/ridiculous dog names when we started looking for our newest family member, while also understanding that a rescue dog comes with a name. And how cruel would it be to suddenly drop a little doggie into a new home and then start calling him by a new name that he has no way of knowing is his?

So, we came face-to-squashed-pug-face with the dog that most ideally matched our over-entitled middle-class pet-owning needs, and we quickly decided This Is The One.

“What’s his name?” my wife asked.

“Sergeant Johnny.”

Um, no. No, it’s not.

While it’s fun to imagine wacky names for our pets, they all have to pass what I think of as the Porch Test (the same applies to naming children, by the way). Could you stand on the porch at the end of a long day and call in your little one using the name you came up with after three or four bottles of Blue Moon?

Sergeant Johnny did not pass the Porch Test.

We needed something that wasn’t going to confuse the tiny fluffball’s tiny brain, so something that was similar to Sergeant Johnny. Something that shared elements of Sergeant Johnny. But something that was not Sergeant Johnny. As is so often the case in life, the Bruce Springsteen back catalogue came to my rescue in a moment of inspiration: John Henry. It shares the “John” element of his old name from his old life, but our new version passes the Porch Test.


We needed a back story (yes, I’m afraid we really did), so we decided that Sergeant Johnny had left behind his life in the armed forces and returned home to start missionary work, bringing peace to the lives of the needy. Thus, his formal title is The Reverend John Henry. Known as “The Rev”, “John Henry”, or simply “JH”.

My wife especially likes to tell people about his storied history – and we get some interesting reactions. The best being from his groomer, who nodded as the story was told and then commented that they get a lot of ex-service dogs coming through for bathing and whatnot. Never for one moment wondering why the army would need a handbag-sized, devil-faced lick machine.


Getting a dog would improve my fitness, I told myself – and there may indeed be health benefits from the two-step stroll from one bush to the next that now constitutes my three-times-daily constitutional. John Henry is active in small and intense bursts – which usually start with him sniffing another dog’s bottom to get them to notice and then chase him – but mostly he’s a low-intensity aficionado of plants and the messages other dogs leave thereon.

If not a replacement for a gym, then, having a dog is a good way of breaking the ice with our fellow dog walkers around the neighborhood. I have no idea what our neighbors are called, but I know their dogs: Lord Winston, Shakespeare, Astro, Jackson, Ripley. A teenager in a sports vest and a backwards baseball cap stopped to stroke JH and tell me that “he’s so pretty.” An older guy told me that my dog looks just like his first childhood pet.

“The one you grow up with, spend all your time with, and then he dies.” I thought he was going to cry. I thought I was too.

My favorite dog neighbor is an as-yet-unnamed tiny-tiny Yorkshire terrier, who is full of fight whenever he sees another dog. This animal, no bigger than a New York rat, is afraid of nothing and no one. As his human dragged him away from his most recent attempt to savage me and JH, she apologized profusely.

“He’s just so full of hate,” she whispered.

Our little fur machine is introducing me to a world I had no idea existed. Whether it’s when we go for a walk, how and where we eat, or who sleeps where at bedtime, he’s putting himself completely in charge. This becomes a problem only if he realizes how much power he has. So far, he thinks he’s bottom of the pack. God help us all if he understands his real place in our family hierarchy.


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