When it comes to animal behavior, I apparently know Jack. After failing a newsroom query about why dogs scratch at the ground after using it as their personal toilet — scent glands in their paws further mark the territory, according to our paper’s Pet Tip contributor — I threw out one of my own. Why do dogs insist on turning in a circle several times before lying down?
They instinctually want to tamp down the grass, I theorized. In “Little House on the Prairie” the dog, Jack, always circled three times before settling in underneath the wagon. By the way, I added, that little guy must have always been tired. He never got to actually ride in the wagon and had to run. Then there was that time he went missing trying to cross the river because Pa refused Laura’s request to help him out. Where was prairie PETA when you need them?
My editor looked at me like I was weird, which is not an uncommon reaction. Guess boyhood tastes didn’t quite run to books about churning butter and never showing one’s ears. But he fired off a missive to test my hypothesis. Per our Pet Tipper, experts haven’t studied the circling extensively but say essentially the same thing as me about this “nesting” action.
Ha! I was brilliant and obviously everything I need to know I learned from Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Actually, that’s not exactly true. I’m sure the bulk of the reading, writing and arithmetic in my head came from text books, teachers and the application of number two pencil to lined binder paper. Although, to be fair, the Little House series did send the unspoken message that school was important — more a privilege than a right, really, as those who lived too far from town or went blind like Mary can attest to — and that you should never let Nellie Oleson get the upper hand.
By the way, I’m talking about the series of books here, not the Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert TV show. My childhood copies of the yellow-bound paperbacks ended up with dog-eared pages and creased spines as I read and reread romanticized tales about corn cakes and a coat with swan-skin hood, hay twisted into makeshift logs when wood and coal ran out, using a pig bladder as a toy and barefoot summers when shoes were oiled and put away. This knowledge came to great use for that fifth-grade school project requiring me to build a covered wagon out of a cardboard box, complete with all the prairie necessities like cattle yoke and a frying pan. With years separating the current me with my younger Wilder fandom, the details of the stories have grown hazy. Why exactly was Mary blind? How long did Pa stay trapped under the snow bank in that one book?
Yet somewhere in the recesses of my brain, that gem about Jack’s sleeping patterns stuck. I barely remember the capitals of some countries, the four years of high school French are long gone and I couldn’t pencil out a calculus equation if my life depended on it. But ask me about Jack the dog and somehow I’m a history genius. And, like all good pieces of random facts, that bit seemed completely useless until it wasn’t. That wisdom and a few bucks might get me nothing but a cup of coffee. Then again, in terms of odd trivia there’s nothing wrong with being a Jack of all trades.
Michelle Durand’s column “Off the Beat” runs every Tuesday and Thursday. She can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone (650) 344-5200 ext. 102. What do you think of this column? Send a letter to the editor: email@example.com.