Blender: the Colorado River dog – life of a redbone hound
How a canine con artist stole the hearts of whitewater rafters and became a celebrity.
There are three things moving this hot desert morning in southeastern Utah. One is an eagle, riding effortlessly atop the thermals boiling up from the desert floor. Another is the shimmering heat wave rippling above a narrow strip of blacktop highway. And the third is an open-topped four-wheel-drive vehicle jolting along that blacktop, which is sticky in the heat.
A coyote lounges in the shade of a clump of sagebrush and, if a coyote is able to wonder, is wondering what sort of foolishness would bring a human, or anything else, into this searing weather.
The answer to the coyote’s question is a trait both man and coyote share: curiosity.
The driver, John Hauer, is a nononsense fellow not given to haphazardly running off in some strange direction, and would not be doing so this burning rooming except his curiosity has gotten the best of him. He is driving from his ranch near Moab, Utah, some 60 miles across the desert to see–a dog!
For years, John had heard about redbone hounds and admired what he heard. He had never known one up close, and when he learned there was a litter available, he had to go see for himself. And no better time than right now, especially because his wife, Nancy, who didn’t share his enthusiasm about dogs, was away visiting her parents. It might have been better had she been home. Her predictable objections to obtaining another dog could have saved a great deal of stress in years to come.
So off John went. When he arrived at his destination, he was dismayed at the living conditions of the dozen or so dogs he found there. He had never seen the sorts of circumstances in which some hunting hounds live. At the side of the house lay ten big barrels to serve as dog houses. One dog was attached to each with an eight-foot chain and could move only far enough to reach its food and water. These obviously were working dogs, not pets, and John could only think a prayer that they hunted often, because they had no other exercise opportunity.
As the owners of the dogs stepped onto the porch, John felt very much out of place; he had in mind a pet, not what he saw tied to the barrels.
Pleasantries were exchanged, and then John was escorted to the back of the house where, much to his relief, he saw two half-grown puppies playing in a small pen. The puppies didn’t notice the visitor until his shadow fell across their pen. When they looked up they saw a slim, wiry man, so lean you could have used him for a whip. His boots and jeans were dusty, his western shirt open at the collar. His leathery face was stern, the hazel eyes hard, expressionless, belying the flood of emotion behind them. John was appalled at the thought of the future awaiting these puppies, a future of being tied to a barrel for the rest of their lives, which could end at any time at the claws of a bear or mountain lion.
Well, he couldn’t save them both, but he could save one. A deal was struck, John took the male puppy from the pen, and away they drove into the desert.
Riding was something new for the puppy, and he celebrated the occasion by being violently carsick and vomiting all over the vehicle. John stopped and pawed through the glove compartment and under the seats, but there was absolutely nothing to clean up the mess. So they pounded onward, mile after hot mile, until they came to a general store. John got a handful of wet paper towels, swabbed out the vehicle, and mopped up the puppy, which he had tied to the bumper. Bystanders who had seen the pup foaming at the mouth were relieved to see the puppy was only carsick. John had the good sense to take another batch of towels with him in case it happened again. It did. Several times.
The puppy, by this time exhausted, fell asleep and didn’t awaken until they pulled into the yard of John’s ranch on the banks of the Colorado River.
The dog’s eyes opened to an infinity of unfenced desert, punctuated generously by mighty cliffs and towering formations of red rock.
A redbone hound is born to run, and after spending his young life in a tiny pen, the puppy must have been stunned by the glorious possibilities he saw before him. He was to take advantage of them, and to become famous when he did.
The Long Walk
The puppy was not welcomed by all when he arrived at his new home. John, of course, was enamored of him, and a little white poodle cross by the name of Nicole thought he was the greatest thing since dog biscuits. But the other poodle cross, a tiny black dog named Jo and famous for her nasty temper, wanted nothing to do with the puppy.
And it was a long time before Nancy Hauer would warm up to the redbone hound. Their first meeting set the tone of their relationship for months, years, to come. When she returned home, unaware of John’s trip to the redbones, she was welcomed by an exuberant attack, jumped and slobbered on by the puppy.
That was bad enough, but the situation continued to deteriorate rapidly. Crabby little Jo, who was accustomed to being the boss of the ranch’s canine corps, made the mistake of taking a bite from the puppy’s food bowl. And the puppy, who was four months old and had spent every one of those months fighting with other dogs for scraps of food, was on her like a chicken on a June bug, seizing Jo by the throat. Nancy moved swiftly and kicked the puppy away, gathered the shaken but unharmed poodle in her arms, and stomped into the house. John said nothing. He didn’t dare.
It was time for the puppy to have a name, but people who are real dog people seldom just haul off and name a dog. Naming takes study and thought and becoming acquainted with the animal. John and the puppy spent much time together around the ranch, and the puppy developed the habit of disappearing from sight. His red-brown coat was so much the color of the rocks and soil of the desert that he blended right in. And so he became known as Blender.
Blender, true to his hound heritage, loved to wander for miles over the sprawling land of desert and rock, and with him every step of the way trotted Nicole. Each day the pair would venture forth, exploring every rathole, chasing every rabbit, and wallowing in the shallows of the Colorado River when the weather got hot.
Eventually, they worked their way about a mile upriver to the home place of a neighbor. One evening, the neighbor called John to warn that the dogs had better not start slaughtering the assorted poultry he raised or they would come to a sorry end. The neighbor pointed out that he owned a Great Pyrenees, a huge white dog born and bred to be a protector, and that the Pyrenees would have the wanderers for lunch.
It was at this time that the first indications of Blender’s skills as a con artist began to show. He simply made friends with the guard dog and then sniffed through the poultry flocks with impunity. Luckily, neither he nor Nicole had much interest in slaughter. Probably because Blender was too young and Nicole was too small.
The two explorers lived a charmed life in the desert, but after Blender had been there a year, he and Nicole got into their first serious trouble. They disappeared.
When they didn’t return home at their usual time, John, beset with worry, set out on horseback looking for them, riding until dark, calling their names. They didn’t come. Nancy was quick to blame Blender for dragging her precious baby off to disaster in the desert. It was a long, sleepless night, with the Hauers calling the dogs every hour or so.
The next morning the dogs had not returned, so their people began to wonder if someone had picked them up. They called the pound in Moab, the veterinarian’s office, and anybody else who might have seen the pair.
Nothing. It was a miserable day, but late that afternoon, while Nancy was tearily ironing clothing, John said to her, “Well, come and see what we have.” She ran up the stairs and there were two very hot, very tired dogs, looking like they had been dragged through a knothole. Upon close inspection, the Hauers found that the thick calluses on the dogs’ feet had been completely worn away, and their toes were as smooth as those of newborn puppies.
It was obvious that someone had found the pair along the road and, thinking they were lost, picked them up and started to Moab, hoping to find their owners. But the dogs escaped someplace along the line and probably walked 25 miles of blacktop highway to get home.
John immediately got new tags made for the dogs’ collars–not only did the tags give their names and addresses, but read, “Please leave me here.”
It worked. People either left the dogs alone, or if they picked them up they brought them home. And Blender began to learn about hitchhiking, a skill that would come to serve him well when he began his life’s work.
A Thief Learns to Swim
In every young person’s life there comes a time to begin thinking about career choices. It’s the same with puppies, and Blender was no exception. He decided he might like to become a thief.
It began innocently enough. Through the ranch where Blender lives flows the Colorado River, and from the ranch property, companies offering raft trips to tourists launch into the current. There was always a hullabaloo when a rafting party gathered for a trip. Blender, Jo, and Nicole loved the excitement and jumped right into the preparations. The tourists liked the dogs and would give them treats and pats.
This was well and good, until Blender figured out he didn’t have to rely on the charity of the rafters, or go through the ignominious process of begging. He would just wait until nobody was looking and help himself.
At first he confined himself to stealing food, but then he began stealing equipment. More than once did a rafting guide come banging on the ranchhouse door furious that Blender had stolen some vital piece of equipment and they could not launch until it was found. Blender scattered the stuff, including paddles and ropes, all over the desert, and folks wasted much time finding it.
The chief rafting guide, known up and down the river as Croaking Toad, learned to watch Blender like a hawk, and often caught the dog in the act of stealing something. Croaking Toad would seize the redbone hound and fling him into the river. Did it teach him to quit stealing? No. It just taught him to swim, a skill that was to become the foundation of a life’s work which would bring Blender fame and fortune.
He didn’t give up thievery for some time, and the Hauers continued finding stolen items on their porch: beach towels, T-shirts, backpacks, binoculars, even a construction worker’s hard hat. In fact, to this day the Hauers have some nice T-shirts and a gorgeous beach towel stolen from someone camped along the river.
An energetic thief, Blender became very swift, very skilled. Had he been equipped with fingers instead of toes, he would have succeeded as a pickpocket. A lineman from the electric company likes to tell this story:
“I was out to the ranch checking on some work we had done yesterday. I only got out of my pickup for ten seconds and walked five feet over to look at a hole, and when I turned around, there was that blankety-blank dog sitting in the front seat of my pickup, with the wrapper from my submarine sandwich hanging out of his mouth. He must have eaten the sandwich in two chomps.”
Such a Friendly Pup
The older Blender grew, the more trouble he found. In addition to being a dedicated thief, he managed to keep his owners in a near-continual state of embarrassment with his other activities.
There was the time Nancy, at long last, had been invited to join a venerable bridge club that had been gathering once a week for 30 years. As a newcomer to Moab, she was delighted to accept this honor, which she hoped would speed her acceptance into the clannish community.
She had polished her new desert home until it shone, and had fixed an assortment of delightful snacks. She was ready, and was standing on the porch when the van that had carried the bridge club ladies the more than 20 miles from town pulled into the yard. They stepped from the van on delicately shod feet, shook the wrinkles from their summer frocks, and began walking toward the smiling Nancy on the porch.
They had made but two steps when Blender came out from the shade of a nearby truck to greet them. He walked through the group, sniffing and poking as a dog does. It would have been better had he not had that well-gnawed jack-rabbit carcass dangling from his mouth.
Day of the Coyote
Up to now, Blender’s story has contained elements that, in retrospect, even Nancy thinks are funny. But about this time a series of natural events occurred that would bring a horror to the Utah desert and change to Blender’s life.
The same year Blender was born, the desert near the Colorado River boasted a huge surplus of prairie dogs. It was a bonanza for the area coyotes, who feasted on prairie dogs until their eyes bugged out, and they became fat, healthy, and fertile. The next spring the well-fed coyotes began producing puppies in unheard-of numbers. The desert was howling with them.
Then disaster came. No rain fell. The washes, creeks, seeps, springs, all ran dry, and so did the milk of the mother coyotes. As a result, the wild moms were forced to drive their half-grown pups from the dens before they were ready to hunt on their own.
The results were predictable and terrible. Many young coyotes died, but the strong ones, the smart ones, learned survival skills far beyond what they normally would have. For one thing, these young coyotes discovered that pets–puppies, small dogs, cats–were not as fast or elusive as mice and rabbits, and were far more nourishing.
A cry of alarm went up all over the countryside. Officials warned people in town and in the country to keep their small pets confined. Not even a fenced yard would protect them from these hungry coyotes. The region buzzed horror stories about the mayhem inflicted on pets. One of the most hair-raising was about a horseman and his blue heeler dog going out to check the cattle.
Without warning, several young coyotes sprang from the brush and attacked the dog, which was only two feet from the horse. The rider leaped from the horse and waded into the battle, swinging and kicking, and drove the coyotes off. He clasped the badly injured dog in his arms, galloped back to the ranch, and then raced in his pickup to the veterinarian’s office. The dog recovered, but it took more than 50 stitches to close its wounds.
The Day of the Coyote dawned at Blender’s home ranch, too.
Early one morning Blender, Nicole, and Jo were accompanying the caretaker as she walked the short distance from the house to the barn to feed the horses. Blender and Nicole split off to go on their usual rounds of the ranch and the river front. When the caretaker returned to her house, she noticed that Jo and Blender were there, but Nicole was missing. Being fully aware of the coyote situation, the caretaker began a frightened search for Nicole. Then the caretaker saw some drops of blood leading into Nicole’s doghouse on the porch of the main ranch house. She looked inside and there was the dog, covered with blood.
Nicole’s throat bore deep fang marks, and vital structures were visible through the gore. At the other end, the coyotes had slashed Nicole’s leg muscles, a wound coyotes inflict on prey so it cannot run away.
After extensive surgery and a week in the hospital hooked up to tubes, and shot full of medicine, Nicole began to look as if she might survive. She was allowed to return home, but recovery was slow. It would be months before she could even get around slowly, and a year before she returned to almost normal.
“But why wasn’t she killed?” Nancy asked the wise old veterinarian. The vet’s answer was harsh:
“Every time I see you, you have been saying bad things about Blender.” He wagged a thick finger in her face. “You stop that. He is a fine dog and the reason Nicole is alive today is because Blender saved her from those coyotes. That’s the only explanation that makes any sense. Those young coyotes grabbed her, but before they could eat her, Blender attacked and drove them off.”
From then on, Blender took it upon himself to mount a nightly coyote patrol around the ranch. Far off across the desert he could be heard, that bugling hound voice warning coyotes that he was there, and he was looking for them.
One night the phone rang in the main house; it was the caretaker, screaming for Nancy to get over to her place–“Blender is killing a coyote by my porch!” Nancy didn’t get excited. “I didn’t have a gun, but I figured Blender could do well enough on his own.” He did.
Another night that summer, Nancy heard a commotion just beyond the reach of the porch light. She could hear Blender’s grunts of exertion as he fought them all. Then, with Blender at their heels, five coyotes fled through the lighted area.
Blender returned a few minutes later, and Nancy saw that one of his shoulders was covered with blood. He collapsed on the porch and began licking himself.
She knew she should get him to the hospital, but she had a new vehicle and was hesitant to put the blood-soaked dog in it. It’s just as well she didn’t.
When she checked Blender a half-hour later, she saw the blood was gone and there was no damage to his shoulder. But there was some coyote out on the desert who was having a very bad night.
Oddly enough, Blender’s relationship with the coyotes was not total war. They evidently reached some sort of truce and, as long as everybody behaved, they were even friendly. John, to his amazement, actually saw this.
He had awakened in the middle of one of those desert nights with moonlight so bright you can read a newspaper by it, and was walking past a window when he saw the sagebrush moving. Peculiar, he thought, because there was no wind. Then he heard Blender’s voice somewhere in the darkness.
John seized a set of binoculars, focused on the sagebrush, and saw that the movement was being caused by Blender and several coyotes. They were playing, frolicking in the moonlight. They took turns chasing each other, bounding in and out in mock battle, and all seemed to be enjoying it.
John watched for a long time, until Blender, making some sort of signal to his wild cousins, bowed to them, and the group, dog and coyotes both, ran off into the desert.
The coyote depredations resulted in at least one spin-off problem. The state trapper was called to see what he could do to thin this marauding population of young canis latrans. His answer was to set traps, a plan that causes no end of worry for dog owners. John knew Blender could step in a trap as easily as could a coyote, so he asked the trapper, “Please make sure that you check your traps daily, both for our dogs’ sake and the coyotes, too.”
Then he thought no more about it until one autumn morning when Blender turned up missing. At first he hoped the dog was only off hunting, but when the afternoon shadows lengthened and the coppery desert sky began to change to blue, John saddled his horse and rode along the river where he thought the dog might be. He rode until dark, calling Blender’s name. No answer. He stood on the porch of the house and called into the night, to no avail.
By the time the sky began to glow with the coming of a new day, John was certain Blender had been caught in a trap. This time John began his search on foot, walking into an area that was too rough for a horse. After hours of clambering over rocks, risking a broken ankle at every step, he started home–and then he heard it. One long, mournful groan. Blender! John backtracked toward the general area of the noise and there, in a low-lying pocket of sagebrush, he found his dog. Blender’s foot was caught in a trap, and held so tightly that the foot was swollen to the size of a grapefruit.
The trip home was very slow. Blender was too heavy for John to carry, so the dog had to make his own way on three legs.
Back at home, the wounded wanderer was the object of great concern and attention–even Nancy forgot her long-standing enmity for the animal and let him into the house for the first time in his life. He was allowed to lie down on a narrow bed just inside the front door. As soon as she did it, she thought she may have made a mistake. The bed remains his to this day.
In the weeks that followed, Blender’s foot healed quickly and well–no serious damage had been done. But Blender was not one to ignore an opportunity. Whenever he wanted something, such as to come into the house, he would raise the formerly injured paw as if it still pained him terribly, put a woebegone expression on his face, and radiate misery in every direction. Usually he got whatever he wanted, along with a little sympathy. But when he pulled the trick on someone he couldn’t slicker, he would give up, shrug his shoulders, and walk away–on all four legs.
Blender’s veterinarian loves him; in fact, Blender has made a considerable contribution to paying for the vet’s kids’ education, or to building a new house, or fattening his retirement fund.
If it wasn’t a trap or coyote bites or some injury that defied explanation, Blender could always find something else. Like poison ivy, which grows in virulent profusion along the banks of the Colorado River. The first time Blender got into the weed, its poison and his scratching turned his ear into raw, infected meat before the problem was discovered and he was hauled off to the vet yet again.
To this day, Blender always harbors a latent dose of poison ivy, and whenever it flares up, it’s one more doctor bill.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Saturday Evening Post Society
COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group