Of course, my notions of usefulness must be narrow. I must learn new ways of helping people.
-Dorothea in George Eliot’s Middlemarch
When I still lived in Alaska with Man and Woman, Man did, once, choose to bring me on a singularly important mission. Usually, when Man went away on his ship, I stayed with Woman and protected her and the house. This time, Man took me with him to fulfill tasks which no other creature–human or canine–could fulfill. Though Man never told me this, he needed my help, and this was why he brought me with him on his ship for a short patrol.
Down at the dock, the smells were familiar; I had been there before. There was the salty ocean smell everywhere, and the diesel and metal smells of the ships. There were the scents of fish, both fresh and rotting, and sea gulls. Man brought me up the ramp to his ship.
I smelled everything to make sure the ship was secure. I learned the scent of all the crew members and encouraged them to pay attention to me (and thus learn my vital role in their midst). I learned where everything was kept, and listened attentively to the important business of the ship.
This, I believe, was where some of my most important skills training began. Though I am now following my plans of self-improvement with renewed vigor, I have always been learning, training, and working on my skills.
That night, I slept with Man in his bed on the ship. At every hour of the night, there were loud footsteps outside the door. “That’s just the watchstander, Humphrey,” Man said, with increasing agitation, but how could we be sure? I could not see him or smell him. So I barked, every hour on the hour. Let it not be said that I neglected my first duty, which is always to protect Man and Woman from any suspected danger. Man seemed annoyed, but sometimes one must inconvenience others in order to protect them. I paced the bed, sometimes accidentally stepping on Man (Reader, I beg your indulgence–I was not used to the rocking of the ship) and listened for the vague symptoms of trouble which can take myriad forms.
The next day, the ship pulled into a harbor, and Man took me for a walk on the docks, and I sniffed everything diligently. People seemed impressed and sometimes a little frightened by the sight of Man in his uniform walking me up and down the docks, but though I am friendly, I thought perhaps their caution was wise. I was working on a mighty mission, and that must be respected.
We returned to the ship and set a course for home. I was given several important tasks, including guarding the pyrotechnics on board. Some of the crew members grumbled to Man about my barking; they must not fully understand its importance. I hope that Man explained it to them. I knew, however, that I must not let such petty concerns bother me, and I carried out my mission on board ship without faltering.
And if I felt a little seasickness, I was not going to complain. I am no faint-hearted ninny who shrinks from doing what is necessary because the stomach is roiling with a terrible tempest.
My expertise, it seems, was never needed again aboard the ship. I refuse to suspect that my nocturnal protection efforts perturbed the crew; I know they would have sought my help, had they needed it again. Now, as you know, my efforts are turned in other directions, and I am no longer available for these sea voyages.