Teachers’ pets or terrors?

At our home away from home, many students missing their pets find comfort in meeting professors’ furry friends. Many professors have dogs who are popular campus-wide. Steve Gerrard, professor of philosophy, and E. J. Johnson, professor of art, shared their canine stories.

Gerrard, who had always been a cat person, finally consented to his daughters’ pleas to get a dog. They selected a black Labrador puppy and named him Sombra, Spanish for “shadow.” He was “the cutest little baby puppy, but then he turned into an adolescent,” Gerrard said. By the time he was a few months old, he was uncontrollable. He was “biting my wife, ripping up the house, barking all the time [and] destroying my life.” Gerrard took to calling him “devil in a fur suit.”

That is when he and his wife decided to do something about Sombra’s behavior. They sent him to what has been called both “doggie boarding school” and “doggie boot camp” first-class trainers in Maine. “I won’t tell you how much it cost,” Gerrard said, with a mischievous look. Sombra was away from January to June 2002, and came back a changed dog: “the sweetest, gentlest, most loving puppy.” From then on Gerrard and Sombra have been inseparable. In fact, Sombra likes to be “so close that I’m constantly tripping on him,” he said.

Sombra loves their morning ritual of going to the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through, where he always receives a doggie treat, but despite his never-ending patience with Gerrard’s daughters, he is not yet ready to accompany him to class. Gerrard never stops smiling when speaking of Sombra and says without hesitation, “He’s my best friend.”

Johnson’s dog, Soane, is older and quieter than Sombra, and he attends Johnson’s classes every day. Soane, an English springer spaniel, was named for the British architect Sir John Soane, one of Johnson’s favorites. Unlike Gerrard, Johnson has had many dogs throughout his life, but Soane is “the greatest dog we’ve ever had.”

Soane may appear innocent, but before he came to Johnson’s family, he had a narrow escape with the law. He was born into a family in the Hudson Valley who gave away his brothers and sisters but could not give up their favorite puppy. One night, he and his mother sneaked into a game preserve and clearly showed their heritage as bird-hunting dogs by killing close to 60 pheasants. In the middle of the night, his owners rushed the two miscreants to meet a woman from the rescue society, who took them in and found new homes for them. Johnson and his family fell in love with Soane and were interested in taking his mother, as well, but the workers at the rescue society warned them that the mother and son got into mischief together.

On his own, though, Soane has never been a moment’s trouble. “He truly wants to be good,” Johnson said. “He’s incredibly obedient and he heels off the leash. . . I’ve never had a dog do that before.” He also has “the sweetest disposition” and he is very quiet in the house, so much so that he surprises Johnson when he barks. Soane loves to run and enjoys charging at robins on Cole Field and swimming along the Money Brook trail. He is “so beautiful when he runs: graceful, very fast, and he leaps like a ballet dancer,” said Johnson admiringly.

Soane’s one imperfection is that he sheds copiously, a problem temporarily fixable by a haircut. The loss of hair, however, makes him cold, and as Johnson has recently had to come to terms with, the only solution is to dress Soane in a sweater. “It embarrasses me terribly to put it on him,” Johnson said. “I’m mortified about it.” But he is willing to put up with the shame to keep his beloved comfortable.

Johnson’s students enjoy having Soane for a classmate, but perhaps feel occasional twinges of jealousy that Soane can fall asleep whenever he likes. Johnson leashes him to a railing at the front of the classroom, and Soane greets the incoming students and then sits quietly through class.

“He has before-class and after-class petters. . .quite the fan club,” Johnson said. He believes that faculty having dogs “humanizes the professor somewhat.” Students and Johnson’s family alike are smitten with Soane. “Any other dog would be a disappointment after this,” he said.

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