Culture: Stories & Lit
I didn’t go on a pilgrimage through the holy lands of Israel and Palestine expecting to return as an international dognapper. Yet in the desert east of Bethlehem, just outside of a fourth-century monastery, that’s exactly what I was about to become.
I’d been watching the local boys for 15 minutes. There were three of them, about nine years old, give or take a year. Dressed in dirty jeans and t-shirts, they hung around the small parking lot near the monastery waiting for tourists. They’d approach the foreigners, the tallest boy carrying a puppy, soliciting. What, I couldn’t tell. Money? Candy? Attention? They’d look at the visitors’ cameras, gesture toward their cell phones and talk animatedly in Arabic. No one understood them.
Once the tourists continued on toward the monastery, the tallest boy would toss the puppy to the ground. I’d watched the creature hit the pavement twice. Both times, it yelped, then lay limp. In the week I’d been on the pilgrimage, I’d seen a fair amount of poverty in the West Bank. But I hadn’t seen abuse. And while I may have been misinterpreting the exact situation with the dog, I was having a hard time witnessing it.
I’ve been fond of dogs since I was a kid. As a 34-year-old, I had two of my own back home in Colorado. Or had, up until three months earlier when my divorce was final. My ex and I had decided that both dogs—yellow Labs—would be better off living with him. As a travel writer, I am out of town more often than not. But I missed them terribly. I didn’t want to make another regrettable dog decision, which is how I came to be plotting at a monastery in the Middle East.
I continued to watch. The puppy lay in the sand beside the parking lot, unmoving. It looked too small to have been separated from its mother. I imagined that it was hungry, thirsty, injured. I waited for the boys to become distracted. When a car pulled up and the Arab man inside called them over, I had my chance. I moved quickly, scooped her up and hid her in my sweater. No one seemed to notice. I ducked into the van, which was waiting curbside to take my group to our hotel for the evening. I realized that I now had a new problem: how was I going to explain this to the others?
I didn’t have much time to figure it out. Through the window, I could see that the members of my group—a team of academics—were starting to trickle out of the monastery. This 12-day pilgrimage was part of their work with a nonprofit called the Abraham Path Initiative. They wouldn’t understand. In fact, I was pretty certain they’d find my actions ridiculous, if not insulting, in an “ugly American” sort of way.
Hidden under my sweater, the puppy lay listless in my arms. It was possible no one would notice her, had it not been for the smell. Even after a full day on the trail, I was nowhere near that musty. I watched each of them crawl into the van, catch a whiff, and raise an eyebrow or scrunch a nose. Yunus, executive director of the Abraham Path Initiative and the unofficial head of the group, slid into the seat beside me. He eyed the sweater on my lap. “You know you can’t keep it,” he said.
I kept quiet. Yunus and his ilk were anthropologists and sociologists, trained in international conflict negotiation in situations far more dire than this. I was afraid they would convince me to put her back. But if I didn’t speak, there could be no persuading.
He tried again. “Just what exactly are you planning to do with it?”
I looked at him. Then I looked down at my sweater. I pulled it back a bit so her head was exposed, and tears welled up in my eyes. “It’s a she,” I said, keeping my head lowered.
Yunus tried again, more gently. “Dogs aren’t pets, they’re work animals. It’s a hard life in Palestine—for people and for dogs. But her life is here.”
His logic reminded me of the discussions my ex and I had about where the dogs would live once we divorced. I’d done the right thing, the rational thing, in giving them up. But this time, there was more at stake.
I lifted my chin and stared straight ahead. “Twendi,” I said to the driver. “Let’s go.”
He started the ignition. Yunus exhaled and sat back in his seat. Conversation resumed in hushed tones. I felt like everyone was passing judgment on me, the youngest in the group, the one with the least experience traveling in the Middle East. But I didn’t care. The puppy barely moved in the 20 minutes it took to get to our hotel. In that time, I decided her name would be Amira, which means princess in Arabic.
If the elderly woman running the Arab Women’s Union Guesthouse was surprised that I walked in cradling a puppy, she didn’t show it. Nor did she object when I went to the kitchen to get milk, bread and a small bowl.
Inside my room, I set Amira down in front of the food. She ate slowly, as if she really didn’t have the energy. I wondered how long it had been since she’d eaten. She had sable fur, the color of the sandy desert she came from, highlighted with swatches of white on her muzzle, chest and feet. Her brown eyes were an unusual almond shape that made them appear almost human. She would have been beautiful had she not been so filthy.
I carried her into the bathroom and set her in the sink. I rinsed her fur, lathered her with my shampoo and rinsed her again. I remembered how I had washed Cody Bear in the bathtub at least once a week when he was a pup. Part of it was my new-dog-mom obsession with keeping him clean. Part of it was his penchant for jumping into any body of water he saw, including the tub. He loved the water. Amira didn’t. She squirmed under the spray from the faucet, but was too weak to put up a struggle.
As I toweled her off, she fell asleep. Her breathing was labored. She didn’t stir when I searched out and removed three ticks. When I was done, I joined the others for dinner. Yunus spoke first. “There is a shelter in Jerusalem,” he offered. I told the group that I didn’t know if she’d make it through the night. I couldn’t tell if their eyes were sympathetic or condescending.
Amira opened her eyes when I walked back into the room. Her ears perked when I reached for her. I took her off the bed and let her do her business. She walked to the now-empty food bowl and looked up at me. I hurried back to the kitchen and got her more bread and milk. She ate with considerably more gusto, and then set out to explore the room, sniffing under the bed, in my suitcase, around the trash can. We played tug of war with a sock on the Persian rug at the foot of the bed, and she yipped and pranced like a princess. I felt a surge of hope. When she started wagging her tail, I knew she was going to make it. And if she could make it, I could surely find a way to get her out of Palestine.
I opened my computer to do some sleuthing. In order to bring her back with me, she needed a health certificate from a vet and proof of rabies vaccination at least 30 days prior to her arrival in the U.S. That wouldn’t work. Maybe I could convince Cody Bear’s vet to forge papers, have them faxed to me, and pretend she had been traveling with me from the start. I checked pet regulations on the airline I‘d flown. No dogs allowed. Shoot. Maybe I could buy a ticket on another airline for the return flight. Or I could take her to a shelter in Jerusalem, pay for 30 days’ worth of care and vaccinations, and then have her sent to me on an airline that permitted pets once she was ready. I was so busy scheming that I almost forgot the biggest roadblock: three months earlier, I’d decided that I wasn’t home enough to have a dog.
I turned to look at Amira. She was asleep at the top of the bed, curled up against the pillow. She opened one almond eye at my movement, and I remembered Yunus’ words, her life is here. I knew then that I couldn’t take her with me. Not just for my own good, but also for hers. I thought about her in a shelter, in a crate on an airplane, in my 400-square-foot apartment in Boulder, and none of it seemed right. However much I struggled with the conditions I’d seen in Palestine on this trip, Americanizing Amira was not the answer. I got ready for bed with a heavy heart. I didn’t know how or where I’d leave her, just that I had to let her go.
Amira slept curled beside me on my pillow. I slept little. In the morning, I got my things ready for the day’s trek, and fashioned a pouch for Amira out of a headscarf, like those I’d seen mothers carry their babies in at the Whole Foods store in Boulder. At breakfast, the group looked at me like I was crazy. I did my best to ignore them. On the trail, Amira was a good sport about riding in the pouch. She mostly slept.
An hour into our walk, we came across a family of Bedouins, nomadic shepherds. Typical of Muslim hospitality, they offered us tea and bread, and we accepted. I let Amira out to stretch her legs. As I sipped the sweet black tea, I noticed how she blended in, wagging her tail among the goats and sheep. The Bedouins had their own sheep dog—tall and rangy, with light fur—tied to a tree. I imagined that’s what Amira would look like when she was grown. It was easy to picture a future for her here. She seemed to belong.
When we stood up to leave, I didn’t retrieve her. I thought perhaps she could earn her keep as a sheep dog. She had a better chance with the Bedouins than she did with the boys in the monastery parking lot.
The matriarch of the tribe motioned that I’d forgotten something. I shook my head no. I opened my arms to say, here, here is where she belongs. The old woman nodded. She reached down and touched Amira’s head. I turned so they wouldn't see me cry.
Amira didn’t follow me. And I didn’t turn back for one last look. Instead, I walked at a quicker pace than usual. I felt like I needed to keep my body moving so my mind could rest. The others gave me space, and I hiked alone for the better half of the morning.
Eventually, Yunus caught up with me. I don’t know what I expected—a scolding perhaps, or maybe an I told you so. But he matched my pace and didn’t say a word.
I spoke first. “I’m sorry,” I said.
Yunus slowed down a little. “You know, originally, no one agreed with what you did. But you improved conditions for that puppy, alleviated some bit of suffering.”
I snuck a glance at him. It was true. Amira was better off. I couldn’t guarantee her safety or her health, but I’d done what I could. I’d removed her from a harmful situation. In that moment, I realized how powerless I’d felt on the pilgrimage. Walking through an oppressed and impoverished society can do that to you. The magnitude of issues in the West Bank had made all of us feel that there was nothing one person could do to help.
I slowed my frantic pace and fell into step with Yunus. I’d done something. However small, it was something. “Ultimately, it’s not about what we can’t do. It’s about what we can,” he said.
I realized I was dogless once again. But it didn’t feel quite so terrible this time.
Culture: Stories & Lit
By the time I adopted Chloe in 2004, she had already had at least five homes. Or so I’m told. (One can never be 100 percent sure of a shelter dog’s history.) By the time I adopted Chloe, I myself had had at least five homes, too. More like 50; I can’t say for sure because I honestly haven’t counted. For years, I’ve been telling myself that I’ll count all the places I’ve lived once I’m actually/permanently settled. But that hasn’t happened yet.
The two years before I adopted Chloe were particularly unsettled (to put it mildly). I left my marriage, left my apartment and left my job all in a span of four weeks. Then our beloved dog Wallace (of Rex and the City fame) died suddenly, and I was so devastated that I left NYC altogether. When a dog leaves your life, it feels as though Pure Love has left as well. It can take eons to recover.
I began what we now affectionately call the “Odd-yssey.” I moved to a Buddhist retreat center in Colorado, where I stayed for six months. There, I felt dislodged, uprooted and confused. I missed my dog and I missed my life. The problem was, I no longer knew what “my life” was.
My teachers said that such chaos was good for me. Chaos, they said, is the place from which stillness is born. Chaos is the precursor to creation.
It took months to realize they were right because, frankly, chaos sucks. In the meantime, I spent a lot of time with the resident Buddhist dog, a soulful Heeler mix named Maitri (which is defined as the root of compassion manifested as friendship with oneself). Maitri’s presence also brought me to a state of inner peace and stillness. Without all that sucky chaos. But it made me miss having a dog even more.
Anyway, after I left Colorado, I moved back to New York, first to an artist’s colony in Woodstock for a few months, then to Montauk, where I spent the summer at another artist’s colony. I seemed, back then, to be following art and good weather. And this journey toward maitri. After Montauk, I decided I couldn’t spend another winter in Woodstock and returned, at last, to my beloved New York City. Only in NYC have I ever truly felt at home. And yet it drives me nuts. Perhaps that is why I love it.
Once I had unpacked the final box in my new, large faded-beauty of an apartment on the Very Upper West Side, I felt ready to “settle down” again. And settling down, in my opinion, required a dog.
In the previous installment of these “Chloe Chronicles,” I wrote about finding and adopting a new dog over the Internet—sight unseen—and how I discovered Chloe (then named “Buffy from Michigan”) on Petfinder, and what I did to prepare for her arrival at her new home.
Home is the operative word here. I wanted to give this formerly homeless dog a home. The previous installment of the “Chloe Chronicles” ended with meeting Buffy for the first time at the airport in Newark, N.J. A nice volunteer named Pam had escorted the dog from Michigan. I remember how widely I smiled when I saw Pam wheeling a large dog crate toward me across the bright, broad hallway of the airport; I remember how I cried when Pam unlatched the crate and out came a liver-and-white Spaniel (who was also a possible Border Collie mix) wearing a new pink collar. I cried because I was moved by the hugeness of the moment. When you are united with the dog you are meant to have, you know that your life is about to get much, much better.
I could tell right away my Buffy was a sweet and loving dog, but she was clearly stressed. I could see it in the way she paced and panted and shivered. She couldn’t focus; she seemed to want to get away—but what was “away” and where would that be for a dog who knew so little of airports and the human world? She spun in circles, locked in a state of anxiety, her nervous system in overdrive. Chaos.
Some might have looked at this dog, labeled her high-strung and left her at the shelter. According to Pam, at least four people back in Michigan had done so already. But my heart went out to Buffy. I knew her behavior was temporary. And manageable. I knew her only real “problem” was that she hadn’t been loved. No maitri.
I knelt down and tried to hug Buffy, but she wouldn’t stay still. She didn’t even really look at me, or wag her tail, or offer an affectionate kiss. I was a bit hurt by this (for what is better than a doggie kiss?), but I tried to see things from her perspective: in the past month, she had passed through perhaps dozens of human hands—some of them caring and concerned, others not so much. Pam told me that in the past week alone, Buffy had been adopted out twice, then returned unceremoniously to the foster parents, who didn’t really seem to like her; then adopted by me over the phone, like some mail-order bride; then taken to a vet (by a caring volunteer); then drugged, spayed and released with a raw pink scar on her belly. Then she was driven to Detroit, pushed into a crate, stowed in a cargo hold and shipped to … Newark.
Then she met me. And who was I to Buffy’s frightened eyes but another human who may or may not be nice? A human who had had 50 homes?
So, while I was sad that Buffy did not to kiss me on our first “date,” I understood that these things take time. Just like any relationship. In fact, I had already made a solemn vow. I promised Buffy that, with me, she would always be safe, always be fed, always be comfortable, and always be happy and loved. With loving-kindness.
I hadn’t made many vows in this life. I suppose I didn’t trust myself enough. There was my wedding vow, with its until-death-do-us-part component that had proved tough to uphold. Later, I took a Bodhisattva vow, which basically lasts beyond death and which I have, thankfully, managed to uphold. And now there was this vow to Buffy. In a way, I took it more seriously than my wedding vow. Perhaps because I had failed at the marriage and wanted to succeed at something related to the love and care of another being. I think my ex, Ted, having also experienced dog love, would have understood.
“Come on, Buffy,” I said, taking the leash from Pam. “Ready to go to your new home?”
I thanked Pam and we said our goodbyes. Outside, I waited as Buffy peed quickly on a small strip of grass, and then we headed toward my car. Soon the dog and I were on I-95, on our way to NYC. She rode in the back seat; the crate was in the way-back. I thought that, like most dogs, she might enjoy putting her head out the window. Instead, she cowered in the footwell, as though convinced this car ride was going to deliver her to yet another destination of doom. “It’s all right,” I told her. “You’re with me now. I’m going to give you a home. I’m going to give both of us a home.”
She cocked her ears (in that intelligent canine way), which suggested that she was at least considering the possibility of something good coming.
Soon we were crossing the George Washington Bridge. The sight of that bridge and the Manhattan skyline along the Hudson River always fills me with a sense of renewal and hope—New York, New York! The famous Frank Sinatra song came to mind, and I sang to Buffy. “We’re going to be a part of it, New York, New York.”
I felt a certain camaraderie with the dog: two transients coming together, both of us nervous, both of us reeling from the past. Both of us craving the same thing: safety; comfort; enough food to sustain us; and a warm, soft place to sleep. Personally, I also wanted fame and fortune and a great wardrobe. But when I narrowed it down to basic needs, to those cravings for survival, it came to me: I can do this.
Slowly, Buffy crawled onto the seat and looked out the window. Perhaps she smelled the river. Or perhaps she sensed my optimism and decided to join me.
We pulled onto Riverside Drive at 156th and found a parking space right in front of our building. I took this to be a good sign. Realtors call my neighborhood Audubon Terrace, but it is basically the northernmost slice of Harlem. A bafflingly beautiful neighborhood, it features elegant, turn-of-the-century apartment buildings; wide, curved streets; stately plane trees, and a cluster of historical Beaux-Arts buildings that house museums and cultural institutions. Yet there is an air of desolation and disappointment about the place: built in glory, destined for stardom, yet over and forgotten before it had even really begun.
The good news is that Audubon Terrace is a great dog neighborhood. In fact, I had researched the area and made sure it had dog perks before I chose that apartment. Riverside Park was within walking distance, and NYC’s largest and most wonderful dog run—George’s Run at Fort Tryon Park—was within driving distance.
I walked Buffy around the historic district to see if she needed to pee again. The limestone buildings of the museum complex took on a sepia tone at night, which always made me nostalgic for an earlier era, but in a good way. Plus, I had a dog now.
This particular route led us past an historic cemetery (where the famous painter of birds, John James Audubon, is buried and which offers plenty of sidewalk grass). Buffy did not pee on this grass as I thought she might. Instead, the first thing she did when I brought her into my apartment was pee on my bed. She looked nervous while she was doing it, and guilty and confused, but I didn’t punish her. I’m all about positive reinforcement. No raised voices, no violence, no “corrections.” Instead, I turned my body away (to show I wasn’t a threat) and waited until she hopped off the bed herself on her own time.
It’s not that I was thrilled that my new dog had peed on my thermapedic mattress. But it was replaceable. What was important was that my new dog felt safe and that we bond. (For the record: I clicker-trained her to relieve herself outside within 24 hours. So there.)
It was almost midnight at that point, and I was tired. I filled Buffy’s water dish and gave her a bit of food (which I had made earlier that day), but she ignored both. I understood; chaos kills the appetite.
That night, neither of us slept. Buffy paced and whined and panted—all signs of extreme anxiety—and I couldn’t get her to settle down. She rushed around the apartment, inspecting doors and windows as though looking for a way out. I tried to hug her, but she kept squirming out of my arms. I tried to distract her with treats and toys, but she couldn’t focus, couldn’t calm down.
Around 2 am, I started to get anxious myself. What had I done, adopting such an anxious, troubled dog? For the second time. Was I a masochist when it came to doggie relationships? I kept reminding myself that although Wallace had been troubled at first, Ted and I had helped him become a happy, loving, trusting dog through patience, training, conditioning and love. I reminded myself that Buffy’s anxious behavior was perfectly reasonable and logical given her history. All we needed was time.
At 4 am, I started feeling spacey from lack of sleep. Buffy was still pacing and panting, her nails clicking on the wooden floor, so I got up and put her in her crate. I’m not a fan of crates per se, but I needed some rest. Plus, there was a chance she might see the crate as her safe haven, as some dogs do. But Buffy became even more agitated, throwing her body against the crate and whining. It was almost 5 by then, so I figured I might as well get up and start a new day.
I got dressed and picked up the leash and the keys. I remembered that these two gestures, plus the sounds that accompanied them, were enough to send Wallace into a frenzy of excitement. But Buffy took no notice, because these gestures and sounds weren’t yet cues for her. This made me sad—no one had walked her.
“We’re going on our first walk!” I said in that singsong voice we always use with our dogs. “Our first morning together in New York City.” I clipped the leash onto her collar. “See? A new leash on life.”
We took the same route we had walked the night before—around the beautiful four-block museum complex. I would continue this for weeks to help Buffy orient herself and establish a routine. She turned out to be a very fine leash-walker, mostly because I had one of those 20-foot retractable leashes and she was slow.
She relieved herself near the cemetery and looked, well, relieved. I took this as another good sign. And—here’s the best part—when we approached our building, she turned and looked at me as if to say, This is the place, right?
“You smart dog!” I said. “What a smartie.”
When we got upstairs, Buffy went immediately to her water dish—she remembered—and lapped it up. That sound! It’s so sweet to us dog-lovers, isn’t it? A thirsty dog quenching her thirst. A basic need, simply met. Yet it felt profound.
I had a dog again. After all that Odd-ysseying.
My friend Melissa always says: “We get the dog we need. And dogs get the people they need.”
And just like that, Buffy and I found a home.
Culture: Stories & Lit
There is a tippy little table in the living room that terrifies the dog. On occasions too numerous to count, this table has lurched at him. He gives it a wide berth and a sideways eye. And when it goes for him, he tucks his tail and scrabbles for cover under the dinner table.
There is a malevolent lamp in the den. And a moment ago, there was a spoon on the edge of the counter that, at the brush of my sleeve, hit the floor with a clatter, sending the dog skittering across the hardwood.
“Dog, oh, dog,” I sigh as the woodchips settle. “What is it with you?”
He looks hurt. “I am a godfearing dog.”
At this I am taken aback. I know he’s a sensitive, even emotional, dog. He’s a Shepherd mix with a heart of gold and nerves of glass. But religious?
“Buddy, what do you mean?” I ask.
He sighs. “I’m an animist! An orthodox animist, really. I can’t believe you didn’t know this about me.” He drops his brown head on his paws and rolls his eyes. “This whole house is full of beings, beings with intentions. And most of the intentions are bad.”
Animist. I cast about for the tenets of that creed. Oh, yes: Everything has a spirit. Everything is part of the divine. That doesn’t sound so scary. Not like being a Scientologist. But I know nothing of orthodox animism.
“You wouldn’t,” the dog says. “You people were ruined by Socratic reasoning and the Scientific Revolution. And your gods were always fighting and killing each other off until you ended up with just one, who, frankly, is kind of vague. Really vague, actually. What does your god say about that vile little table? You look at it and all you see is a wood product. But you people used to be animists too, back when you were wild.”
The dog does this sometimes, harkens back to when humans did a lot more hunting and gathering. The subject tends to come up when I refuse to help him get the neighbor’s cat out of a tree. Or when I’m rubbing baking soda and peroxide into his skunked neck.
“You’ve all gone deaf,” he’ll growl. “Thunder once meant something to you people. It meant the sky was angry. You knew that when a tree fell on your hut, it didn’t just randomly tip over. It bashed in your hut because of something you did. And you used to eat cat.”
I hadn’t given his grumbling much thought, but now he has my interest. It is true that people who still hunt and gather for a living are usually animists. It seems to be the default philosophy of humans until we form permanent settlements and begin studying for the SATs. Why?
The dog flops onto his side. The spoon was a false alarm. Not like that foul little table.
“Same reason as me,” he says. His tongue unrolls to collect a corn flake on the floor. “The world is full of animals who want to eat you. Animals are all around you, waiting to pounce on you or sting you or poison you with their bite. Avalanches want to crush you. Lightning wants to burn you. Flash floods want to drown you. Anything that happens suddenly has a good chance of being bad. Maybe I sometimes run from a crackly paper bag, but it’s better to run from a paper bag 10 times than not to run the one time it’s actually a lion.”
I’m not going down that rabbit hole. I’ve tried talking sense to the dog about a number of scientific discoveries: People cannot just appear or vanish. A Jeep barreling down the street cannot stop in 18 inches. Lions live in Africa. My logic falls on velvety but deaf ears.
Besides, I still want to know how jumping away from a noisy spoon makes a person, or animal, religious. If it’s just an instinct, then running under the dinner table isn’t quite the same as saying the rosary, is it?
“No, it’s a much simpler system than that,” he retorts. “Even squirrels are animists. And crows. If something acts like it has a spirit, believe it. And assume that spirit is probably on the evil side. I mean, look at that nasty little table: why does it leap at me? If something wants to be friends, it comes up in plain sight, like a Jeep. It doesn’t wait, dead quiet, staring, and then JUMP! That’s what predators do. And if a spoon uses predator behavior, I’m not going to stand around wondering why. I’m going to assume the spoon intends to get me.”
I’m starting to understand. Animism is the belief that everything has a spirit and intention. This makes sense, at least for living things. After all, every living thing—tree, mosquito, buffalo—does intend to eat, compete and reproduce. I suppose those plans could amount to a kind of spiritual life—a blind, biological faith.
But the dog’s animism is the belief that even rocks and furniture have plans.
He returns his head to his paws and studies me. “You think you’re so different, down under the scientific stuff? How come you jump and bark when somebody pops a balloon? Because the old part of your brain still works, that’s why. Your wild brain knows that noise could be lightning coming to get you. How come when I stare at the side of your head at dinner time, you look at me? Because your wild brain is always on the look-out for eyes, that’s why. Lion eyes. You people haven’t gone completely soft. Somewhere in there, you’re still godfearing.”
His lids are drooping and he yawns. “You knew other things too,” muses the pious beast. “When something runs away from you, it’s food. I’ve reminded you so many times. Even if it goes up a tree and stops running: still food.” He sighs. “You used to know that.” And then he’s asleep, his twitching legs carrying him back to a time when together we crossed entire, mystical continents, running from the lions and eating the cats.
We adopted Lenny from our city’s shelter, twelve years ago when he was seven years old, past the age when many consider a dog to be adoptable. It was serendipitous for both Lenny and myself that I was even at the shelter that day. We had two girl dogs (Callie and Nellie) so I wasn’t really looking for another dog. But I was concerned about a Pit pup, and went there to check on her. Luckily she had been adopted, but in her place I saw this skinny Border Terrier mix—his “family” had deposited him in the pound’s “drop off box” the night before—he seemed, rightfully so, overwhelmed by what had befallen him.
The minute I saw him, I knew he would be coming home with me. Because he was an “owner-surrendered dog” we had to wait, but when I finally brought him home, he became what some call a “Velcro dog.” He didn’t really have separation anxiety, he just always wanted to be by my side, a leash was unnecessary; I just had to be careful about tripping over him. It took a couple months for him to get the hang of his new life, that included frequent and long walks with his new sister dogs, who taught him, in short order, how to be a regular dog. Callie showed him the proper leg lift (she had long mastered that “cross gender” method), and Nell, who at first did not take well to him, quickly understood that having two dogs to lord over her “fave” status wasn’t that bad.
Lenny was always a very hardy little guy, though he had chronic dry skin and red eye, there was never really much medically wrong with him. But when he was 14 Nell died, and he went into a severe depression—we think that his experiencing the months of her decline had a severe affect on his spirit (as it did on ours). So we quickly got him, and us, another dog! Lola, a 10 month-old rescued German Wirehaired Pointer was just the ticket—she looked and acted nothing like Nell (who was a Border Collie mix), and although he grumbled a little at first, he quickly regained his high stepping trot and his life took on a new meaning—“breaking in” the newcomer. It amazed me how he seemed to shed years, he acted more like a teenager, out to impress the new girl in school, than the cranky old guy he had been. Then, as I have been chronicling in my editor’s letter, at 17 he definitely started going through changes. I gladly attended to his daily senior dog needs, applying eye medication, cleaning sore ears, hand feeding, carrying him in and out of the car, taking him on increasingly shorter and slower walks, and letting him engage in long sniffing sessions by every familiar tree or patch of green along the way. We went through a new stage in our relationship. It was almost like a long-time married couple, we had renewed our “bond” vows. I gloried in being able to care for him but I also realized that this slower and more measured life wasn’t going to go on much longer.
But it did for another year, and then a few weeks ago, time did catch up with him. It seemed that he probably had a stroke during the night, followed by another in the morning. I never thought it would happen so suddenly. A couple days earlier, I had talked with his vet about how to know if Lenny’s time had come, because he didn’t have any life threatening ailments, it added a degree of complexity to the “is this the right time” decision. But Len made it for himself. My boy died peacefully in my arms, a true terrier to the very end, tenacious, trusting and utterly loyal.
There was nothing grand or heroic about this little scruffy dog, he had a feisty personality that mellowed as he grew older, but my life was certainly made better by the love we shared and I’ll be forever grateful that the patriarch of our pack could lay claim to such a large part of my heart for such a very long time.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Teaching inmates the dog canon.
One long, unseasonably warm fall, I teach a class called “Man’s Best Friend” every af ternoon in the prison library. We read dog stories as a way to explore the relationship between humans and dogs; my hope is that it will help the inmates take the next step and think about how they connect with their own emotions. On sunny days, I open the small, barred window so we can smell the soft, autumnal air and hear the shouts and laughter of inmates in the exercise yard.
I know that some of my students would rather be out there shooting hoops, walking laps or relaxing on benches instead of clustered around library tables reading books with me. But they are here because they love dogs. Reading about them cannot substitute for being with them, but it is the best we can do. Many have left pets on the outside and pine for them. This devoted group attends what’s become known around the facility as “Dog Class.”
One day, I am sitting in the library supply closet, which I have converted into an office with just enough room for my computer, a table to put it on and a rolling chair. My phone sits on an upended box, and there is no ventilation. I’m doing some last-minute preparation when Paul, one of my students, comes to the closet door and drops a sheet of paper on the edge of my computer table. “Here, I wrote this about my dog. You can have it.” He sits down at a table in the reading area to wait for class to begin.
It is a poem about Willy, his failing old Boxer back home. In the poem, he calls him “my boy” and muses about what it will be like when Willy dies. I read it and fight the urge to cry. Paul cannot see me, but I call out in a tight voice, “Paul, this is very good. A real tearjerker. Thank you for letting me read it.”
A moment later, Larry, my new library assistant, comes over with a thick book of poems and says, “If you like sad poems, try the one on page 89.” Larry functions on the border of things, never entering into a conversation unless invited. He has only recently begun opening up by suggesting titles of books he’d like me to order. A week earlier, he asked for anything by D.H. Lawrence or Jane Austen.
The poem is “A Dog’s Death,” by John Updike. I am quickly reduced to tears. “Larry, that is really something,” I say thickly. “Show Paul; he might want to read it too.” He takes the book and sets it in front of Paul, who hunches over it intently. When I walk into the reading area, Paul is wiping tears from his face.
“Should we read this one in class sometime?” I ask. “And yours Paul, can I make copies and pass them around for the guys to read?” He nods okay, still choked up by Updike’s poem.
In this class, we read books about lost dogs, sled dogs, farm dogs and dogs of the American frontier. We scan articles about doggie issues, which I clip from newspapers. We read funny poems and letters to editors that point fingers at dog abusers, and discuss the pros and cons of leash laws. I pass out cartoons and thoughtful quotes related to canines, and invite people who work with dogs to visit our class. Each brings along a real live dog.
In a high-security prison, where touch is forbidden, a tail-wagging visitor can make even the most sullen inmate drop his war face and reach out to make contact. The stories we read in class are vehicles to explore emotional connection and compassion, but dog visitors are the carrots that reel inmates into the class. And because this is an English class, I make them think about vocabulary, too, often putting lists of tricky words from the reading on the whiteboard to discuss.
Harold was just let out of The Hole. He’d been sent there for making hooch in his cell. I ask him to use vivisection in a sentence. He stares at me from behind his dark glasses and says, “I hate vivisection.”
“Can you tell me more, Harold?” I say. “That simple sentence doesn’t give us any clue about what the word means.”
“Okay. Dogs hate vivisection and I like dogs, so I hate it too,” he offers. Luis, a good-looking Latino who sold heroin on the street, volunteers to use chauvinistic and trundle in a sentence. In his heavy accent, he says, “I am chauvinistic about my home of Puerto Rico. I would like to trundle back there.”
Not to be outdone, Stanley, who sits next to Luis, adds, “They served us bad chow today in a perfunctory manner.”
Stanley obsesses about chow, and complains daily about taste, content and portion size. A barrel-shaped man in his late 50s, he is short, grizzled and universally recognized among staff and inmates as a malcontent. Most inmates have a nickname, and Stanley has three: Stumpy, Grumpy and Toad.
Today, we are finishing a book about a man’s team of sled dogs and his love for his favorite lead dog, who is slowing down with age. We talk about foreshadowing, and how the discussion of her decline is most likely leading to the part about her death. Luis read ahead the night before, and announces matter-of-factly, “I already know what happens. The dog dies.”
“Shit, now you ruined it for the rest of us,” says Stanley. “I hate that. Why should we even bother to finish it?”
“Nah, let’s just read it,” says Ralph, a large, loud lumberjack of a man who dislikes Stanley. “Don’t listen to him,” he says, pointing to Stanley. “Who cares what the goddamn ending is, anyway? It’s a good story.”
It is my practice to do a lot of the reading aloud, and I choose to push through to the end of the book today so we can start Old Yeller tomorrow. They follow along in their own copies, and it is dead quiet as they listen, except for the occasional shouts that float in the window from the yard.
But no one hears them because we are in Minnesota, where it is white cold. We see the old sled dog as she stands in a snowy field at the spot where her owner used to put her in harness. The bitter wind whips her coat as she waits patiently for him to come. But her sledpulling days are over and the dog team is long gone. Her human walks out to the field to gently urge her back in the warm house. In the swirling snow, she leans against his leg and stares ahead at where the old sled trails used to be. My voice cracks. I know where this story is going. I stumble on for a few more sentences, then put the book down.
“I can’t read any more. Who wants to continue where I left off?” The men stare at me in silence. We hear the muffled voices from the yard through the window. Someone curses, followed by a loud guffaw. “I’ll try,” says Stanley gruffly. The man they call Grumpy lowers half-moon reading glasses onto his nose and begins He gets through one page before his gravel voice quavers. He puts the book down and takes off the glasses to wipe his eyes. “That’s it for me. I can’t finish it,” he says. “Somebody else take over.”
“I’ll do it,” says Paul quietly. The paperback book shakes in his hand as he brings us to the sad end that we knew was coming but hoped would not make us feel so bad. He gets through it just fine, but his eyes are red, and there is an awkward silence when he closes the book. They look around at one another and at me, wondering who will say something to break the uncomfortable moment.
Loud Ralph points at me. “Lookit you,” he says. “You’re all pink and weteyed.” They stare, relieved to focus on me instead of their feelings. “And your neck has red splotches,” he adds. They snicker, and examine my eyes and my neck and my weakness instead of their connection to the story.
“Thank you for pointing that out, Ralph,” I say. “But get used to it. I always cry over sad animal stories. And when we get to Old Yeller, you may be the one with the splotchy neck.”
I walk to the filing cabinet where there’s a fat roll of toilet paper for guys who need to blow their noses, and unwind a few sheets for myself. “Who wants a tissue?”
“I’ll take some of that,” says Paul.
“Yeah, gimme some too,” demands Stanley. “But make sure you give me enough. This state toilet paper is flimsy crap.” The three of us blow our noses and I hear a couple of secretive sniffs around the room.
“Tomorrow we start Old Yeller,” I say. “But I think we’ve had enough for today. Why don’t you all go out to the yard and get some fresh air.” They leave, and when I am alone, I blow my nose again, loudly and in private.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Therapy dog unlocks a door into a patient’s mind
Rikki is a female golden retriever rescued from the f loodwaters outside New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Together, she and I are one of the animal-therapy teams affiliated with Companions for Therapy, a Tallahassee, Fla.-based organization that provides animal- therapy services to retirement homes, hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, hospice, child dependency and criminal courts, and schools.
We were introduced to the man I’ll call “Arnold” during a regular visit to the geriatric schizophrenic ward of one of the psychiatric hospitals we visit. As I always do, I began by asking the clients if they would like to meet my dog. Arnold, deaf and mute, sat with a vacant gaze, flanked by his interpreter and his therapist. He waved us off as quickly as his interpreter signed my greeting, and we moved on to the next person. After a few minutes of positive interactions with four other residents, we moved back to see if Arnold might have changed his mind. He hadn’t, and again dismissively waved us off.
After making the rounds of the room again, Rikki pulled me over to Arnold for a third time, but even as we approached him, his complete lack of interest was plain. I quietly told Rikki that we should leave him alone and concentrate on others who were enjoying her company.
When Rikki pulled me toward him a fourth time, I led her over to the interpreter and said, “Forgive me, but my dog really seems to think that your client would like to meet her. Would you mind asking him just one more time?” I’ve worked with my partner long enough to know that she knows much more than I do about who really needs her, and why.
As the interpreter signed our request, Rikki lay down at Arnold’s feet and looked straight up into his eyes. Arnold’s arm began flailing around as though he was about to have a seizure. I knelt down beside Rikki and slipped my finger inside her collar, just in case I needed to pull her back. I expected her to tense up, but instead, her muscles relaxed and her mouth opened in an expectant smile.
As I watched, a kaleidoscope of expressions crossed Arnold’s face; then for a moment, his eyes rolled far back in his head. Suddenly, he burst into a huge smile and his eyes focused on Rikki as though he’d never seen her before. He leaned over and threw his arms around her neck, moaning as he buried his head in her fur. Instead of stiffening up, Rikki relaxed and leaned forward into him, bringing herself even closer. Arnold began softly weeping and rocking back and forth. Time seemed to stop.
Then, just as quickly as he had begun, Arnold released Rikki, sat upright and looked straight ahead with a vacant stare, ignoring us. I had no idea what had happened, but Rikki seemed to know that our visit was over, and we thanked everyone and left the room.
Arnold’s therapist followed us out into the hall, where he told me that Arnold suffered from multiple personality disorder; the therapist had identified nine distinct personalities over the 12 years he had been treating him. He told me that Arnold’s dominant personality, which was aloof and antisocial, controlled the others and precluded them from emerging except occasionally, and then only for a short time.
He and the other therapists had worked to encourage one of Arnold’s other, more sociable personalities to emerge long enough for them to make contact. “Your dog did in a few minutes what I haven’t been able to do in 12 years. She connected with one of his personalities who wanted to deal with the outside world in a positive manner,” he said.
He admitted that he’d heard of animal therapy but had never really believed it would be of any benefit to his practice. Now, he didn’t know what to think. I didn’t, either. I couldn’t even imagine how difficult it must be to treat a person with Arnold’s disorder, which kept him in solitary confinement in his own body. The therapist asked if we could return the following week and focus strictly on Arnold, and I readily agreed.
When we arrived, we saw several people gathered around Arnold, who was sitting in his chair. I suddenly realized that this was going to be a bigger deal than I’d imagined. This time, there were other therapists and physicians in attendance, including the hospital’s chief medical director. My stomach went into a knot as I realized that we were there to prove ourselves to a “show me” crowd. I tried not to telegraph my nervousness to Rikki, but she seemed more than eager to meet everyone and charm them into petting her. Luckily, my therapy dog calmed me down.
Would this work? Since I had no idea how it happened the first time, what reason did I have to think that Rikki would be able to connect with Arnold again? Her demeanor was so focused and positive, however, that I began to relax. I remembered that my confidence in her had been proven through hundreds of other interactions. She would do what needed to be done.
As during our previous visit, Arnold was not interested at first. We spent an hour with him, and during that time, Rikki stayed focused and within petting distance. It didn’t take long for “Earl” (the name given to the personality who wanted to pet Rikki) to emerge, though his arrival wasn’t as physically dramatic as it had been in our first encounter.
As the visit continued, we “saw” six distinct personalities, including one who did not want to pet Rikki but was content to watch me pet her and ask questions about her through his interpreter. This in itself stunned the therapists, as Arnold had apparently never before taken note of a visitor, much less asked questions.
When one of Arnold’s personalities was petting or treating Rikki (he began taking baby carrots from me and giving them to her, even letting me show him how to have her sit and shake hands) and another personality who did not want the dog around began to overtake his persona, he would literally wave his arm in the air, as though shooing away a giant bug. I hardly knew what to do, other than to keep Rikki close and make sure he could touch her when he needed to. She seemed to know what to do — when to move in, when to engage with him, when to leave him alone.
I’ll always remember the moments she extended her head and smiled as he gently stroked her ears and made quiet sounds of contentment. As I looked around at the faces of the others, I realized that I wasn’t the only one who sensed just how special those moments were.
Arnold eventually relaxed enough while petting Rikki that the therapists were able to have brief interludes of conversation with him through his interpreter. I don’t know which was more fascinating: watching the interaction between Arnold and Rikki and Arnold and the therapists, or listening to the sidebar conversations between the therapists.
When we left, Arnold and the therapists walked us to our car, and every one of them — including Arnold, through his interpreter — thanked me for bringing her. I could barely reply. I could only thank them for giving my special dog and me a chance to help.
On the drive home, I looked in the rearview mirror and saw that Rikki had fallen into a deep sleep.
The next time we saw Arnold, he had a notepad and was communicating with his therapist by written word as well as through his interpreter. I thought for sure he would recognize us as we walked by, but his focus stayed on his therapist. And I just knew that Rikki would be drawn to him as she was before, since their previous connections had been so profound.
But neither of them was particularly interested in the other, and after my confusion (and, frankly, disappointment) had subsided, it finally dawned on me: he didn’t need her anymore, and she knew it. He had desperately needed some way to get around his dominant, isolated personality, someone who could provide a key to unlock the door between the “real” Arnold and the rest of us. Rikki sensed that, and knew how to be the key. Once the door was unlocked, the professionals were able to begin connecting with Arnold and treating him in more conventional ways.
So often, our animals provide exactly the right link or motivation, one that can’t otherwise be made with someone in physical or emotional pain or distress. I see it all the time, in so many of our therapy visits. Rikki is a special dog, but she’s not unique.
The Aborigines have a saying: “Dogs make us human.” I couldn’t agree more.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Sometimes, love isn’t enough
Paolo broke my heart. We parted at midday, on a bleak New York City sidewalk. Tall, dark and irresistibly handsome, Paolo never looked back. But this was no ordinary breakup.
I am still married to my husband of more than 20 years, and far from a threat, Paolo had been embraced as a companion for us both. Instead, this five-year-old black Labrador Retriever became a vehicle of guilt and anguish as well as a source of grinding tension between two deeply committed dog people. Our hearts were full of hope and happiness when we welcomed Paolo into our lives. Our souls were wracked with sorrow and shame when we gave him up.
It would be tempting to say that Paolo was not a homewrecker. But in truth, he managed to wreck just about anything with which he came in contact. Paolo ate pillows, photo albums, tax records. He killed several Kong toys and, on his second day in our house, took a hunk out of my husband’s hand while playing tug-of-war. We soon realized that what we had adopted was not a dog, but an 85-pound weapon of mass destruction.
Still, we were both hopelessly besotted, and determined to save Paolo’s canine soul. As with any off-kilter relationship, we believed we could fix it. Love would conquer all, right? Wrong. Sometimes the hardest lesson of all is learning that some damage needs real experts to repair it.
After the death of our elderly black Lab, about three months passed before I began trolling for another dog. On the Internet, Paolo looked perfect. He was a big, sturdy adult with a strong, square head and a glossy coat. But it was not so much his looks as his narrative that intrigued me. The rescue agency explained that five-year-old Paolo was a Bernie Madoff victim. His previous owners had lost all their assets when Madoff ’s fraudulent financial empire fell to ruins. Forced from their Park Avenue digs, they could no longer keep Paolo. Dog people tend to see the world — and financial scandal — in peculiar terms. All I could think was: bad enough that so many people had their lives upended by Bernie Madoff’s avarice, but a dog?
The rescue agency welcomed our application to relocate Paolo from Manhattan to a leafy hamlet near Boston. We were experienced Lab owners who promised long daily walks in a forest and summers in a seaside cottage. Our two previous rescue dogs had lived long, full lives. When we were invited to Manhattan for an interview and a chance to meet Paolo, the occasion was fraught with such expectation that my husband wondered if he should wear a suit.
A week later, I was back in New York City, this time with my car. It took two burly handlers and a mountain of treats to lure Paolo into the crate that occupied the entire back seat. Still, the canine behavioral psychologist — an occupation I had never heard of until then — assured us that Paolo would relax comfortably in a secure new environment.
In the weeks to come, I would remember the midwestern mother who shipped her adopted son back to Russia. When I read that story, I wanted to throttle the woman for heartlessly disrupting a child’s life. Now I reconsidered. Beyond his insatiable appetite for any object he could wrap his jaws around, Paolo also confused our rugs with outdoor surfaces. In what quickly became a pattern of daily phone calls and emails, the canine behavioral psychologist sounded indignant when I questioned whether this middle-aged dog was, in fact, housebroken. Then he admitted that the previous owners had Astroturfed their front hall to avoid taking Paolo outside.
Indeed, Paolo hated anything resembling nature. He ignored shrubs and trees and refused to walk on anything but asphalt. Squirrels bored him, and he disdained other dogs. His behavior was so troubling that I enlisted the help of a legendary, no-nonsense dog trainer. She quickly concluded our entire family would need daily sessions with Paolo. I wondered exactly how I was supposed to fit my job into that equation.
One immediate issue was what the trainer and the dog shrink agreed was Paolo’s attachment disorder. Briefly, this meant he would not let me out of his sight, challenging even my husband for my full attention. Imagine the surprise of my university colleagues when I showed up at faculty meetings with an 85-pound lap dog — who, as it happened, snored loudly. In a stroke of genius mixed with desperation, I engaged a professional dog-walking service to come to my office and take Paolo for regular strolls. Both the trainer and the doggie shrink agreed that this would help to both socialize Paolo and reduce his separation anxiety.
The same affable young male dog walker came twice a day — until day three, when he knocked on my office door and Paolo attacked him. This sturdy, six-foot-tall person was pinned against the wall, eyeball to eyeball with a snarling, lunging animal. Eventually, distracted by a leftover breakfast bagel, Paolo released his terrified prey. At that moment, I realized I could not trust this dog. What if he had turned on a child or an old person? Already, Paolo was more of a project than a pet. Now he had become a liability.
The trainer and canine behavioral psychologist concurred that Paolo should be reclassified as a special-needs dog. The shrink said Paolo had probably been in shelter shock at the rescue agency: that is to say, falsely subdued. He said owners often misrepresented the animals they brought in for adoption. And he thanked me profusely for the long memo I prepared describing Paolo’s behavior outside the shelter.
None of which made the decision to take him back any easier. On the four-hour drive back to Manhattan, Paolo slept peacefully until we edged into the city. Suddenly he shot up and shoved his snout through the small opening in the window, deliriously inhaling his beloved urban smells. I was weeping when the behavioral psychologist met us on the sidewalk, and I cried most of the way home. Paolo, the dog shrink promised in an email the next day, was doing just fine.
This story has a further happy ending. After taking Paolo back to New York, I felt like a heel, unworthy of dog ownership. Then one day I found myself poring over Labrador rescue sites. This time we moved cautiously, sending a cool-headed friend to check out a promising candidate we identified in another state. Jackson, a 5-year-old black Lab, is asleep beside me as I write. He is the love of our lives.
Culture: Stories & Lit
A dog adopts a family, receives her name and claims her chair
Tarnish entered my life in Eugene, Ore., in 1949. I was nine years old and my parents and I were living in an apartment complex on the outskirts of town. I played frequently in the surrounding fields and woods, and it was there that I was adopted by a bedraggled, homeless Golden Retriever. Initially, she would not let me touch her, but as the days passed and our bond grew, it became clear to me: she would be my dog.
My parents were against it. Our upstairs apartment was very small — there was no way we could have a dog. Finally, however, they succumbed to my pleas. I could have the dog, but she would have to stay in our woodbin, an outside walkin box where we stacked our wood. We discussed names, and my mother suggested Tarnish, which was the name of a lion cub in one of my favorite childhood stories (Tarnish, by Osa Johnson). I thought the name was perfect, and the Golden Retriever was Tarnish from that day forward.
Overjoyed, I prepared a bed in our woodbin and tried to persuade Tarnish to enter. She refused, and that evening, disappeared as she always did. My mother and I knew she slept in a neighbor’s woodbin at night, but I was sure I could get her to move into our woodbin the next day. Then my mother decided to get directly involved. After I had gone to bed, she took a flashlight and some leftover steak and went to our neighbor’s woodbin, where she was greeted with growls. She tossed the steak into the box and returned home.
Early the next morning, the neighborhood was awakened by Tarnish “greeting” the milkman as he attempted to make a delivery. She had left the neighbor’s woodbin in the earlymorning hours and was sleeping outside our door. After the milkman episode, it was decided that Tarnish could sleep in our apartment at night, but she would not be allowed on any of our furniture. That evening, she willingly came into the apartment and went to sleep on the blanket my mother had put in a corner. During the night, my mother got up to check on her and found her curled up on our best chair. My mother quietly went back to bed, and the next morning, moved the blanket from the floor onto the chair. It remained Tarnish’s chair for the rest of her life. Never once did she jump on any other piece of furniture.
We moved to El Paso, Texas, in 1952, and Tarnish’s chair became a fixture in my bedroom. During my high school and college years, we had many happy hunting and fishing expeditions in the Rio Grande Valley. Eventually, when it became difficult for Tarnish to jump into her chair, my father solved the problem by sawing off the chair legs, much to her delight.
After graduating from college in 1962, I was scheduled to leave El Paso in September to attend graduate school in Berkeley, Calif., and the departure day finally arrived. Tarnish was in her chair, and I lay on the floor to tell her goodbye for the last time. Cupping her head in my hands, I put my nose against hers, gazed into her eyes, told her no boy ever had a finer dog, gently stroked her and tearfully left for California.
Two months later, in the chair she had claimed as her own on her first night with us so many years before, Tarnish peacefully went to sleep for the last time. My father buried her under her favorite wisteria bush in the backyard.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
When the one who’s always there suddenly isn’t
On the day duncan arrived, i began to dread his death. He was a seven-week-old puppy and I was 36; we were both young, but I knew I would outlive him. It’s a fact that every dog person conjures up, and each of us wonders at one time or another why we put ourselves through this guarantee of grief.
But for all the time I spent worrying about Duncan’s well-being, the one thing I never contemplated was the possibility that his vet would die.
Jay Shapiro had practiced in Manhattan for decades before becoming an “at home” vet. He made the rounds like an old-fashioned country doctor, and by the time we met him, we had two patients for his care: Bucky, a guileless puppy who was afraid of children and skateboards, and Duncan, a 10-year-old who was afraid of nothing except the shadows that were creeping across his field of vision, signaling the end of his ball-playing days.
Duncan rebelled madly, futilely, against the aging process. He was a field dog who was designed to work. By living in New York City, we had deprived him of his main calling — fetching fallen birds in the marsh — but we provided a worthy substitute: a tennis ball in perpetual flight, which he caught again and again with acrobatic grace and pure joy. He was the Derek Jeter of dogs, and when his eyesight dimmed, he suffered in a place we couldn’t reach. He snarled, he bit, he withdrew.
Jay would come over, stand patiently in the brightest patch of light he could find and let the old dog come to him. He seemed to understand in his bones the particular mix of physical and emotional pain Duncan was experiencing. He referred us to an animal behaviorist and eventually, with medication and special care, Duncan passed through the bad patch. He was creaky, yes, but he was present. We and our little team of medics had enabled Duncan to re-engage, and it was perhaps our greatest gift to him.
A few years ago, while on vacation with his young son, Jordan, Jay had an accident on an ATV. He managed to throw the boy off the machine before it rolled on him, but he wound up spending several weeks in the hospital and almost lost his foot. A year later, he was hospitalized again, and this time, all 10 of his toes were amputated. It took him months to become fully mobile, but he was determined to walk on his own steam. He ordered a special pair of sneakers — two sizes smaller than his previous shoe size — and at first, he hobbled, then he limped, then he walked. He dragged his little hospital-on-wheels behind him and seemingly could do anything, including getting to his knees on a cement floor to examine a dog who was in too much pain to be hoisted up on a table.
At the very end, a week shy of his 16th birthday, Duncan couldn’t stand up for his evening walk. That morning in the country, he had trotted around the yard. Just a few strides, really, but he was himself, smelling the air, even managing to find and pick up an old tennis ball. But by 8:30, we were back in the city and he was ailing. We called Jay. “I’m getting in the car and I’ll be there in an hour,” he said. “We’ll see what we need to do. You just hang on. I’ll be there soon.”
It was the last night of the July 4th weekend and Jay lived on Long Island; the traffic was bad, and it took him more like two hours. He arrived with another man, a young technician in hospital scrubs. What I remember from that night is Jay talking to us, helping us make the decision. Making it clear that it was a decision. He would get in his car and return to Long Island, he said, then come back in a few days and see how Duncan was doing. We could wait.
But it was clear it was time, and the peace of Duncan’s passing was punctuated only by the fireworks that simultaneously erupted along the Hudson River. I asked the tech to carry him downstairs in a blanket because I didn’t want to upset anyone in the elevator. This fellow — alas, I never learned his name — had probably been settled in front of the television with a baseball game and a beer when Jay called and asked him to drive to Manhattan in holiday beach traffic to help out an old dog. Obviously, he didn’t think twice; Jay was going to work and so would he. All the way down five long flights with a heavy load in his arms, this young man spoke about how Jay inspired him — of his dedication, his kindness, his intelligence.
The next morning, Jay called; he had done a late-night necropsy and found pervasive cancer. “I just wanted you to know for sure that you made the right decision,” he said. “You saved him suffering.”
Six weeks later, Jay was back to remove a strange growth from Bucky’s paw. I wrestled the dog onto a table and held on for dear life as Jay anaesthetized the spot and cut it away. I was terrified. Also, it was August in Manhattan; it was over 100 degrees and I was embracing 60 pounds of writhing fur. Jay had brought Jordan, now eight, who was playing a video game on the couch; they were leaving for a week’s vacation the next day. “You’re doing great,” he smiled. “Are you okay?” There he was, more than six feet tall and teetering on toosmall feet, doing the most precise surgical maneuver I’ve ever seen on a jittery animal in mediocre light on a kitchen table, and he was checking on me.
Then in the background: “Dad, can I download an app on your iPhone?”
Four days later, Jay was dead. His last email to me, written the day before he died, assured us that Bucky’s growth, while a tumor, was benign, and his surgery was curative. “The leaves are starting to change color in New Hampshire,” he wrote. “Hope all is well, will check in next week.”
We didn’t know about his death until several weeks later. His phone had been disconnected and he wasn’t replying to emails, so I finally called his sister. On the phone, she told me many things about Jay, including that when he was hospitalized the previous year, he had spent a week in a coma. She, his best friend, sat beside him, holding his hand. Finally, he emerged and, at age 62, taught himself how to walk, and work, again.
We hadn’t known. He was so stoic, so tough. Like Duncan, he just soldiered on, got to the other side of whatever pain he was feeling, whatever obstacle his body threw at him. And no matter what, he was always there. We never had to worry, never had to dread. All we had to do was pick up the phone and call. “You just hang on, I’ll be there soon.”
He was loyal, constant and true. It hit me like a gale force, the realization that I had taken so much for granted about this man and the role he played in our lives. By the time I understood, he was gone, and it was too late to say goodbye.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Home is where the dog is … living and working in Africa
He greeted me at the gate. tall and muscular, a rich, deep, tan color with black ears and snout, he was gentle and curious, yet reserved — a stoic African giant. I wanted to become great friends and yet wanted to remain detached, to avoid the inevitable heartbreak when I left.
I had arrived in Kampala, Uganda, a few days previous to begin my field assignment with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders. I was excited, energized, curious and anxious to meet the people I would be living and working with over the next six months. Though I felt well qualified for work as a nurse in a large HIV/AIDS project in northern Uganda, I was less certain about my ability to live with 10 complete strangers and adapt to the extended separation from family, home and pets.
I have great difficulty with leave-takings and goodbyes. Yet over the previous decade, I had shifted my career toward international work, knowing it meant leaving the comfort, security and love of family: my husband of 31 years; my aging mother; my sisters; my dog, Helen; and my cat, Netty. I have left them behind on numerous occasions in the past, first for three- to four-week volunteer assignments, then for twomonth stays during my summer break from academia. The longest I had been separated thus far was a three-month stint in Ethiopia. The six-month commitment required by MSF was daunting. Yet, it was my opportunity to satisfy a lifetime passion — to use my nursing skills to help people in all parts of the world. Working with MSF was a dream come true, and I could not pass up this opportunity.
While it may sound irreverent, it is much more difficult for me to leave my pets than it is to leave my spouse. I rationalize this as follows: My husband understands the concept of time, and knows exactly when I will return. He has been involved in the decision making and the preparation, and we maintain contact on a regular basis through email and weekly phone conversations. For him, I am not totally gone, as I am as far as my pets are concerned. For them, the anxiety begins with the onset of packing. Helen, dejected, stares at me, her head resting on her paws. Since she doesn’t understand the concept of time, I am simply gone — returning? or not? It isn’t until the plane is in the air that I begin to look forward to my destination.
When, after introductions and a brief orientation in the capital, I learned that one of my housemates in the field (an eight-hour drive north) was a dog, I relaxed, becoming less anxious, confident that all would be OK. I knew it would feel more like home because of the dog. Even then, I had no idea how helpful the dog would be.
His name is Tasia. The story is that he had been born in the MSF compound in this large town in northwest Uganda about seven years previous. His mother, also an MSF dog, had died of cancer a few months after Tasia and his brother were born. Tasia has been living with the rotating team of ex-pats that come and go at various intervals ever since. Stability is provided by the support staff (cooks, watchmen, housekeepers), who feed him daily and provide companionship.
Our relationship began slowly enough … I was happy to greet him each morning and at the end of a long working day. He was always there at the gate, nose through the slats, anxious to see who was arriving home. He knew who belonged and who did not. He was not permitted in the house and rarely attempted to test those boundaries. In the hot climate of sub-Saharan Africa, the unscreened doors were left wide open day and night. We all spent the majority of our time at home on the veranda or in the yard, so Tasia had lots of company.
He came in the house just two times in the six months that I lived there. One day, when it was raining, windy and cold, I came out of my room to see him lying just inside the living room door, never venturing to move farther into the house. Another early morning, I found him chasing Maay, our goat, out of the house — these two were generally good and tolerant partners on the outside. It was Tasia’s role to keep the other animals in line, and one of his favorite games was to run in circles with the ever-present lizards that scampered around the yard.
After a week or two, I noticed that Tasia frequently stood at the front gate looking longingly at the people and animals passing by outside — goats, cows and chickens roamed freely on the road. While the yard was quite large and Tasia had plenty of company, he rarely went off the grounds. I began taking him for daily walks, using my belt for his leash. I enjoyed the exercise and the diversion from work, and I loved introducing Tasia to the neighborhood children. Our daily routine helped me feel comfortable in my new surroundings and introduced me to our neighbors, who were not accustomed to seeing a large dog being walked on a leash. More importantly, it felt like home for me — the same routine I had with my own dog. It made me feel closer to Helen to walk Tasia each day.
It is not the norm in this area of the world for a dog to be walked on a leash. Dogs remain inside gated compounds to guard the property. There were surprisingly few stray dogs roaming the neighborhood streets. By and large, the local people were frightened of dogs, and crossed to the other side of the street when we walked by. Sometimes I heard the muttered word simba (“lion” in Swahili), and it’s true that Tasia was almost as large as a lion, and was similarly colored.
Eventually, the children became used to seeing the two of us every afternoon and would wave gleefully as we walked by. Some would even run toward us, always stopping a good distance away, afraid of getting too close to the dog. Tasia proved to be a great canine ambassador. He sat readily on command, and I taught the children how to allow the dog to smell them, to approach gently, and to feel his soft and velvety fur. Tasia was always calm and charming, and the children became brave and confident as they gradually developed the nerve to touch him.
Our relationship grew, and soon, Tasia began to expect his daily or twice-daily walks — in the early morning before work and in the evening when I returned home. On days when I was running late, I would feel guilty when those soulful eyes looked at me with longing as I walked out of the gate without him. On Sundays, when the office was empty, I took Tasia with me. He would greet the watchmen, explore the yard and the nooks and crannies of the office, then lay on the cool cement floor as I emailed home. My teammates began teasing me that I was spoiling Tasia and would have to take him back to the U.S. with me when I returned. I must admit it was tempting; Tasia was truly a regal dog and I knew I would miss him greatly. I believed he would also miss me, since no one else provided him with daily walks.
I began scheming about how to get him home, but in my heart, knew that the plane ride was just not something to which I could subject him. Each leg of the journey would require a minimum of 10 to 12 hours in a crate. I have seen dogs that have made this journey — the large ones limp for days, and all look sorely stressed. Tasia belonged to Africa.
My work was challenging, both from a cultural perspective and an emotional one — after all, it was an HIV/AIDS project in an area of limited resources, where sad things happened on a daily basis. But on particularly difficult days, when it all seemed too much to bear, there was Tasia waiting at the gate, with his soft touch, his gentle nuzzle and his constancy in just being there. We would sit on the veranda, me sipping a beer while he rested his head on my knee. I cannot begin to describe how this helped lessen my burden and give me the strength and encouragement I needed to continue. While it helped to destress with my teammates, nothing filled my emotional needs like the quiet, loving acceptance of that dog.
The day I left to begin my journey home, I walked Tasia very early in the morning, wanting to spend as much time as possible with him. I explained that I would be leaving, and that he would always be in my heart. I thanked him for his love and attention, and his friendship. He then did something he had never done before: he gently licked me on the cheek. He understood; he had been through this before.
Some time after my return, I worked with an MSF nurse who had taken part in the same project. She reported that she ran with Tasia every morning, and assured me he was happy and healthy and thriving with his rotating circle of friends — the ever-changing MSF team. For me, he will always be the great African dog who saved my soul and gave me the love and encouragement I needed while living so very far away from home.
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