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.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Throwaway dogs provide comfort in frightening times
Mr. bones was only a few days old when someone left him and his littermates next to a dumpster behind a grocery store in Fairmont, W.Va. Fortunately, the squirming box of Beagle-mix pups was discovered before the trash was mechanically compacted and trucked to a landfill. We met the timid puppy a few weeks later; he cowered in the back of a stainless-steel kennel at the Marion County Humane Society & Rescue and yelped in fear when we tried to coax him out. Then, trembling, he managed to wag his white-tipped tail. We took him home.
Seven years later, on a Friday afternoon in April 2007, these memories returned as I watched a student with a blonde ponytail stroke Bones’ soft ears. Her blue eyes, bloodshot and ringed with dark circles, filled with tears as she frowned and said, “I really miss my dog at home.”
That afternoon, 20 or so dogs spread across the grassy lawn next to Ambler Johnston Hall, a dormitory on the Virginia Tech campus. Like Mr. Bones, they sprawled in the sun and gladly accepted hugs, pats and treats from the loose crowd of students. An aged Chihuahua in a maroon-and-orange jersey with “Hokies” printed across the back scrounged for biscuit crumbs. A fawn-colored Boxer mix bounded from one group of students to another. Nearly every dog was dressed in Virginia Tech–themed gear; Mr. Bones wore a maroon bandana with a black ribbon pinned to it.
Four days earlier, on April 16, the worst mass shooting in United States history had begun inside the gray limestone walls of the dormitory that towered above us. A 19-year-old freshman and a 23-year-old resident advisor had been fatally shot by a fellow student; two hours later, across campus, the same disturbed student shot 45 people — 30 of them fatally — inside classrooms in Norris Hall.
The names of the dead and injured had slowly been released; graduate teaching assistants, athletes, international students, world-renowned scholars, fathers, an ROTC cadet and even a 76-year-old Holocaust survivor were among them. Everyone had lost someone. I had lost a favorite student, a focused, kind, intelligent 18-year-old biology major with enormous potential and a smile that could brighten even the most boring class. She died studying Intermediate French along with 11 classmates and her professor.
The university cancelled classes for the rest of the week, and by Tuesday or Wednesday, most students had gone home, back to their grateful parents. But others remained, either by choice or because they had no way to leave or nowhere to go. It was for these hollow-eyed, sleep-deprived students that we gathered outside the dorm with our dogs.
I squinted in the April sun as more and more rumpled, dazed undergrads trickled out of the dorm, some singly, some in groups of two or three. At first they seemed surprised to see a pack of maroon-clad canines, but after a moment or two, they cautiously approached and finally found themselves cross-legged on the grass, stroking the sun-warmed fur of a friendly hound.
“My dog at home looks a lot like this one.”
“My mom is coming tomorrow. I hope she brings my dog.”
“I really missed my puppy this week.”
“Who brought all these dogs?”
Earlier that morning, an email had circulated through Virginia Tech’s veterinary school, where my husband Jesse was about to begin his fourth and final year of study. Members of a student organization, the Animal Welfare Club, had an idea about how to help the traumatized students who remained on campus, and a few hours later, we assembled.
Southern Virginia’s rural shelters are often overcrowded and operate on shoestring budgets; euthanasia rates are staggering. Veterinary students involved with the Animal Welfare Club fostered dogs and cats from the local shelters, extending the animals’ lives. Often, the fostered animals became permanent companions to the future veterinarians. Many former shelter dogs now milled around on the lawn: a yellow Lab mix with three legs and soulful brown eyes; two or three brindle Pit Bull mixes, tongues lolling; stubby-bodied Chihuahua crosses; a leggy black Greyhound mix. The majority, however, had obvious Beagle heritage.
A student in a maroon tee shirt with a maroon VT painted on her cheek approached and knelt in front of Mr. Bones. He looked up at her, blinked against the sun and sniffed the air. She ran her hands over his ears and he wagged the tip of his tail. She brushed her black bangs out of her eyes and stared at him seriously, without smiling or crying. After a few moments, she stood, looked at Bones and sighed, then spun and hurried down the sidewalk, folding her arms over her chest. Another student soon took her place, and another after that: Bones would look, sniff, wag; the student would pet his ears, his neck or his white chest, then smile, cry or sigh.
Like these students, Mr. Bones had persevered through difficult times. He almost didn’t make it past puppyhood; he survived being thrown out with the trash, and then he survived weeks at the shelter. And then, as soon as we got him home, we realized he was sick. He vomited his meals and continued to dry-heave, his small rib cage expanding and contracting. He developed diarrhea, then bloody diarrhea. His eyes dulled and he became lethargic. We rushed him to the vet, who diagnosed our new little puppy with parvovirus, a highly contagious and often deadly disease of the intestines.
Mr. Bones had to be hospitalized and rehydrated with subcutaneous, then intravenous, fluids. He lost muscle mass and could barely stand. When we’d visit him, he could only move his eyes and the tip of his tail, which twitched when he saw us approaching. I sat on the tile floor outside his hospital cage and wept. I could count his ribs. I could see his tiny hipbones jutting under his smooth black-and-tan fur. He was only 10 or 12 weeks old and had already suffered so much.
“We know you’ll do what’s right for Bones,” our wellmeaning family members said. They meant, “We think you should have Bones put to sleep.”
But after a week in the hospital, he began to show interest in food again. He wolfed a bowlful of chicken and rice and kept it down. Then he could stand. And soon he found his voice, his Beagle-y woo woo wooo! We took Mr. Bones home, and in no time he became the shoe-eating, couch-destroying, puppy-breathed monster we’d expected.
As the afternoon grew warmer, more dogs and more students made their way to the lawn. Another Beagle mix in a Virginia Tech football jersey joined us, as well as a small black Terrier in a gray baby-tee. As I watched the wagging tails and shell-shocked students, it occurred to me that there had been no dog skirmishes, no growling and very little barking. These were not “service” dogs; some had been well trained, of course, but none had an official title. There were no therapy dogs or assistance dogs or dogs who could lead the blind. Most were dogs who had been thrown away — abandoned on the side of a highway, left tied to the door of an animal shelter, turned out of a kennel after years of breeding. Maybe some, like Bones, had been treated literally like garbage — left by a dumpster, not even worth the effort of being driven an additional two or three miles to the county shelter.
A few nights earlier, I had thrashed myself awake after a violent dream. Like many, I hadn’t slept soundly since the shooting, and I wasn’t sure if I’d been sleeping or just replaying horrifying scenarios in my subconscious. Either way, I stared at the ceiling in our dark bedroom and started to cry. Soon I was sobbing and shaking. When I began to choke, I sat up. I couldn’t catch my breath. Jesse woke, too, and Mr. Bones uncurled himself and sat in front of me on the bed, his ears half-lifted. “Breathe,” Jesse said, putting his arms around me. “It’s OK. Just breathe.” When I stopped hyperventilating, Jesse got up to find some tissues. Bones calmly stared into my eyes as though waiting for me to do something; I stroked his ears and then his shoulders. Then I hugged his whole body. He rested his chin on my shoulder and I felt him sigh.
I won’t claim that Mr. Bones is perfect. He’s skittish to a fault, chases squirrels and often employs selective hearing. He attempts to roll in or eat (or both) other creatures’ feces. He barks at the neighbors. But Mr. Bones possesses a gift — certainly not a unique gift — perhaps a gift common to all dogs: he knows how to help heal. And he does it effortlessly, without the promise of reciprocation, without uttering a word. His patient brown-eyed gaze, graying muzzle, silken ears, smooth black back and, of course, his white-tipped tail can salve even the deepest, rawest hurt.
The shadows were lengthening by the time we left the dorm’s lawn. Mr. Bones padded along the sidewalk beside us, pausing every few feet to sniff lampposts and flowerbeds. He would glance up at me, wag, then resume. His maroon bandana still hung around his neck. I had never been more proud of him.
Culture: Stories & Lit
The chaser in the rye
Dogs have always played an important role in my life. My earliest memory is of me astride our small German Shepherd/Husky mix, dog-back riding. No saddle horse was ever as well-trained as that dog. As I grew, dog riding became impossible, so I focused on more traditional canine pursuits: sit, heel, lie down, stay. Training our dogs became an obsession with me, and no methodology was too bizarre if it achieved the desired result.
I recall, for instance, the time I decided to teach our longcoated German Shepherd, Caitie, to speak on command. My family watched dubiously. I stood before her, firmly commanded “Speak!” and then myself “woofed.” At my first “bark,” Caitie cocked her head to the side. I repeated the procedure. The third time I said, “Speak,” Caitie leaned forward with an eager “woof.” I rewarded her with a treat from my coat and an effusive hug. From that time on, Caitie “spoke” on command. The fact that she also began barking at other times — when she wanted to come in, or go out, or for no real reason in particular — rendered our success somewhat less meritorious.
The next time I resumed my dog-training pursuits, the goal was nothing as frivolous as entertainment. This training would benefit our livelihood. My family owns a farm that produces winter rye as one of the crops. When all other crops succumb to snow and freezing temperatures, the rye endures. The tender roots hold the precious topsoil in place through winter’s cycles of freezing and thawing, preventing erosion. Then in the spring, the limp green shoots grow tall and stiff. It is at this time that we mow it and bale it into square straw bales that we sell for decoration, mulch or construction. It is a valuable crop … if it weren’t for the geese.
Each winter, thousands of Canada geese migrate to warmer climes, and each winter they tarry at our farm. And eat our rye. Some years their voracious feeding has completely decimated our crop. My great-grandfather used to combat Canada geese by firing a twelve-gauge shotgun in the air. When that no longer scattered the flocks, we tried a loud bird cannon. The resounding booms scared the geese for a while … but only until they grew accustomed to the regularity of the noise. Then it was back to grazing as usual.
About this time, my affection for training dogs came to my aid. My current dog was a tri-colored Sheltie named Bailey. By breeding, Bailey was a herding dog. By practice, he was a couch potato. Bailey’s former owners lived in the suburbs of Chicago, so his natural skills of bunching and directing sheep were, well, underdeveloped, to say the least. I, however, was undeterred. Bailey was a purebred, pedigreed herding dog; with a little schooling, breeding would tell. So I began a training regimen designed to take my dog from laid-back house pet to aggressive goose-chaser.
In any program of this sort, the first goal is to create pleasurable associations with the desired outcome. In other words, the dog has to think he does his job because he likes it, not because he’s ordered to. I determined to connect “geese” with “fun.” Training began the first time a flock of geese flew overhead honking loudly. Stopping in my tracks, I pointed to the sky and said breathlessly, “Geese, Bailey! Geese!” Bailey, of course, had no idea what “geese” meant, but being highly intuitive he knew it was exciting. He lifted his little black ears, circled me at a run and barked frantically. Within a very short time, any mention of “geese” elicited this exuberant response. Step one accomplished.
The next step was to transfer his enthusiasm from the word “geese” to the act of chasing geese. This proved slightly more difficult. One day I took Bailey to a field full of geese. I waved my right arm in the direction of the fowl: “Get the geese, Bailey! Get the geese!” My dog yapped and circled and jumped and cavorted … but he never once headed toward the desired objects. Utter failure.
I recalled my experience with Caitie. Perhaps a demonstration was required. Since the geese still sat there placidly eating, I commenced immediately. “Get the geese, Bailey! Get the geese!” I called, running toward the geese while waving my arm in their direction. Bailey loved this new game. He ran alongside me, periodically circling and barking. When the geese finally took flight, I got the impression it was more out of sympathy than fear.
I do confess that the incident undermined my confidence, but not for long. After all, it was only the first attempt. Next time would be better.
It wasn’t. Nor was the third or the fourth or the fifth. I couldn’t understand it. My dog was smart. At the slightest movement of my hand, he would sit, lie down, stay (more or less), come or go upstairs. He had a working vocabulary on a par with most college students. What was the hang-up with Get the geese?
I understood Get the geese. Sometimes I found myself stopping mid-sentence when I heard geese approaching: “Geese, Bailey, geese!” I got to the point where I would pull my car over to the side of the road when I saw geese eating, let the dog out of the car and run at them pell-mell yelling, “Get the geese, Bailey!” Walking back to the car after one such episode I had to ask myself, Just who’s training whom here? I almost quit trying. The only thing that kept me going was my brother’s smug look after each abortive attempt and his condescending, “That dog will never learn to chase geese.”
Perhaps Bailey sensed my despair. Perhaps the months of rigorous repetition did their work. Perhaps he knew what I wanted all along and just wanted to see how long he could keep me running around rye fields like a woman possessed. I don’t know. All I do know is that one day as Bailey and I walked my horses to pasture, we skirted a rye field being ravaged by geese. Saying anything was useless: My hands were busy with three 1,700-pound horses. I wasn’t chasing geese this trip.
That’s when it happened. My dog suddenly took off across the field, his tiny body barely skimming the dirt. Silently he hurtled toward the geese. Within yards of them, his telltale bark exploded. So did the geese. Black-and-white Vs scattered into the air, squawking indignantly. Bailey turned and trotted in my direction. Two impertinent ganders settled back to the ground. Bailey turned and barreled toward them again. This time they took off for good.
I stood at the side of the field, my jaw brushing the tops of my boots. Bailey stopped at my feet, his tongue lolling and his tail wagging. I stretched my arms as far as the lead ropes would allow and ruffled his perky ears. I couldn’t believe it: I had finally trained a goose-dog.
Culture: Stories & Lit
The brief lives of dogs leave deep tracks.
I woke up in my warm bed, my hand automatically stretching to feel Vesper’s warm, silvery fur. I knew of course that she was not there. On an ordinary morning, I might actually have snuck out of bed, cautiously hoping that neither she nor my husband would wake and that I could brew coffee or even read an article or two in the paper without attending to their needs. Today my cozy kitchen was chillingly empty.
Most often during the past dozen years, Vesper had gotten up before me, her long body stretched against the wainscoting of the hall, waiting for her belly rub, her food, her walk. We shared the early hours of the day. I would pull on some clothes, and we would head out and make our way to the Brooklyn Promenade. We’d look at the harbor, Manhattan’s skyscrapers, the small boats, the Staten Island Ferry, Lady Liberty and the new park growing at our feet. Vesper would bare her teeth and growl at dogs who came over to “say hello,” and I would wearily explain to their owners that she was “scared” and “private,” not unfriendly. Even though she was 13, she was so slim and beautiful that people regularly mistook her for a puppy.
Vesper and I usually had more quiet time before my household, now consisting only of my husband, woke up. He was as crazy about her as I was.
Since our daughter was a toddler, some 50 years earlier, I never witnessed him being as openly affectionate to anyone as he was toward the dog. I confess that I was jealous. Sometimes Vesper responded to his entreaties; most often, she only accepted—demanded, really —caresses when she was in a mood. She always had a mind of her own.
Both my husband and I had grown up with dogs. Thereafter, our lives were too full and complicated to include canines. It was David, our grown son, who, for one of my birthdays, gave me Sasha, a wirehaired Dachshund puppy. It was an ideal gift for a writer living in an empty nest. Sasha and the books I created made me feel that I was still a fertile young woman. The dog was perfect company. In the apartment, he followed me from room to room, just as my children had done when they were small. In the morning after I straightened the house, we repaired to my study. Sasha curled up under my desk where my bare feet could touch his fur whenever I needed reassurance. I thought that he slept deeply, but once, when I cried while writing an emotion-laden passage, he rose in distress, ambled over and vigorously licked my bare legs.
Life is hard. David had been infected with the HIV virus at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. He was fortunate in that the deadly virus went about its work without undermining his ability to enjoy life. I will be forever grateful that David let me be his care-partner and allowed me to try to pack the love of a lifetime into whatever time he had left. My husband and my daughter surrounded me with love, but their heartache was as great as mine. It was comforting that upon my return from spending time with David in San Francisco, Sasha let me know in no uncertain terms how much he had missed me and how relieved he was that I was back. David died in 1993, and taking the dog out three times a day, feeding, bathing and caressing him helped me regain my composure.
Four years later, when Sasha died, it was as if I had to relive all of the agony of my son’s death.
We thought that we were all done with dogs, but the next April we heard of an 18-month-old female wirehaired Dachshund who needed a home because she refused to learn to hunt. I liked that dog’s attitude and we went to see her.
“Try her for a week,” the breeder said.
“You can return her, no questions asked.”
Well, that was that. Vesper had never been on a leash or peed on asphalt, but she weathered the transition to city life. She was very different from Sasha— more even-tempered, less aggressive, less slavishly devoted to me. At first I considered her a poor substitute for Sasha, but gradually I fell in love with her determination, her quiet nature and the affection she showered on me and mine.
Soon after we got Vesper, we moved to our summer residence in Maine. The bark-less city dog fiercely defended our one wooded acre from neighboring pets, chipmunks and even the occasional ducklings approaching us by the lake. Vesper never trespassed on neighboring property, patrolling our land so precisely that I was asked whether we had an electric fence.
One day my husband and I took her up Sargent Mountain in Acadia National Park. We huffed and puffed for a good hour, but she scrambled ahead. When we reached the peak, our threesome met three fierce-looking dogs. Vesper barked; the other dogs called her bluff. An instant later, my dog had vanished. We all searched for her, but she was nowhere. Thirty minutes later, I abandoned the peak, believing that I had lost her for good. I met an upward-bound party. “Nice day,” they said. “Yes, but I lost my pup,” I answered tearfully. “Well, we saw a dog hot-footing it down the hill.” When we got down, there she was, f lat as a pancake, hiding under our car! She was always so good at managing her problems.
Vesper stayed with us for 11 years. Then she started vomiting. The vet gave her antibiotics. She got better, then she got worse and the animal who had eaten voraciously all her life was not even tempted by a spoonful of peanut butter. She got weaker and weaker, but maintained her clean habits, peeing and pooping on the street, trying as the vet said “to please.” She wagged her tail when my children or grandchildren came. Five days after she got really sick, we decided, together with our vet, to end it.
I am by now familiar with grief, but I was surprised by the intensity with which I responded to her loss. It was all so familiar. I held her while she received her fatal life-robbing injection. I had the vet put her in a box. I searched for a canine crematory, then was shocked by the unctuous prose and the prices. Unlike my son, whose apartment I had to empty in San Francisco, Vesper did not have many possessions, but there were leashes, food, drugs, feeding bowls and the many toys we had bought her over the years. I packed the latter in three bags to give to the fellow dogs in the house. The owners will probably throw them out—I would—but the idle gesture helped me.
I know that I will feel better— we humans have an amazing ability to recover from loss—but how I wish that I did not have to go through so much pain.
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