As with most major events in my life, this particular episode began with a seemingly innocuous morning conversation.
Finally on the road to recovery from the latest in a series of illnesses and able to once again enter his private domain bulging with all manner of saws, grinders, sanders and multiple tool cases filled with hammers, screwdrivers, pliers and Lord-only-knows-whatsits, my Best Beau stared into his coffee cup and said he had been thinking.
Over the years, these words have raised the hair on the back of my neck fairly often, and I say short, silent prayers to the Big Guy that this would be one of his good thoughts. (Our trip to Alaska’s Glacier Bay began that way.)
“Since you went back to work full time, I’m pretty much left to my own devices. There’s no one to talk to except myself, and you know what a lousy conversationalist I am. How would you feel about getting a dog?”
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I suppose I should have been grateful he didn’t want to adopt another child or move his mother in with us, but memories of long years caring for our last canine family member resulted in a sky-high eyebrow lift.
“I’ll do everything; you won’t even know it’s in the house. I’ll feed it, water it, brush it and pick up after it, nothing left for you to do.” I’ve never understood how those hazel eyes could look so innocent even while he was shoveling “bovine excrement” at such a fast pace.
I didn’t believe those very same words when they were uttered years ago by our children, which resulted in our adoption of a tiny bundle of fur that grew to be a 100-pound, insanely active bundle of fur. For which yours truly did the feeding, brushing and picking-up. I knew better than to believe them now.
However, with 52 years of experience behind me and a feline companion who was becoming increasingly picky about her food, I acquiesced. I also kept the vet’s comment—that cats sometimes respond well to another animal in the house, which might result in a better appetite—to myself.
When I asked what kind of dog he had in mind, he replied, “One with four legs that won’t yap at me when I happen to mention the extra weight was very attractive on her.” What I said in response will be omitted from this account, but not the fact that my eyebrows headed skyward again.
Weeks of calling and visiting all the rescue centers in the area resulted in our meeting very large dogs, very hyperactive dogs, small loud dogs and several that wanted to attack my husband’s scooter. It was heartbreaking to turn down one after another; I could feel their sad little eyes watching as we walked away.
After reading a small piece in the paper about the Paws and Stripes program run by the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office, I called and left a message. I received a return call the same day from a compassionate worker who asked several questions about the kind of dog we wanted. I explained that my husband was mostly confined to a scooter but was able to get around, and wanted a companion. Also, that we preferred a smaller dog who wasn’t likely to pull on a leash hard enough to upset the scooter or pull my husband off it. Finally, I asked that the dog be trained well enough to come when called, as my husband would not be able to chase it should it escape the fence.
Shortly thereafter, a14-pound, curly-haired, bundle of energy with the biggest eyes in all of Dogdom came to us via this wonderful program. I was totally impressed by the care shown not only to training the dogs but to training us humans as well. We visited with the dog and trainers several times before we were able to bring him home. The extra effort put into making sure we were likely to be kind and a good fit for the dog was above and beyond, in my opinion, not to mention that the dogs are saved from the shelter. Everyone involved in the program certainly deserves a large “Good job!” and extra-large Dove bar.
Coming to us already tagged, vaccinated, chipped and sans two small body parts, the dog listened attentively while I explained that my husband was his owner—reminding my husband, I hoped, that he was supposed to be feeding, brushing, walking, etc. Basically, that anything the dog needed would come from the male human, and that I was not to be involved in any part his daily life, including care and feeding. The dog then sneezed, licked my face and settled down at my feet.
He had such a happy demeanor, ever ready to perform any of the commands he was trained to do. His tail was always in motion, so the name Wags seemed perfect. It took no time to realize just how smart he was and how eager he was to learn something new. The only quirk in his behavior was that he would growl and hide when any other dog came close. The trainers said there had been an “incident” with another dog before Animal Control picked him up, and he had been bitten. (He’s getting better, but still cannot be allowed to run free at the dog park.)
Those first weeks, Wags was wonderfully patient with us. He loved to go for walks and play, but when we just wanted to settle into the couch and watch TV, he was all for that also. He became very adept at staying out of the way of the scooter, walking beside it on leash and sitting between my husband’s feet to take a treasured ride. Except for the feeding, walking and brushing things, they spent most days together.
We found that Wags has an almost manic affection for treats. No matter where he is, his head pops up anytime we get near the pantry, and reaching into the pantry brings him to an alert sitting position. Grabbing any kind of crinkly pouch results in a prancing dog at your feet.
I used this affection to train him on a daily basis. Fetching his leash, bringing a toy, rolling over and playing dead was learned within the first week. When my husband was hospitalized again, I taught him to search the house when I came home from visiting in the evening so I wouldn’t be so apprehensive about going inside after dark. I appreciated that he never needed to be encouraged, but took this job very seriously. (I’m not sure the cat felt the same when she was flushed out of the closet, where she had been comfortably ensconced in a nest made of my cashmere sweater.)
The one drawback to using treats to train him is he gets so freaked out by the mere smell of any kind of a treat that he bundles all his tricks together. I swear I can see his little brain thinking: “Treat! Treat! She has a treat! Wait … she wants me to do something. But what? I wasn’t listening! What does she want me to do? Oh, I’ll just do everything … I know she’s sure to like something! AND GIVE ME THE TREAT!”
He’ll sit pretty, hold his paw up for a shake, lie down, roll over and play dead, all in the span of a minute. He’s gotten a little better at reining in his frenzy, but it’s still hilarious. As is his insistence on beginning at the head of my bed and tunneling under the blanket all the way to the bottom, where he spends the night totally covered, sucking on his hind foot until he falls asleep.
Getting back into his workshop after that hospitalization, my husband began having more balance problems. If he reached for a dropped tool, he sometimes fell over, so I trained Wags to pick up anything pointed at and hand it to my husband. I was most impressed that he could pick up a rather large hammer, small wrench and other tools that appeared to be too heavy for him. My husband appreciated this assistance in keeping his independence.
When I finally had a long-delayed foot surgery, Wags was great. Handing me the Kleenex box and picking up the multitude of things I continually dropped was most helpful, but cocking that adorable little face to one side, ears at attention, while I whined and moaned about my immobility was invaluable. He seemed to know which foot to stay away from, and having his little head on my leg was more comforting than the pain pills. Alternating between sitting, standing and curling into a ball, he left the couch only when nature called, and he rushed right back to snuggle into his special place between my legs and the back of the couch.
His command to fetch dropped objects was “Pick it up,” but he quickly learned that “Oh crap!” or the occasional “Dammit!” would soon be followed by “Pick it up.” So he bypassed the command and jumped off the couch to grab whatever I had dropped, knocked off the tiny TV table or let slide off the couch. One time, I discovered that my icepack had leaked and little wet gel pills were all over my fairly new couch, but there was no one home to help. I stood and teetered on one foot as best I could while attempting to sweep the sticky green globs into my water glass, not paying attention to what Wags was doing.
After cleaning up my gel mess to the best of my nearly immobile ability, I nearly sat on four of his toys and a brush I had lost weeks earlier. Evidently, my repeated “Oh craps” and other utterances had resulted in the poor little guy picking up everything he could find on the floor and depositing them on the couch. I laughed out loud at the “What the heck did you want?” look on his face.
When I was finally able to hobble with a knee glider, we began to take walks around the neighborhood, but had to stop when we ran out of streets that didn’t have dogs who ran loose and took protecting their territory quite seriously. The dog park after hours became a viable alternative, as did a nearby campground, where all dogs are leashed all the time.
Wags is always up for a game of tug-of-war, a visit from any of my grandchildren or an episode of My Cat From Hell. Despite coming from a less-than-perfect past, he faces life every day with a big smile, a wagging tail and a happy attitude that I envy and strive to emulate.
I’m looking forward to many years of snuggling with him on the couch.