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Family dog: take three

March 1st, 2007

BY BUD GARDNER

puppydog.jpgFinding our dog Rusty at the Animal Shelter in Wenatchee turned out to be a lucky event for us as well as him. When our twelve-year-old black lab, Babe, had to be put down the year before, both Connie and I were uncertain whether or not we wanted another dog. Babe was dearly loved, and a truly beautiful pure-bred with highfaluting papers confirming a grand, prize-winning ancestry, but she was a terribly neurotic and anxious animal, who for god-knows-what reason was always wary of me, no matter what I did to show my honorable intentions and affections, and afraid of all men in general. That was particularly hard on me, as I’d had dogs around all my life and had great relationships with them.

Our old dog, Spot, we got as a pup in 1973, when my kids were young, and he was the classic family dog, small, cheerful and playful, and a great pal for the boys growing up. Chris, my younger son, was five when Spot joined the family, and the two of them were virtually inseparable throughout Chris’s childhood years. When Chris graduated high school in 1986 and moved back to Seattle, poor old Spot was disconsolate. He perked back up after a while, but he was getting older and hard of hearing and after a couple more years we lost him on a visit to Spokane when a friend took him out for a run as she was exercising her horse. Spot just took off on his own and we never did find him. We grieved ol’ Spot for quite a while before we got Babe. I was really disappointed when I couldn’t get Babe to relax and trust me, but her devotion to Connie, and Connie’s attachment to her, were obvious and strong, so I toughed it out, for eleven years, with a dog who mostly gave me a baleful look over her shoulder as she’d slink out of the room to avoid me.

So for a year after Babe was out of the picture, we discussed whether we wanted to jump into the blue with another new dog, and it’s not an easy decision. Part of our concern was lifestyle-related. We both run off early in the morning on weekdays, and some weekend days, and we just aren’t around most of most days to oversee and interact with domestic animals. We live in a nice little cottage in a grove of evergreens surrounded by fifty acres of orchard, about half a mile off the nearest county road. Our closest neighbors are a couple hundred yards away, so it’s a nice, quiet place, with only occasional traffic on our little private road, and lots of space for a dog to roam. But no one around to supervise. On the other hand, we both like having a dog around, for companionship and security concerns, and I, particularly, wanted another chance to have a dog that liked me and didn’t cower in the corner when I came into the room.

Connie discovered that the Animal Shelter in Wenatchee, ninety miles away, has a website and they have pictures and little biographies of their adoptable animals. A couple days a week they run pictures in The Wenatchee Daily World, as well, so Connie began to check on them regularly and when she found a few likely suspects, we took off on a July Saturday in 2000, armed with her internet printouts, to pick us out a new dog to join our little family.

The animal shelter in Wenatchee is much like any other, I suspect. It’s a small, low, nice-looking building in a light industrial area on the outskirts of town, with a landscaped and fenced little paddock area along the side where they encourage you to take a dog out on a lead and “road test” him a bit. Those dogs that aren’t adopted within a couple weeks are destroyed. Makes sense, I guess. I heard or read somewhere a few years back that for every human born in the United States there are seventeen dogs and forty-two cats born. We went in and chatted with the gal at the desk, showed her Connie’s pictures off the internet, and she summoned up a young attendant to take us back to the kennels to check out the candidates.

The door from the reception lobby opened into a long, narrow hallway, institutional green with a linoleum tile floor, bright with garish fluorescent light. Doors opened off the right side to the five separate kennels. Opening that door was a signal of some kind, as immediately upon our venturing into the hallway, a horrendous din of barking erupted, echoing off the concrete block walls, so loud and relentless it made my ears ring. And the stench of animals and excrement assailed our nostrils. Sandy, the attendant, turned out to be a real sweetie; a high-school girl and a true dog lover, she worked there for nothing on Saturdays, and some weekday afternoons, just to be around the dogs. She looked at Connie’s pictures, nodded and smiled. She knew them all, and led us off to kennel 4 to meet the first contender, seemingly oblivious to the noise level that was already giving me a headache.

We took each of the five dogs Connie had singled out, individually, to the little fenced paddocky area, to just play and try them out on simple commands and general behavior, and try to get to know them a bit. Unfortunately, I think probably from being held in those dark noisy cages, most of them had a hard time settling down, and each as well turned out to have some failing of personality or habit, or be too big and clumsy, or shed too much. We went through Connie’s five candidates in a pretty short time, and they all flunked. Not that they were bad dogs, just that we didn’t click with them, didn’t get that little flash that makes you think “Yeah, this is my dog!”

Sandy was very understanding. “No hurry. Take your time,” she said. “I have all afternoon, and you do want to get a dog you feel right about.” She patiently showed us four others, including a pup about six months old that was so out of control we didn’t even bother to take him outside.

We were starting to get discouraged but decided to check one of the dogs we had seen before again. We ventured back into a noisy kennel and as Sandy started to open the cage, Connie noticed the dog in the next cage. A retriever-looking, German shepherd-cross with a bright, red-brown coat, was just standing there, wagging his tail, giving her a big, toothy, dog smile. All the other dogs were going nuts jumping and barking, and this guy just looking right at her wagging his tail, and giving her a big smile with a twinkle in his big brown eyes. Connie gave me a smile. “Let’s try this guy,” she said.

“Oh, yeah,” Sandy said, reclosing the gate to the other cage and coming over, smiling, “We all really like this guy, but for some reason he hasn’t caught on with folks. We should have destroyed him a couple of weeks back, but we just couldn’t do it. We knew someone would see him like we do. He’s neutered, and he’s had all his shots, of course.”

And he behaved instantly on leash, obeyed simple commands, and was quite happy to play with both of us in the little paddock. Almost love at first sight, slobbery face licking and all; and he seemed to have fallen for us, both of us. Just over two, he had proved to be too exuberant playing with the prior owner’s two small children, and he’d snapped at them when they sneaked up and startled him, or pulled his ears and such. It had become a potent issue between the parents, resolved by taking him to the pound. But toddlers are not in evidence at our place, and we have plenty of space for an exuberant dog to burn off excess energy. So we just put him in the back seat of our extended-cab pick-up, paid the nominal fee, and drove off home with our new family dog sitting proudly upright, smiling in the back seat. With that pretty reddish coat, his name just had to be Rusty.

And Rusty fit right in instantly. He adapted to our household routines with no problem, soon relaxing and showing growing affection for both Connie and me. He satisfied his territorial instincts rapidly and in short order had apparently worked out truces with neighbor dogs that had terrorized poor, frightened Babe for years. The two Aussie shepherds to the north stopped shitting in our yard altogether. We heard Rusty taking them to task out in the orchard one afternoon, and that was the end of that. Those dogs moved away, but have been replaced with others, who all seem to be on friendly terms with Rusty. He’s always the first to make the “Let’s play” bowing gesture, with his head down between his paws and his butt in the air, tail wagging, that signals the start of a rollicking chase game, all around the house and off in the orchards, that can keep them going for long afternoons. Then Rusty and a couple of his dog pals will lie around in the shade in the backyard and take a snooze.

We don’t worry about him home alone during the day as he’s made friends with all the neighbors as well as their dogs. But we noticed a few things about his behavior that made us wonder, like his refusal to go up or down stairs, and the difficulty he had at times getting up when he’d been sleeping on the floor. Then, we were startled to come home one evening after work to find him limping painfully and favoring his right rear leg. Thinking he must have sprained something I took him to the vet the next day.

It was a sprain, the Vet explained, but his manipulations of the leg gave him more concern, so he took an X-ray. Turns out Rusty has a congenital malformation of his right rear upper leg bone. Rather than the smooth knob fitting snuggly into the hip socket, Rusty has a small irregularly shaped lump that hardly fits at all, and, depending on the level and angle of force, can be easily sprained or even dislocated. He has, in addition, strained ligaments and broken cartilage in his left stifle, or knee. And the Vet was amazed. As he quietly talked with me and manipulated Rusty’s legs on the exam table, he said, “This guy is really something. What I’m doing to him now would put most dogs on the ceiling, and though he’s not liking it, he’s staying calm. I think, with this hip, and the old injury to the other leg joint, he’s probably been in pretty significant pain for years. He’s just learned to deal with it.”

“Boy, you sure wouldn’t know it,” I said, “He’s a pretty happy dog.”

The answers to Rusty’s orthopedic problems are expensive and chancy. Dogs don’t do well with hip and knee replacements. And Rusty has adapted so admirably and maintained his sunny disposition, we decided to hold off until something significant happens to force a decision.

Things seem to keep going just fine for ol’ Rusty. He’s my good fishing buddy and loves to ride with me in the pickup, sitting upright in the passenger seat and checking everything out. He sometimes goes to the office with me and snoozes beside my desk, and he now has a pretty fancy, padded, dog bed and sleeps there, on Connie’s side of the bed. Definitely the family dog. He hasn’t hurt himself again, though he continues to play hard with his dog friends. As he’s gotten older, he’s become quite clever in protecting himself. He races my truck up the driveway, using his rear legs like rabbits do, with both hind feet hitting the ground at the same time, and he’s gotten really good at putting his weight on his forelegs and throwing his rear one way or the other to change direction; all the time smiling that big dog smile and apparently having the time of his life, despite the pain that is always there.

And when I come home from work, tired from a stressful day, I see Rusty’s eyes, way down our little road, shining in the headlights, and he turns, tail high and wagging away, and escorts me the rest of the way home with his prancing, rabbity canter, then stands there, smiling that big toothy grin, ready to lead me to the door. It’s hard not to cheer up when you see your crippled dog, prancing and smiling and ignoring his pain just to let you know how much he likes you. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Gardner | Link to this Entry

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