Last night, at my book club, my friend said that she needed to talk to me about one of her dogs. She was having some “issues” and she wanted my advice. It’s strange. I have only had dogs for the last eleven years, so it’s not like I am some kind of expert. But in the same way that people at work ask me their computer questions as if I know so much more than I really do, people come to me for advice about their dogs. What is true, I think, is they sense how in love I am with dogs, and how much I want to help anyone I can take better care of them.
What is true is that I love dogs with my whole heart. I had always wanted one, a desire fueled first by the Benji movies of the mid-70s, and later by my aunt Rita’s dog Muffin, a Cockapoo who loved me every bit as much as I loved her. Even though my dad had grown up with dogs, my mom thought they were dirty and I suspect is a little afraid of them, (and honestly, I don’t blame any parent for saying no when a child asks for a pet, because you know that kids bore easily and don’t like work, so a pet as needy as a dog would most likely become Mom’s responsibility). We had a cat, multiple goldfish, and a hamster, but never a dog. But I wanted a dog as soon I could make that decision for myself, and so did my husband, Eric, and as soon as we had a house with a yard, we got a dog. I lost my mind and heart with that dog, and I have never been the same.
I have a preference for mixed-breed dogs: mutts, mongrels, tykes, curs, bitzers, (bits of this and bits of that). I also have a soft spot for bigger black dogs, mixes that are part herder and part guard. In the last eleven years, I’ve adopted three of them, all rescues. The first was Obi, a Rottweiler, German Shepherd, Husky mix. He and his littermates came from a shelter in rural Colorado where they’d been dumped. The first time I saw him, I leaned down by his pen at the rescue and a fat little black and tan puppy bounded over. I put my hand up against the wire and he started to lick my fingers. I pulled my hand back and stood up, and as I started to walk away, Obi hopped on his hind legs to try and follow. I was looking for a tough guard dog, but Obi’s life strategy was to make friends with everyone, human or animal. He grew up to be big enough and did have a big bark, and if he thought someone was trying to hurt me, he did guard me. He loved me with his whole heart.
When we first brought Obi home, it seemed like he had never been inside a house before. Walking him up to the front door, he froze on the front step and had to be carried inside. He wouldn’t eat unless we fed him by hand. Obi was a traumatized, anxiety driven, high energy puppy who never grew out of his fear of loud noises: fireworks, gunshots, wind and thunder, fans and hair dryers. Sometimes he got so scared and shook so hard that his teeth chattered. It was difficult for him to settle down or relax, and his efforts to cope with his anxiety himself were typically destructive and loud.
Obi had separation anxiety, which is why we adopted Dexter, so Obi wouldn’t have to be alone. I always told Dexter that he was Obi’s dog. Dexter is a German Shepherd, Cattle Dog mix who’d been abandoned at another rural Colorado shelter when he was just a baby. He was underweight, but otherwise healthy. He loved Obi as desperately as Obi loved me—the first time Dexter saw Obi, a big dog who was panting, whining, and shivering in fear (we had returned to the same shelter we’d rescued him from, and I’m convinced he remembered, worried we’d leave him there), Dexter ran right over to Obi, stood on his back legs, put his paws on Obi’s shoulder and started to kiss his face. As a guarding/herding mix, Dexter’s loyalty included his whole pack, so it worked out for all of us.
But nothing lasts and all good things must end. When Obi was almost eight years old, we lost him to lymphoma, a canine cancer that is treatable but ultimately not curable. As I was caring for him and saying good-bye in those last months, even as my heart was breaking I knew I’d rescue another dog once Dexter, Eric and I were ready. When we finally did, we were still sad, but Dexter had started to bark again and I had actually laughed a few times. Even though what we really wanted was our Obi back, we found another puppy to bring home.
Sam was a black eleven week old Lab, Border Collie, German Shepherd mix who was named Jerry when we first met him. He and his brother had been found roaming a small, rural town in Wyoming. Neither one had a collar and no one had claimed them. The day we went to meet Sam for the first time, I told Dexter if he didn’t like him immediately, we’d keep looking, but as soon as they saw each other, they touched noses and both their tails wagged.
Sam has grown up to be a big, goofy dog, but is incredibly smart as well. He helped heal our broken hearts. I wish I still had all three of my dogs: Obi, Dexter, and Sam, but I’m grateful for all the love and life they have brought to me, even when I had to let go. The thing is, when you rescue a dog, they usually end up rescuing you back.
P.S. Since first posting this page, things have changed. Dexter has been diagnosed with an incurable, ultimately fatal nasal tumor. Right now, he is happily enjoying his life with us, but our time left together will be short. Our Sam will once again have to step into the role of grief counselor, but for now, we are enjoying every moment we have left together.