Wednesday, December 2, 2009

For the Love of Dog

Okay, so last week I told you that I put the Yule tree up a little bit earlier than usual. Here's why.

Her name is Lillie. She's four months old, give or take a couple of weeks. She weighs all of 2 pounds.

What? Her leg? I hadn't noticed. She looks fine to me.

You're not going to let it go, are you? All right, but you asked for it.

She had to have it removed. Why? Well, see, the people who originally had her (aka the Colossal Jackholes Who Should Be Thrown Off a Mountaintop into a Sea of Broken Glass) thought it was perfectly fine to leave a very tiny puppy with their kids. And the kids thought it was perfectly fine to put the puppy in a blanket, swing her around really fast, and let go.

In case you were wondering, a very small dog flying at high speed and hitting a wall does not end well. Lillie's leg was shattered. The Colossal Jackholes then took her to the pound and said they wanted her put down because they didn't want a damaged dog.

I know. Just breathe for a few minutes. It will help. A little.

Fortunately for Lillie, the folks at the shelter were not colossal jackholes and called A Leg Up Rescue to see if they could help the broken puppy. They said of course, and before you know it Lillie was in surgery and came out a tripawed.

We weren't intending to get another dog. As some of you know, we had five of them until the death of our oldest, Sam, in September. This is Sammy. He was a good boy. We adopted him in 2005, when he was 10 and had been dumped at a shelter because he barked too much.

Sam died from what was most likely a brain tumor. Until two days before his death he hadn't had a single health problem, which is rare for a lab. Then one night he had a seizure. For two days we tried various things to control his seizing, but it got worse and worse. At two in the morning of the third day I knew it was time.

Anyone who still believes in God has never held a dying dog in their arms. Sam's last night he was having seizures about every half an hour. Although seizures aren't painful, they are scary, and Sam was howling because he didn't know what was happening to him. He kept trying to crawl into my lap. All I could do was hold him and tell him what a good boy he was.

As far as I'm concerned, any god that would allow that to happen isn't worth having.

Now that we were down to four dogs, Patrick said no more. And he was right about that. Five dogs is a lot, even if two of them are small and a third is smallish.

Then I saw Lillie. I was flipping through the channels one night and a local news station was holding their weekly adopt-a-pet segment. And there she was. I caught only the last fifteen seconds or so of her appearance, but I couldn't stop thinking about her. The next day I went to the A Leg Up Rescue site and read her story.

"Isn't that sad?" I said to Patrick.

"No more dogs," he said.

I waited an hour or two before filling out the online application. She's probably already adopted, I told myself.

The next morning I received a reply. Lillie was available. Also, the ALUR rep told me, we sounded like a great home for her.

"We're going to meet Lillie," I told Patrick that night.

"No more dogs," Patrick said.

The next day we made the hour trip to Lillie's foster home. That's where the picture of her sitting on my lap was taken.

"She's really sweet," I told Patrick on the ride home.

"No more dogs," Patrick said.

"We'll need to get a bed for her," I said. "And some little bowls."

On Friday I drove to Lillie's foster mother's and brought her home. That's why the tree went up early. I wanted it up before she got here, so she wouldn't be freaked out by the boxes and whatnot. Particularly the whatnot.

Not that she would have been. She's the calmest puppy I've ever met. Nothing fazes her. Not waking up with three legs. Not meeting three big brothers and a big sister. Not being in her third home in four months.

She loves to run around the backyard. She likes chasing balls. She chews sticks like a champ.

A vet friend once said to me that because dogs live in the moment, the way life is right now is more or less how they think it's always been. That's what allows them to bounce back from some really horrible situations. I hope Lillie doesn't remember flying through the air, or how her leg hurt, or what it felt like when her people left her alone in a strange place. I hope she thinks she's always been safe and loved and happy.

Obviously dogs don't forget everything, which accounts for lingering fears about, say, people who speak loudly or the sound of fireworks. But they're good at letting go. People should be more like this. Maybe then some of us would stop saying stuff like, "You don't understand, my parents were really mean to me" and "I'm bad at relationships because twenty years ago my boyfriend slept with my best friend while I was in the hospital having my appendix out."

Our dog Andy, who came to live with us in 2003 at the age of four or five, used to be terrified of Chinese men. Our neighborhood has a large Chinese population, and whenever we took Andy for walks he would shy away from Chinese men even if they showed no interest in him. He loved Chinese women, though, and would run up to them wagging his tail. And he wasn't afraid of any other men.

I don't know why. I don't know what his life was like before he came to us. I do know he was hit by a car and left at a high-kill shelter. He was rescued by a volunteer from Pets Unlimited, where Patrick found him when I was away one weekend and he stopped by "just to see who was there."

This is Andrew when we first met him. He wasn't ready to leave the hospital yet, as he was still recovering from surgery, so we brought him that cow toy and played with him there.

Once we brought him home, he almost didn't stay. He quickly displayed some decidedly unpleasant behaviors, including turning into a whirling dervish of teeth when he was told "no" or when we tried to take something from him. At the time we had only one other dog (more on him in a bit) and he had never given us a moment of trouble. We seriously considered returning Andy. I know that sounds harsh, but he was really awful.

Then he got sick. One morning about a week after he arrived we woke up and he was clearly not a happy camper. He crawled into my lap and just sat there while I rubbed his ears. And that's when I knew I could never let him go. Defects and all, he was here to stay. It turned out that he had a throat infection, and I still say he did it deliberately because he knew he was on thin ice. He's clever like that.

This is Andy now. He's still a monster (my friend Brendon calls him Mad Andy) but he's mellowed a little bit. And we wouldn't trade him for anything.

One of the reasons why Patrick was reluctant to get another rescue dog now is that they don't always stay around for very long. As I mentioned, we had four years (almost to the day) with Sammy. But before him there was Spike.

Spike was another surprise. One day I was looking at the site of Rocket Dog Rescue, which is a San Francisco group run by a former homeless woman whose only motivation to keep living was her dog. She told herself that she would get off the streets and start an organization to help dogs, and that's what she did. She's an interesting lady. Make sure you read her story when you visit the site.

Anyway, I was looking at the site and happened to click on a link for Spike. Here's what I saw.

He looks like a pup, right? He was 15. A woman who rescues birds got a call from a shelter to come get one. On her way to the bird room she saw this little black pile in the corner. It was Spike. When she called to him he wouldn't even lift his head. She thought he was dead. The staff didn't know anything about him and didn't seem to really care. As far as they were concerned, his time had run out.

This woman doesn't even like dogs all that much, but Spike broke her heart. She took him home not knowing what she was going to do with him. He was in bad shape and needed a lot of work done, but something told her that Spike was special and that it would all work out.

It did. Some friends offered to foster him. Other friends donated money to pay for his health care (his teeth were rotted and almost all had to come out, he had skin problems, he farted constantly). He was so bloated when he came to us that we nicknamed him The Football.

Spike was like one of those old people who figure they have nothing to lose and they're damn well going to wear plaid with stripes if they feel like it. If he wanted to sit on the couch and one of the other dogs was already there, he pushed them off. If he wanted more food, he muscled his way into someone else's bowl. Every time he pooped he did this strange little dance afterward. He was his own dog and he didn't give a rat's ass what you thought of him.

He was with us for only seven months. Like Sam would later do, he started having seizures. He slept in our bed, in a nest of blankets right next to my head, so that I would wake up when he seized. But he was a fighter, and he always bounced right back as stubborn as ever.

Then one night I woke up and he was licking my face. It was a surprisingly gentle act, and I remember feeling like he was comforting me. After a few minutes he curled up and went to sleep. The next morning he was scheduled to go to the vet for some more tests to see if we could pinpoint the cause of his seizures. Five minutes before we were supposed to leave he had a heart attack. He died in my arms. Personally, I think this was his way of saying "Bite me!" to death. As always, he was going to go out his way.

Because he was here for such a short time I have only two pictures of Spike. However, my friend Sarah Higdon painted his portrait. It perfectly captures everything I loved about Spike, and every time I look at it I remember how much joy he brought us.

That's the thing. People often ask how we can take in older dogs, or dogs with health issues. "Isn't it sad when they die?" they ask.

Of course it is. But even if they're only here for four years, as Sam was, or seven months, as Spike was, they give you enough love and memories in that time to last forever. And you've given them the chance to live out their lives in a safe, happy place.

That's totally worth it.

I've had two dogs who were with me from birth. One of them, George, is still here. He's only four, so hopefully he'll be around for a long time. He came from a friend whose Chihuahua got knocked up. He was born, fittingly, on Cinco de Mayo. That's his baby picture on the left. Look like someone else you know? A bunch of stick chewers, those Chihuahuas. Or maybe they're waiting for a pinata.

Before George I never really liked little dogs. I mean I liked them when they belonged to other people, but I never wanted one. I thought they were yappy. Especially Chihuahuas. Now I know better. Chihuahuas are big dogs in tiny bodies. They bark because they have Important News that humans are too stupid to understand. If we ever manage to figure it out we'll have the answers to all the mysteries of the universe.

When George came home he was so small you could hold him on the palm of one hand. We were terrified that we were going to break him, and for the first year or two I wouldn't let him in the backyard alone because I was afraid a hawk would make off with him. Even though he's now only the third-youngest in the house, we still call him The Baby.

The other dog I was fortunate enough to have a lifetime with was Roger. He was my first dog. I got him in 1993, when I lived in New York. He was in the window of a horrible little pet store I passed by every day, and I watched him for weeks as he got bigger and bigger and more and more unhappy. Every time I saw him I told myself there was no way I could have such a big dog in a New York apartment.

Then, on the Fourth of July, I walked by and there were kids banging on the window and laughing at the frightened puppy. I couldn't stand it. I walked in and took him home. This is what we looked like.

Roger was the dog love of my life. We lived together in six homes in three states. I spent the last half of my 20's and most of my 30's with him. We went through a lot together, and I spoke of him so often that one editor I worked with later told me that for years she thought that the Roger I talked about was my partner.

Roger's last year was not easy. He developed cancer. Then he was bitten by a brown recluse spider and his face swelled up and had to be drained three times a day. The skin in the bite area became necrotic and sloughed off, leaving half of his face bare. We called him Labrador of the Opera. Through it all he never once complained, always meeting his vet with a wag of his tail.

One night in early August Roger woke me up in the middle of the night. I thought he had to pee, so I took him into the backyard. But he didn't have to go. He just wanted to sit and smell the night air for a while. He and I had an agreement that he would let me know when he was too tired to go on. I knew then that he was ready. We came inside, I fed him pieces of steak, and then I slept beside him for the rest of the night, just like we used to do before Patrick came into our lives. In the morning we drove to the vet and I rubbed his ears as we sent him on his way.

For years I thought that when Roger died I would fall apart. I didn't, although I missed him terribly and still do. I did swear that I would never get another lab. Somehow it seemed disrespectful. But less than a month after Roger's death I stumbled upon this picture. The next day Patrick and I drove to a shelter in Sacramento and brought Sammy home.

There are two other dogs in our family--Honey and Teddy. They came to us the same week in May of 2007, both from friends who realized that they weren't able to give them the care they needed and deserved. Honey is a Border Collie/Aussie Shepherd mix and Teddy is a shiba inu.

I remember that week well. At the time we had three dogs--Andy, George, and Sam. Spike had died six months before, and after the stress of his illness we had decided to stick with three dogs. Then Patrick got a call asking if we would take Honey. We talked it over and decided we had room for one more dog.

A day or two later one of my friends called and asked if we would take Teddy. I said yes, but I knew Patrick was going to be hesitant. For one thing, we were about to have a fourth dog. For another, Teddy was a puppy. Puppies are a lot of work.

But I had a plan. I had my friend bring Teddy over one afternoon just before Patrick came home from work. He met Teddy and remarked on how adorable and well-behaved he was.

"Happy birthday!" I said. "How do you like your present?"

Teddy was a nightmare during his puppy period, but both he and Honey are wonderful dogs with great personalities and hearts as big as the sky. Teddy is a little put out now that Lillie is here, but I'm betting he'll get over it soon enough. And Honey loves having another girl in the house.

So now we're back where we started. While looking up dates for this entry I realized that Lillie came home three years to the day after Spike's death. I can't help but wonder if he engineered it. It would be just like him. "Ha ha!" I can hear him say. "They think they can get away with only four dogs? Let's see them say no to a three-legger."

That seems to be how it always happens. We think the house is full up. We say things like, "It's nice being able to walk all the dogs at once" and "Wow, the bedroom feels a lot bigger with one less dog bed in it."

But we know we're just fooling ourselves.

Each of our dogs has come to us unexpectedly. It's as if the universe knows when there's just enough room in our house and hearts for another one. Although Patrick has started up with the "no more dogs" mantra again, I know if the right dog needs a forever home he or she will find their way to our door.

A friend who does not have animals said to me once, "You can't save them all, you know." I do know. But if I can save one, or two, or seven, then I've done something. That's how things change, one step at a time, one changed mind at a time, one saved dog at a time.

So welcome home, Lillie. We're happy you found us.


Bear Me Out said...

I share a house with two guys and their six (rescue) cats. I miss my dog (of whom I did not get custody in the divorce).

You go, bro.

Arlene said...

Your entry brought tears to my eyes.

I have a dog and a cat myself, both rescues. My dog was essentially a junkyard dog, living chained up outdoors, in all elements, with birds, cats and stray dogs stealing his food (when he was actually fed). My husband worked for the bodyshop next to the junkyard, and when he heard the junkyard was closing, he went to the owner and asked if he could have the dog. The owner replied something along the lines of "he's like one of my children." (Someone help his kids, quick!). He said no. When he heard they were going to end up sending the dog to animal control...well, okay, I admit it, we broke the law. We stole the dog.

That was over 2 years ago, and Cleigh has become such an amazing dog, no one can believe his origin. He is playful and loving, and thinks he's a lapdog (he's an 85 lb. rott/shepherd mix).

Our kitten was rescued from an apartment complex where he and his borthers and sisters were runnning in the streets, getting picked off by cars, one at a time. He's about 3 months now. His name is Cazanova, and he bosses the dog around.

Sorry to bore you -- it is just so wonderful to encounter another animal lover.

I did read one of your books, for the record! Just finished "Jane Bites Back." I loved it!! I look forward to a sequel (hope there is one!).

Thanks for letting me share!
Arlene Allen

David said...

What a great entry! I am a dog lover/owner myself. Dog people are the best.

Walt said...

I love this post, it brought tears to my eyes, while all 3 of my dogs (2 rescues) laid on the couch with me, THANK YOU for sharing!

Michael said...

You are full of win.

Queer of Steel® said...

You know, this is how local heroes start out. I'm honored to know a dude who gives as much of a damn as you do.


Ultra Dave said...

Wow. I'm speechless.

Politicalmark said...

Fantastic post. That little dog won the doggy lottery.