It went sideways when the dog lunged forward to lick the cat. Charlie ricocheted off the loveseat, bounded into the kitchen, and somehow wedged himself between the glass and the blinds at the top of the window. When Moose followed, the cat lost his purchase and fell into his water bowl, bounced onto the breakfast table, ponged to the top of the freezer and ended up frozen on top of the cabinets above the kitchen sink, back arched in a long, low growl.
I’m pretty sure Dogoberto Diego de la Cruz, aka “Moose,” just wanted to play. I’m pretty sure he thinks he’s still a 5-pound puppy. But, he’s a big, boisterous, youngster and there’s plenty of room for misapprehension. The cats may harbor some latent feelings, so we’re going to be slow and deliberate as we reintroduce them this week.
The Good Brown Dog
I always said my last dog, the Good Brown Dog, would retrieve until his heart burst. It finally happened last year, more than a decade after he came to live with me as a just-weaned puppy born to my brother’s field champion bloodline female. On a Monday afternoon late last March, he fetched for as long as I would throw; Tuesday morning, by the time I was unpacking my bags at work, he couldn’t walk. My wife carried him to her car and to the vet, who said it was final-stage congestive heart failure. Tumors we had not known about had burst, filling Hank’s body with fluid, squeezing his lungs and his big, loving heart like an angry fist.
I had just arrived at the boat in Corpus Christi when Carrie called. The doc said she could drain the fluid, but it would fill right back up. Without continuous intervention, Hank wouldn’t last the four hours it would take me to get home. Already knowing there was only one right answer, my wife tearfully asked what I wanted her to do. She stroked Hank’s head and told him how much we loved him, what a good boy he still was, as he slipped peacefully away. I wasn’t there, but, immediately, I felt the emptiness, the Hank-shaped hole in my heart.
I’m a late bloomer, and Hank “grew up” with me; his companionship spanned singleton, drunken late nights at music venues through my two youngest boys’ elementary years and the completion of a book. He was always ready to “load up,” even for a quick trip to the store. He was my companion on hikes and wades and in the boat. His best four-legged buddy was a fluffy orange tom cat from Rockport. That sweet boy’s big voice kept my family safe when I was away.
I’ll go ahead and write the cliché: that dog was my best friend. In my darkest days, before I remarried, he was sometimes my only friend. Every time I walked through the door after a hitch on the boat, he would be waiting, alerted by the sound of the Jeep or my tread on the sidewalk. He’d be bouncing, even as a slightly arthritic 10-year-old. You’d think it was Christmas and his birthday and the Fourth of July all rolled into one. Every single time.
I’ve missed that. I’ve missed that dog.
Someone once said that, if you’re lucky, you get one good dog in your life. It may even be true, but it won’t stop me from hoping that sometimes a fellow can be lucky twice, or at least get better than he deserves.
John Graves, in Blue & Some Other Dogs, wrote about what his one good dog meant to him, and how he felt when, as always happens until that last dog, he lost him:
And dogs are nothing but dogs and I know it better than most …. Nor was there anything humanly unique about the loss, or about the emptiness that came in the searching’s wake, which comes sooner or later to all people foolish enough to give an animal space in their lives. But if you are built to be such a fool, you are, and if the animal is to you what Blue was to me the space he leaves empty is big.
In time, Graves wrote, that space was partly filled by a new puppy. A different dog, a different personality, but one in which Graves could see glimpses of Blue.
I expect such intimate remembrance will last a good long while, for I waited the better part of a lifetime to own a decent dog, and finally had him, and now I don’t have him any more. And I resolve that when this new one is grown and more or less shaped in his ways, I am going to get another pup to raise beside him, and later maybe a third. Because I don’t believe I want to have to face so big a dose of that sort of emptiness again.
The First Attempt
Hank was such a particular dog, it was hard to know how to find a successor. After a few months, I finally admitted I wouldn’t mind. Carrie and the boys headed down to the shelter and picked-out a rescue pup that had received a rough start in life and needed a family. The dog had four legs and a tail, but otherwise was as much unlike Hank as one medium-sized canine can be from another. That was, I thought for about an hour, a good thing.
A classic “Velcro” dog, Bandit glommed on to Carrie and was her constant shadow. His affection soon tipped into jealousy and over-protectiveness. When one of the boys rushed over to hug their mom, the dog jumped between them, teeth bared.
The shelter told us that Bandit might show aggression toward other animals; one day we decided to test that on a short leash. In an afternoon of South Congress ambling and bat watching, the dog was a perfect gentleman. He was interested in other dogs, but it was clear he bore them no ill will. Likewise, he was largely indifferent to the horde of strangers brushing by or reaching down to pet him.
Bandit’s sad story was written in his triggers: men in hats, men approaching women, boys approaching women, men carrying anything (including fly rods). We never knew if those things would cause him to run and hide, growling defensively, or if he’d charge. It was easy enough to guess that maybe he’d lived, once, in a home where violence or abuse was frequent. Or maybe it was his pit bull genes making an appearance, but really I think it was the former. It wasn’t the dog’s fault. It almost never is.
After grabbing our youngest boy’s head in his jaws as a “get away from mom” warning, and breaking the skin on middle son’s calf when he moved just a little too fast, we were done. Six weeks of patient training and waning optimism hadn’t fixed several years of abuse. I penned a two-page chronology of the behaviors we had observed (leaving out the incident that drew blood), the obvious triggers, and what we had done to attempt to make the dog part of our family. Bandit, I wrote, would be a fantastic one-woman dog, but he shouldn’t go home to a family with kids.
More months passed. The boys each adopted a kitten from the shelter. While I was at work one week early this year, Carrie and the kids decided that maybe we should start thinking about a dog again. I chimed in via email, forwarding Craigslist postings of young, rescued labs in dark and golden hues, silver labs from reputable breeders, and a smattering of blue heelers and Aussies just to mix things up. But, really, it was always going to be another Labrador retriever.
Just Let the Dog Find You
Two Sundays ago, after a fishless but fine morning looking for carp on the North San Gabriel River, I checked my Facebook feed and saw a post from my buddy Ryan. A skinny, blockheaded black lab stood in clear, ankle-deep water next to his wading boot, looking up at the camera with soulful, brown eyes. Ryan described the dog appearing next to him, and then staying glued to his hip while he hiked and waded the river bed. When he got back to his truck, the pup was ready to go, too.
Ryan spent the next few hours canvassing nearby houses. He posted on every neighborhood message board he could find. Someone wrote to tell him that two female black labs that looked almost identical had been rescued from the same area and taken to the local shelter a few weeks earlier. Someone else wondered if that was maybe the dog they saw get hit by a car.
He took the dog in to the vet and had him checked-out: no heartworms, no parasites of any kind, bones intact, hips great, just a little malnourished. The doc estimated the lab’s age as 14 months, and verified his weight at 77 pounds. Ryan sprang for a full suite of vaccinations, and called his wife: “Honey, you know how I’m always saying I’m going to come home with another lab ….”
As I watched the drama unfold on social media, I kept returning to that first picture, taken at the exact spot I fished the next morning, before I saw Ryan’s post. There was just something about that dog standing in the river next to my buddy. Something about the look in those eyes. I immediately thought of a Greg Brown song.
I waited. I thought for sure that Ryan was going to keep the dog, which was getting along famously with the family’s chocolate lab (also named Hank – one of the congruences that sparked a friendship several years ago). The dog slept sprawled across Ryan’s head and chest the first night in the house. He learned “sit” in a day. He was, Ryan told me, “a total sweetheart.” What I didn’t know was that the pair of elderly dogs in the house, also rescues, weren’t interested in adding to their pack. Ryan posted that the couple who helped him search for the dog’s owner were coming to take a look.
Damnit. I missed my chance, I thought. Still, I tapped out a message: “If it doesn’t work out with the other folks and y’all haven’t grown too attached, let me know. The boys are ready. Carrie’s ready. I’m finally ready for another dog.”
We met Moose on a Wednesday evening in January at Ryan’s house. The dog greeted all three of us with hugs and kisses. He wrestled with the boys. He crawled onto my lap. He demonstrated his rapidly developing ball fetching skills. He came home with us.
From the back seat of the Jeep, I could hear 7-year-old Aidan’s muffled cries: “Why do I get the butt? Why does Conor get the head?! IT’S NOT FAIR!” He’s a big dog. He’s a long, tall dog. He is, I’m pretty sure already, a good dog.
In Greg Brown’s spoken-word song, “Eugene,” about wandering and fly fishing and music and friends and gunpowder tea and brook trout and bass and why we shouldn’t, any of us, give up in an increasingly screwed-up world these words resonate: “A dog is bound to find you, sooner or later … sometimes you gotta not look too hard, just let the dog find you.”
Yeah, man. Either that, or be lucky enough to have a big-hearted friend who will stand proxy for a week or two.