They come from a lesser kingdom
By Ann Chiappetta
For me, the mystical and curious bond shared among humans and canines began with Charlie Brown, an Airedale we adopted from a local animal shelter when I was five years old. True to his namesake, he was a contradiction; wheaten fur shared real estate with shorter, wiry guard hair, giving him the appearance of fighting with an electric shaver. His ears were upright yet folded over slightly at the tips, like a Collie. He was affectionate, prone to roaming, and would do just about anything for food. But what enthralled me the most about Charlie Brown was his eyes. He had deep, luminous brown eyes that looked directly into mine. We often had staring contest that lasted minutes. At those times I felt special, like he trusted me enough to allow me into his thoughts. Little did I know that I wouldn’t find another canine who allowed me into those luminous brown depths until I met Rocki twenty years later.
* * *
We stood in the kitchen, sorting through the day, when Jerry put up his hand,
“Oh, I almost forgot—remember you wanted me to ask around about puppies?” I nodded, mentally crossing my fingers that someone at the airport had puppies to give away. It was a year since blackie had died and our youngest was old enough to appreciate a dog.
“One of the other inspectors came up to us and asked if anyone we knew wanted a puppy.”
He opened his shirt pocket and drew out a Polaroid snapshot. Before I could say anything else, I fell in love with the only pup looking up at the camera, his eyes blue-hued from the flash; a boxer-like mask covered his eyes and snout. His mostly brown sugar coloring was accented by white in the best possible places, like on his chest, neck, feet, and the tip of his tail.
“I want this one, the one looking up at the camera.”
Three weeks later we met Sue & Bob in the parking lot of our apartment complex. They set up the portable, octagon shaped baby-fence depositing the eight pups two at a time. I had to restrain the urge to hop over the fence and sit down and play with them. I saw the pup I fell for and asked about him. Sue had named him Rocky. I bent over the gate and made smooching noises. He perked up, trotted over and licked my hand. I scooped him up and he proceeded to wash my face with his soft, warm tongue. I nuzzled him, smelled his sweet puppy breath and said, “I’ll take him.”
Jerry asked Sue to point out the biggest pup and held him. The pup didn’t look happy and grunted in displeasure. He was white with black ears and mask, his huge round feet and big black nose were oddly alarming to me but I thought then that it was just because Jerry didn’t like my pup. Oh-oh, I thought, he doesn’t like the one I do. My mind raced, anticipating a stand-off. So there we stood, each with our pup, neither one willing to give in. Moments ticked by until I noticed that Sue & bob were beginning to fidget. WE looked at each other,
“Well?” I prompted, “You want that one and I want this one. Can we handle two?”
Jerry stiffened, “Two? It’s a lot of work.”
I sighed, looked once more at the other pups, and made my decision.
“If you are willing to pay their expenses, with no griping, I’m willing to do the work.”
I knew Jerry would be silently calculating how much he would have to spend in order to get his way and if it was worth the overtime and personal sacrifice. We both knew pet care was just as expensive as the health care for humans, at least in our area. But we did have one thing in common; we were both ready to welcome another dog or two into our home. Blackie’s death was especially hard on jerry and I could almost feel him hesitating.
Rocky snoozed in my arms. Gunny snoozed in Jerry’s. Our eyes met and we both shrugged,
“We’ll take both. “ He said.
We named them Rocky Balboa and Gunny Highway. During the next year, Jerry and I often told each other that we were nuts for adopting two puppies. It was usually when we were mucking up urine and feces or painting baseboards and such with bitter apple to discourage chewing. Then we would watch them play and sleep together, and we’d relent.
We did what all dog parents did; try not to get mad when Gunny chewed Jerry’s prized pair of leather boat shoes or when Gunny ate the handles off the wood cabinet. We tried to stay patient when Rocky repeatedly dribbled on Jerry’s boots every time Jerry bent over to pet him. I remember our conversation about Rocky, who had somehow become the smarter of the two. Gunny had become the challenged one, the one we felt sorry for when he resorted to the less appealing behaviors, like being afraid of loud noises, skittering supermarket bags, and leaf-blowers. Rocky, however, soon became the Golden Child, the one for whom we invested our time and emotions. Due to this, when he would submit by urinating on Jerry’s work shoes, we understandably became upset.
I don’t remember exactly when we started referring to them as “the boys” but I do recall correcting them when we went for walks. For instance, whenever they would begin to pull me in opposite directions, I’d snap the leads and chide, “Together, boys.” Hearing this, they would come together, bumping shoulders as if to get back into a better rhythm. I couldn’t help feeling like a Teamster training two miniature horses.
By their first birthday, Gunny outweighed Rocky by twenty pounds. In fact, they did not look anything like littermates. Rocky was a striking 65lb. Sheppard/boxer mix, his brown sugar and white coat neat, soft, and clean. Gunny was a shaggy white 85 lb. giant with too-small ears that flopped when he walked. His paddle like feet, deep chest, curled tail, and huge nose put him more in the sheepdog category. We called him a throwback. The few large spots which came out much later reminded me of an appaloosa’ even the hair texture was different compared to his thick, harsh white coat. In short, Gunny was a shaggy oddball, ungainly and awkward in spite of his striking white and black coloring.
The main difference, however, was in temperament; Rocky was as sweet as his brown sugar hued coat and Gunny was as contrary as his uneven and shaggy, smooth in one spot and harsh in another fur. Rocky kindly tolerated our three year hold’s precociousness by leaving the room when she became overwhelming. Gunny just wasn’t as tolerant and if my toddler got too rough, he would get up and shake her off, grumbling. Generally, though, both dogs were gentle and got along with other people and dogs.
In the fall of their sixth year, Gunny became seriously ill and we found out that he’d been suffering from chronic hypothyroidism. We began medication and a few weeks afterward, he seemed to improve. His chronic ear infections cleared, his coat came back in full, and he lost the weight he’d gained. Then, about six months after we began his treatment, he snapped at my neighbor, someone whom he’d known since he was a pup. Then he began to go after my son. We were mystified; he’d always been such a sweet dog, not at all prone to viciousness. Our vet suggested some tests which all came back inconclusive. One of our vets suggested to do some research on thyroid levels and aggression in dogs. I found a study that suggested some dogs become aggressive with the onset and treatment of thyroid disease. The study stated there was no cure for this form of aggressiveness and the best thing was to euthanize the animal. Gunny was one of the ten percent of dogs who had this reaction to the imbalance and subsequent medication. Once on the medication, Synthroid, his physical health improved but his mental health deteriorated. Once he snapped at me and bit my daughter, I told my husband we had to put him down.
Our vet did her best to find someone who could deal with him and perhaps allow him to live out his life in quiet seclusion but no such person came to his rescue. I stayed with him on that last day, feeling helpless yet relieved to know that death was a release from the torture of losing his mind. This decision came after months of tests, soul-searching, and hoping he’d recover enough to be able to live with us without our family living in fear.
The day before I called the vet to say that we’d pulled out the stops to no avail, I brought Gunny back to our family one more time. He had been in a kennel since attacking my daughter and I wanted them to say goodbye to him. I didn’t want my children to feel responsible for what we were being forced to do. He spent only five minutes with us, then, to our pain and disappointment, growled and began to become aggressive. I left our apartment, tears blinding my eyes. That was it, I thought, he was going to be put to sleep tomorrow.
As the vet comforted me, she reassured me that I was doing the right thing, that if he could tell me he’d say that he wouldn’t want to live in a crate, heavily medicated and no one trusting him. At that moment I flashed back to my initial hesitation in taking him in, and wondered if my intuition was trying to warm me that this day would come. Part of me wished I’d told my husband that I didn’t want two dogs, that all I wanted was one. I stroked his body one last time and kissed his head.
“I’ll miss you, gunny.” I whispered.
As I unclipped his collar and walked out of the exam room, I felt empty and defeated.
For months after his brother was gone, Rocki would stop and look up and down the street as if looking for something. I didn’t think much of it until one day he stopped doing it. That was when I figured out that he was looking for Gunny. I cried that night, not knowing if I’d ever get over losing gunny. ***
I’d just come out of class, my fear stuck in my throat. I hadn’t yet gotten the call from Jerry reporting how Rocki was after surgery. I said a prayer and made the call.
“Hello?” Jerry sobbed into his end of the phone.
“Oh God.” I replied, ‘its cancer isn’t it?”
“It’s bad, honey. Call the vet, she’ll tell you everything.”
For the second time in as many years I had to say good-bye to my pet. Rocki had inoperable stomach cancer and would not live more than three to six months. We made him as comfortable as we could, and put him down on January 10, 2006. Jerry and I mourned for months. He was only seven years old, in his prime, well-trained and an asset to our family. He was the only other dog besides Charlie Brown who let me look into those mesmerizing brown depths, even when he knew he was dying. He helped us heal from losing gunny, surprising us with intelligence and good sense when we least expected it.
I cried over him for a long time that day, sitting beside his inert, cancer ravaged body, and prayed that if we ever took another chance on a dog, that he/she would live a long time.
* * *
There are. Of course, innumerable accounts of how dogs changed the lives of individuals and families. A full history of the dogs who’ve come and gone in my life thus far exceeds single digits. Some of these dogs belonged to others. Some, like rocky and gunny, were rescues, but all were worthy of my time and kindness. Each and every one imparted a unique piece of canine spirit, teaching me how to be a better person
Jerry and I stood in our vet’s office, looking at a shaggy, black RESCUE dog named Sam. WE agreed that he just wasn’t for us, his trauma apparent in his fear and nervous shaking. The vet teck looked thoughtful, then grinned,
“I think I know the right dog for you.” She turned to the other tech, “Why don’t you bring out Neeka?”
She came skittering out on her lead, flopped down belly-up in front of Jerry, her tail wagging. He was smitten. Then, as if she knew exactly what I wanted, she came to me, stood on her hind legs, and said hello. Her warm tongue washing my face. I looked into her eyes and felt the mystical connection surge between us. Her expression seemed to say, “What took you so long?”