A Dog Story – and a Plea

Say “Hello” to Roscoe. He is the latest addition to our canine family, aka the Perkins Pack.

Roscoe is an Australian Shepherd, which is, despite the name, an American breed and a relatively young one at that. He is our sixth dog. By some standards, including my own to some degree, that makes us ‘those crazy dog people’. But crazy is always relative. When I went to pick him up in Idaho, I was surrounded by people who consider owners of a mere six-pack of dogs to be lightweights.

To understand how he came into our home, I need to rewind a few steps. Okay, a lot of steps… I grew up in the rural South. Our style of dog ownership was entirely different from my current methods. Our dogs – and we always had a few hanging around – lived outside. They sheltered in the garage and waited anxiously for us to come out the door. There were a few exceptions to the rule. Barney the Basset would accept no less than a certain green pillow on the horrid 70’s lime green sofa that my mother desperately wanted to remain dog-free. He also demanded baloney and cheese sandwiches on a regular basis, thanks to my uncle’s upbringing. If something meaty and delicious was left unattended, Barney was fully willing to show how well Basset Hounds can actually maneuver when food was at stake. He was the beginning of a long chain of beloved cartoon Bassets. But for the most part, our dogs lived outside and remained largely separate from the family.

In Normandy, TN, dogs roamed free. (Normandy is an old whistle stop town about five miles from the setting of Renewal’s Teeny Town) Every spring, we had the potential of losing a dog to theft. One of the men who ran the local bait store would round up any dogs he could find and take them to the dog auctions in Alabama. It took years for us to discover this fact. Those dogs had a fair chance of ending up as lab animals, or possibly worse. In one case, we lost a Beagle name Nipper. He had a distinctive crooked tail. My brother had a special bond with Nipper, and I remember how sad he was when the dog disappeared. Months later, we spotted that dog on a PBS show about hunting dogs. We called the owner and he offered to give the dog back. My parents declined his offer because Nipper had ended up in a good place where he could hunt just as he was bred to do. This incident gave us the clues we needed to unravel the mystery of our disappearing dogs. Eventually, the man doing the dog stealing was punished.

Through all of this, I was largely indifferent. I liked the dogs fine, but I didn’t really care about them. My sister was more of a cat person. Dogs were too dirty for her. My brother, on the other hand, was a born dog lover. He found the bonds early and often. I was in the middle, appropriate for a middle child I suppose. Some of them I loved and some of them just annoyed the crap out of me.

That all changed when Henry came along. He is still my model for the perfect dog. He was a big yellow Lab, always calm, always friendly, and always ready to lend a paw. By big, I mean BIG. In his prime he was 195 pounds with no fat on him. Patting his head was like palming a volleyball. He won me over slowly, but by the time he had developed his ability to understand every word we said, I was hooked. He handled everything with skill and grace. Like most of our dogs, he had no real training, but it didn’t matter. He understood what was expected, and he just did it. All of my sister’s children grew through their childhood under Henry’s patient guardianship. My dad’s tractor never went anywhere without Henry trotting alongside. Every person who lived in our little rural grouping of houses grew accustomed to being greeted by Henry when they came home each day. Collectively, he was known as the “Mayor” of the hill.

Among the dogs on the hill, he was dominant but never overbearing. One neighbor had a Bulldog named Willy. Bulldogs are not known for great cleverness, and Willy was a banner example of how thin a dog’s mental process can be. Willy would see Henry outside, through his storm door, and would begin banging his head against the door until his people would get tired of the noise and let him out. At that point, Willy would invariably make a full-charge beeline for Henry, who would wait patiently for the Bulldog’s arrival. At the moment of impact, Henry would do some kind of dog-ninja move. Whatever he did was too fast to follow, but every time, Willy ended up flat on his back with Henry’s massive paw on his chest. Henry would hold Willy until the poor fellow submitted, and then would calmly release him. Willy would run back home with his Bulldog tail stub tucked. The he would bang his head on the door to be let back inside. As soon as that happened, the whole episode played in reruns. It frequently took four or five attempts before clever Willy gave up. I never saw Henry even snarl at that dog.

Alas, even the best dogs grow old far too fast. My family moved, my mother passed away, and Henry slowly lost his hips. Instead of trotting alongside the tractor, he walked, then staggered, and finally gave up. One day, when he was about sixteen, he disappeared into the woods. Henry had never disappeared for more than a day or so. Several weeks went by before my father got a call from a neighbor a few miles down the road. Henry had been hiding in the back of his barn and wouldn’t move. He was skin and bones. We brought Henry home, but he was never the same dog after that. My own personal theory is that he went off to die. He didn’t want to live when he could no longer serve as tractor escort. That was his self appointed primary job.

Through all of his decline, he was getting vet care, but he had reached the point where his joints just caused him too much pain. He rarely eve tried to get to his feet. I watched him for several days after his return, and when I realized he would no longer get up to relieve himself, I approached my father to ask what he planned to do. Dad was never the kind of man who would show too much affection to his dogs. He didn’t pet Henry; he just talked to the dog nonstop. None of this hid the fact that my father could not bear to lose the old guy. He decided that Henry still had quality of life, and left the situation as it was. Dad became busy with his post-Mom life and I took it on myself to drive out to check on Henry every day. I cleaned the mess he made around himself. I built a plywood shelter with heat lamps to keep him warm, but I felt that Henry had already made his wishes clear. All I could do was make his life as easy as the situation would allow.

He lingered immobile far longer than I thought was acceptable. He was just past his eighteenth year when I finally convinced my dad that Henry was suffering too much. We took him to his lifelong vet, a man who had technically retired but still took care of his old patients. It was there that I realized that Dr. Nesbitt didn’t want to put Henry down either. It was not for any medical reason; he had already done everything he could. It was because he loved that old dog too.

I sat with Henry as the vet inserted the needle. Dad had chosen to stay in the car. Henry looked up at me with those wise, tired eyes. He licked my hand as I stroked his face and head. He fell asleep, and seconds later, it was over. The best dog I had ever known was suffering no more. I could feel him depart, and I felt peace.

After Henry, dogs were different. They were rich, complex beings, worthy of as much joy and respect as any of us. Dogs are a gift, and no matter how well we treat them, it’s impossible to give of ourselves as fully as they do. We domesticated them thousands of years ago. They willingly bond themselves to our lives, and in return, we owe them.

As a country boy with dogs in the garage, I never knew. As a man who welcomes dogs into my home and life, I know what dogs really are. In many ways, they are better than us, and to learn what they have to teach, all we must do is invite them in and treat them well. For those of you who haven’t, I feel sorry for you, and for those of you who have, I know I am preaching to the choir.

My wife Sharon is ten times the dog advocate I am. When I met her, she had Austin, Hunter, and Hope. I had Elke. Austin passed away after a long life and Hunter became the oldest. Hunter came from a rescue in Montana, care of a dedicated dog lover named Joni. Hunter is without a doubt the worst pack leader in canine history, but he’s a good boy, and totally enraptured with Sharon. Joni happened to know an Aussie breeder named Sue. When Sue’s girl Karamel had a litter with a born-deaf mismark, Joni recommended us to Sue as a good home. I didn’t know at the time what that recommendation was worth. Sue does not part with her puppies lightly. We went to meet her at a nearby dog show and came home with Luna.

Luna destroyed another bias -a long with a couple of shoes. I come from a background of marginally decent purebred dogs, and I grew up with the idea that mutts make better dogs. Henry was the exception, of course, but even his offspring were not half the dog he was. It didn’t take long to understand that a good breeder makes all the difference. Luna is deaf, yet I can’t even list all the ways in which she is the best dog I’ve ever had. I freaking LOVE that dog!

This spring, Karamel had another litter, with another mismark. For those who don’t know, mismarks do not have the breed standard markings and cannot be show dogs. Sue breeds very successful show dogs, and the people who wait anxiously for her litters may love a mismark, but they want a show dog. I was resistant to having another dog, to say the least, but you know what they say about babies of any species. Once you have five, six is just more of the same. Sue started working on me first, and when Sharon saw the door opening a crack, she jumped in with the full court press. That’s not to lay the blame on them. I agreed for one reason. This was Karamel’s last litter. Luna is such a fine dog that not taking the opportunity to have her mismark half brother was something I knew I would always regret. After ten days with the boy, I know I was right.

Thanks to the efforts of a great breeder, Roscoe came “out of the box” knowing more than any dog I’ve ever had. He loves and trusts all people. He maneuvers among our other dogs like a champ. He is not house trained yet, but he has the right idea. He is crate trained. He didn’t even blink when he encountered the cats, as opposed to Jay, our rescue boy who took a year to understand not to chase the kitties. Roscoe’s recall is already quite good, as opposed to Jay, who still regards it as optional. The point, at long last, is that if you opt for a purebred dog, a good breeder makes all the difference. Thank you, Sue, for two wonderful dogs.

If on the other hand, you opt for a rescue of any stripe, then kudos to you. There are millions of dogs needing a home right now, and the system to handle them is tragically broken. The good news is that there are a great many people working on the problem, and my wife is one of them. Aside from the fact that we have four rescues in our home, she spends a great deal of time trying to connect dogs under imminent threat of euthanasia with good permanent homes. I can’t honestly tell you her exact motives, but I can say with certainty that she is intensely passionate about that particular cause, and that I support and agree with her. I’d go so far as to say that we will most likely run a rescue of our own someday.

To that end, I offer my plea. Knowledge being power, Sharon is hoping to attend a conference in Washington D.C. in August. The conference is about how to develop and implement No-Kill shelter systems for animals. http://www.nokillconference.org/

I’ll be honest. It’s a hard financial stretch for us. We’ve already purchased her ticket and she has some hotel points for lodging, but we may not be able to cover the airline ticket, at least not in time to get a decent rate. I feel a little strange about it, but I am asking for your help. If any of you have some airline miles you’d like to donate to help Sharon reach the conference, I would be forever grateful. Indeed, anyone who helps will at the top of my signed copy list the moment any of my work reaches print. (Not that I think you need a bribe, good people 🙂 Just my gratitude, expressed in limited fashion.

Now, I wouldn’t know an airline mile if it flew over my head at mach three, and I personally have no idea how all this airline miles business works. Sharon handles the grown up stuff around here… But if you would like to help, I would ask you, please contact Sharon at sharon@jfperkins.com

Thank you, and as always, thanks for reading.  -Jim