The Mink

We lost our first Old Dog Haven final refuge dog last week.

It has taken me some time to gather my thoughts on the event, although I can’t even count the number of triggers around the house that compel me, for just a fraction of a second, to expect him to be there. I know it will be quite a long while before that mental skip stops. A couple of days ago, Sharon told me that Minky was back, and in the instant before I realized that she meant his ashes were back at the vet, I had time to imagine some kind of miracle of doggie resurrection.

There are two ways to look at the loss of a pet like Minky. The first is the intellectual argument. He came to us at the end of a long life. We knew that going in. He had people who loved him until they could no longer be there for him. He arrived at our house with a multitude of health issues, any one of which could have taken him from us very quickly. He also came with the full support of Old Dog Haven, and that is no small thing. Sharon attacked the health problems with her usual relentless determination and efficiency, and he was quickly stabilized. I could tell when he bounced back because his fur started growing again. Once it started, it made weeds jealous. He had a few months of relative perkiness* before we noticed there may be something else causing problems. That “something” turned out to be pulmonary hypertension, a condition that would ultimately take him. He outlived his prognosis through a rigorous program of meds and, I like to think, love.

So now it’s over, and there is no question that we gave him almost 15 good months that he wouldn’t have had without us. There is no question that we did everything we could, and that we couldn’t have done it without Old Dog Haven. The question is always making THE DECISION, the agonizing discernment of when it’s time to say goodbye. With some dogs, it’s easy. They go from health to collapse in some acute and obvious event, or they just announce that it is time in way that a long relationship allows us to recognize. With a final refuge foster like Mink, it’s harder. We never saw him fully healthy; we only saw degrees of health that changed, sometimes slowly and sometime quickly, but the final call is muddy. It turns into a gray area mental game of what treatments are left to try versus how well they are likely to work and how much time they will afford versus the trend lines of health that have led to that point, and so on. It’s all too easy to form a circular argument that leaves only an intuitive call, one that we are never smart enough to know, in black and white, was the correct one. But ultimately, we make the choice based on the suffering of the animal, and whether we can do anything to stop that suffering.

The other side of the argument is the emotional one. There is no way to avoid it when a pet passes on. There’s the heavy sigh of a pet when you hold him, knowing that he regards you as the safe place in the world. There’s the careful balance of  your pet trying to be connected to you and your spouse, his other person, at once. There’s the way he runs to your feet in between challenges in a strange environment, The way he grunts in pleasure as you rub his neck. These things are hard to give up. Total faith from one person to another is nigh impossible, but from a dog to a trusted human, it’s routine. They give trust completely unless they have a reason not to. The risk of course is to regard this as a treasure to be held at all costs because it is so hard to find elsewhere in our lives, but in reality, it is a trust to be held for the benefit of the animal. They trust you to guide them, even into the end of their lives. It’s not easy to keep in mind, but it’s a duty we pay in return for even a single day of that animal’s pure faith.

If there is a third leg to this ethical stool, it’s probably philosophical. Physical problems: blindness, deafness, missing leg, and joint pain, do not stop a dog. They waste no time being angry with life, or God, or fate, trying to lay the blame for their misfortune. They simply move forward as best they can, without remorse, without resentment. They are perfect examples of perseverance. However, mistreat them emotionally and they will break. They grieve, they lose trust, they feel fear that has nothing to do with mortality, they feel embarrassment and pride in a job well done. Deprive them of these things and they suffer. The combination of instinct and emotional damage will turn a great dog into a snarling mess. And yet, like people, they are rarely irredeemable. It’s a matter of patience and rebuilding of trust in a bond of partnership.

A dog like Minky had his entire web of life and trust pulled out from under him. He had the advantage of being well treated by his first people, and so had a relatively easy time of slotting us into the comfortable patterns of his life. Some dogs are not so lucky. Our dog Elke went from stray to shelter to shelter to home, to me. She had the trust pulled from her enough times that we had to work together for quite some time before we established a working relationship that included trust. Even today, nine years later, she holds the echoes of mistrust, but she finds great satisfaction in those moments when she is connected without competition to her people. She’s a great dog, whose blindness doesn’t slow her down, but her memory of distrust occasionally does.

The point is that Minky was fortunate enough to pass through this world without any of the truly deep scars, but even those dogs who cannot feel that grace deserve that best we can give them. They will always give better than they get. I have no doubt that dogs have all the same benefits of soul and redemption that we do, and that Minky has gone to a place where he can reconnect with his people, his best sources of joy, and we were privileged to play a small part in carrying him to that ultimate reward.

Devotion II

Well, I don’t know why I felt compelled to write about Hunter when I did, but it seems prescient now, three days after his final ride.

In my opinion, it’s hard to manage a better outcome. He survived more than four years after cancer first arrived. A big round of thanks to Dr. Parshley… She has been excellent, and we are fortunate to have her in town. I know that she has gone well out of her way to help and provide support when we needed it. That’s not the rarest trait among people who devote their lives to animals, but it’s rare enough in general that we should acknowledge it when it comes along.

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Devotion with an Undercoat

One of my – one of our – “things” in life is dogs.  We particularly like the rescues. My wife does a lot of work on that front, and is fairly successful at finding homes for dogs in need. That’s a good thing on several levels, one of which is that if she weren’t successful, those same dogs might very well end up here. We have six in our home, and that’s enough.

Oh, the temptation is always there. The easiest thing in the world for someone like me is to bond with a dog. My dog, your dog, the neighbors’ dogs, random dog on the sidewalk, dog in the back of a pickup truck in a parking lot, picture of a dog on the internet… You get the idea. But dogs need food, dogs need exercise, dogs need medical care, and most of all, dogs need attention. A six way split for those resources is enough for anyone, so we fight the temptation on an ongoing basis.

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Hunter

Perhaps dogs have souls. Perhaps they live lives every bit as emotionally rich as ours. These are questions of open debate among those who have been lucky enough to count dogs among their friends, and a non-issue among those who haven’t. One thing is certain. Dogs have personalities as unique as snowflakes, fingerprints, and scatterings of golden leaves on the autumn ground.

Dog are trainable, and agreeable enough to accept that training, but no amount of training buries the personality underneath. No training can completely subvert the drives that make dogs the perfect companions for us poor, wandering two-leggers.

In the case of Hunter, that personality appeared right out of the gate. He’s a chicken-butt, a nervous Nellie, and the captain of the fun police. He cowers every forth of July as the fireworks boom and crackle. He responds to other dogs, runners and bicyclists with fear aggression, and he works semi-aggressively to maintain a respectable level of calm among our other, entirely-too-playful dogs.

Hunter inherited pack leadership from Austin, who wore his own crown with ease as all Australian Shepherds seem to do. Austin’s second in command rose to the top in the natural order, but never wears it in natural style. He worries, he frets, he runs behind his mama’s legs at the first sign of conflict, and perhaps most importantly, he is roundly ignored by his theoretical followers.

But none of that matters.

Hunter displays the highest levels of greatness in the most important ways. He’s a black Labrador – Aussie mix of medium bulk who is entirely, completely devoted to his number one human. He will follow her anywhere, and he will overcome his natural nerves to protect her against all the random dangers in the world, real or imagined. He will unfailingly appear at the front window to greet her upon her return. Though not normally excitable, he will set his stub of a tail wiggling at the sound of her voice, and in his quiet way, he will gaze upon her like the pure goddess he sees before him. To look into his eyes is to see deep into an uncanny well of intelligence and understanding that only old dogs with old souls possess. He sees and he understands. He cares.

Then he ignores commands. You see, his goddess is not the alpha in his eyes. She’s the source. Sometimes she needs a little help to understand what is necessary, and Hunter is there to assist. At the first sign of a leash, he will take command, grab the leash in his mouth and lead her directly out the door. At the correct time each night, he herds her to bed, proceeds to curl up on his own plush accommodations right next to her like an over-sized black bean, issues a couple of room destroying farts, and guards her through the night.

In other words, Hunter is one of a million definitions of the perfect dog, and he turns twelve today. Happy birthday, old man.

JF Perkins

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