by Camela Thompson
I was going to write about videogames, framing an argument for Diablo III as more than just a loot-crazed hack-and-slash fest, but something happened. A four-legged desperado took over our lives and now I'm sitting on my porch with Annie and my laptop literally waiting for the dust to settle. Diatomaceous earth to be more specific. The stuff clings to the top of the carpet in baby powder fine clumps, turning our house into a polka-dotted vision.
My grandparents helped raise my brothers and I, and they always had at least one dog. My grandfather had a tough childhood and clung to memories of pets as the bright spots in his life. His mom was a divorcee, a rarity in the deep South in the early 1900s, and they moved frequently, living with family members who would take them in. He doesn't talk about it too often, but I suspect the family dogs treated my grandfather more like family than the relatives letting an asthmatic, intelligent kid take up room and food at the table.
The first dog I can remember, Siegfried, was my grandfather's dog
I can never remember my grandparents without a dog. As soon as one passed away, Grandpa was up at the pound, looking for his next mutt. I introduced them to Bernese mountain dogs. Actually, I begged to have a show dog and paid for it with money I scrounged up painting whatever I could sell. After their first Bernese, they couldn't imagine getting another breed. That had to change recently, and it wasn't without epic resistance. Try telling a man who built his house with his own two hands and spent his days digging irrigation ditches between working three jobs that he can't have the dog he wants. How do you tell a man who has too much pride to use the walker he needs that he can no longer handle a dog? How do you tell a strong-headed patriarch he isn't making sound decisions? Until the last five years, he could physically handle a big dog. Things have changed quickly.
Proud Grandpa showing off Bogey's Costco employee badge
Their last Bernese mountain dog, Bogey, was a handsome, good-natured guy with a bunch of serious structural issues. Wobblers is a terrible disease, and his neck kept him slow and docile. My ninety-year-old grandfather loved taking him to Costco and sit out front, talking with anyone who would pause long enough to say, "Hello." When Bogey died, Grandpa's social circle immediately shrank. He missed Bogey, but I think the bigger void was the ability to go socialize. We waited for the grandparents to realize on their own that one-hundred-thirty pounds of dog was too much. The thought of them getting a puppy scared us all. They would be stubborn and insist on taking it to Costco or for a walk (yes, Grandpa still drives). Without the physical ability to control an animal that size, there were too many dangerous scenarios to list them all.
We waited months, hoping the Bernese fervor would die down, but my grandfather taught himself how to use the Internet and started calling breeders. Lance and I also got a few phone calls about refinancing opportunities he had stumbled across and we had to have a serious security discussion. Mom had to bite the bullet and have some tough conversations of her own about how a puppy would be a terrible idea, but she couldn't bring herself to tell him the truth. A good breeder would not allow a ninety-year-old drive to their kennel and pick up a dog. The sad truth is that he can't safely handle a dog and the odds of the animal living longer are very high. When Mom corralled us all into driving to Puyallup to check out a mutt she had spotted on Petfinder, he was told this to his face by the adoption volunteers and we had a very quiet, sulking car ride back home.
His voice was hurt gravel. "They won't let me adopt a dog. They said it was an age thing."
Mom was allowed a dog, though, and since they all live together, they could share. It gained appeal after the sting wore down of learning that even though he had lived longer and seen more, he can't do some things anymore.
We talked to the adoption personnel and I emphasized the need for a calm, social animal, and they brought out one of the most pathetic creatures I've ever seen. He came out of his cage and flipped on his back on our feet. He had no leash skills, but wouldn't pull, dancing in circles at the end of the leash to avoid putting any pressure on the lead. Even with other dogs walking by, he was as light as a feather. He loved people, pressing into them and closing his eyes in bliss at any contact. Even Annie liked him. He was perfect.
"Spencer" was shipped up to Washington from a high kill shelter. The best guess was that he led life on the street as a stray. He has had zero training, didn't know what stairs were, and shied at the carpet the first time he saw it, so this is entirely possible. He also has an affinity for diving on anything that looks vaguely edible and has scabs all over his face and neck from getting attacked by other dogs. He is severely underweight. Say a harsh word and he cowers on the ground. Even after all of that, he is entirely affectionate, crawling onto any lap that will have him. He is a bit obnoxious because he isn't neutered, but he respects Annie's terse warnings and plays well with her. He loves kids.
My family was putting in a fence and this guy will take off if left to his own devices. He's used to life on the road and won't look back. How do you call back a dog who doesn't know his name and doesn't trust that he'll get his next meal? Add in that he still has all of his parts and loves the ladies, and you can see how crucial it is that he's always on leash or in a yard fit for keeping in convicts. They were going to leave him at the pound while this was done. I offered to take him, but only if I could call him Spartacus. It was the most inappropriate name I could think of for a scrawny mutt. They let me because I train dogs and we could get him on a schedule and start the housebreaking (they named him Benji - we'll see which sticks).
These are blurry because he's literally rolling on the couch
At first things were great. His zest for his new life was a joy to watch as he rolled on every single surface available to him. He crammed himself in throw pillows and managed to scoot along the entire length of the couch on his back. He rolled on our bed, paying special attention to our pillows. He had no manners, so his feet bounded on counters and table tops. The world titled the first time he went poop. Lance leaned over and I heard him swear. Lance rarely swears. Lance rarely mutters. I knew it was bad. Spartacus had worms.
Fast forward to us ripping every blanket, pillowcase, and cover off every piece of furniture he had rolled on. I spent hours wiping down surfaces with anti-bacterial wipes. His kennel was a cornucopia for tape worms and Annie had been her piggy-self, hoovering crumbs off the floor. Annie sleeps on our bed, or at least she did until we figured out her odds of also getting worms were 100%.
Traffic in Seattle sucks. The morning we saw live worms, I drove a couple hours to get him into the only vet who could squeeze him in on such short notice. He had already been wormed, but not for THESE worms. Special mega worms. Great! We were instructed to brush his backside after each trip outside (she even pointed out the vile things clinging to him as we spoke). Essentially, our entire house was contaminated and we have the reason why he's so emaciated.
Under the hair is skin and bones
Spartacus is housebroken if kept on his schedule. He does well in his crate during his meals and ours to prevent him from diving near any food prep surface or table. He's bathed, wormed, and we're working to get weight on him. He's getting home cooked meals that are balanced (I recommend Unlocking the Canine Ancestral Diet - we cook our dogs' food). We tried getting him switched to canned food to make it easier on my family, but he won't touch the stuff and is already emaciated, so he's on high end stuff for now. Lance jokes that he's like the redneck who hit the lottery and refuses to look back. We've vacuumed everything and put down diatomaceous earth wherever the dog has been (carpet, couch, dog bedding). Annie gets to sleep in her kennel for a while until we can test her and get her wormed.
Spartacus is at home with Mom and the grandparents, but he'll visit me during work days. I check in frequently and worry about him escaping because my grandparents can't move quickly anymore. They're prone to falling and both have had bad spills recently, which is especially scary with them on blood thinners. It took us time to realize they would fall with or without a dog and it was important to have an animal in the house. We've rigged exercise pens around the doors to prevent Spartacus from getting out and they are lining the wider gaps in the fence with chicken wire. He's still looking for a way out, but his wonderful temperament has everyone warming up to him.
Grandpa has always prided himself on doing every project himself. I remember hanging off his flexed bicep as a young girl, the product of his hours spent digging ditches. The drastic decline in his physical ability has led to depression. We think he likes the dog, but the past few days he's been questioning whether or not they should have one. We had to help put in the fence, something he wanted to do by himself but was too dangerous given his instability. This has been a difficult couple weeks. Hopefully things will brighten up with a dog who is more than happy to crawl in their laps.
by Camela Thompson
I apologize if this post rambles, but I'm a little heartbroken. It has been a hard week for our family. My mom spent Thanksgiving morning at the vet, and learned their 9-year-old Bernese mountain dog had a mass in his spleen the size of a soft ball. Bogey was a sweet big boy, and had issues off and on for years with wobblers. The day after Bogey was gone, Champ's left rear leg began dragging while he walked. He had started standing on the tops of his feet several months ago, but this was different. The degenerative myelopathy progressed quickly over the weekend, and he was shutting down. On December 2nd we had to say goodbye to him.
This was taken over a month ago. Degenerative myelopathy and other neurological
conditions can cause dogs to roll their feet over and not recognize when
they are standing on the tops of them.
My husband is still surprised he is gone. This had been coming on for months, and I had taken him to the vet the week before knowing something was more wrong. My husband is an optimist and this was his first dog. Champ was also perky and aware until that last day. He was interested in food, wanted to be with the family, and still enjoyed his car rides. When a dog is near the end, they typically avoid food and family, and begin to separate themselves from their family. Not Champ.
December 1 - Demanding a Biscuit
The single fear that haunted me the most over the last few months was that I wouldn't know when it was time. I was scared that I would hold on to Champ and let my adoration for him blind me to excessive pain. I didn't have to worry. Champ made it really clear when it was finally time, giving me that look as Lance tried to help him balance in the back yard. My dog was frustrated and uncomfortable, and he hated people hovering over him during his most private moments. More than that, he just didn't feel good. His organs were starting to shut down.
The end was peaceful. The vet was compassionate and went to great lengths to make sure Champ wasn't nervous, letting him stay with us in the car until the sedatives kicked in. He was happy and relaxed.
I miss him. He was so good at communicating - he would herd Lance into the kitchen when it was biscuit time (which was all the time if you asked Champ), let us know when it was meal time beginning at least thirty minutes before meal time, and he demanded car rides on Saturdays. I'm not sure how he always knew when it was Saturday - even when we were off work on Friday - but if he hadn't had his car ride by Sunday he would stand by the leash and stomp his foot while glaring at us. Champ wasn't perfect, but he tried to be. He didn't care for strangers or children, but was excellent with my nephew. He was wonderful with other animals and did a great job raising Bogey and tolerating our tyrant, Annie.
The holidays are a rough time of year for many of us. I was posting pictures of Champ and Bogey on Facebook, and saw that other friends were doing the same for husbands, friends, and siblings they had lost around this time of year. At first I felt a little guilty. How could I memorialize my dog while others have more significant losses to cope with? Then I realized that pain is pain. It's not the same, and that's okay. Holidays are a time to remember family and spend time with those who are still here. Please take a little extra time with yours - four-legged or otherwise.
by Camela Thompson
Champ was born on a stormy Halloween night in 2001. His litter was birthed in an indoor run at the animal shelter, a few spaces away from a dog that had been brought in covered in mace after mauling its owner. The shelter water was dirty and the puppies contracted giardia. Champ's mom was feral and the puppies took after her, scattering when the shelter brought in children to socialize the litter. It wasn't the best start, so it shouldn't have been a big surprise that Champ began life with some issues.
He loves the snow.
I walked through two animal shelters before pausing at a run with a bunch of puppies. Some looked like little foxes, and some had wild, curly white hair and pink noses. One of the foxes ran to the front of the run and stood on his hind legs, putting his front paws on the chain link fence to beg for me to pick him up. I only had eyes for that dirty little boy, and I didn't figure out he was covered in poop until he snuggled into my chest. If I missed that, it shouldn't be a surprise that I also missed that the rest of the litter was crammed in the back of the run to stay away from the humans. I finally suspected there would be a problem when I got him home and he crammed himself under a couch upon seeing a roommate.
Champ has always been suspicious of humans, especially men. He's odd around children, unless they are raised with him, so we avoid small strangers. It's a little embarrassing when people ask me if he was adopted when he was older, because an abusive previous owner would explain his behavior - but it's just how he is. I used to judge people with these skittish dogs, assuming they had done something terrible to their dog. Champ taught me that some animals are naturally suspicious. I tried for the first two years to socialize him, take him to classes, and push him to change. That didn't work well - it only stressed us both out. I learned to explain to people that he needs his space. With a dog like Champ, I learned it is my responsibility to be his advocate, keep him out of social environments, and take charge of situations when he feels uncomfortable so he gets the space he needs.
He may be suspicious around people, but he has always been wonderful
with other animals. He's befriended horses, dogs, and more.
As Champ aged, he learned to trust me more. When someone visited, he watched my reaction and stood back, trusting that I would let him know if things weren't okay. He stopped hiding behind things and eventually became more relaxed, laying where he could watch but had his space, quietly observing. We would stick to activities like walking through the neighborhood and hiking, avoiding playgrounds and crowded places. I wouldn't say he would like it if I hosted a party, but he's mellowed out.
Quirks can make it difficult to live with a dog, but sometimes they make you appreciate the relationship you build with an animal even more. Champ is the most loyal dog I've ever had. He isn't clingy, but he likes to be in the same room, watching over the people he loves. As he has aged and his hearing and vision have been robbed, he's mellowed out even more. I don't think that would be the case if he didn't trust me.
Champ still greets me every day I get home from work with a shoe or a toy,
carrying it through the house to the back yard.
The old man is slowing tremendously. I don't know how much time we have left. He has cataracts, hearing loss, lumps, bumps, and many issues. He walks slowly, the Cushing's disease has wasted away his muscles, and he has some neurological problems. The vet assures me he seems happy and doesn't appear to be in pain. I agree but get paranoid my love for him will cloud my judgment and make me greedy for more time. I suppose it's a good sign that he still bosses around my husband and bounces around when he wants treats.
On his thirteenth birthday this Halloween, Champ got pumpkin with his home cooked meal and extra car rides. He asked to get up on the couch while we watched television, something he hadn't done in months. I am thankful for every day we get with him in his old age.
Do you have an elderly dog or a dog that was difficult to live with? How did the challenges impact your relationship?
"What kind of dog is it?" It's the question we usually get from people grinning down at our dog. It's not a rude question, and I frankly don't know how to answer it. The mix of breeds that resulted in a seventeen pound dog with rabbit soft hair on her head, ears, and sides and pig coarse hair in a boa around her neck and mohawk down her spine are a bit of a mystery. Her ears are big enough to pick up on the smallest of sounds, she is longer than she is tall, and has a jaunty tail curled over her back and to the right - just the perfect twist to act as a frame to her leash. My nephew feels she stepped off of the big screen of Ice Age - pointing to her and saying, "Scrat!" - although she is obsessed with a ball and not an acorn. She'll eat anything, is fierce despite her size, and has murderous tendencies toward squirrels. She's definitely a dog, but maybe there's a little bit of goat, lion, and a twist of squirrel for irony.
Annie stealing carrots. She isn't nearly as stealthy as she thinks.
Whatever the mix, she is a wonderful blend of playful, mischievous, determined, and love bug. She is smart enough to know that Lance is her play toy and I am her snuggle friend. Originally, she was going to be Lance's running buddy. That was squashed when it was discovered she only likes running if there is a chance of murdering a squirrel (she is always on leash, so that won't happen unless one decides to face off with her in our yard). Despite her homicidal tendencies with small and furry or feathered, she loves kids. If a child is laughing down the block, her ears flatten and she belly crawls toward the source with a wagging tail. She isn't a fan of other dogs, unless she is. We keep our distance because Annie is fickle and it's hard to know which way she will go.
She's really good at helping and loves to insert herself into every situation. Putting on shoes for instance. I bet you never imagined that tying shoelaces was easier with a dog trying to stand on your hands. Painting takes an abstract turn when the dog who insisted on sitting on your lap pounces on the canvas. Going to the bathroom is more fun with a dog trying to crash into the room or wrapping around your ankles if you forgot to shut the door. It's not creepy to hear the shower curtain rustle when you're taking a shower and look over to see two giant eyes peeking in. She has learned to curl up next to my legs while I'm working, but she is very good at letting me know when it's time to take a laptop break.
A subtle hint that it's break time
Annie came into our life when we went to a "Last Chance" adoption fair. Most of the dogs were at the end of their time at the pound, and Annie had been kept a couple extra days in the hopes someone would adopt her. To think such a sweet dog was nearly euthanized breaks my heart. Her previous owner inherited her when her original owners moved and couldn't find a house that allowed dogs. He didn't want her and kept her locked in the back yard in Eastern Washington. She was dumped at the pound because she dug too many holes. I'm surprised our little dog, who loves burrowing under blankets because she gets cold easily, made it in the harsh climate. I think all of us caught a lucky streak the day we brought her home.
Annie's first day with us in 2010 after the adoption fair
My husband is fond of telling people, "The first time I met Champ, Camela had a list of rules for meeting him. There were weeks of instructions on what to do and what not to do. When it came to her family, she just drove me over there with no notice at all."
He isn't lying. Champ has special needs. And quirks. And imaginary demons chasing him. It isn't easy being Champ, and it certainly wasn't easy being our (Champ and I were a package deal) roommate in college. In addition to holding a grudge that would put a Hatfield or a McCoy to shame, Champ acted as though murderous thieves were coming for our food stash and it was his solemn duty to demolish it single handedly. I purchased many replacement loaves of bread, was stunned that he figured out how to open the fridge, and nearly cried when he destroyed the baby locks. With genius comes insanity. Champ was the mastermind behind butter thefts (he had a glorious coat), and made enemies by refusing to be friends with anyone other than myself. He was never mean, but he trusted only me.
My family always had at least one dog. I trained them, showed a few, and one even visited nursing homes and schools. They were happy, stable animals that did well in crowds and around other animals. When I met people with a skittish dog, I assumed that they had done something wrong. The most reasonable explanation was that the dog had been abused. It never occurred to me that a dog could start out in life a little off.
Champ was never abused, unless you count leaving him in a cool car with the windows down while I went into a store (he would). I adopted him from the pound at nine weeks old. I was able to confirm that the whole litter was weird. Their mother was brought in feral and warmed up to humans again after being adopted. Some of the puppies had a harder time adjusting after spending their first weeks following their mother's skittish lead.
In the past, I would get embarrassed because I needed to step in when people wanted to pet him and let them know he just wanted to be left alone. The rare times he did something naughty (other than trashing the kitchen), a harsh word could send him groveling, which looked suspiciously similar to a cower. I tried socializing him as a puppy, forcing him around people. I tried training classes and behavior conditioning and prozac. Years and years were spent trying to find a way to communicate to my crazy boy that the world was not out to get him. A trainer wouldn't listen as I yelled at her to stay back in an agility class and he flung himself from an A-frame, falling several feet and limping to lean against my legs for comfort. It was the tipping point. I finally realized what Champ was trying to tell me all along. He would never be a people "person." My introvert was who he was and I could either continue torturing us both, or just accept him as he was.
Champ would not be left behind on the beach. If the raft was good enough for me,
it was good enough for him. The raft promptly sank from someone's toenail gouges.
Despite - or maybe in a funny way because of - the numerous times destroying kitchens, stealing food, and shunning humans, Champ has been my once in a lifetime four footed buddy. He is the most loyal animal I have ever had the honor of being owned by. I didn't intend to get a dog. My ex-boyfriend talked me into going to two humane societies. I had made it to the very last cage of the very last kennel when a little dirty puppy walked up to the fence and raised his paw. He snuggled into my arms and rubbed his face against my neck. Volunteers gawked and I later found out it was because the puppies shrank from human contact. When I got home and he saw my roommate, Champ shoved himself under a couch.
My old man - enjoying the lake
Champ doesn't get into much mischief anymore. He has been in my life for twelve and a half years. His eyes are clouded with cataracts, he is a cancer survivor, is on meds for atypical Cushing's disease, and only wants to walk around the block at a very leisurely pace. Champ doesn't have much time left, but he still enjoys life. He insists on searching the neighborhood for apples, loves car rides, and has calmed down around people despite growing deaf and blind. He's not outgoing, but he stopped hiding years ago and he has never so much as snapped despite his desire to just be left alone. He also mercilessly bosses around my husband, which is his right.
When I first met Lance, I told him Champ was in my life first. If they couldn't get along, the dog would win out. I didn't need to worry. Champ chose Lance, too. Seven years ago, on the first night he met my future husband, Champ fell asleep with his head resting on his feet.
Leave a comment to discuss your once in a lifetime furry friend. Do you agree that the hardest won friends are the best?
Follow Camela Thompson on Twitter.
Freelance writer and Dark urban fantasy author featuring vampires with bite.