I was asked recently by an acquaintance what precipitated my interest in and love for dogs. I gave her a fairly brief answer, but the question got me to thinking about the long answer, so I thought I'd have a go at it here. An illustrated history of my life in dogs...
Chapter One, the Boston Years
I was born into a dog loving family, though as far as I know, neither of my parents had a dog at the time of my birth. My mom's parents, with whom we lived briefly right after my birth, had a Springer spaniel whose name escapes me now. My dad's parents had a whole passel of Boston terriers. Dad's dad bred them. These Bostons are my first dog memories, and I remember them as vicious, yipping, nasty little things. For a long time, even after I started loving dogs, I really disliked Bostons. He named all the female ones ridiculous things like Beauty and Princess and Darling, but they were still mean and ugly, to my little girl's mind. He even gave one to my mom and me (my parents weren't together), but she ate the furniture and nipped at me, so she didn't last long. Twenty-five plus years later, my grandfather is gone, but my grandmother still raises Boston terriers. And though I've come to have some appreciation for them, they still are not my favorite breed. I'm irrationally scared of them, to be honest. Guess they make me feel like I'm two again.
Chapter Two, an Airedale's Sweetheart
My mom married my stepdad when I was four, and we moved into his house. At that time, he had a dog, Sissy. Sissy was a gorgeous Airedale. I remember her as being quite large, but I think that was probably due to my being quite small at the time, as Airedale's aren't huge (breed standard is only 45-55 lbs). She was a gentle, wonderful creature, and she followed me around the yard when I played and protected my every move. She was really shy and refused to ever come in the house, but she had the sweetest temperament in the world. That's all retrospective, of course, because by the time I was four I had decided that I didn't like dogs, and I found her to be quite the pest. I missed her after she died, though. My parents have recently started talking about getting another Airedale, and I hope they do.
Chapter Three, Sheba and Shiloh
My stepmom and my dad had different attitudes than my country-living mom and stepdad about dogs. They are both unmitigated dog freaks, and their dogs lived in the house. In my early childhood, these dogs were Sheba and Shiloh. Sheba, my dad's dog, was a Husky mix of some sort (he said she was part wolf, but I don't think she actually was). Shiloh, my stepmom's dog, was some sort of hound. A Black & Tan Coonhound, maybe. Though I don't remember him having the floppy ears. Both were good sized dogs. I couldn't stand either one of them, but I think that had to do with my dad forcing my step-sister and I to pick up their shit in the back yard. Sheba got out one day and was hit by a car and killed. I can't remember what happened to Shiloh, but my guess is that he was sent to live with my grandparents when my dad and stepmom moved to an apartment in Portland when I was in third grade.
Chapter Four, the Terror of Terriers
After Sissy died, my mom and stepdad wanted to get another dog. And so a succession of terriers began. The terriers ran away. They chased cars. The first two or three didn't last. Finally, however, we got a Rat Terrier who was christened Spike. Spike was neither an attractive nor an intelligent dog. He chased cars no matter what we did to dissuade him, and he was hit more than once. He was impossible to bathe. He was one of the dumbest animals I've ever seen. I think my parents had ideas of working cattle with him. Yeah, right. He did, however, live to a ripe and incredibly stinky old age of 13 or 14. I can't even remember exactly when we got him, and he didn't die until I was in college.
Chapter Five, Japanese Dog Royalty
The dog fancy that runs in my dad's family hit his little sister, Kathie, the hardest. I never remember her not having a dog. The first dog I remember specifically, though, was the giant hairy beast she came home from college with one year. His name was Baloo, and she said he was some sort of Japanese royal dog, an Akita. I was ten or eleven at the time and thought that sounded romantic. Male Akita breed standard is 100-130 lbs, and Baloo was every bit of that and likely more. He was huge. He was also the best behaved dog I've ever seen. In his entire (long) life, I never saw that dog do anything he wasn't supposed to do. He was a beautiful, affectionate, amazing creature. It was unsurprising when Kathie said she was going to breed him. And breed him she did. I've seen countless litters of Baloo's children and grandchildren grow up (she soon after got a female, Katai). Baloo died quite a few years back, but Katai was just put down last winter.
Chapter Six, Missy, Head of Ranch Security
After it became clear that Spike was never going to be a cattle dog, he was joined by a Border Collie runt pup we got from a neighbor and called Missy. Missy was as smart as Spike was stupid. She learned everything, including human-speak, the first time it was thrown at her. However, it's not just legend that Border collies need a job, and Missy never had enough steady work to keep her properly fit and entertained. So she started amusing herself by seeing how many times a day she could get fed, and how much of Spike's food she could steal, and soon she became a much too fat Border collie to do any work even if there was some to be done. And she still is. She's got to be about 12 by now, and she's still hanging out under my parents' porch, looking like a furry pot-bellied pig. Greedy and quick-witted, she's the first dog I remember being actively fond of, though I certainly wouldn't have admitted it while I still lived there.
Chapter Seven, a Rott by Any Other Name
One of the things my stepmother hated the very most about the series of apartments she and dad lived in when they first moved to Portland was the lack of dog. So when they finally moved into a dog-allowing house, it didn't take her too long to adopt Kahn. Roofus Kahn was a year-old Rottweiler adopted from the local Humane Society on the first birthday of my niece, Karla. He was a breathtakingly lovely dog, with the slimmer, less bruiser-ish Rottie physique, and a fantastic personality. He went everywhere with Nana, riding in the backseat of her car and claiming biscuits at the bank drive through and the coffee stand. Dad loved him too, but he was Nana's dog. And after getting to know him, I just wasn't afraid of dogs anymore. In the early-mid 1990s, when I met Kahn, Rottweilers were pretty much what Pit Bulls are now--everyone was afraid of them. What possessed my tiny and ladylike stepmother to choose a pound Rott as her next dog was and is beyond me. But she was right. He was an incredible dog. He had to be put down a couple of years ago, and my stepmother has not recovered. Currently, she doesn't have a dog, though she is a fantastic grandparent to my pack.
Chapter Eight, When Royalty Goes Bad
Kahn wasn't an only dog for very long. A bit after Nana adopted Kahn, Kathie got word that one of the people who bought one of Katai and Baloo's puppies, Kuma, was at his wit's end and about to get rid of the dog. Kuma had grown into a 175 lb dog, and he was ill-behaved. Akita's aren't known for the solidity of their temperament, and Kuma was out of control. So Kathie took him back, and embarked upon her brother, my dad, to give him the firm hand he needed.
And so began the saga of Kuma. Kuma ate every piece of furniture in my dad and stepmom's house. He ran through their plate glass front window to get to a dog on the street. He terrorized Kahn. He was awful. But my dad fell in love with him, so he stayed. And stayed. He's gotten more mellow in his old age, and lost some weight (down to 160 when I last heard). He was diagnosed with bone cancer and given three to six months to live nearly three years ago now. He's still living with my dad and his girlfriend, and he's doing well, all things considered. My dad has no plans to keep him alive once he's in pain or not getting joy from his life, but reports that he's still eating, playing, and walking (though slowly). So it goes.
Chapter Nine, Barley
By the time I got to college, I wasn't vitriolically anti-dog. I just didn't want one personally. Then, post-college, I started dating Mark. And Mark is a bona fide dog freak. I was told, not asked, that once it became possible with our living situation, we'd have a dog. I figured it was something I could deal with when it was an actual possibility, so I let it go. But then I met Barley. Barley belonged to some people in the neighborhood where Mark and I hung out and ate a lot in Portland, and we ran into him and his people several times. Mark being Mark, willing to talk to anyone about dogs, we learned quite a bit about Barley and his breed. The mastiff.
Mastiffs are huge dogs. Barley, when we met him, was under two years old and weighed about 150 lbs with no extra fat. He was a beautiful brindle mastiff with a massive head, his eyes nearly twice as far apart as a person's. And he was clearly a baby. A big, gentle, baby. His people told us that he slept most of the time, loved to cuddle, and was nearly un-excitable. There was none of the hyperactivity and senseless love I'd seen from so many of the dogs (damn terriers!) in my past. I loved Barley--and the breed--on site. And I still do. I feel sure we'll have a mastiff some day.
Chapter Ten, Taking a Chance
After we moved to Austin, it was clear that Mark and I would be getting a dog sooner rather than later. He found a dog that appealed to him on a rescue website and set up an appointment to meet him. I didn't think much of the dog from his picture, but figured it wouldn't hurt, so off we went. Off to meet Chance.
Chance, whose name was Champ at that point, had been a pound puppy from Day 1. Some people adopted him from the local kill shelter as a pup, but a year later he was back at the shelter, having grown much too big and hard to handle for the folks who adopted him (I am honestly amazed that people actually do that, but whatever). Someone at Blue Dog Rescue saw him at the shelter and thought he was too good to pass up, and so he was rescued again. He'd been in foster care with them for a few weeks when we met him. About a year or a year and a half old, about 100 lbs, he was a stunning creature. His parentage was unknown and the rescue listed him as a German Shepherd-Rottweiler cross, which was as good a guess as any. He was lithe and graceful, yet goofy. He was friendly but not outgoing. He was amazing. And he just felt right. We'd not been there five minutes before I was motioning to Mark that this was it, I was done. Chance was the dog for us.
So we went home and bought some dog stuff and tried to think of a name (briefly he was called Che, before we settled for naming him in honor of UT's then-quarterback, Chance Mock), and he came to live with us the next day.
I've written here before about Chance's various behavioral problems, so I won't go into it again, but suffice it to say he was not an easy first dog. He was very dominant, aggressive towards people and other dogs, and required a ton of training. For the first several months or even year we weren't sure we were going to make it with him. But we (and really, mostly that means Mark) put in the time and the effort and the money, and he was worth every bit of it. I learned to like dogs before Chance, but Chance taught me to love them. Chance taught me I could and would love them as much and more as people. He was both Mark's and my best friend, and he was what made us into a family. There are no words for what he meant to us.
Chapter Eleven, A Plethora of Puppies
A bit more than a year into our relationship with Chance, I upped our dog ante. By quite a lot. I happened upon a man on the side of the road, attempting to sell seven four week-old Lab puppies. They were sick, skinny, flea-infested, with bloated wormy tummies. It was horrible. And over the course of a few days, with methods I won't disclose, I managed to liberate all of them. Having no place to liberate them to, however, that meant they were all at our house. Suddenly, we'd gone from one dog to eight, and seven of them couldn't feed themselves.
While Chance turned me into a dog lover, the puppies, named Monday through Sunday, turned me into a dog advocate. Into a person not only willing to use whatever tools were at her disposal to save dying pups, but to then spent two months taking care of them, including midnight feedings and cleaning up endless amounts of worm-ridden puppy poop. A person who carefully screened each potential adopter before she let her puppies go home with him or her. A person who still thinks about those puppies nearly every day and does her damdnest to keep in touch with their adoptive families. The puppy rescue was quite possibly the most difficult and trying thing I've ever had to do. It was also the most worthwhile. And now I know, without a doubt, that I am committed to dogs.
Chapter Twelve, The Old Man
After we lost Chance so suddenly last summer, Mark wasn't sure when he'd be ready to adopt another dog. I, on the other hand, was ready immediately. I knew I couldn't replace Chance and didn't want to, but I felt very strongly that we were capable of giving another dog a good home, so we should do so. I also couldn't stand living without a canine present. My house and heart felt empty. It was horrible. So I started looking on Petfinder for possible contenders. Something I could tempt Mark with. And it didn't take me long to find Leo. Leo was an Irish Wolfhound/Great Pyrennes mix. Mark had long admired Wolfhounds when we watched dog shows, and they are almost unheard of in rescue. This could be my opportunity. I pushed and pushed, and Mark agreed we could go pick Leo up.
When we first got him, we were quite worried about Leo. He's old, though nobody sure just how old, and he has arthritis. He was in terrible shape at first, barely walking, and we thought he might only have months to live. But he slowly got better, with good food and medicine, and now he's better than ever. We still keep in mind that Leo is not a young dog, but we're not expecting him to get sick every day like we used to be. It seems likely now that Leo's retirement at our house will be measured in years rather than in weeks or months. And that's as it should be.
I loved Chance to death, but Leo is my dog soul mate. Leo is the dog I had in mind when Barley was described to me. Gentle and mellow and shy and affectionate, he's my perfect dog. After he came to live with us, Chance's death made more sense. The short lifespans of dogs made more sense. It all started to feel OK, or if not OK, at least bearable. It's painful to love them and know you're going to lose them, but loving them is so worth it.
Chapter Thirteen, The Anatolians
We got Leo in July. By Christmas time, Mark was adamant about a second dog. I didn't think it was all that good an idea, due to not having sufficient car space to carry Leo and a second dog, but we started looking anyway, with vague plans to buy a bigger vehicle. Then a funny looking big white dog showed up at a kill shelter near here. He was listed as Pyrennes, but having made the acquaintance of some Pyrs, neither Mark nor I thought that was quite right. So we went out to take a look. And what we found was Ata. Called Zeus by the shelter, he was sickly skinny and terrified. When they let him out of his pen, we came directly up to us and leaned against our legs, begging us to get him the hell out of there. And without any knowledge of his background or behavior, or even if he was house trained, we did. Again, at my insistence. It had become a pattern, my being uncharacteristically willing to take chances when it came to dogs.
And again I was right. Zeus was renamed Atakan, which is Turkish for "ancestral blood." We chose a Turkish name because it was pretty clear after seeing him that Zeus/Ata was not a Pyr, or at least not much of a Pyr. He looked an awful lot like an Anatolian Shepherd, which was another breed we'd admired at dog shows but not seen much of in real life. After he got cleaned up and started gaining weight, it became clear that Anatolian was all Ata is, and he's pretty much a perfect representation of the breed. It also became clear that our new dog was quite young. At this point, given how much he's grown since January, I'd doubt Ata was more than a year old when we adopted him. Which gives me great pleasure, as it increases the chances that he'll be with us for a while.
Not to long ago, a second Anatolian popped up at a kill shelter, and after contacting the National Anatolian Rescue Network about her, she came to live with us as a foster dog. Bridget has been a bit of a handful, with dominance issues and potty training problems, but she's turned into a fantastic dog. She's sweet and gentle like all my favorite dogs have been, and she's more affectionate towards people than any dog I've ever met. I feel sure we'll find her an excellent family soon.
And then? Then we'll get another dog to foster. Mark and I agree that three is capacity at this point, but that it's best if only Leo and Ata are permanent, since we are going to have to move in the semi-near future. Who knows if that will actually happen. I'm sure if we got a foster dog we thought would fit better with us than with someone else, we'd keep him/her. I am hoping that we'll be able to afford more space wherever we land next so that we can foster more than one, and maybe have more than two of our own. That may well make me the crazy dog lady, but so be it. There are worse things to be.