Goodbye

When Gratitude Is Not Enough

This is Spanky.

He’s my dog. I wasn’t a dog person growing up; in fact, I was terrified of them. But one by one, a select few canines nuzzled their ways into my heart, until at last this girl took me past the point of no return:

bree

This is Bree. She belongs to my brother in law, and now my sister, who says Bree is 50% of the reason she dated her husband to begin with. Bree is exceptionally well-behaved and gentle, and she has that rabbit-like fur of an Aussie, which she is. She sets the bar unbelievably high for anybody looking for her own dog. Six years ago, after yet another vacation from which I returned home to Texas missing Bree, I finally realized it was at last time for me to find my own dog. Also, it seemed like a smart thing to do after three or four break-ins.
Finding a dog is a difficult task, because the dog you play with on short visits isn’t always the dog you live with after a year. I knew I didn’t want a puppy. I knew I didn’t want a lap dog. I wanted a dog to walk with, hike with, and occasionally cuddle. So after following a street dog with no training and apparently no hearing from the pound to the SPCA, I realized that was more than I could take on, and, based on an online picture on Petfinders.com, asked to visit with Spanky.

Spanky jumped on me the minute I took him out to the pen. I don’t like jumping dogs, but his jump was filled with love. It was more like a stand-up-and-hug. He licked me, which I also don’t like, but again, it was more of a ‘thank you for taking me out for a bit’ appreciation lick. And then, like a sweet crazy puppy, despite being over a year old, he ran crazy lengths of the pen, keeping pace with the lab in the pen next door. He was so thoroughly engrossed in his pace that he ran smack into a pole with the side of his head, and fell down dazed. WHAT WAS NOT TO LOVE?!?!?!

spankyday1

Mange, heartworm, giardia and hookworm. The fact that he followed me everywhere, including into the bathroom. Getting up at 5:30 to make sure he got enough good exercise before I went to work. I was terrified. I thought I’d made a huge mistake. Do you know how long dogs live? A REALLY LONG TIME. Thank god Bree’s mom told me to give it at least a month or two. By month three, I was in love with him. I took him to training (to train me). I took him to bars with decks, where he would tactically lied anywhere a waitress would have to pet him to pass. I took him to the dog park, where I learned why people laughed when I said I wasn’t planning on changing his name. (If you don’t get it, go to a public place, and yell, “Spanky,” to something 50 yards away.)

Fast forward five or six years, and here I am planning to travel around the world. It’s easy to figure out where to store your stuff while you explore other continents. It’s easy to map an itinerary (especially when you aren’t big on planning, so your ‘itinerary’ is really “let me pick some countries and figure the rest out later).” It’s not that difficult to figure out where to store your car. But finding someone you trust to watch your dog is no small task.

And this is where the saint enters. Here is the saint; we’ll call her Santa Barbara, with Spanky:

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Now, I’ve been sharing only the good parts of Spanky. The bad parts, I created. Somewhere in the process of quitting my job, giving up my paycheck, putting everything I own in storage, and hitting the road, I became anxious. Spanky picked up on this, and decided (chow/German Shepherd mix that he is) that he would now be the alpha. He absorbed my anxiety, and to defend us both, became inexplicably aggressive at odd moments. The dog who used to follow toddlers around licking crumbs from their sticky palms would now nip random people who were kind enough to hold open a door for us. In Oregon, where one is not allowed to pump one’s own gas, I had to exit the car to give the poor station attendant instructions and my credit card, less he lose a hand by putting it through the car window.

The more aggressive Spanky became, the more nervous I got, and the more nervous I got, the more aggressive Spanky became. To make matters worse, two different, seemingly fool-proof plans for dog care during my trip had fallen through. I couldn’t buy a plane ticket until I knew where my dog was to be housed, and my options were running low. A fantastically brave and generous friend in Denver offered to give it a try. I assured her that his behavior was actually much better in my absence, and added in extra funding for a trainer, which I researched before bringing him to town. And then I left.

I left with a flood of relief. Spanky wasn’t relieved, though, he was abandoned, which didn’t do much for his behavior. Turns out he didn’t like kids running around, and my friend and her husband have two of them, and they have friends, as all kids should. So my friend, we’ll call her Santa Menor, came up with the brilliant idea of taking Spanky to stay with her mother in Alabama. Her mother had lost a dog six months earlier, and wasn’t fully ready to commit to another dog of her own. But a foster suited her just fine. So Santa Menor put Spanky in the car and drove from Denver to Huntsville, Alabama, to deliver him to his new home.

I know, right?! I have the most amazing friends.

Santa Barbara was just what Spanky needed. She was firm with him. She acknowledged his fear, but didn’t give in to the poor behavior it produced. She gave him boundaries, and she gave him love. She gave him what every dog needs, what I had given him for the first four years of our time together, and then allowed to slowly dissolve: she gave him an alpha. She re-trained him to be a dog with an owner, not a dog fending for his person. And then she moved him to Denver. What dog wouldn’t love that? (And let’s be honest: what dog’s person wouldn’t love not having to drive the extra two days to Alabama to re-claim her pup?)

Spanky hiking with Santa Barbara's son

Spanky hiking with Santa Barbara’s son

Last week, after a year of separation, I went to Denver to get my dog. I knew he would remember me, because dogs don’t forget a smell. But I wasn’t sure he would remember me happily, so I prepared myself for the worst. I prepared myself to leave Spanky with Santa Barbara if that was better for him.

As I approached the door, he growled at me.

“Hi, Bubba,” I said, softly, using the pet name I had given him about five minutes after we came home for the first time.

He growled once more.

“It’s me, Bear.” Because why should a pet have only one pet name?

He cocked his head to the side as Santa Barbara unlocked the security door and let me in. I stood still, and took a long, deep breath. “Hi, Bubba,” I said again, kneeling down in front of him.

And then he got it. He knew me. His tail started wagging and he rubbed his very furry body against my legs, coating my black pants in his sweet tan hair. He nuzzled his nose between my legs and tried to crawl under them, even though I was kneeling. His attempt to shove his entire body into a place where there is no space ended with him body-flopping onto the floor, then rolling over so I could scratch his tummy.

Before this moment, I had never met Santa Barbara. She had had my dog for a year, loving him, training him, walking him, picking up his poop and taking him to the vet to update his shots, and I had never met her. So I got up to give her a hug and say hello, and Spanky looked up at us, and you could tell he felt slightly guilty. We moved into the living room and sat on the couch, and he went back and forth between me and the Saint, until he managed to wedge himself so that she had one end of him and I had the other, positioned perfectly for scratching.

Things went on like this for a couple of days, Spanky happy to see me, then even happier to return to his other person and get snuggled. He gleefully followed her into her room and onto her bed at night, but would be waiting for me at the top of the stairs when I came from the basement guest room in the morning.

I took him on a long walk the first morning, then left for most of the day. When I returned, he was surprised to see me all over again, and repeated his routine of passing between Santa Barbara and I, maximizing his petting opportunities. On the second day, I took him on half as long a walk, to the same groomer where I had dropped him off a year earlier and not returned. He was understandably over-excited when I showed up three hours later to get him, and only slightly confused when I put him into a car he hadn’t seen in over a year to drive him home. On morning three, I went to spin class. I would leave his exercising to Santa Barbara, because today would be the last time she would walk him.

When I returned from spin, I began to load the car. Spanky never likes this activity. He is sure that something is happening and he will be left behind. Here he is the second year I had him, when I packed the car to drive us both up to Washington State, and he got in it more than an hour before we were to leave, and refused to get out, despite the fact that the car wasn’t fully packed, I wasn’t in it, and it was almost 100 degrees out. He isn’t always the most astute dog, but he is far from dumb.

spanky car backseat

Santa Barbara took him to the dog park while I finished packing up and took a shower. When they returned, there was nothing left to do but say goodbye. And say thank you again, knowing it would never be enough. What do you say, what do you do, when basic declarations of gratitude are not enough? I could buy Santa Barbara dinner for a year, a five star vacation, a personal masseur, and none of these things would aptly express how grateful I am for what she gave me – the freedom to see the world because I knew Spanky was in good hands – and what she gave Spanky – his freedom to once again, just be a cool little dude of a dog. So Santa Barbara, this post’s for you. Because when gratitude is not enough, all that is left is blog.

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