Sunday, March 25, 2012

The canine line

I had to wait until I was in junior high school to get my first dog. I guess I had shamed my parents enough by then.
He was worth the long wait.
He had the name of millions. Sparky. But — and I say this unabashedly, even when I know how corny it sounds — he really was one of a kind.
I did have a dog when I was much younger, two, actually, but both wound up not working out too well. I don't remember the first, a beagle that, my parents told me later, jumped all over me ruthlessly. That dog was built for the field, not a home with a toddler, and he was gone a year later. The second was Max, and Max was great to me, but as it turns out, too great, as he bit a few other children to protect me or his ball. I do remember that. We gave him away too.
So looking back, I can't blame my parents for making me settle for a hamster.
As it turns out, my parents probably congratulated themselves on their brilliant coup, for the hamster was a good pet. The first one anyway. I named him George, and save for two "Escape From Alcatraz"-like jailbreaks —he'd learned how to do pull-ups on the cage and yank himself over the top, so if you left the lid open, you were screwed —he was Hamster of the Year two years in a row. He loved to be held, ate carrots in my lap and rarely peed on my leg, despite the fact that I had him out most of the day. I don't think you can ask much more of a hamster than that. My brother had similar luck with his first. I think her name was Sadie.
Those were high standards, I'll admit, and rather than even attempt to try to match them, the next few hamsters owned by me and my brother failed miserably. One passed the pet store test, but when we brought her home, liked to crawl in my hand and bite me like my palm was a piece of steak. Another HISSED at us. And a few just died of some strange disease the pet stores called "wet-tail."
I remember the last time, on my third replacement for George, when it died, when my parents finally gave into my tears as I pleaded for a dog. I was going through a bad stretch in my life, perhaps my worst. Junior high school was no joke. I was teased and needed therapy for depression. Seriously. Rather than put me on medication, they gave in and got us a dog.
That's all I needed.
• • •
It wasn't just us. Everyone loved Sparky.
He was a beautiful dog, for one thing, a miniature version of Lassie, and in our society, beauty always helps. But just as there are sweet supermodels, sometimes personality is not only a bonus, it's the reason you love. Sparky lived in a world where most of us, including me, aren't allowed. It was a world where everyone was someone to be trusted and enjoyed rather than feared. That was unusual for a sheltie, but his past was clean, and since we got him as a puppy, we kept it that way.
We had next-door neighbors with a lifelong friend of mine who loved shelties, and if one ever came over, Sparky barked until he or she took them over to their house for a visit. Later, when I brought him to Greeley after I grew up (sorta), he wandered from apartment to apartment on his good days. He loved playing tug-o-war with his sock, and I'm already going too long about it. You can read more about him in this column I wrote for the Greeley Tribune, but don't click on it just yet. Sparky is only kind of the point, and the subject of the column may jar you a bit.
He lived 15 years, and when I finally had to let him go after his kidneys shut down, I waited a long time to get another dog. That wasn't necessarily by design. I had a cat, a wonderful stray I called GK who was like a dog that meowed.
(On a side note, cats may have to rethink their position on this planet because as much as I love them —GK saw to that —the best compliment I can give a cat is that it's like a dog).
When I met Kate, she had cruel allergies that would not let her have a cat, and she tried her heart out, but in a close call, right down to inches on the tape, I had to give GK up to a great home.
(On another side note, I knew I made the right choice when they contacted me just recently to tell me about her death after what we think was her 17 years of life. They acted as I did with Sparky, waiting until her pain was too much, which told me all I needed to know. She had cat buddies and a constant lap, which was all she needed).
At this point I knew myself. Another hamster wasn't going to cut it. We went to the shelter looking for a husky.
And what we got was Denali.
• • •
Sometimes you find a dog, and sometimes, dogs find you. That's how we got Denali. He was a golden retriever mix with raggy, yellow fur, but he nabbed us with his tail. It wouldn't stop wagging. Later it was his eyes and sweet, needy personality. He was the dog who taught us to be parents.
Now you can click on the column.
I know now why there are a dozen ghost shows on TV, and why many of them are popular. I swear I can still hear his tags around the house. The habits have stayed with me, too. I reach for his snout when I open the door after work. I wait by the back door and call his name before I leave for the day. I hear a jingle and wonder what he's getting into.
Kate told me she wanted to wait to get another dog, probably past July, and I agreed with her.
But sometimes you find a dog, and sometimes, dogs find you.
After the column ran to a predictable cascade of letters and messages, one caught my eye. It was from a recent but trusted friend telling me about her dog. She was fighting, being attacked really, by their other, older dog. They got her in November.
Everything about her sounded great. She was an Australian shepherd mix, calm and loving but active, which meant I could both run and snuggle with her. She was great with small kids, scrawny but a good size, a chewer but only on her own toys. She was good on a leash. She was well trained. She liked other dogs and did well at the dog park. She would need exercise, but anyone who knows me - and I know you do if you've made it this far - knows that isn't a problem.
I'm a firm believer in shelter dogs. I will always adopt. They got her from the shelter. But I also know, from our experience with Denali, that many of those dogs are unpredictable at first, with unknown histories, and with our family, that was not only a bit dangerous, it was foolhardy.
Here was a chance we may not have again for a while.
Kate, at first, didn't want anything to do with it, and I didn't blame her. I felt guilty for asking so soon after Denali. How could we replace him? But I went to see her, and she was everything we thought.
I knew Kate had softened her thoughts after she asked for a picture. Then she asked if we could change the name.
We picked her up today.
Say hi to Ranae.

It may take a while before we feel the same love for her that we did for Denali or I did for Sparky. But that's OK. Sometimes a dog finds you if you let it happen. Maybe something else was guiding this. The hand of Dog, if you will.
On that note, despite my belief in some sort of higher power, I'm honestly not sure if there's a heaven. But I'm open to the idea because where else would Sparky and Denali be now? Just before we put Denali down, before I told him I loved him and thanked him for 11 incredible years, I told him about Sparky.
Sparky loved everyone, I told him, and he'll love you. You two need to find each other and play. Maybe one day, Ranae and I will see you both again.