It was an uphill battle for Sheila to get me to break down and get another dog. We both had loved our Westie, Chumley, and were devastated when he finally had to be put down after a long illness. Much had changed in the five years since that day. No longer shuttling back and forth between our Manhattan apartment and our country spread, we had ended up in a suburb of San Diego, Carlsbad, California.
In the country Chumley had seventy acres to romp around, had he the inclination, which he didn’t. Even when he was healthy, he was a stick-at-home type of guy, and could always be found within shouting distance of the porch. Except when he was called to action, joining his pack of Sheila and me in chasing the geese.
We had this pond near the house, and twice a year during migration, Canadian Geese found it a convenient spot to rest, and give birth to their goslings. Sounds delightful, except for one thing, Goose shit. Globs and Glogs of it, on the pier and along the water. So, we really didn’t want the word to get around goosedom, that the Rodbell’s pond is open to the public. We loved nature, but not that much. So, when the geese alighted on the pond, the alarm went out, Goose Alert! The whole team was mobilized, Sheila, Chumley and Me.
This experience has given me a great respect for geese. You see, when they were right in the center of the pond, they were just out of range of my stone throwing ability. So, with an instinctive talent in trigonometry that any junior high school kid would covet, they found that center spot. So, we had to raise one hell of a ruckus to get them to fly away. And it worked, until it didn’t any more.
Now there were goslings, and the geese were parents. They could fly away, but their little babies couldn’t, so they were staying. We weren’t vicious. We had some sympathy for the avian family, but we just wanted them to find another pond. We would have even given them directions.
And this is when I was humbled by a species that you usually think you can outwit. We had herded the family of Geese to one end of the pond, and they knew they were in trouble. One of the parents, can’t tell which one, walked out of the water and started to limp towards the trees a couple dozen feet away. He (or she) seemed to have an injured wing, which was being favored with an awkward gait.
I walked after the injured goose, in an attempt to make sure that he was well chastised and wouldn’t come back, when out of the corner of my eye, I spotted the other big goose, and the half dozen or so goslings, running into the woods. When they had disappeared I returned my focus to the injured Goose, and would you believe it. As soon as his family was safe, he took off. His damaged wing restored.
It had been a ploy to get my attention. Now, in the history of goosedom, rarely have any been pursued by one with as benign intent as mine. This goose was prepared for the worse. He was sacrificing himself for his progeny. So, Geese, the species, is in pretty good shape, and will continue to thrive for some time, I would imagine. Along with goose shit.
Memories of Chumley were like this. He was our companion on cold snowy nights when we all huddled together in front of the fire (really the satellite television, but it’s the same idea.) And when we were in the other extreme of our dual habitat, our 30th floor apartment on Broadway he was also there. There it wasn’t geese, it was in-line skaters who were our nemeses. Chumley didn’t like them and went to grab a bite of their ankle when they went by, which made them jump which they didn’t like. So, I had to try to hold him back, and hold myself back (which I didn’t) when one guy made a really nasty threat when we were along the river that time. Finding Mitch
But, it was time for a new dog. And over the months Sheila tried to break me down. I really wasn’t ready for the interaction that comes with having a dog. You may never piss in your neighbors yard, but your dog will. And there are those who find this offensive, and want your dog to go in the street. I understand their point of view, but the problem is, a dog doesn’t. And did I really want to be defender of my dog, in this suburb where I certainly did not feel a real part of. I steeled myself against Sheila’s entreaties. But the pressure was being ratcheted up. “Maybe we could just visit the shelter along the highway. You know, Rancho Coastal where my friend in the orchestra used to work.”
It was Sheila’s desire for a pet, against my desire to keep my defenses intact. A few things worked in Sheila’s favor. A few months before I broke down, this little kitten, maybe a few months old, would come into our back yard. There wasn’t any collar, and we both really got attached to it. Then there was a second one. We would feed them, and play with them in our house, and then I sneezed. Once, twice, then incessantly. No way, we were not going to take them in, or any of their species.
And then there was Maggie, Denny’s boxer, who we walked with a few times a week. Maggie was one sweet pooch. And Denny was my pal. So, I confided in him my ambivalence about getting a dog. I said, “There are good things and bad.” And Denny responded, “No, there are only good things.” So, that was it. My resistance broken, we headed to the dog shelters. There were several visits to the ones in the area, where I was ready to take any dog. We even visited the snooty Helen Woodward Kennel in Rancho Santa Fe, where we didn’t quite measure up. They wanted my commitment that even if I were allergic to their dog, I would get treatment rather than return it, which I was not prepared to promise.
Once my defenses were broken there wasn’t much discriminatory skills to bring to bear to the decision. We did pick up some dog breed books to do some research, but it almost gets too confusing. We knew we didn’t want another Westie, since we didn’t want to merge Chumley’s memory with the new one. When had gotten Chumley from a pet shop, it was the same type of indecision. (Possibly a character trait of the writer?) I even managed to get a rare one week return option on that purchase. And, as it was expiring, I was still evaluating my options on whether to return our little bundles of joy. (There were two. Brewster died of a congenital disease at a half year of age)
After a week of looking, we dropped into the Oceanside kennel and walked around. There was this little curly haired guy, turned out to be half poodle, half cocker spaniel, a Cockapoo, who gave us both a wet lick on the nose as we leaned down to say hello. There was another dog that we were somewhat interested in but he was still in quarantine, so it was either this one or nothing. I looked at Sheila; She looked at me. And to seal the deal, the shelter was having an overstock special that week. A sweet fluffy dog, with a poodle fur that doesn’t cause allergies, that gives you a wet kiss, and at a bargain price----“let’s sign the contract,” I said. At His New House
So, we took him home. It really was a trial period like with Chumley, since they give you a free vet checkup and the opportunity to return him if it doesn’t work out. It seemed kind of strange having this creature here with us. And it must have seemed pretty strange to him too. Our memory was of Chumley, who couldn’t be close enough to us every minute of the day. Mitch, (that was his name and it sounded about right for him, so we kept it) was more aloof. We were told that the people who had him, had to get rid of him because of their health. That was it, no details, no names. The shelters protect both parties of these transactions, so no remorse can be acted on by the giver, and no recriminations expressed for a problem dog by the taker.
We fed him, walked him, played with him, all the doggie things. We got him a little round bed from Costco, that he seemed to find cozy, and we started our life together. We have a little back yard that we let him frolic around, which he seemed to enjoy. A couple days after we had brought him home, it was a Sunday morning, I let him out the in the back yard. I realized something was wrong immediately. The gate had been left ajar the previous day by our gardener, and Mitch had bolted. I dashed out the front door and saw him running down the street, ears flapping, and legs flailing. I ran after him, my plastic slippers flopping as I ran, shouting at the top of my voice, “Mitch, Mitch, Come Mitch, Mitch.” He was faster than me, and getting smaller as he made his first turn. I was tiring, and getting winded, as he flew on. We were on a residential street, but only a few blocks from a busy avenue. I thought about the little chip that was implanted for identification, but first he would have to survive the streets, which seemed like a long shot.
I remembered how it was in the country. There it was pretty common to see dogs walking alone along the road. Sometimes we would stop, but usually we wouldn’t. This was farm country, and a dog was livestock. Well, somewhat more, but too often, not much more. The county was discussing an ordinance to make it a crime to keep driving after hitting a small animal, but nothing to deter the people who let their animals roam.
But as Mitch was disappearing down the street, I thought of the shortness of our time together. Only two days, hardly time to get to know each other. How stupid, how careless of me, not to have checked the gate. And now he would be gone. But the fates had something different in mind. At the far end of the street there was a man walking his two dogs, and that’s where Mitch headed. There he was bouncing off the two dogs, putting them in shock, that they were being swarmed by this little guy who was all paws and licks. Mitch enjoys playing with other dogs with an unrestrained abandon, and there they where, two of them, right there for his enjoyment.
I walked over and picked him up, thanked the owner of the pooches effusively, and carried him the two blocks to the house. What a scare! We would never let that happen again. But we did. A few months later, when I was over at Denny’s, Sheila called in panic. Barely maintaining control, she told me that she had put Mitch out in the yard, but now he was gone. The gates were locked and the fence was intact. What could have happened. Denny jumped in my car and we took Maggie as a Mitch magnet. Ignoring meaningless red lights, I sped to the house.
Well, this time Mitch hadn’t gone far. It turned out that behind the dense high grass along the fence, was a little opening, big enough for him to get his paws into, and make big enough to crawl through, which he did, right to our neighbor‘s yard. Once again he was back in our clutches. I went to Home Depot and hammered in a triple protection of new fence extending well below the ground line. He would need a crow bar to get under this one.
And so it went. He had plenty of long walks where he could play with other dogs, but always on leash. And when we took him to a dog park, we made sure it was only those that had full enclosures, with double air locks that would not allow a dog to get out when someone is getting in. We inspected the back yard fence reinforcement regularly, and developed a standardized protocol of checking that the gate was locked after the yard had been mowed. Mitch was never going to get away again. A Secure Facility
As the months went by there was always that gnawing doubt: was Mitch happy with us? What had his life been like in his previous home? Would he still wish that he were back there? You can’t ask a dog whether he loves you, or whether he is happy, but it does matter. Was he a part of our family, a major part to us, or was he our prisoner. He was giving us pleasure, but were we giving him the same? We didn’t really know; and the memory of his escape attempts, suggesting an answer we did not like, was always in the background.
Then a few weeks ago we found out about an area near us in Encinitas under a high tension power easement, that had been just dedicated as a dog walk area. It was maybe a half mile long and a block wide of trails and brush. What made it different from any other play area we had taken Mitch to was that it wasn’t enclosed. There was no air lock with latches, just an opening in the fence that you walk through. Now, we knew Mitch was smart. If he had been plotting his escape all of these months, he would have noticed this as we walked in. He would have known that this was his chance to break loose and find those other people, or someplace else that he really liked better. He would have known this, and that he could outrun me any day of the week.
But we had to know. We walked several hundred feet into the area, and then I looked at Sheila, and we agreed. We would take off his leash. I reached down, pushed the snap, and he was free. And he turned, and he ran down the trail, his ears flapping in the wind. He ran about a hundred feet or so, and then I called, “Mitch.“ and I waited a long second. He stopped and turned, and started back at the same speed, right past us a few yards, around again, stopping at our feet. He looked up and made eye contact; petted him, scratched him behind the ears, and he was off again.
He ran back and forth, and when he spotted the waging tails of some dogs in the distance, he made that sound, not a bark but a sort of ummm, ummm, ummm, that is best interpreted as, “hey, there’s someone to play with.” He wanted to take off toward them, but only would after I had given the O.K. And when he got there, even in the ecstasy of his wild play, he would still be aware of us. And if we called, he would break off, and come. Mitch was just as concerned about losing us as we were of losing him.
It was a joyous day. We went back home together, for the first time feeling like a family. We all wanted to be together. It wouldn’t take treats, or an electronic collar to make him come when we called, it’s just that he wants to be with us. Wow, this is why there are so may dogs around. This is why people in dire straits will buy dog food instead of a meal for themselves. And this is why every so often you read about a person who dies in a freezing lake trying to rescue a dog, sometimes not even their own.
It took some time, but once again, we have a dog---and I guess he has us.