Tuesday, September 28, 2010

You've Got A Friend

Fifteen years ago, Sue and I made the decision to move into our first apartment together. It was the second floor of a home in Taunton owned by the Dunn family who lived on the first floor. Rich and Linda were the best; accommodating, friendly and as it turned out, breeders of Miniature Pinschers. We'd talked about getting a dog but when we saw Mia, some six weeks into her gestation period (full term for dogs is 8-9 weeks) it seemed like fate. Linda liked the idea of one of her puppies living just upstairs, we liked the idea of a small breed dog. This is where some of you might be saying, "Isn't Jim big on adopting dogs from shelters and isn't he wary of so called back yard breeders?" This is true and this was fifteen years ago; I've learned quite a lot since then. Due diligence was not on the menu, this was impulsive. I'd once heard that most people can summarize their lives down to eight critical decisions. In hindsight, this was one of them.

If you've gotten this far and thought, "Fifteen? This must be an eulogy." I'm very glad to say it is not. Louie remains lively and happy. This entry is a tribute to my most unappreciated dog and oldest canine friend, as we call him "Lou Lou". Sue and I had both had dogs growing up but we were the farthest thing from experts. Nevertheless, we did one thing right and that was to bring Louie up for some face time starting at about 3 weeks old right up until 8 weeks when he came upstairs to stay. He'd come up for 20 - 30 minutes at a time. Developmentally, 3-16 weeks of age is referred to as the Critical Period. It's marked by development of the dog's nervous system and, as it's suggested by it's name, a critical time in a dog's life when their brains are "programming" for the world around them. We were bonding and easing the transition from his life with mother Mia and his litter mates to life with Sue and me.

Louie (aka "Big Lou") was a tiny little potato with fur as a puppy. He loved walks at nearby Massasoit State Park but was a bit of a grouch, snarling and grumbling to express his disgust at wearing a winter coat, brushing his teeth or clipping his nails. Tempering our image of him as a malcontent were those times when he'd cuddle up with Sue and fall into a deep sleep on her chest. It was very sweet.

About a year later Linda was breeding Mia again with the same sire. We took a little longer to consider our second dog (5 minutes vs. 3 minutes) but the Dunn's were again receptive to the idea. We chose the runt with a bald spot on his head. Keeping with the prohibition era influence, we named Louie's brother "Floyd". They were thick as thieves from the start apparently aware that they were kin. Louie's temperament mellowed considerably with Floyd's arrival. Having a canine foil to play, cuddle and walk with was just the ticket. They were inseparable, sleeping with each other, scrapping, eating together, walks in the park. The brotherly love between them was endearing and deep. Sadly, regrettably, this would be short lived.

Early the following summer Linda and Rich let us know they wanted to take back the second floor of the house. Their kids were growing up and it had become cramped quarters for them with just the first floor alone. We'd planned to begin looking for a home the following year once we'd saved for a down payment. Suddenly we were scrambling to find one right there and then. In hindsight we'd been pushed into what will likely be the best buyer's market in my lifetime. This was was prior to the bubble so prices were low and interest rates were very aggressive. We settled in the same home we live in now; nestled in a working class neighborhood near what is now my son's school and Warwick City Park where we walked Louie and Floyd so they'd have a chance to check out where they'd soon be living. A few weeks before the closing I was letting Floyd out to pee in the pen Rich had put up for all of our dogs on the side of the house. Once he'd finished I opened the pen to pick him up and bring him back in the house. What I would do to have that moment back again. This would become the reason I push the dog owners I work with to leash their dogs whenever they're outside with them. Behind me in the bushes was a feral cat. I hadn't seen him but Floyd did. He squirmed out of my hands and chased the cat into the street. Sue was around the corner and screamed, "Noooooo!!!" Screeching tires, "Oh no!, Oh my god, Jim!" The cat had made it safely across the street into a nearby cemetery. Floyd had been hit by a passing pick up truck. This happened 13 years ago, it remains painful to think about. It was preventable. This was my fault. Floyd was not killed by the impact but was severely injured. We rushed him to Dr. Mike Bruzzi at Dighton Rehoboth Animal Hospital. Mike's a terrific old school vet and we'd still be going to him now if he weren't so far away. He stabilized Floyd so we could catch our breath and discuss our options. Mike felt Floyd could recover but that he needed to see the specialists at Tufts. What followed were two weeks of visits back and forth to spend time with Floyd while the team there, led by Dr. Dorothy Michaels, worked with Floyd to keep him stable and sedated while he healed from the trauma. Floyd had suffered a spinal injury and the prognosis was for a long rehab with limited activity that we would have to closely monitor. Late into Floyd's second week at Tufts we received a call from Dr. Michaels. During the night, Floyd experienced an intestinal obstruction, something they hadn't seen. He'd passed away and I knew it hadn't happened peacefully. There are a handful of moments in my life when I've been reduced to inconsolable wailing. This was one of them, and it was for Sue as well. Dr. Michaels asked that we come up one last time both for some closure and to make final plans. Sue couldn't bear to see him now that he'd passed, I had to. Again, upon seeing him, I was struck with waves of sadness, regret and guilt. I wanted Louie's brother Floyd back but he was gone. When you work for someplace like Tufts, it's incumbent to develop a thick emotional skin. Things like this happen frequently, it's going to take it's toll if you don't. Nevertheless Dr. Michaels was right there with us, sharing in our grief. I don't know how she does it frankly but I'm grateful she was there for us. After a long gray ride back home, Louie jumped up on the couch clearly aware on some level that something was terribly wrong and doing his best to console us. I'd loved Louie from the moment I'd seen him born to today, October 1st, 2010 his fifteenth birthday but at that moment I had a new appreciation for him, for dogs in a broader sense.

There was no time to languish in this tragedy, we had to keep things in motion for the move that was just two weeks out. In the midst of all of this Sue and I worried that Louie, who had mellowed so dramatically with Floyd around, would revert back to Louie the Grouch. We began to look for a small breed dog, not wanting to pair him with a larger dog for fear of a physical mismatch. Again, my relative ignorance coming into play, preoccupied with size like two boxers at the scales before a fight. Temperament would and remains a wiser preoccupation. Our search brought us to a breeder in Exeter, RI who had a litter of Jack Russell Terriers. Another one of those "eight decisions", hooo boy! There was one puppy left, a fat little white puffball that had been overlooked for some reason. Sue and I were quickly vetted. Young couple, no children, fenced in yard, check, check, check. We'd brought Louie with us to get his impression of this puppy. I'd describe him as indifferent and their first meeting passed without incident. The calm before the storm. We brain stormed for a name, I can't recall all of ones that we passed on but when I said, "How about Archie?" well, sometimes you just know. That was his name, it couldn't be anything else. Understandably, the bond between these two was not immediate and has never been as obvious or deeply felt as the one Lou had with his brother but as the idea for this post struck me, Louie has always made the first effort to ease into friendships with the other dogs we've brought into our home. With Archie I was relieved they were getting along but I didn't
really appreciate it yet. In the years that followed, I would have my first introduction to training with my friend Ron. My son Keir was born in January 2002. While there was nothing about either of our dogs that raised any flags with respect to our new arrival, we went through the motions bringing home linens from the hospital to ease them into it. A far more thoughtful approach has been designed since then by Katenna Jones and Jane Demming, "Baby Ready Pets". Nevertheless Keir's arrival was a bright ray of warm sunshine and once again, Louie was the quintessential canine friend. Of course this relationship has proven tenuous over the years. These guys can rub each other the wrong way from time to time, of course Lou's not one to hold a grudge. If Keir's got some string cheese, Lou's doing whatever he asks him to. As a client once told me, "every dog has it's price"...indeed. When Keir was 8 months old Reno came home to live with us after I'd worked with him at the shelter for several months. Again, Louie was the first one to extend a paw of friendship. Reno's reputation at the shelter was both dog and on occasion human aggressive. Shelter environments, even the best ones, are stressful for dogs. They're immersed in an ever changing landscape of scary sounds, new dogs and people. It's hard on them and it can manifest in their behavior. Reno had introductions to Archie, Lou, Keir and Sue on neutral ground. That was a must; I had to see how everyone responded to each other. That went nicely. The real test was when he was in his new back yard. Would this hooligan make short work of Lou and Archie? That was his modus vivendi at the shelter. Ann didn't think so, neither did I or this would not have happened. As it turns out neither did Louie. Was it because he was small? Because he was neutered? I would've loved to ask Reno, as it is, I can only speculate. Reno seemed very happy to be there beneath the trees, lying on grass instead of a concrete kennel floor. Louie was quick to begin chumming around with him and in that first afternoon I snapped this picture. I couldn't wait to bring it to the shelter. It confirmed what Reno's friends at the shelter suspected was true. There was a good dog in there, a great dog as it turned out. I think on some level it gave everyone an opportunity to evaluate the dogs at the shelter with a little more perspective. I certainly did and of course this was yet another moment for Louie to show his flexibility with another new arrival. Louie and Reno remained friends until we lost Reno this past April to cancer. We were fostering Miles at the time though the dogs were not completely aware of it. To minimize stress on Reno and Archie, both very ill at the time, we played a shell game, putting our dogs behind closed doors while Miles would come up from his kennel to go outside and "commune with nature",...ahem,.. of course get some exercise and hang out. It wasn't until we'd lost Reno when we decided Miles was going to stick around. It'd been seven years since we'd brought Reno home. Louie was an old man, maybe he was too old for this shit? Archie's been rebounding the last several weeks but at the time I didn't want to subject him to a new dog. Miles had a reputation as well; for going after dogs, particularly small ones! Hoogah! What had I gotten us into? The protocol was to use baby gates during the day, kennel at night and lots and lots of leashed walks with Louie, while Archie continued to get healthier, responding to a waning dose of drugs to address what we think is Evan's Syndrome. It was habituation by osmosis and we had to be patient. The first time I let them see each other off leash, I'd invested in a muzzle for Miles. I needed to see how he'd adjust knowing he couldn't use his teeth. After going stiff, flagging and moving away, he offered a play bow. That was an eye opener. You can see the video on YouTube by clicking here. His name was still "Smiley" at the time of the post. If you watch the whole thing you'll have to forgive Archie for taking a dump a few minutes into it; no class. A few months have passed since then and it should come as no surprise that Louie took the lead to help ease Miles' transition into our family. The age difference makes for some expected friction; at fifteen, Lou's not keeping pace with a one year old JRT. Nevertheless, the muzzle's off and the baby gate's are gone. Even Archie is showing some tolerance for the new guy. Notice who's between them, keeping the peace.

When I say that Louie's the best, I say it with unapologetic bias. He's been with Sue and I through thick and thin. He jumps up on the back of the arm chair in the living room every night I come home, moaning and whining with happiness. He's still anxious to learn, still accommodating, still lively and joyful. I often say it to him when I'm scratching his chest, "You've got the heart of a lion Lou." and he does.