It’s 7:30 on a Thursday evening. I’m walking along the San Francisco bay, with the sun in my face and a stiff breeze coming off the water. On my headphones the excellent Denis Leary is explaining to Terry Gross how he is learning to be a grown up as he works on his show Rescue Me. I think about the concept of rescue a lot – mainly because of the two shaggy dogs walking ahead of me.
I knew two years ago that it was time to get a dog, but it took a while to find the right one. First I consulted Legacy of the Dog. Who knew there were so many amazing breeds of dogs? Perhaps a Komondor or an Irish Wolfhound would suit – except that I didn’t have thousands of dollars to invest in a puppy and I was committed to finding my dog at a shelter. I did continue the breed research however. With two cats at home I needed to find a type of dog that hadn’t been carefully bred for hundreds of year to kill small animals. That ruled out all terriers, hounds, and a good portion of the sporting group breeds. I didn’t want a small dog, so that ruled out the toy breeds. In fact I was increasingly drawn to larger dogs, such as Giant Schnauzers, Briards, and Bouvier de Flanders – none of which I was likely to find at the local shelter. I consulted Quirk Books’ The Good, the Bad, and the Furry: Choosing the Dog that’s Right for You, which lays out the straight scoop on each breed, and narrowed the list further. Then I hit the web and began searching shelters and rescue groups.
In the end it happened quickly. One day I was a girl with two formerly feral cats, and the next I was a girl with two formerly feral cats and a five-year-old Old English Sheepdog, named Dudley, who had been relinquished twice by owners who could no longer care for him. He was a big grey and white dog who approached the world with a wary eye, and I loved him immediately. I spent the first day quietly sitting with him as he explored his new world. That night he lay on his bed in the kitchen while I washed the dishes. I watched him from the corner of my eye as he gradually relaxed enough to lay his head on his front paws and finally closed his eyes. “You’re home now,” I thought and knew we’d find a way to make it work.
“Are you crazy?” asked my friends and family when I called to announce the news.
A second sheepdog named Buddy followed eight months later. Buddy had been abandoned one night in front of a shelter in Sacramento. He was filthy, matted, and starving. There were ligature marks around his neck and one of his legs. The vet estimated that he was about two years old. He wasn’t completely house-broken and had clearly never walked on a lead. I spent much of my first day with him frantically reading through The Dog Owner’s Manual. To my delight, he proved to be amazingly resilient. He greets everyone with a big sloppy smile and tries to climb into their lap.
“Are you sure it’s worth it?” my family asked gently as I gave them too many details about the house-training.
At first it was tough. I learned to walk Dudley, though I had to be very careful about supervising his interactions with other people. Panic overwhelmed him if anyone came at him too fast. I was not able to walk Buddy. Every time I tried to take him out, he would pull frantically to get back to the safety of the house or the yard. No amount of coaxing or firmness could calm him. I stumbled on the answer to this dilemma accidentally. We took a car trip and at the other end – 100 miles from home – he had no problem taking a walk with Dudley and me. The trick, I realized, was to get him away from his safe place. My battered copy of The American Heritage Dictionary defined “rescue” as “an act of saving; deliverance” so it seemed ironic that I was tricking this dog into walking by taking him away from the place he felt safe. Regardless, this tactic broke the ice and now Buddy is the first one out the door when it is time for a walk. He is delivered to a larger world and no longer associates safety as much with a place as he does with his pack: me and Dudley.
That’s what we’re doing that Thursday evening – walking along, as if it is a perfectly normal activity rather than a triumph of socialization. I am listening to Denis Leary make Terry Gross laugh. The dogs pace shoulder to shoulder in that unique rolling gait that sheepdogs have, until Buddy smells something interesting that must be investigated. An elderly couple passes by as Buddy hauls at his leash. “Who’s walking who?” the man asks, and I smile ruefully. Then we’re moving again, and as we pass from sun and wind into a shady grove of conifers I close my eyes and take a deep breath of the pine needle smell. I am forced into a complete awareness of the moment and the day’s stresses fade away. It’s not always clear who’s walking who. In fact, it’s not always clear who’s rescuing who.
Am I crazy? Probably. We have so far to go.
We leave the trees and follow the curving path along the harbor. The sun is sinking behind us and it’s time to go home.
Is it worth it? Yes.
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