A few years ago, I had a rescue dog named Max. He did not have the best life for his first 5 years, having been owned by an alcoholic and kept tethered outside. He was sometimes beaten, and his body bore the scars.
He would invariably figure out a way to slip through his collar and make a run for it but also invariably be picked up and taken back to his owner.
Except for the last time.
In the fall of 2009, he found himself at a rescue shelter, where he was adopted out and brought back… three times in short order. The note on the door to his enclosure simply said ‘too much to handle’.
Out of chances, he was scheduled to be put down the first week of January 2010. I came to the shelter the last week of December 2009.
I hadn’t planned to adopt a dog that Christmas. But, when I set eyes on Max, he was sitting quietly against the back wall of his enclosure with his ears back and a green stuffed toy in his mouth. I could sense his anxiety. I could also sense a kind and gentle soul. I could feel my heart tugging in his direction.
I decided to think about it for a couple of days. But, as I walked back to the car, a dog appeared and ran to the end of the fenced-in area to quietly but expectantly wait for me. Realizing it was Max, I bent down and put a couple of fingers through the fence. He immediately dropped to the ground and started gently licking my fingers.
Within the hour, I left the shelter with my new dog.
I can’t claim that it was an easy transition. He not only had to adjust to being an indoor dog, he had never been walked on a leash before, and he was a husky lab shepherd mix who needed a ton of exercise. He also had anxiety issues. Complicating matters was the fact that his previous owner was French, and so Max didn’t even understand English (something I didn’t find out for over a year… and it explained a lot!!). He was also seriously underweight, at only 45 pounds.
But, slowly but surely, we both adjusted. His anxiety lessened, his weight increased (to 78 pounds), and we fell into a routine of 3 one hour walks each day. His kind, funny and quirky nature overshadowed his occasional displays of stubbornness.
The one thing that consistently impressed me was his gentleness. In the beginning, he was so hungry that he would go crazy at the mere thought of food. But, even then, he would always take any treat ever so gently between his teeth, always being careful never to bite down on my fingers.
The best illustration of his gentleness had to do with boiled eggs, his absolute favorite treat. He would gently take the egg into his mouth and then run down to the mat in front of the patio doors. Sometimes he would come and sit beside me, and we would both consider the egg as it lay there on the mat. Other times, he would just lay beside it, as if standing guard.
When he was finally ready, he would take the egg into his mouth and roll it gently around until, seconds later, he would deposit the yolk – fully intact – back onto the mat. He always made sure that I noticed and then, and only then, would he eat it.
Personally, I think he liked to prolong the experience. Savor the moment. Save the best for last.
I called it his party trick. He never got tired of doing it, and I never got tired of watching.
Just over 2 years after adopting him, Max suddenly took very ill on Good Friday. By Easter Monday, he was gone. A massive intestinal tumor. Ironically, he’d been given a clean bill of health not even three months before. Just before he was put down, they brought him into a private room where he climbed into my lap and started gently licking my fingers as I wept.
He was gentle in life, gentle in illness, and gentle in death.
I marvel that a dog who had experienced so much hardship could be so gentle. It’s a lesson to us all that, no matter what we’ve experienced in life, it’s up to us what kind of person we will become. We can choose to rise above our circumstances and write a different ending.
Be better instead of bitter. Be gentle instead of harsh.
The moral of the story?