Gentle to the max…

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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.

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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.

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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?

Gently, please…

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Patiently waiting…

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I’m convinced our ability to navigate ‘waiting’ is pivotal to patience.

Just consider all the things we could be waiting for at any given minute…

Waiting for something to start, waiting for something to end, waiting for something to happen, waiting for answers, waiting for healing, waiting for results, waiting for justice. Or small things like waiting in traffic, waiting in line, and waiting in waiting rooms. (I find it humorous that they’re actually called waiting rooms, pretty much giving you the heads up that waiting will happen).

I’m famous for standing in a line and then switching to a different line, that seems like it’s progressing faster… only to discover that the line I’d abandoned was the quickest. The same goes for waiting in traffic. And yet I still persist in changing lines and lanes. Although, while it used to regularly drive me crazy, I’ve come to pretty much expect it. My ability to patiently wait has improved over time. And, when I find impatience creeping in, it’s often a measured response.

But, trust me, patience doesn’t come easily. Or perfectly. I’ve worked on patience probably more than any other attribute in my life. And I know better than to ever think I’ve mastered it because that’s precisely when circumstances show me how far I still have to go.

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Our 21 month purebreed British bulldog, Charlie, is a dog who’s always waiting.

Waiting for water.

His need is insatiable to the point of fixation. According to the vet, it’s psychological. But, to Charlie, the need is very real.

He will drink to the bottom of his dish, no matter how much water is in it. He’ll drink until he gets sick (which history has shown us repeatedly). To him, water is the equivalent of a t-bone steak. So we have to be keepers of the water dish.

And so, Charlie is a dog who waits.

Some days, his entire day is spent waiting for water. He’ll lay by his food dish for hours. If water should appear, he doesn’t want to miss it. But, regardless of how often he gets water, as soon as he’s finished drinking, he starts the waiting process all over again. Sometimes, he’ll break it up with naps but, trust me, a whole of waiting goes on.

Charlie has become a very patient dog. But, even then, occasionally the waiting gets to be too much, and he’ll bark once as if to say, ‘Hurry up, people!’. But, we just say no, and he goes back to waiting… because he’s learned that he’s most apt to get what he’s waiting for when he’s being patient.

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That’s a valuable lesson for people. Our patience might not always achieve the results we’re hoping for but it will always do far more than our impatience will. At the very least, being patient changes us.  We become kinder, more tolerant, more tolerable, and self-controlled people. Happier people… because impatience never made anyone happier. Or more popular.

So… need patience?

Just wait for it…

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Missing Max…

Easter holds a great deal of significance to me as a Christian because it commemorates Jesus’s death and resurrection.  But, last year, Easter unexpectedly took on an additional significance.

On the first Easter, Jesus died on the cross on Good Friday, and rose from the dead on Easter Monday.  He went from death to life.

Last Easter, my dog Max became suddenly and severely ill on Good Friday, and had to be put to sleep on Easter Monday.  He went from life to death.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANot once before that weekend did he show any signs of the massive intestinal tumor that would claim his life.  He had even been given a clean bill of health by a veterinarian at his annual check-up just a few weeks prior.

Max entered my life just as unexpectedly as he left it.  The decision to adopt a dog from a rescue shelter was made on a whim right after Christmas in 2009.  There were only five dogs in the shelter that day but it was love at first sight for me.  But, even though I knew there was something very special about the dog I named Max, it took me a long time to fully let  my guard down with him.

I had been given a beagle for my thirteenth birthday that I had named Sue.  Our family wasn’t able to keep her very long, in part because the three of us kids were allergic to her.  We found her a good home outside the city but she was struck and killed by a car shortly after giving birth to her first litter.

Max & Me - August 201035 years later, I finally had another dog but my answer this time was to not get too attached.  I loved my dog but I kept him at arms length.  And he knew it.  But, slowly but surely he went to work at breaking down my defences.

I had Max for a total of 2 years, 3 months and 6 days but it was a full year before my guard fully dropped.  Max’s death totally devastated me but my main regret is that it took me so long to love him to the ‘max’.  It was time wasted.

It seems to me that we should just love unreservedly, without thought for the future, because we will never know the future until we get there anyway.

I really believe that Max was my guardian angel.  He was my best friend when I was isolated from family, friends, and civilization.  And, his sudden passing became the inspiration for radical, necessary, and overdue change in my life just two months later.

By how Max lived his life, he showed me how important it is to:

  • always make time for hugs
  • do things with the people you love, even if they’re doing nothing at all
  • stay connected to the people you love, even if it’s just a nose bump to their hand or back of their knee
  • have fun every day
  • see the humor in life, even and especially at your own expense
  • be kind and gentle
  • be friendly with everyone you meet, even if they’re not always friendly in return
  • love lavishly
  • live with abandon
  • always save the yolk for last

This Easter, and every Easter, I’ll be missing my Max to the ‘max’.

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Puppy love for people…

I’m staying with a friend while I work a short-term contract in a nearby city.  She has a little dog named Mia.  On a typical work day, I leave the house before anyone else is up.  But, when I return, all it takes is the beep when I lock my car to alert Mia that I’m home.

First the beep.  Then the bark.  I can set my watch by it.

By the time I open the door to the house, Mia is beyond excited.  She spins in circles, barks, and jumps.  She even occasionally has an asthma attack from too much excitement.  There never is any mistaking that she’s happy to see me.

blog 2Mia wants nothing more than for me to spend time with her.  She loves being pet, hugged, kissed, and cuddled.  When I sit in the easy chair, she lays alongside me as close as possible, for as long as possible.  No matter where I am, Mia is interested in what I’m doing.  She wants to be wherever I am, and preferably somehow connected to me.

When I go to my room and close the door, it’s not unusual to see a little nose poke under the door, trolling from one side to the other, with little whimpers in protest of the enforced separation.

That’s not to say Mia can’t be distracted by noise or activity.  Or the possibility of food.  But she quickly returns to her main priority.  Me.

This got me to thinking about spouses.  How many spouses are genuinely happy to see each other at the end of the day?  Or first thing in the morning, for that matter?

What sort of difference would it make in marriages if each spouse was intentional about being happy to see the other?  Happy to be with each other?  To be easily affectionate with each other?  To make it their priority to do things together and spend quality time together?  Or to do nothing at all together?

People often get a dog because of the unconditional love, acceptance, attention, and affection they so readily give.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t get a dog.  I’m just saying you don’t have to get a dog in order to get those things.  People have the same capacity to give them as a dog does.  It just takes time, commitment, and continuous effort.  But, if you think it wouldn’t pay off, give it a try for 30 days and I’m sure you’d be convinced.

Puppy love makes more of a difference than people might think.

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Wanted: male companionship. Humans need not apply…

Ok, I’ll admit it.  I’m suffering from serious dog envy.  I miss my precious puppy dog so much.  Four months and 19 days after his sudden passing from intestinal cancer this past Easter Monday, and I want another dog now more than ever.  I know I can never replace Max but I have a great desire to celebrate his life and all the joy he brought me by providing another rescue dog with a loving, caring, and stable home.

Yesterday afternoon, I took a walk at a huge park near home and happened upon two different dogs in the off leash area.  The first dog was a golden haired cross between a lab and a golden retriever.  He was following behind his owners but as I approached, I swear he flashed me a smile before venturing over and sniffing my hand.  He gave my left kneecap a welcoming lick as I leaned over and pet him ever so tenderly.  I heard one of his owners say, “Awwwww”.  After a couple of moments, I pried myself away and started walking up the trail but, even though his owners kept calling him to come, “Pacer” didn’t move a muscle and instead stared at me intently as I moved progressively farther away.  If I thought I had the slightest possibility of successfully hoisting his sizable girth off the ground, my instinct would have been to ‘make tracks’ with Pacer.

Further up the trail, I happened upon an older gentleman who was walking a full-sized husky.  Max had been a combination husky, shepherd, lab so I asked if the dog was friendly.  “Too friendly” was the response.  Boy, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’d used that exact phrase to describe my Max.  I decided that huskies must be inherently social.

As soon as I started petting the dog, he moved to stand in front of me sideways and then leaned into me heavily in that oh-so-familiar way Max used to.  I was enthralled.  I reluctantly extricated myself and continued on with my walk, making a conscious effort not to look back this time.  If that dog had stared longingly after me too, I may well have snapped and crossed the line into the shadowy world of ‘dognapping’.  And we all know there’s nothing more logical than to stuff a mid to large sized dog into the confines of a tiny bachelor apartment.

The way I see it, I have three options:  keep Max’s memory alive by remembering how quirky, loving, funny, and kind he was; keep going for walks where I can have random meetings with other great dogs; or volunteer at either the Humane Society or the Animal Rescue Society so I can make a difference in the lives of these wonderful dogs until the day I have a pet friendly place to bring a new dog home.  Thankfully, I don’t have to choose.  All three options are more than possible, and highly probable.

So, who are the front runners if I were able to bring a new dog home today?  The list changes from day to day as dogs come and go through adoption but a 5 year old Shepherd/Cross named Charley is currently high on the list.  The other main contender is a dog named Petey, a special needs dog, who had a leg amputated after being found wandering with a badly injured and severely infected leg.

Dogs like Charley and Petey, who’ve had a pretty rough start, appeal to me the most.  Max had a pretty rough start but, in the two short years we had him, we gave him as smooth a finish as any dog could hope for.  To be able to give this gift to yet another dog is high on my list of things to do.

So, it goes without saying that some day, some way, some how, another dog will join Max on my list of “main men”.  It will truly be a dogged pursuit.

Letter to an Extraordinary Dog

My dearest puppy dog, Max,

I remember so well the first day I set eyes on you.  It was at the rescue shelter in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario on Dec. 28, 2009. There were only five dogs in the shelter that day, and you were in the very last cage, sitting with your ears pinned back and your little green stuffed animal in your mouth.  There was something about you that I immediately fell in love with.  I know it sounds strange but I could tell by your eyes that you were a very special dog.  But, the sign one of the staff pinned to your cage while I was standing there suggested otherwise.  It said, “Returned… too much”.  In fact, you’d had three failed adoptions since you’d been picked up as a stray by the dog catcher.  It should have scared me off but it didn’t.

I never expected to get a dog that Christmas, however, two days earlier, Antonio had announced to his staff that he would be coming home with a dog.  He didn’t know how… just that it would happen.

When we’d talked about a dog, we’d always agreed that we’d get a young pug, female, and spaded.  You were an older husky, shepherd, lab mix, who eventually grew to be 80 lbs, male, and not neutered.  You were an ‘anti’-pug… but I couldn’t get you out of my mind.

When we returned to the shelter the next day, you were alone in the yard, standing by the fence, silently watching us approach.  I crouched down by the fence to look you in the eye and you responded by lowering your head to the bottom of the fence, pushing your nose underneath as far as you could, and licking my hand.  I wept.  It was official. You were ours. The shelter had named you ‘Bullet’, for the vertical, bullet shaped marking on your forehead, but I impulsively knighted you Max.  I had no idea how fitting that name would turn out to be.

3 1/2 months after we adopted you, my Dad died, and we put you into a boarding kennel in the Sault for a few days while we flew east for the funeral.  We were surprised when the girl at the front desk recognized you.  You looked healthier, happier, and heavier than she remembered but she was certain you were the dog she had nicknamed ‘Bolt’. Since you had been a stray, this was the first information we had received about you other than the veterinarian’s estimate of your age. We learned that you’d been owned by an alcoholic who had mistreated you, and that you would routinely pull a ‘Houdini’, getting out of your collar, and making a run for it.  Somehow you always returned.  On one such occasion, the girl from the shelter had taken you in for a few days but you eventually bolted from there too.

We were shocked to learn that French was your native ‘tongue’, which explained a lot of the communication hurdles we encountered in the beginning.  I can only imagine what it must have been like for you… escaping from your abusive owner for the final time, being adopted by your fourth family in two months, taken to a new community four hours away, and then spoken to in an entirely foreign language.

But I was right that you were a very special dog.  You never barked, never went near the garbage, never got into anything, and never destroyed anything.  You were unbelievably careful and gentle whenever we you would take a treat from us and, despite your abusive past, you were unfailingly kind and gentle to everyone and everything.

Our biggest challenge was training you to walk beside us properly on a leash.  The progress was slow but sure, and the whole community watched, noticed, and cheered you on.  We walked you three times a day, and you became famous in town.  Everyone thought you were a puppy because you had such a puppy-like quality about you.  They thought you were beautiful, with a beautiful personality, and you were.  You were a truly beautiful dog.

It was a rare day that you didn’t make us laugh, whether it was the Elvis curl of your lip when we were playing hide and seek, the way you would bounce down the hallway when we were playing with you, your happy dance and showgirl wiggle when you knew we were going for a walk, or your unbridled elation when we would give you a special treat, like a Dentabone or an egg.  I loved how we would stand side by side when Antonio left for work and, as soon as the door closed behind him, we would look at each other for a moment and then you would literally skedaddle down the hall ahead of me to the livingroom, where you would retrieve your beloved cow puppet (complete with a clicker for mooing noises) and we would play tug of war or chase the cow.

I loved how you would jump up on your couch all excited for a cuddle.  I loved how you would routinely bump my hand, leg, or back of my knee with your nose while we were walking, for no other reason than to connect.  I loved watching your crooked run when we would walk through the trails in the woods during the winter and you were off leash.  I loved how I would round a corner in the trail to find you stopped ahead, silently watching to make sure I was keeping up.  I loved your crazy, mental run you would sometimes do to let off steam.  And I loved how, if I stopped to pet a dog, you would silently but unmistakeably position yourself between us, in a passively possessive move reserved for only me.

I loved how, if I put something special in with your food, you would start to eat and then stop, come over and bump my hand with your nose to say thanks and then go back to finish, I loved how you sometimes would walk into the middle of the yard and then fall to the ground as if you’d been shot, writhe around like a crazy dog, and then stop and tilt your head backwards to see if I was watching.  I loved how much you loved the car, always stopping at the beginning and end of a walk to flip your nose at the back door, in the hopes of an inpromptu drive.  I loved all the times you’d move up from the backseat to perch on the console between the two front seats, looking out the windshield, pretending you were a human.

But, what I loved most of all was how much you loved to be with us.  Your favorite thing was to be with us, no matter what we were doing.  In the beginning, you were so wary of hugs and cuddles but I persisted with them nonetheless.  Before long, you would seek them out.  I soon added kisses to your cheeks.  I especially loved how you would completely collapse against me with all your body weight and just enjoy the companionship and joy of being pet.

I loved how you could read our moods, and the many ways you found to cheer us up.  It was impossible to be mad at you for any length of time because you would totally charm your way out of it.  My favorite memory was one day near the end of March, when we picked Antonio up from work in the car immediately after your walk.  I was recounting your transgressions, and you leaned forward and started licking the snow from my hat.  It was the first time you’d ever done such a thing, and it completely disarmed me.  Antonio and I dissolved into laughter, you bumped my arm with your nose and, just like that, we’d made up.

There’s so much more I could say but, like all good things, this letter must come to an end.  Like all good things, our time together had to come to an end.  But, like many good things, we never saw the end coming.  You became so ill on Good Friday and we were certain it was temporary.  After all, you were only 7.  But, when Antonio took you for a short walk that morning and you laid down on the street – on your side no less – and Antono had to carry you the 2 blocks home, we worried even more.  We were so relieved when we finally found a vet who would take you in on Easter Sunday.

I’ll never forget Easter Monday afternoon, when the veterinarian called our cellphone and asked how soon we could get to her office.  I’ll never forget looking at the x-rays where the barium showed the huge intestinal mass that was crowding your intestines to the back half of your body.  Food couldn’t stay in and waste couldn’t come out.  And I’ll never forget the realization that you weren’t going to be ok, that you weren’t going to be coming home, and there wasn’t anything more we could do.  My heart broke in two at that moment.  I felt indescribable pain and sorrow.  Devastation is an inadequate word to explain the heartbreak.

2 years, 3 months, and 6 days.  That’s all the time we had with you.  But, I thank God that we had even that much time together.  I thank God for what you taught me about loving life, unconditional love, joy, kindness, and humor.  I thank God that the first 5 years of your life might have been hell but that we were entrusted with the gift of giving you as much Heaven on earth as we could for the time remaining.

In your beauty, you were Sir Max and, in your zest and love for life, you were ‘Max’imum velocity.  You truly lived life to the max.  I will never forget you, and what an extraordinary dog you were.  You’ve left a Max sized hole in our lives, but Heaven is richer for our loss.  I love you, my puppy dog.  xoxoxo