It’s been almost a year since we lost our much-loved boxer mutt Guinness, and I remember it with the chill clarity of today’s winter morning. We’d been keeping her kidney disease more or less under control for a long while by then, and though we weren’t measuring the remainder of her life in years anymore we were at least hoping for months. But the dreaded refusal to eat that we had been through with our first dog Harley reared its ugly head, and there was no ignoring what that portended.
But for a few days, we tried. I braved a supermarket – the first one I’d been in since March of 2020 – to pick up a prescription for synthetic red blood cells in case her anemia was depressing her appetite. We authorized an IV infusion in an attempt to jump start her kidneys. Nothing worked. The vet solemnly explained that Guinness was suffering an acute kidney crisis within her chronic condition, and it was just too much for her system. In the midst of a February Covid-19 surge we were invited inside the veterinary building, and we knew what that meant. Although I had been a model of caution throughout the pandemic, I didn’t feel an instant’s hesitation. No way was I going to let a dog of mine die alone.
The staff spread blankets out on the floor of the months’-abandoned public dog washing facility. Guinness stumbled under her own power from the back, saw us and collapsed. “She was being tough with us,” the vet murmured. “Now she knows she doesn’t have to.”
The doctor said we could take her home for a last night together if we wanted. I took stock of her. Her paws and face were bloated from the IV. Her expression was dull. She turned her head away from even the tastiest food we could offer and was lethargic when we petted her. She was done. I shook my head. “She hates traveling.” Our house was almost half an hour away. “It would be selfish. It would be for us, not for her.”
For the third time we sat with a loved pet as their life ended. Harley had been so far gone – the vet had looked at her kidney numbers and said, “I have no idea how this dog is even still alive” – that her passing was no more than a small, soft sigh. Nick, the old dachshund we’d taken into our lives for his last two years, his body falling apart like a well-loved stuffed animal and suffering from dementia to boot, fought as he always had until the end. Guinness looked back reproachfully as the needle went in, but after that she laid her head on the ground and closed her eyes. I couldn’t have said precisely when she died.
For the first time in over twenty-five years of canine companions we came home to an empty house. When Harley passed we still had Nick and Guinness, then Guinness when Nick was gone. But she had come into the full flowering of her personality only once she was the solo dog, and we felt it would have been – again – selfish to adopt a second pet. So we let her be the baby seal-eyed, human-centric creature that she was, the uncontested queen of the house, loved and spoiled everywhere she went.
The hole in my heart was indescribable. She should have been waiting for us, a shoe or two carefully removed from the closet and laid by the door where she could snuggle with it until our return. But there was no soft gold brindle face at the door. The beds were empty. One of her mealtimes passed, then another, and I had to stop myself from calling for her to come eat.
I did what I always do in the wake of sorrow, stiffening my spine and cleaning up. I gathered her medications and laid them aside in the garage to take to Walgreens’ drug disposal. I laundered the reusable pee pads. I washed and dried the food and water bowls and put them in the loft along with all of her other belongings. It didn’t help. Without the coziness of the beds the house looked too big, too empty. We made kind of a mess out of dinner. We nursed our wine and stared out the windows at the darkness.
The next day I spent a lot of time wondering what to do next. Our pre-Covid plan had been to travel some. Maybe delay getting another dog to devote more time to our photography. But now? Sure, the pandemic could be over in a year but that wasn’t a bet I was necessarily going to take, and with Guinness gone I was beginning to realize how much she had helped make isolating ourselves tolerable. It wasn’t just that she needed things – feeding, exercise, attention – that forced us to pull ourselves out of whatever occasional malaise we might experience as the months wore on, though that was certainly true. But more importantly, she didn’t know there was a pandemic, and there was a kind of relief in having a creature in the house who didn’t have to perform some complicated emotional pivot to adjust to the new normal, who was nothing but delighted that my husband was home all the time now and that we very seldom left her alone.
The day after that I spent wrestling with how much I missed the routines of caring for a being. Taking a dog on walks, feeding them, playing with them, gave the rest of the day a structure. I felt at loose ends. That feeling might go away with time, but did I want it to?
I broached the subject with my husband. I said that after all, we certainly had enough room in our hearts to love and remember Guinness while also providing a loving home to another abandoned creature, didn’t we? He looked uncertain, but said sure, I could go ahead and look at the shelter. We laid out the ground rules. Female. Under a year old and under fifty pounds. Mellow. Obedience trained. I agreed heartily, then pulled up the Woods Humane Society website.
Unsurprisingly, the adoption process under Covid-19 was very different. You perused the available pets on the site, put in a request to see a single animal, and a staff member called back to set up an appointment time. Gone were the days of wandering the facility in search of an immediate emotional connection with a dog who was looking you right back in the eyes. If the one you picked from a handful of static images wasn’t The One, you started the process over again.
The list of adoptable animals was small. This didn’t surprise me, since the pandemic had spurred a surge of lonely, pent up humans looking for companionship. What did surprise me was the breed range. It ran from Chihuahuas to German Shepherds and…that was about it. There was a lone Catahoula Leopard Dog/Pitbull mix who couldn’t be around children, cats, livestock, or other dogs that even I, as a fairly experienced dog handler, wasn’t willing to take on (sadly, Shnookums is still at the shelter almost a year later, and I imagine likely to remain there for some time to come).
The Chihuahuas to a one were listed as flight risks that required a fenced yard, which we don’t have. So that left the German Shepherds. My husband had talked about wanting a GSD puppy as a project when he retired…maybe a slightly older one could be a dry run? I scanned the photos, looking for a face that said, “Take me home.”
And found it in a dog rather unfortunately named Boobear. He had more black than I was accustomed to in a German Shepherd (which I have since learned is called a “faded bi-color coat”). He had an amber tint to his irises (leading us to eventually start referring to him as the “house wolf”). He would have been intimidating looking if he hadn’t had one ear straight up and one ear cocked to the side, lower teeth jutting out a little, given him a decidedly goofy expression. That hole in my heart started to fill a little just looking at him.
There were problems though. Five of them, in fact. “He” was male. He was two years old. He weighed seventy pounds. He had no obedience training whatsoever, and his bio used the code phrase “great running buddy” to indicate that he was not going to be mellow unless you tired him out first.
The latter was the thing we were least worried about, although everyone from the shelter to the vet to neighbors as we passed in the early days exclaimed, “Do you know what the exercise requirements for a young German Shepherd are?” We nodded over and over, agreeably at first and then somewhat more tiredly. My husband and I each ran three days a week, logging at least twenty-five miles between us. Add in the mile or more we walked after lunch and that seemed quite sufficient to keep even a young dog well exercised. (In fact, in spite of our exhaustive research on the subject, it was a little too much exercise. He developed a limp, and we cut his running days back to five.)
As for the rest? We’d have to assess that when we met him.
When the shelter employee brought him out he was a little wild-eyed, trying to look everywhere at once. We had brought treats, so as he drew closer he obligingly homed in on our pockets. He was bigger than our 55 pound Guinness, but at a casual inspection didn’t seem that much bigger.
We tested his knowledge of basic commands, which was indeed as non-existent as the shelter claimed. He would ping pong between us for a reward, which was encouraging. But he was distracted by everything – a dog passing by, a bird flying past, the creak of a gate in the distance – which was not.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have trepidations at the time. I had read that male dogs were often harder to train than females, and we were starting at ground zero with an adult. He had been transferred from a different, overcrowded shelter, and Woods didn’t know anything about his history. (A book on German Shepherds I read a few weeks after we brought him home opened with, “Don’t ever adopt a GSD without knowing their lineage and upbringing. They can be unpredictable and aggressive.” Ah well, ignorance was bliss.) The paperwork from the shelter vet contained the repeated phrase, “Couldn’t continue with the examination,” and I wasn’t sure what to make of that. (Our regular vet and I found out later, and it wasn’t A Good Thing.) And the difficulty getting him to focus his attention on us for more than a few moments at a time seemed…worrisome.
Still, we almost hadn’t adopted Guinness either. She had been a sad lump when we met her – not playful, not engaged – and had turned out to be a wonderful companion. Nothing about shelter environments, however kind, was good for animals. It was almost impossible to gauge what they might turn into with dedicated care and attention. We had a few back and forth moments of, “Are we really going to do this?” And then we took him home.
The first thing that had to go was that abysmal name. Maybe you could pin Boobear on a Pomeranian or a Shiba Inu, but there was nothing about this dog that screamed either cuddly or bear. “Oh, changing his name is fine,” the employee helping us fill out the adoption paperwork chirped. “He doesn’t answer to it anyway.”
It was my husband who suggested Rowdy, in homage to a dog my oldest brother owned years ago. The original Rowdy was an enormous Doberman Pinscher – a tough, sweet, goofy boy that I fell in love with from the first time I met him as a teenager and he collapsed on the floor to serve as a writing desk for my journal for hours at a time. My brother managed to nab him before he’d been docked, so he still had his happy, floppy ears and a tail that he inadvertently wielded like a whip when he was excited. In later years he tangled with a cougar on a cross country skiing trip, and though he ended up a three-legged dog my brother managed to ski him off the mountain and save his life. It felt like a legacy worthy of honoring.
In some ways Rowdy settled in quickly. The shelter employee’s opinion notwithstanding, it was obvious that he was comfortable in a house. He flopped into the dog beds immediately, followed us around genially, looked out the windows, put his forepaws on the kitchen counter…and it was then that I realized just how much bigger than Guinness he really was. She couldn’t have reached the counter to save her life. She had to stand to look out the windows and even then most of her muzzle was below the sill. He could sit, and a good chunk of his neck was visible in addition to his indignant eyes if we left him alone in the house.
But it was plain that he wanted to get along indoors. It only took one correction before he stayed away from the counters. He thought nabbing fish and pork wrappers out of the trash before the soft close lid snapped shut was tremendous fun, but when we smothered our laughs and told him that it wasn’t, he gave it up easily.
We assumed – with some dread – that since he wasn’t obedience trained he wasn’t house trained either. So I meticulously followed the shelter’s instructions for getting through the night: get up, take the dog outside, stand quietly or walk in small circles. If they don’t tend to business within five to ten minutes, repeat the process a few hours later. This turned into three nights of getting up at midnight, two, four, six in the morning as the temperature dropped from 35 to 30 to 25 to 22 degrees Fahrenheit. Rowdy inevitably stood around for a few minutes, gave me an, “Are you mad, woman?!” stare, then led me back into the house.
But he never had any accidents, and we finally decided that he was house trained. And also had a champion bladder, since he never once asked to go out at any time between about five in the evening and 7:30 the next day. Even then it was a leisurely process. A dog’s natural fastidiousness about not soiling their bed, extended by training to the entire house, for Rowdy seems to encompass the whole acre and a half of our property, so that even in the throes of diarrhea – when he did whine urgently to go out – he held it until we’d reached the neighbor’s property (yes, I always carry disposal bags). This is not necessarily a habit that I love, especially when it’s pouring rain, but it is what it is.
Taming the Whirlwind
Rowdy’s first night home began with pizza. Not for him, of course, but hanging out with us on the patio while the oven heated up and food was assembled and cooked. He was fine, for a while, until it got dark and a breeze kicked up. He did not like the wind. He did not like the sound of animals in the night. He didn’t really calm down until we brought him inside.
This distaste for the semi-rural outdoors lingered for some time. Coaxing him to step on dirt, grass, or leaves was well nigh on impossible. On walks he had a habit, when he encountered unfamiliar objects, of spinning in wild, fearful circles, nearly pulling me off my feet. Since “unfamiliar objects” initially encompassed everything from horses, goats, cows, chickens and turkeys to trash bins, propane tanks, a neighbor who had a propensity for big hats and anyone who didn’t immediately smile at him, outings were generally fraught.
He was so unpredictable that for almost a week I was afraid adopting him had been a terrible mistake. If he saw another dog he wanted to say hello, and he wanted it very forcefully. His indignation knew no bounds when a squirrel crossed our path or a woodpecker hammered overhead, and if I was inconveniently in between him and his quarry, well that was sad for me. I invested in a no-pull harness, which helped. And if he didn’t stay put at my side he was likely to meet a firm but gentle knee in his.
After four days or so he mostly stopped weaving like a drunken sailor. After a month we abandoned the harness. But what really turned the tide, ironically, was a bad fall. He’d been with us for about a week, and I had him on a leash to come along while I took out some trash. The paved path alongside the garage is narrow, and he suddenly darted in front of me. I fell hard. My jeans were ripped and I could see blood oozing generously around my right knee. Rowdy’s leash squirted out of my hand, and a horrible image of him running into the street and getting hit by a car flashed across my vision.
But instead he turned around, looked at me quizzically and poked me gently in the face in a “Whatcha doin’ down there?” gesture. He let me lean on him to stand up. And after that incident he taught himself to tightrope walk along the narrow concrete edging next to the path so he’d be out of the way. I was sure then that yes, he was young and very distractible, but we were becoming his people and he was becoming our dog.
Hearing the Herder
After that he made good strides at becoming a better citizen outdoors. His frantic circles at new input grew smaller, more centered around us. Then he started looking up at us before spinning, as if he were asking, “Is this something I should be worried about?” We’d smile and tell him everything was fine, and he’d fall back at our sides.
We’d never had a herding animal in our lives before, and I was expecting some unique behaviors. Each of our dogs’ personalities reflected their predominant breed in one way or another. Harley had the protectiveness of a Pit Bull and the love of roaming of a Labrador Retriever. Guinness possessed the Boxer’s goofy, friendly nature (and the unfortunate habit in her excitability of jumping up on people).
Some of his herding instincts were obvious, and it wasn’t too hard to find acceptable substitutes. Instead of grabbing my wrist to lead me somewhere he could slip his nose in my cupped palm and push a little bit so he could feel that we were going the same direction. Barking at us when he wanted something was unacceptable but he could vocalize any other way he liked – a whine, a yowl, a funny extended warble, even a tiny frustrated growl if it didn’t go on for too long or sound too aggressive. (He is by far the most vocal dog we’ve ever had.)
But the key that really unlocked his personality was the beach. The shelter advised keeping his input restricted for three weeks or so, to acclimate him to his new environment. But he’d adjusted so well, and all of our dogs had been such beach lovers, that we decided to take him on a little trip after two weeks as a treat.
At first I thought we were going to have to bundle him back into the car and retreat to our quiet space in Atascadero. His eyes grew wide and wild. He charged to the end of his six foot retractable leash and ran arcs at max extension, back and forth. He completely ignored the ocean. After a minute I realized he was tracking, trying to account for every single person and dog passing him on that wide expanse. He had to know everything about his surroundings.
Once I recognized that core personality trait a lot of things made sense. Why he had so much trouble initially with the open spaces and hidden sounds of a semi-rural environment. Why my husband or I getting up from a chair and moving to another part of the house caused him to leap up and follow until we settled down again. (This has mellowed as he learns our routines. Carrying a laundry basket or trash bags means you’re coming right back, so he can keep snoozing. Putting on running gear means he’s going along too. Grabbing a wallet and putting on street shoes could involve him or not, so requires continued vigilance.)
It explained why he nearly broke my knee spinning in surprise when a woman unexpectedly emerged from her car inside her garage. And why after that incident, every time he sees a car on the side of the road he looks in the window for a driver, and if they aren’t there, looks around for some sign of them nearby. If he stops on a walk and stares in a particular direction, that means there is definitely something there, and he wants it acknowledged before we move on. Conversely, if I see something that he hasn’t, I’ll point it out to him so he isn’t caught off guard.
Harley didn’t really care about anticipating threats in her environment. She knew with an absolute certainty that her snarls and her oh-so-white teeth against her oh-so-black fur would be equal to any defensive task when it reared up in front of her, expected or not. Guinness never really knew that threats existed in the world. Everyone wants to be my friend, right? Of course! (Well, except for squirrels and possums. You I will kill with brutal efficiency.)
Rowdy, on the other hand, is eerily like having the canine equivalent of a Navy SEAL in the house. His eternal vigilance even feels built into his anatomy. Until we had him, I didn’t know that for prick-eared dogs upright pointing is the default state, and it takes muscle energy to pull the ears down into another posture. So when he’s asleep they are up and open, ready for input. They also move independently. This is most obvious when we’re out on walks. Usually his ears are pointing forward so he can take in what’s ahead of him, but if you call his name he’ll swivel the one closest to you backwards briefly to acknowledge that he heard you. Because of the way he deploys them, we’ve taken to calling them his “radar dishes.”
I understand intimately now why dog experts warn that working breeds need jobs to do. Fortunately keeping an eye on us in the house and twice a day patrols of the neighborhood along with a morning run seem sufficient for Rowdy. He sniffs for new trails, peeing as he goes (a bit of an adjustment for us with our first male dog). He pauses at the driveways of favored neighbors, and if they’re outside stands erect, tail wagging slowly, waiting for them to come and pay tribute. New people and dogs require cataloguing and processing and then are absorbed into his existing map of the world and no longer cause anxiety. Since we’re new to the breed, it’s a strange and delightful thing to watch.
When we first adopted Rowdy I would trip over names, sometimes calling him Guinness, then Harley, before settling onto the correct one. This was partly because I was a little at sea, not having an already established habit of differentiating between multiple dogs in the house. But it was also partly because Rowdy has been a bit of a blend of our two previous dogs’ personalities.
Harley was an independent creature from the beginning to the end. Even as a puppy, gated in the kitchen to make sure she wouldn’t have an accident on the carpet, she would snap her teeth at us in irritation at her confinement. When she was old and in declining health we had to watch to keep her from slipping off the property and going to the river, presumably to die alone.
Guinness was a lover. She was the first dog to successfully sneak onto our bed at night for cuddles. Few and far between were the people who met her without melting into coos and smiles, then delighted laughter as she wrapped her long front legs around their arms in a hug.
Rowdy spans that entire spectrum. If he’s feeling sniffy and you ask (rather than command) him to come to you, he’ll sit down some distance away and stare at you with an expression that communicates, “I’m not in the mood and what are you going to do about it?” But rare are the mornings when I get up, give him a pat – first thing, of course, before anything else – and he doesn’t roll over on his back for a belly rub.
More than anything, he prefers that everyone be together. Before we had a Martingale collar for him, he could routinely twist out of the standard one with a single contortion of his slender neck. But rather than run down the street or play chase, he would sit down and look at you proudly. “I did it! Now what?” And then he would wait for you to put the collar back on.
One morning my husband was running hill repeat drills, which bore Rowdy to literal immobility, so I took him out on a casual run. We hit a t-intersection and I turned left toward home. But suddenly Rowdy stopped, nose pointing straight up in the air. He sniffed one direction, then the other, then tried to pull me right. Later I discovered that my husband had passed that way recently. It could have been coincidence, but it certainly seemed as if Rowdy – having sussed out where one of his errant sheep was – wanted everyone reunited.
This behavior was confirmed when my husband took him on a run when I had an early morning errand. Rowdy initially ignored the Forester as it drove past. Then his nose shot up in the air again and after a few sniffs he started pulling (vainly) to catch up. I returned as they were a few hundred yards away from the house, and this time he broke into a run and literally dragged my husband home. Everyone reunited was The Best.
And it was. Even though I realized too late, no matter what my husband said, that he hadn’t really been ready for another dog. A training book I read shortly after we adopted Rowdy spoke of your “heart dog,” the one that, though you love all the dogs that enter your lives, tugs on your heart in an almost painful bond. Guinness was my husband’s heart dog, and in my own need I don’t think I gave him enough time to grieve her loss.
And I don’t know how to feel about that. It all turned out okay, as over the months I watched the two of them grow close. Complicating matters is the fact that Rowdy feels like my heart dog, and I think I would have missed out on something special if we hadn’t adopted him when we did. If you had told me that a dog who engages in a constant, low-level war for autonomy was going to be the animal who burrowed into my heart and made a nest there I would have said you were crazy. And certainly on days when the streets are wet and he wields his seventy pound bulk to literally ski me across the asphalt to see a Golden Retriever that he likes, I don’t love his independence.
But then the pupils in those wolf-like eyes shrink to pinpoints in disapproval when he hears the word “no,” or expand to fill his entire iris when he’s trying to manipulate me into attention or a treat. Or I take too long putting my shoes on to go out and he turns his back on me to face the door, as if he’s saying, “Here’s the way out, you idiot.” Or I’m practicing Spanish when he comes back from a run with my husband, and if I don’t drop what I’m doing immediately to greet him he launches into a prolonged, indignant yowl until I turn away from my laptop.
All of our dogs have been wonderful creatures. But sometimes with Rowdy I feel like we invited a shapeshifter into our home, and one of these days I’m going to get up in the morning and there’s going to be a human curled up in the dog bed. He is complicated, and a little neurotic, and can turn on a dime from goofy and puppy playful to something vaguely terrifying in his single-pointed attention. (Although never aggressive, thank goodness. Even his response to a dog spoiling for trouble is to turn his back on them and refuse to engage, and usually the aggressor is so confused that they retreat.)
We’ve had him almost a year and in some ways he is still as perplexing to me as the day we brought him home, and I suppose that unpredictability is what draws me to him. This relationship is ongoing, and not everything has been revealed, and perhaps it never will be, and that’s not an experience I’ve ever had with a canine – or hell, even with a number of humans. And I’m curious to see what comes next.