SEEDLINGS: In a Relationship – It’s Complicated – By Amy Wall Lerman, Editor-in-Chief
Let me give you the background first:
I found Dodger on an extremely busy intersection when I lived on Long Island in New York several years ago. It was a stormy Saturday morning in October and I was driving to Dunkin’ Donuts for a cup of coffee and a newspaper. When I stopped at the stop sign to wait for an opening in the traffic, there was this adorable black and white, freckle-faced dog digging for China atop a pile of dirt at the side of the road. We were eye-level. Our eyes met and he took full advantage.
His big brown eyes opened wide like he had just recognized a long-lost friend. He wagged his tail and decided to be extra cute with that long, dirt-covered tongue dangling playfully at the side of his mouth – a look that will be forever etched in my mind. He had a prance in his step as he bounded into traffic, aiming for my driver’s side door.
I looked out the windows to try and see where he was so I wouldn’t hit him before attempting to move into the traffic ahead. I couldn’t see him. The line of cars had started building behind me and they were starting honk. I was worried they might pull out and hit the dog so I opened the car door and stepped out to see where he was. At that moment, he dodged (i.e. “Dodger”) around me and hopped into my car.
He was wet and dirty. His fur was matted. But he seemed pretty happy, not wanting anything more than to eat and play. I got my coffee and drove home wondering what to do next. I hadn’t owned a dog since childhood. I worked 12 hours a day. There’s no way I could keep him. How would I find his owners? He was too cute to be a stray. He must have owners. As I tied him to my shed with a long piece of Christmas ribbon I dug out of the basement, it started to pour and I could hear the rumble of thunder in the distance.
I tried to find his owners and when a man called that first day after being matched with me in a “pet finder” database, I felt a little sad. When he didn’t show up to identify his pet, I felt scared again. I looked out the window and saw this drenched puppy (because that’s what he was – I hadn’t realized that at first – I thought he was just a small dog) with his one floppy ear and the other bent at the tip. I want to remember him looking at me longingly, “please be my friend, please love me,” but what I saw instead was fear. He was scared of the thunder and the flashes of lightening. He was way more scared than I was – and for a better reason.
Dodger remained fearful his entire life. Thunder and lightning, fireworks, ceiling fans, car commercials, men wearing hats, men with mustaches, cats – these were some of his biggest antagonists.
He was fearful and needy and HOLY COW – he was annoying!
He would bark in my face when he wanted to play – which was all the time – night and day. He had an ear-piercing bark that caused pain to my inner station tube. He wouldn’t chew a chew toy by himself – I had to hold it for him. He had an abundance of relentless energy that drove me crazy. I would invite the neighbor’s 11 year old boy over…just to try and tire him out. I crated him at night and kept him outside during the day…just so I could breathe.
I read about Border Collies. The web referred to the breed’s energy, intelligence, sensitivity, and even neuroses. This dog was no walk in the park for someone with a long commute and 24/7 job, and a penchant for solitude. But I tried. I took him for training. I took him for walks. I bought him toys. I put him on Prozac. I brushed him. I took him to the beach. Those were the early years. The hard years. I thought all the time about how to give him away. I loved him, of course, but I was not the right owner for him. I knew that. I’m a cat person. They fend for themselves; play when they feel like it; snuggle at night – leave them a bowl of food and a clean litter box and you can go on vacation for a week. Not dogs – and not this dog.
But he was also joyful and funny and so smart!
I would let him off the leash in the yard and he would run laps around the house until he collapsed from exhaustion. He continued to be a digger. There were holes all over the yard and he would prance around them and look at me with pride as he buried another bone (I couldn’t get mad at that face). He would greet people he liked by jumping on them full force – lunging and bouncing off their bodies (I felt sorry for the men who usually wound up doubled over and cursing). He jumped over the hood of my car to greet my friend one day. He barked at his toys like they were supposed to get up and play with him – not the other way around. He was obsessed with green tennis balls. I would hide them when he wasn’t looking – in a drawer, in a bench, on the top shelf of a closet. He always managed to sniff them out.
“Show me,” I’d say, and he would – turning his head in the direction of the hiding place while doing what I called his “happy dance.” There was no ignoring Dodger when he was like this. He was relentless. But watching him play with a green tennis ball was pure joy.
He had an incredible vocabulary. He understood actual words. I demonstrated this to disbelieving friends by lining up some of his toys and telling him to get specific ones: “Get the spikey ball”; “get the Mickey Mouse ball”’ “Get the bone” – he got it right every time.
He and I were known around the neighborhood for our “sprints.” He was fast but so was I. I would leash him and let him run as fast as he could with me at his side. We were both sprinters with little endurance.
When he was 3-years old, I took him to a Border Collie specialist in Connecticut who said she could get him placed as a working dog on a golf course. He would chase geese for the rest of his life. My heart leapt. Really? He would be so happy! When I asked what happened to the previous working dog on that golf course, she told me he was killed by a delivery truck.
At that moment, I committed. It took 3 years to get there but I decided right then and there to be his best friend – even if I wasn’t sure that he could be mine.
And we were friends. Good friends.
He was not a cuddler most of the time, but he would sleep with me when I fell asleep in front of the TV. He would wake me up at 6 a.m. every morning with a lick on the nose to take him outside. He put his paw on my shoulder and licked my tears one day when I was sad. And I’ll never forget the day we drove to my sister’s house in the middle of a thunder storm, he jumped into the passenger seat, stretched out on his belly, rested his head in my lap, and let me stroke his head for the entire 2-hour ride. He was quiet. He was still. I was in heaven. He trusted me.
When I had my son, Dodger saw him as some kind of twitchy animal or squeaky toy. I was terrified that Dodger could, even accidentally, hurt the baby, and made sure they were never in the same room together for the first few months. My trust in Dodger faded for a little while – and returned only when my husband took control and made Dodger come to terms with the fact that he wasn’t the neediest in the house anymore. Evan still bears a small scar from a bite (again uncharacteristic but not impossible Dodger-type behavior) he received when he approached Dodger’s food bowl while he was eating.
Dodger was 9-years old when Evan was born. Because of their rivalry (mostly involving food), and because Dodger was who he was, Evan never got to have that “boy’s best friend” relationship with his dog. But Dodger never got to have his “dog’s best friend” relationship with his boy either. Worst of all Dodger lost me to Evan, but his bond with my husband grew stronger and I knew Dodger finally had his Alpha male – the leader I couldn’t be – because I needed him as much as he needed me.
Dodger died on May 31, 2013. He was 16 years old and I had to put him down. I couldn’t bear to do it and still can’t believe I did. I held on because I didn’t want him to go. If he wouldn’t leave me, I wouldn’t force him to. I think he waited for me to let go first – so I did. As weak as he was, Dodger walked into the vet’s office that day as trusting as ever.
My last words to him were a whisper: “thank you.”
Amy Wall Lerman, Editor-in-Chief of the Motherhood Later Than Sooner eZine, Baby Bloomer, is a television news producer and writer. She is the author of several books including The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Critical Reading and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Family Games. Her poetry has been published in an online literary journal and she maintains her own blog called Dodillydo. Amy became a mom at age 42 and lives in New Jersey with her husband and son.
Dodger video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtNi-_ANEL0