It happened while the three of us were relaxing on the deck, watching the sunset together. My husband and I, and our dog, Smokey. The sky had gone from pink and blue to a brilliant yellow-orange. Jon and I sipped a cocktail, and Smokey lounged at our feet, while Jon absently scratched his head. All three of us stared in reverent silence as the colors began to fade into the darkness of the trees. Suddenly, Smokey abruptly stood up and looked down at the deck in confusion.
“What’s the matter Smokes?” Jon asked. And then, “Oh no, what is that?” A significant puddle of liquid lay where Smokey had been. Jon and I exchanged a look. Smoke seemed confused, sniffing uncertainly at the spot. Giving us a worried look, he started to sneak away, as if he did something wrong.
“It’s ok, buddy, you’re all right.” We patted him and encouraged him to lie back down on a dry part of the deck.
“He just lost control of his bladder, “ I said. My heart sank. This was the latest in a string of events signaling our beloved companion’s decline into old age. Why is it these things seem to happen too soon?
As best as we know, old Smokey is at least 12 years old. He was a rescue who adopted us in January of 2008, on Martin Luther King Day. This is the day we chose to call his birthday, since all the shelter was able to tell us was he came from Alabama and had been living on the streets. He is a “cattle dog cross hound”. We wanted a dog with enough energy to accompany me on jogs, hikes and snowshoeing. A herding type who would fit right in on our growing, 5 acre mini farm. I am almost ashamed to admit he was not my first choice, as I was distracted by the energetic, cavorting puppies in the shelter. Jon stopped and knelt down at a small enclosure where a medium sized black-ish colored dog with funny ears lay quietly, his chin on his paws, which were sticking out into the aisle as if reaching for us as we walked by. His wet, cold nose sniffed Jon’s hand through the chain link. He was silent amidst the yapping of the other dogs. His eyes followed our every move.
The attendant asked if we would like to take him for a little walk outside. He walked shyly on the leash held by Jon, and was neither animated nor frightened, just kind of quiet and a little on the dull side. Looking back, I think he was probably a little shell-shocked. Jon was impressed with his calmness amongst the cacophony of barking in the shelter. If I were being totally honest, I had my doubts at what seemed to me to be a total lack of enthusiasm on the dog’s part. But, Jon was pretty insistent and pointed out that his age, approximately 9 months according to the shelter people, meant he was already house trained, something we didn’t want to mess with. And, I really wanted a dog, a rescue, and convincing Jon to visit the shelter in January when he had wanted a purebred Husky and to wait for summer had not been an easy sell. So, pretty soon we were signing adoption papers and preparing to take this dog home. He jumped willingly into the back of Jon’s SUV, and quietly laid down on the mat. Jon walked me to my car, and we made plans to meet back at home. (We had driven to the shelter separately). He immediately returned in a panic; he had locked the dog in the Jeep while it was running. We circled the Jeep, talking in fierce whispers, like crazed parents who locked an infant in a car.
“We need to go back inside and ask for help,” I said.
“No! They’ll think we are bad adopters! They might take him back!”
“Well, we can’t just leave him in there! What if he’s scared? How can we comfort him?”
We both peered in the windows. The dog was fast asleep. He had no idea he was trapped and in danger. He was in La La Land. We looked at each other and laughed hysterically. Jon called Triple A and within 20 minutes help arrived and unlocked the car. The only creatures in any danger were the two dimwitted human beings standing outside in the freezing January cold. But, at least nobody at the shelter seemed to be the wiser.
Once at home, “Mickey” (his shelter name) curled up in a corner on the kitchen floor and pretty much refused to budge. We coaxed him to go outside to relieve himself, and fed him right where he stayed. Otherwise, he was silent, head on his paws, in his corner, watching every move we made.
“This dog is kind of a dud, “ Jon said. “What do you think is wrong? Maybe he doesn’t like us.”
“Maybe he just needs to learn to trust us. Maybe he thinks this is only temporary. Maybe he is frightened and confused. He did come all the way from Alabama, and it’s freezing cold January here.”
I brought out a thick cotton towel, and laid it on the floor. Then I sat down next to the dog, and put my arm around his neck. He let me rub behind his ears. He was mostly black with some spotty gray and brown markings here and there on his back and chest. His chest was wide and his back tapered down to a pair of skinny hips. His legs were slender and delicate and seemed to belong to a different dog entirely. He kind of resembled a hyena. HIs eyes were a bright, warm caramel color. His ears didn’t stand up straight, and they felt bumpy, as if scarred. As if something had happened to them. He laid his head on my lap, sighed, and closed his eyes. A minute later he shifted the whole front of his body so he was half sitting in my lap, his bony dog elbows digging into my thighs, and his front paws wrapped over the top of my legs, as if hugging me. He sighed again and fell asleep. My heart melted. I sat there for an hour. It reminded me of the days when I held my sleeping babies, sitting as still as possible so as not to wake them. For the next couple of days, when he wasn’t sleeping half in my lap, he continued to watch our every move from his safe little corner with his back to the cabinets. On the third day, he stood up and followed Jon to the door as he went outside to work on a project.
“You want to come outside with me?” Jon asked. The dog’s tail wagged in response. He followed Jon out onto the deck. I looked out the window an hour later. The dog sat, shivering on the deck, watching Jon saw wood. I opened the door. “He’s freezing! He isn’t used to the cold. He needs to come in.” But, Mickey refused to budge until Jon came inside.
I believe that was the day he decided to keep us. He opened up his huge heart and personality to us, and we have never been the same. Our worlds, his and ours, opened up like a beautiful oyster.
This southern hound became a quintessential winter dog. Snow is joy to him. The first time he saw snow, he leaped off the back steps into it, up to his chest. He leaped like a deer hopping up and over the abundant white stuff, over and over. He put his head completely under it, sniffing the ground and the popping up out of it, sneezing and shaking his head, only to do it again and again. His favorite sport was leaping for snowballs. He was very athletic, and could leap completely off the ground and catch them. He loved to go with me on my snowshoe forays into the back fields. I would climb clumsily over snow covered stone walls. The dog would race ahead of me. Every once in a while he would come back to check on me. He’d appear from behind a tree or at the top of a hill, panting, and smiling in that way dogs do, as if to say “Are you ok? Are you coming?” I’d laugh and say “Hey show-off! No fair! You’ve got four legs! I’ve only got two!” Off he would go again, leaving me in the dust. But, he always came back to check on me. My loyal companion.
Somewhere along the line, Mickey became Smokey. Smokey for the hazy gray markings that fade into black. It just fit.
As winter melted into Spring, Smokey not only learned how to be a dog, living amongst humans, but also how to be a farm dog. Some lessons came easier than others. If Smokey were a first grade child here is a list of what he may have needed to write 100 times in detention:
-I will not eat my mom’s new chickens
-I will not poop under the end table, way back in a corner so mom can smell it but not find it for days
-I will not sneak over the stone wall to visit the next door neighbor dog and then hide from mom under their deck while she panics for 25 minutes trying to find me
-I will not chase deer across the road, no matter how tempting they are to race
-I will not steal my mom’s Starbucks cappuchino from the cup holder in the front seat while she is in Home Depot with Dad
-I will not eat an entire loaf of fresh Italian bread after stealing it out of a grocery bag while mom and dad run into Home Depot
-I will not try to make friends with skunks or porcupines
-I will not nip Mom’ s horse on the nose as an introduction
I learned a couple things as well. Like not to trust the idiot who advises a skunked dog be doused with Downy fabric softener. There really ARE stenches worse than skunk. I learned never to move too quickly lest I trip over my shadow, Smokey, who trailed me everywhere I went in the house.
The best thing about Smokey besides everything, really, is that once he learned something he did upset us, he never did it again.(with one, forgivable exception – more on that later) He killed one of our first chickens, but seeing our horrified reaction, that was it. He quickly figured out his job was to protect them. And protect them he did. Once, he darted like a bullet to nip the butt of a hawk that had swooped down from the sky to nab a chicken. It was quite the scene, like watching an airplane abort a landing at the last minute. Feathers flew, but they were the hawk’s not the chickens. To this day, Smokey scans the skies for hawks, barking at them from below. His circle of guardianship over the past ten years has grown to include chickens, ducks, a mini donkey, a horse, and visiting children. He also has tolerated our Quaker parrot climbing on and nipping his paws as he lies on the floor. He ran circles for hours to the delight of my nieces, until, exhausted, he hid from them in the tall grass until they gave up looking. I saw him hiding from the corner of my eye. I winked at him. His secret was safe with me.
One of my funniest memories of Smokey was the Italian Bread Incident. After devouring a fresh loaf of Italian bread he stole from a grocery bag in the car, Jon and I bought another. It was for a family dinner we planned that evening, which was a great success. Everyone loved the food, especially the bread. As we walked into the house after seeing the last guests out, Smokey greeted us a little too enthusiastically, considering we had only been gone a few minutes. His tail wagged in the helicopter motion he reserved for the most exciting encounters, but his head hung low and he couldn’t meet our eyes.
“He looks guilty,” I said.
“What did you do?” Jon asked Smokey, who turned his head and looked away. That’s when I saw the empty cutting board. In the brief amount of time we were outside, he scarfed down a half a loaf of the Italian bread. He looked at us as if to say, “I know, I know, but it was so good I just couldn’t help myself!” We could hardly blame him. It was the one and only time he ever counter surfed. Well, except one other time he ate an entire bunch of bananas, removing them so expertly from their peels it looked as if someone had peeled them and left the peels neatly stacked. The dog has talent.
Up until January of this year, his favorite activities were playing tag with Jon as he chased him around the cars in the driveway, dodging any attempts to grab him, riding to the feed store and the dump every Saturday morning, and hopping up next to me on the couch, to rest his head in my lap while I tried to read, or knit, or watch tv. And most of all, curling up with Jon on the floor in front of the fireplace for hours on winter nights. You could learn a lot hanging out with a dog like Smokes. He lived in the moment and the joy he felt during these moments was contagious.
One day shortly after Christmas last year, Smokey began limping. The vet said he had a small tear in his meniscus. We decided to try rest and medication to help him heal, rather than put him through surgery so late in life. He got better, and we let him resume his rides to the dump. Then, he tore the meniscus in his other hind leg while hopping into the truck. We felt awful. The vet said we could continue treating him medically, with pain meds, rest, and limited activity, and although it would take a while, he would develop scar tissue and be able to walk again. We carried him down the steps so he could go outside and hobble to do his business. He spent hours sleeping, groggy from pain meds. Gradually, he healed enough to walk comfortably again, and as spring approached, he resumed his patrol of the property, and accompanying me on my morning barn chores. It took him twice as long to get there, but he was happy, which made us happy too. He could no longer come on long hikes in the woods with me, and my walks were made in solitude. I felt a little less secure, without my loyal companion there to explore the trail ahead to make sure it was safe. I missed his doggy grin looking back at me to make sure I was still there. We tried making a ramp to the truck but he was too freaked out by it, so, the rides to the dump were out too. And, lastly, no more games of tag around the cars in the driveway. We felt his absence, but if it bothered Smokey, he hid it well. His world became a little smaller, but he still inhabited it in abundance. He was as joyful as ever, just a little less animated about it. Instead of sitting on my lap, he was happy to lie down ON my feet, as I sat in my chair. He adapted. Another lesson we humans, the ones who are supposedly the superior beings, can benefit from applying to our own lives.
And, so we lived happily within his new boundaries. Some mornings, I let him sleep in a little before waking him to join me outside. Then, the loss of bladder function happened and another trip to the vet has revealed there is a mass in his abdomen, and some changes in certain blood levels that could indicate cancer. Jon and I agreed there will be no invasive measures taken, and Smokey has had a great life with us. He deserves his dignity, and as little pain as possible. There is no reason to think he won’t have a decent amount of quality life left with us. So, for now, we all continue to enjoy our sunsets, our moments of joy, made all the more precious knowing that forever is not guaranteed, not for any of us. We will continue to live the Smokey way, in the moment, and with much joy, as he has taught us.