It took two years for me to be able to even think of being open to bringing a new dog into my life. It does not make me feel good to say this, but I am pretty much convinced that each of us will likely share time on this plane of existence with but one true cosmic-level perro, and, for me, that was a German Shepherd/Australian Shepherd mix named Cali, who succumbed in Oct. 2008 after having suffered through a series of debilitating strokes after 13 splendid years as the best friend I will ever have. Cali was a near-perfect dog.
Gay and I had finally bought a house that had a large fenced yard, so, for the first time in decades, I found myself in a position where I could provide a great home for a dog. I spent literally six months going to various pounds looking for the right canine companion. That was tough, moving slowly through the kennel areas, sometimes talking to individual dogs that seemed like they could maybe work, taking an occasional few out into the yard to see if any sort of connection took place. Gut-wrenching as it was to bypass all those pleading, long-faced dogs who all wanted so bad for someone to fill out paperwork with their name on it, in no case did that hoped-for bond occur, until I saw a pet-of-the-week photo of Cali in the Summit Daily News, which 1) I still have and 2) just to add a little extra positive karma to the situation, was taken by my buddy Mark Fox. One frigid February day, I went to the shelter, walked directly to Cali’s prison cell, took her out for a stroll on the bikepath, and, by the time we returned, the shelter staff was already calling her my dog. I picked Cali up the next day, without my wife ever having met her. That very afternoon, I took her snowshoeing sans leash up French Gulch, and we both knew that something very, very special was afoot.
Last fall, Gay and I started realizing that, not only did we miss having Cali in the house, but we missed having a dog in the house. I started, very tentatively at first, eyeballing various rescue group websites dedicated to specific large-ish, trail-appropriate breeds — Labradors, Australian Shepherds, German Shepherds and Border Collies. I had a Lab as a kid, and decided to go that generally good-natured route. I also wanted a puppy, something with a clean mental slate. I exchanged a few emails with a rescue group out of Albuquerque and made arrangements online to meet a pup on my way to Colorado for Christmas. It was a bit of a chaotic environment, since the pup-in-question was being fostered by a very nice lady who already had three large, energetic dogs. Even though I did not feel anything even approximating the connection I felt instantly with Cali, that was OK, because, truth be told, I did not expect to, feeling, as I said earlier, that such bonds do not happen twice in one’s life. But it seemed like we had the potential to at least like and respect each other, and, I thought, that’s a good enough start. On the way back from Colorado, we picked up a 27-pound, three-month-old squirming bundle of fur that seemingly consisted of nothing more than four splaying legs and a mouth that rarely closed. She was named Casey just the day before by her foster mom. Ergo: The name did not yet register with the dog, at least partially because the concept of having a name did not yet register.
One of the reasons I waited more than two years to get another dog was that I really wanted to make certain that I was not looking to replace the irreplaceable. I did not want to burden a dog with having to live up to Cali’s image. The analogy I used was that of poor Brian Griese playing quarterback for the Broncos after John Elway retired. I even went so far as to make sure whatever dog I brought home looked nothing like Cali, who was long haired and jet black, while Casey is short haired and blonde.
But, no matter how hard I tried, during Casey’s first days with us, I could not exorcize Cali’s ghost from the premises. I reflexively found myself talking to Casey the exact same way I talked to Cali, using the same phraseology, the same tones of voice, half-expecting, hoping, that by so doing, maybe some of Cali’s magic dust would fall from the heavens onto and into this new pup, that she would automatically transmogrify from four flailing legs and a mouth that rarely closed and act the same near-perfect way Cali did from the get-go and for all those years. And I found myself getting exasperated when she did not. I mean, how goddamned foolish — on about 40 different levels —is that? How unfair is that for a pup who does not yet even know her name?
Two weeks after bringing her home, we took Casey to the vet’s for her second round of shots, as well as an overall physical. While making the appointment on the phone, we told the receptionist that Casey was about three months old and “mostly Lab.” When we arrived, the vet looked at the chart, looked at Casey, looked back at the chart, looked back at Casey and said words to the effect that he thought he was going to be examining a three-month-old mostly Lab, a dog that I assumed was a blank slate who eventually would reach something like 50 or 60 pounds of stoutness running through the woods, crossing rivers and leading the way while we ski full blast down Mayflower Gulch. You know: a bonafide mountain dog.
“This dog is six to eight months old,” the vet told our stunned selves. “And, if she’s got a lick of Lab in her, I’ll eat a stick. She looks to me like she’s mainly Cocker Spaniel and Beagle. That means she’s probably about as big as she’s going to get.” I do not remember the last time Gay and I were both as mutually shocked. I mean, 9/11 made our jaws drop, of course, but nothing like the news we received about our new dog. Fuck! Not only did I not have a stereotypical mountain dog, I had something borderline foo-foo. Near-bouts a lap dog! Double fuck!
As soon as I got home from the vet’s office, I emailed the rescue group from which I had adopted Casey, informing them of my mislabeled, defective goods. They told me that, if I wanted to return her, I was more than welcome to do so, no explanations necessary.
Though the very thought of taking a living, drooling, constantly chewing creature back to a foster home made me almost sick to my stomach, every single person I related this story to told me in no uncertain terms that’s exactly what I should do, what I must do. Everyone I talked to understood the nature of the bond between man/woman and his/her dog, and, they all said, if such a bond did not occur within a month or so, then it likely would not ever occur. And they said that, if I wasn’t happy with who/what my dog was, that whammied whatever potential bonding there might be even more, because, as we all know, dogs are perceptive, empathic creatures. There’s no way Casey was going to take that leap (assuming she possessed the inclination, which is not an assumption that ought to be taken for granted) if she thought there was any chance of me backing out on the deal somewhere down the road. Sure, people said, a perfectly acceptable long-term relationship might very well evolve, but the kind of attachment that defined — sigh! — my cosmic link with Cali (who, by the way, still visits me every month or so in my dreams, though those visits are becoming more infrequent) would have been obvious by now. But, hey, retorted I, I am of the belief that such things don’t happen twice in a train-wreck life like mine. “If you believe that,” said one chum, “then that’s the way it assuredly will be.” Basically then: It is almost impossible for something to happen that I believe deep down cannot happen. That is not only a problem, but perhaps one that is insurmountable.
Let me expound upon this human/dog bond notion. For those many of you who know what I’m talking about, my likely clumsy attempt to articulate it is unnecessary. Since it is the only such situation I have ever experienced, I have no choice but to frame this in terms of M. John and Cali. Shortly after adopting her, we aggressively (and sometimes frustratingly) went together through official dog/human training classes. And, while there were often miscommunications regarding the ambiguous complexities of the various commands, it was apparent from the very first second we ever went out into the woods together that Cali very badly wanted to know what it was I wanted of her. We may have had a few disagreements as to the best ways to go about communicating those desires (she taught me some things and I taught her others), but there was never any doubt that we would not only muddle our way through such sometimes-complex inter-species dialogue, but we would do so in a way that, before long, did not even require verbal articulation. I could tell from her slightest behavioral nuance what Cali wanted or needed. And I could give her commands (I hate how that sounds), by the subtlest movement of my fingers and sometimes, by even just thinking the right thought. No matter our location, no matter our activity, no matter what else was going on around us, Cali’s biggest concern on the face of the planet was knowing where I was and what I wanted. And vice-versa. And she knew that, when I gave her commands, I was not just bossing her around for the fuck of it, but, rather, I was doing my level best to protect her and look after her health, well-being and happiness. Which I was.
It did not take long to learn that such was not the case with Casey. Once we came to understand that she was twice as old as we had thought, we simultaneously came to understand that she must have come to us with far more psychic baggage than we had hoped. There was no clean slate to work with. The rescue people we got her from had somehow obtained her from death row at the Artesia, New Mexico, animal Auschwitz. How that happened, and what her life was before she arrived at her foster home (several foster homes, actually) in Albuquerque, I cannot say. But there was no doubt her short life had had numerous iterations, some of which, judging from her sometimes-cowering, sometimes-obstinate, sometimes-aloof disposition, were probably not pleasant. Therefore, it seems highly unlikely that, even after a month in my house, she looks at me as anything save the next bipedal asshole who is letting her bunk down for a short period of time before she has to move on yet again to God-knows-what. Cali had only one home before she came to us, and, even though those people were forced to give her up, we knew she had a pretty stable, loving pre-Fayhee life. She never forgot that her first owners dumped her ass at the pound, and, thus, she was extremely appreciative of her new life with me. Casey’s road was bumpier, and, however that bumpy road affected her, she ought not be faulted.
I decided to look at Casey as though I had never known Cali, to become a blank slate myself. So, in addition to trying to put her personality into a broader context that includes what likely was an inconceivably shitty first few months, I found myself focusing not on her relative-to-Cali shortcomings (including her hard-to-overlook shrimpiness), but rather on her good traits: She gets along reasonably well with my cat, who, truth be told, was not all that happy, among other things, to see a rambunctious puppy suddenly trespassing on the litter box during a time my cat has long considered very private. Casey loves playing with other dogs at the dog park, even ones way larger than she is. She shits only in the least-visited corner of the back yard and has the easiest-to-clean-up shit I have ever shoveled, and I have shoveled some serious quantities of shit in my time. She really likes going out into the woods and seems up for adventure. She seems satisfied eating regular old dog food. She has been very good about not chewing up things like expensive hiking boots. And she’s cute, sweet and pretty easily amused.
But she cries in fear when she dreams. And she doesn’t wag her tail very much. And she cowers when talked to sternly after digging yet another hole in my garden. And she still doesn’t know her name, or, if she does, she doesn’t let on. And she still doesn’t pay any attention to me when I talk to her on the trail. And I don’t know at this point if I will ever be able to let her off leash in the woods, something that is a non-negotiable component of a relationship between yours truly and any cur that travels with me down the path of life. I have heard many stories from people whose dogs are dispositionally inclined to run off time and time again, and that’s just not an acceptable option. I understand that such a disposition can be at least partially mitigated by proper training, but partially don’t cut it.
As these conflicting, stomach-wrenching thoughts swirl around in a brain that is overwhelmed by the implications of my newfound conundrum, Casey lies sleeping on the floor behind me. She just had another nightmare, but she’s calmed down a bit, and, even as she dozes, her tale wags just a little. Is her biggest sin that she’s not Cali, or that she’s not what I pictured? Whatever sin there is undoubtedly lies not with Casey, but with me, a man whose ego effects the way he looks down at a little pup who needs more than anything to be loved and considered special, if not perfect.
As I pen these words, I do not know what I will do with Casey. I have asked Cali to visit me in my dreams to give me some guidance, but, so far, she has not done so. At this point, the main thing that makes me want to keep Casey is how horrible I would feel if I took her back. I cringe at the thought of what her facial expression might be: Let down again. (Or, maybe: Hallelujah!) Maybe if we both try really, really hard, we could make this relationship work out just fine, even if it is not magical. Then again, maybe the effort would in and of itself make it magical. Eventually. One of the things Cali liked most about me was that I did my best to let her be her. Of course, that had to be within the context and framework of me and my life. But that was easy enough for both of us. If I keep Casey, I owe it as much to her as I ever did to Cali to let her be her. It’s the context and framework of my life part that’s the issue.
By the time these works come out in print, I will have made a decision. I have to, because, at this juncture, Casey keeps looking at me. And, in her eyes, I can tell she’s asking: “What then will your choice be?”
And I look back at her and ask: “What then will YOUR choice be, Little Dog.”