Memoir - For the Dogs
In which I discuss some of the dogs in my life
(Herman at 10 weeks. He’s now 4 years old and 16 lbs.)
Chipper and Tippy
For most of my life, I’ve had dogs. My family had a curly haired brown dog when I was born, Chipper. When I was 3 or 4, my grandmother decided that I needed my own dog. She brought home a hairy black puppy with a white tip on its tail and flash of white on its chest, FREE from a box in front of the grocery store. It was half Cocker spaniel and half Pekignese. She had an overbite that made her look mean, and she liked to bark at knocks at the door and then run and hide, frightened. She grew to about 30 lbs, overweight, and loved me and my aunt. When she was scolded by my father with a rolled-up newspaper, she’d pee in the middle of their bed. Because of the white tip on her tail, we called her Tippy. Tippy was skittish with everyone but me. In fact, she bit every single one of my neighborhood friends in the face, a snap that didn’t break skin but was a warning to not put their faces in hers.
My brother and sisters had Golden Retrievers: Burr, Eliot, and Amy. Amy hung around our house with Chipper and Tippy. One day I came home from school, and my mother was on the phone crying hysterically. I thought my father had died. She motioned and pointed to the swimming pool. Chipper lay floating on his side in the pool, a snarl on his face revealing his teeth. I think I was about 14 years old. I had to fish him out and wrap him in a blanket. The family blamed Tippy, who they did not like, for pushing Chipper into the pool.
I was away at school when Tippy lost the use of her back legs and could no longer control her bowels and urination. My father called me and told me the news that she had to be put down.
When I was in my late teens, I got a free German Shepherd puppy from my cousins from a line of guard dogs. Duchess was the bitch and Navajo the sire. So I called my all black ball of furr Indian Princess, so that I could call her Indy, after Indiana Jones. (This was several years before Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when we found out that Indy was the family dog of Henry Jones, Junior.). Amy, an aging golden retriever, helped to raise Indy, who terrorized our cat, picking him up by the head and carrying him around in his mouth. Indy also had enormous problems being potty trained, leaving giant puddles of loose stool around the house until she was well into her 9th or 10th month, ruining my mother’s new carpet.
At 3 or 4 months old, Indy almost died. I watched her lose 40 lbs in a day, throwing up clear liquid that looked loaded with flat worms. She had parvo. She spent her first Christmas in the hospital for a week. But they saved her life.
I trained her at an AKC dog training class at a neighborhood park run by a German Shepherd club. When we did final confirmation, she lost to a Doberman Pinscher by just a few points, and the club owners were angry with me (How could that beautiful German Shepherd be shown up by a Doberman?). I had an excuse. I couldn’t complete her training because I had moved away to college. My dad did his best after work to train Indy. I was Indy’s handler during the confirmation trial. When it was our turn to heel off leash around the circle, Indy strayed from my side and lesiurely sniffed all of my family’s toes who were sitting on the sidelines in lawn chairs watching and then came back to my side. She lost major points for that.
My mother wouldn’t let me take Indy with me when I moved to New Mexico for grad school. Later, after Amy died, my mother finally let me have Indy back. By that time she was 125 lbs in great shape and about 6 or 7 years old. When I moved to Kansas for a Ph.D. program, we left Indy with a friend who was having a hard time and going through a divorce. We thought the winters might be too hard on Indy who was now 10 or 11 and starting to have trouble with her back legs. She had also gotten fatter than she had ever been as I got busy with grad school. Richard worked her back into shape, taking her on runs. In the summer, Richard took her to his family farm in North Dakota and she ran and ran. Later, Richard called me and told me he had to put Indy down because she had been having seizures, not uncommon in German Shepherds.
So for a long time, about 6 years, I didn’t have a dog, a time coinciding with my PhD work. When I got remarried, my ex- brought a dog into our marriage. Houston was a mop of a brown dog that spent most of his life hiding under the bed from the cats. When my ex and I took a short vacation and left the neighbors to watch and feed Houston. We returned to an empty house with only the quiet cats around. When we asked the neighbors, they got wide-eyed and said, “What do you mean he’s not there? He was there when we left him. Maybe he crawled into the attic.” The attic board was nailed shut and upstairs off a loft that you had to get to by a standing upright ladder. No dog could climb there. We called the police and they warned us about getting trusted friends to watch our belongings when we were away from home.
Spartacus and Jackson, Moby-Dawg, Herman
During the time depicted in my memoir, I had three dogs. Spartacus and Jackson were our Kansas dogs. Moby-Dawg was our California dog. All three make appearances in the memoir, though much of their stories ended up on the cutting room floor.
Now, writing in 2023, and sitting between my legs as I type, is Herman the Dachshund (see picture above). I’ve never had a little dog before Herman. All my dogs have been 30+ pounds or more. I’ll have much more to say about both Moby and Herman at a later time. And yes, their names are related.
But here I want to share draft writings about Spartacus and Jackson, two very special dogs who had the misfortune to meet a bad end. These selections are heavily edited from previous writings, whittled down from detailed accounts of their lives. The stories here give you a sense of Spartacus and Jackson and what I had to deal with emotionally when I (we) found out what happened to them.
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Except from My Own Private Waste Land
When we moved to the country, we adopted dogs from the animal shelter: Spartacus, a 3-month-old brown and white Brittany, Australian Shepherd, and Lab mix; and Jackson, a 6-month-old, lanky blue merle Australian Shepherd with a tail. They were pals. Spartacus ruled the roost indoors, while Jackson, faster and older, ran circles around Spartacus in the fenced yard and playfully plowed into him, sending him rolling.
One day, they escaped the yard and plunged into the woods for an all-day excursion. They were still gone when we returned from work. We called them; an hour later they emerged, bedraggled and filthy. Spartacus had painful burrs in his short coat biting into his skin. We tried to pull them out, but he struggled and snapped at us. Jackson nosed us out of the way, put his paws over Spartacus to hold him down, and nit-nitted the burrs out with his teeth, looking up proudly when he was done.
Spartacus caught everything: rats, mice, snakes, and even baby cardinals whose nest was too low. One day, he dug frantically in the backyard. Later that night, I picked him up, and he yelped like I had pinched him. I looked him over and he seemed okay. Over the next 18 hours, he languished. The vet x-rayed him many times and couldn’t figure out what was going on. Before we left, the vet said he wanted to take one last picture. The x-ray showed an object stuck in his bowels, perforating his intestine. They operated immediately, saving his life. They removed a calcified tennis ball half, sharp as a broken ceramic tile. Spartacus recuperated and was soon back to his old tricks. Jackson dropped his food onto the floor and ate delicately, one kibble at a time. Spartacus inhaled his food and then pushed Jackson out of the way and stole the food from his bowl.
QT and I fought bitterly about what to do with the dogs when we moved. They were poorly trained country dogs, used to running the streets. When we opened our front door, they bulldozed their way past us to run. There was no traffic in our sparsely inhabited rural subdivision. The entire town of Ozawkie was only 500 people, and we lived outside of the main town. In San Diego, we would be living near a busy boulevard with no fencing. I argued that it would be unfair to the dogs and unsafe to take them with us to California, that it would be better to find the dogs a good home. QT wanted to take them with us, end of story.
The woman who took over QT’s job, Pamela, was a single mom with a 13-year-old son. She loved the idea of taking the dogs. She lived near school and had a small yard where the dogs could play. We introduced the dogs to her and her son, and everyone got along. I wrote up an instruction sheet about each dog, their idiosyncrasies and how to handle them, and vowed to keep in touch. Once we got settled, if we found a place where we could safely have dogs, we could talk about taking them back. But this was a permanent move, better than leaving them at the animal shelter.
I would miss the dogs terribly as much as I missed my cats. Jem had been gone now for three years, and Scout for about two. About three months after Jem died, Scout disappeared. It wasn’t like Scout to go far from the yard. After a week, I gave up shaking the small can of kibble at dinnertime.
* * * * *
(We moved in 2005. We returned to Kansas in 2007 for my step-daughter’s wedding.)
In the summer, we traveled back to Kansas for Denise’s wedding, our first opportunity to see the dogs, Spartacus and Jackson. I had tried keeping in touch with Pamela, but after a few email exchanges, she stopped responding. I parked in front of her house, and QT went to the door. I saw her talking to someone through the screen and then she made her way back to the car.
She threw her purse onto the floor of the car and slammed the door. Her make-up ran.
“They’re dead! And it’s your fault!”
“What? What are you saying?”
I touched her arm, but she pulled quickly away.
“Don’t you dare touch me.” She glared at me.
“QT, what happened?” I was stunned and near tears myself.
“Pamela stopped responding to your letters because she got a fourth DUI and was sentenced to a year in prison. Her son went to stay on a farm nearby with his grandparents. Before that, Sparty had grabbed a sandwich from a child in the alley. The parents called animal control and they took him away, declared him dangerous, and euthanized him. Jackson went with Pamela’s kid to the farm where he could run all day and get exercise. But he chased a tractor and got hit and had to be put down.”
QT recoiled as close to the passenger door as possible. “If we had taken them with us, that wouldn’t have happened.”
Tears fell on my cheeks as I watched her clench and unclench her hands.
“If we had taken them, they could have run and gotten hit by cars. This is awful. But it isn’t our fault.”
My hands shook as I reached out to comfort her, not the way to start this wedding weekend. When we returned to California, QT buried herself further into computer games. We rehashed the argument about the dogs in marriage counseling for months.
Dogs are a great joy in life. Tell me about your dog in the comments below - your favorite, your childhood friend, your current dog.
Thank you for reading today. Next week, we return to our regular schedule.
I am writing to gain support for traditional publication for my memoir - My Own Private Waste Land. Please share this post and my newsletter with others. I write about:
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