Wednesday, October 19, 2005


For those readers who do not live in Southern California, let me tell you about our weather on Monday. We didn’t just have thunder; we had thunder which rumbled for a minute at a time, powerfully enough to set off car alarms. We didn’t just have rain; we had rain which sporadically hit the ground hard enough to bounce back up two feet. And while we were having said rain, we would have patches of sunlight so blinding that you would need hip-waders and sunglasses at the same time. It was, in a word, dramatic.

Where was I during the heaviest of the downpours? I was outside, standing perfectly still while I felt the rain come over my boots and under my collar, attempting to leash-train a confused half-grown puppy.

Well, that’s not exactly true.

Sometimes, the dog and I walked in circles.

This all began back in July. I was driving Daughter to summer school, and was waiting for a light to turn green, when Daughter and I noticed a brown dog trotting down the sidewalk. The dog sociably nosed a woman walking past and attempted to play with her dog; they both ignored her. I glanced up and down the street and saw no one running out of their house looking for their missing dog. I noted the absence of a collar on the dog and checked her paws, which were filthy. The dog had a brief ear-scratch, and then turned to head towards a busy street. My stomach sank.

Daughter said “I don’t think that dog has a person.”

I said grimly, “I think you’re right,” pulled over sharply and got out quickly. Realistically, the dog was going to be panicked from being lost and wouldn’t let me get anywhere near it. It would probably bolt for the busy street and the outcome would be horrible.

I said softly, “Hey, sweetie, you lost?”

The dog spied me, grinned widely, got down on its elbows and crawled, soldier-style, over to me. She then rolled on her back and started licking my toes.

Ten minutes later, Daughter and I rolled up to school with a pungent-footed guest in the passenger seat licking my ear. Daughter went to get out of the car.

“I think we should call her Macy,” Daughter pronounced.

“I think we should call her Temporary,” I corrected. Our dog is, quite literally, a cranky old bitch who views all attempts to smell under her tail as a horrible invasion of privacy. We’re going to be staying a one-dog family.

I took her to our local animal hospital; she had no identifying chip. I checked the neighborhood where we found her; there were no signs. I kept her boarded for a week, and no one responded to my signs. This was not entirely surprising, as she is a mix of a couple of kind of dogs who are frequently bred for protection or fighting; if they don’t show promise, they are thrown out (Actually, my affectionate ward was lucky, as many of the non-aggressive ones are tortured to try to make them vicious or used for bait).

I would go to visit her at the boarding kennel, and Temp-Macy would run from the kennel to greet me with the kind of effusive adoration as if the last time we’d seen one another I had taken a grenade for her and had been left for dead. The kennel workers had grown so fond of her that she would be let out to sleep under their feet as they worked at the desk. Clearly, she was domesticated, and in crying need of a home. After a week passed, I decided to start finding her one.

It became obvious that no one was looking for her and the boarding bill was beginning to enter into “A Weekend Escape at the Ritz Carlton” territory. I have never written a personal ad, but I cannot imagine making any more effort to present myself in a better light. I used words like “Good listener” and “Attractive” and “Easy to please” and “Mellow”; I didn’t mention how she likes long walks on the beach, picnics in front of a roaring fire and intimate jazz clubs, nor did I take ten pounds off her weight, but I think I hit every other cliché of the genre.

I did say she was “Submissive” and “Easy to control”, which I suspect are clichés of another kind of personal ad.

Within a few days, I had the good fortune to find her a home with friends of ours. Their son was slightly timid of dogs, but they felt such a mellow dog would be a natural introduction. The parents had never had dogs, but she was so easygoing and mellow, how hard could it be?

I wasn’t promising them something just to get her off my hands. She was an eight month-old dog who seemed to need very little in the way of exercise beyond a walk a day, and who lived to sleep with her head on your feet. I didn’t quite understand how a dog with at least two breeds in her that are known for energy and endurance was such a couch potato, but who was I to question the Way of the Dog? They named her Ursula, I paid her boarding bill and considered the matter done with.
They had her three days when I got the first phone call.

“Quinn,” my friend began hesitantly, “Ursula ate a potato chip and now she’s coughing.”

I said reassuringly, “She might have scratched her throat, she’ll be better by tomorrow.”

Two days later: “She’s seems to be happy and very active, but she’s still coughing.”

I said, slightly less confidently, “She might have gotten Kennel Cough. If it doesn’t clear up by tomorrow, take her to see the vet.”

The next day she was drooling bile, coughing and unable to stand. They raced her to the vet to find out that she had something like pneumonia. For that family, the next weeks was a blur of multiple medications, cramming syringes down Ursula’s throat, cleaning up pools of bile from the floor and explaining to their son about how the dog might fall down and just not get back up.

Imagine “Lassie” meets “ER”. With a little “Exorcist” thrown in. And who was responsible for this blameless family going through this experience?

Oh, right...Me.

A week passed, and then two. Ursula got better. Slowly. My friend was finally able to throw away the syringes. Ursula improved. And then we discovered a new layer to Ursula: what we had taken for a mellow disposition was, in all probability, the symptoms of a life-threatening illness.

Healthy Ursula had enough energy to pull a Lincoln Town Car full of cinder blocks up Telegraph Hill.

Healthy Ursula thought the only proper way to greet people was to jump on them, knock them down, and stand on their sternum.

Healthy Ursula ate shoes. Also doors.

Healthy Ursula was a dog I never would have placed with a family looking for their first dog.

A month passed, and then another. I would hear stories from Ursula’s family, and they weren’t great. I would say to my friend, “How’s it going with Ursula and your son?”

She would say with a thin smile and a glint of terror in her eyes, “The fiftieth time Ursula jumped on him, he just yelled ‘Off!’ and dragged her outside. So, I guess he’s not scared of dogs anymore. That’s good, right…?”

They had neither the time nor experience to be consistent and firm owners, which is the only way you can train an exuberant and willful puppy. She was getting stronger while the family was weakening. Unless Ursula could start paying the mortgage, something had to give.

Saturday morning, I got a call. My friend was in tears.

“We just can’t do it,” she wailed. “She’s the sweetest girl in the world, but I’m down to one pair of work shoes and she just won’t stop and she won’t listen. Would you please take her back?”

I looked around at my sullen elderly dog, my aggressively dog-loathing cat, and my child who doesn’t like being licked or knocked over.


My job as her rescuer just got six times as difficult; without proper consistent training, she was going to end up being bounced from house to house. She could end up being turned in to a shelter. Twenty-four hours after an “owner turn-in” to an LA county shelter, a dog of her breed is destroyed. The only way I was going to save her sweet bouncy hide was by being the toughest Alpha Bitch on the block.

Luckily, this comes naturally to me.

Tomorrow, I will tell you about TRAINING DAY.



Blogger Melodee said...

I'm be waiting breathlessly.

2:30 PM  

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