He had no teeth.
As with many shelter residents, the little white dog had a skimpy known past that could only be imagined. The woman surrendering him said he belonged to her boyfriend, who abandoned them both. Not the dog’s fault he’d become an unwanted furry reminder.
Somebody once spent several hundred dollars to have his rotting teeth removed. But someone else let them get that way. He’d been abandoned for unknown reasons to several shelters, awaiting his furever family. I had yet to realize I was to become his future, the last six years of it anyway.
Shelter volunteers see a lot of wince-able stories – puppies abandoned in a roadside orchard. Dumped on a busy Interstate or in a roadside puddle during a downpour. Others carry scars from cigarette burns or worse.
Such cruelty ignites fury and wishes for a karma visit. But each sad case is also a living opportunity to begin fixing that sadness in one creature at a time from that day forward. For several years I was a TLC volunteer at a wonderful private California shelter.
Hundreds of such dog and cat shelters are scattered across the country caring for thousands upon thousands of homeless dogs and cats. Consider adoption over buying a pet.
All shelters desperately need donations of food, money, and volunteers for chores as simple as bathing a new guest or walking one for 20 minutes of socializing. Just Google “pet shelter” with your Zipcode for the closest.
Of course, I knew that all volunteers were doing a good deed for little critters. I did not realize at first the wondrous impact these lost souls would also have on me.
My job was to help calm newcomers, many terrified, skittish, hiding under beds, even snarling. Who wouldn’t be fearful after abuse by other humans and/or life on the run through streets or woods?
Those shy or hiding ones are the last to be adopted, if ever. The first are the friendly, confident ones who bounce over to greet a visitor.
One very patient volunteer sat on the hot pavement of a motel parking lot for two hours, scooting closer to a wary, wayward stray. She finally coaxed the hungry critter into her arms and car.
It took many months for him to emerge from his shell in the corner and for a kind couple to spot him bouncing about the playground with pals. He now resides in a grand house on the ocean with a monogrammed lifejacket to wear on their motorboat cruises.
I would sit in the pen on a little stool looking away from the doggie. No eye contact, talking softly, proffering my hand to smell, dropping treats to lure him or her closer. The goal was to cuddle and scratch their floppy ears and for them to approach me the next time.
For some, it took several visits. I had two sibling dachshunds once who were shaking uncontrollably. In 15 minutes, they were wrestling each other on the couch. In 40, they were stretched across my lap, snoring in unison.
It doesn’t always happen that way. That little white dog with no teeth didn’t hide when we met. He just sat there, frightened into a frozen pose to not be noticed. He leaned away as my hand neared. But started to melt with ear scratches.
Floppy ears are my weakness. This little guy had a pair of furry ones and the habit of raising only one at times that gave him an askance look. And made me smile. On succeeding visits he’d recognize me opening the door and bounce over.
I described him to my wife that first day as looking like the white Westie on Cesar’s dog food. To my surprise, she immediately said, “You should put a hold on him.” We already had one dog, an eccentric Border Collie.
When I called the shelter to do just that, I could hear cheering in the background. Friendly little Lucky, his shelter name, had become a favorite.
A week later, a 14-pound Westie-looking mutt with one ear up came to his new and final home, renamed Jamie. Not even in high school was I ever more completely smitten.
I had always been around large dogs. My first rescue at age 6 was a St. Bernard. Then came a Great Dane. Later, a disobedient Siberian Husky, who as sled dogs do, liked to run and run, as in away.
She’d spot an open gate or leap a fence and run through the forest or countryside until after several miles she was exhausted. By then, it was meal time. But — News Flash – her family kitchen and familiar dish were now far away.
That prompted mooching from a pizza parlor or kind family. Each time her name tag and microchip brought her home.
Jamie was not a runner. He had the funniest gait, more like a baby lamb bounding here and there across a meadow. After eight or so years bouncing around various homes and shelters, not always friendly ones, why run from the best life he’d ever know?
We became quite close. He’d snooze on my desk while I worked. One afternoon this laptop screen began filling up with plplplplplplplplplplplpl WTH? Jamie had quietly sneaked over to peer at the screen I was always looking at. He was standing on the keyboard.
Another time after he had a long drink, his whiskers dripped a few drops on the keys. That was expensive.
Jamie was also a total klutz. If there was anything nearby to knock over, step in, or fall off, Jamie was on it. Or off it. My exclamations didn’t faze him. He’d just aim those beady little black eyes at me and don the innocent look. And all was instantly forgiven.
I’d take him on errands and he’d stand on the passenger seat with his front feet on the window, no doubt scouting for chicks.
Jamie did not like to be alone for long. I think I understand why. If I was out of the office for too long or he’d wake up at night and not sense me, he’d bark. It wasn’t always welcome.
Most nights, very late, I’d set Jamie up on my desk. And I’d tell him nose-to-nose how safe and loved he was forever. How handsome he looked. And how much I wanted to scratch his ears, especially the flopped one. Treats may have been dispensed.
I know you can’t fill all voids from childhood that late in life. Apparently, for instance, no one had ever played with him. A nearby bouncing ball drew only blank stares. But it didn’t hurt to try, and I hoped the intense one-on-one chats helped him feel safe and loved now. OK, they were monologues. But he was attentive to the attention.
Anyone who’s ever had a pet knows that they understand more than we realize. There’s a vocabulary of sounds, looks, motions, touches that say volumes. At times with no warning, Jamie would lean over and simply lick my hand on the computer mouse. A treasured link.
Most days ended in the wee hours of a new one in my arms with classical music playing.
Maybe a year ago, Jamie developed an unsteady walk with trouble controlling his back legs. The bounding was gone. He developed a spinal problem. And then last May out of the blue one morning he just went limp like a wet noodle.
We feared a stroke. But tests determined he had an exotic inner-ear infection that would take months of antibiotics to combat. He’d start to lose his balance, over-correct, and flop over the other way with a hard landing. We laid soft things wherever he might land.
The balance seemed to improve this fall, but his back legs no longer worked properly. One vet gently suggested it might be time to let him go, which really meant help him go.
Intellectually, I know all the arguments about ending a pet’s suffering. That is a form of love. We’ve done that before in a cancer fight, as painful as it was for both of us. But emotionally, with Jamie, I couldn’t do it then. So many people had given up on him before. His appetite was ravenous. To my admittedly hopeful eyes, that was no death wish.
We knew Jamie was not going to recover, and I have to say, carrying him outside at 3 a.m. was no pleasure. But we wanted to make him as comfortable and loved as possible, as in a hospice.
In recent days, however, his appetite faded. He lost control of some body functions.
I held the little guy in my arms most of the last day, as I had together in that shelter pen six very short years ago and late so many nights since.
As we walked into the exam room where the kindly family vet waited, he said, “It’s time, you know.” I did know, but did not want to.
Jamie could not stand up. He pooped a little on the table. I took his little head in my hands, spoke directly in his ear. I thanked him for sharing these years with us. And I told him how much we loved him. Over and over. And over.
Then, came the worst feeling I’ve ever experienced. His head in my hands, my thumbs massaging his ears, I literally felt the life go out of him. Completely. And forever. That finality was terrifying.
Jamie’s in another place now with no more suffering. He’s probably bounding again. I wish I could see that.
Meanwhile, we’re left with some treasured photos, lives enriched by Jamie’s life and love, and the deeply embedded memory of a little white shelter dog who had no teeth.