Running to the Rainbow Bridge

Good Morning, friends. As some of you know I’ve eased off the pints the last couple of months, in an apparently fruitless attempt to feel better and/or lose some lbs. The only thing that seems to have changed from trying to eliminate gluten and sugar is that everything tastes awful now. Too sweet, too this, too that. Maybe I did have Covid and never knew? In any event, not sure how long this shindig will last, since I’d give my eyeteeth for a crunchy piece of toast right now, and I don’t want to change my blog name because of some diet whim.

I guess I seem to only do posts here when I’m irritable or sad, but writing is my outlet and more effective than jumping in front of a car at a Trump road rally and waving a middle finger. (Which really did happen not far from me, but I won’t get into politics today). No, today is devoted to the story of my fourteen-year-old-dog Guinness, a mixed breed rescue whose bloodline was unknown. Judging from his fur and herding behavior it was safe to assume he was border collie, with possibly lab and setter or spaniel thrown in.

A couple of years after our golden-retriever-lab Allie passed, I decided it was time for another family dog (as it turned out, he wasn’t a family dog. He was unequivocally mine, though this wasn’t by my design). An internet search pointed us to a shelter an hour and a half away in North Judson, Indiana, a rural area with a population of not quite two thousand. The place was called Starke County Animal Control, and to say it was stark is putting it mildly. The facility was about as ramshackle as it gets; understaffed, peeling paint, smelly, with adoptable dogs tethered outside on concrete. The guy in charge literally looked like what you’d envision a meth addict would. Rail thin, bad teeth, crooked glasses, straw for hair. Every shaky step he took looked like it might be his last. I’m not exaggerating, either. The kids are my witness, and so would my mother in law be if she were alive. It was the definition of grim. No doubt everyone we dealt with that day were good people trying to do their best with a bareboned budget, and this is what I told everyone in the car later as they twittered about the walking dead manager.

The kids had their eye on a couple of dogs, but the one I kept coming back to was this sleek, handsome black and white guy yelping nonstop at me. They all were, of course, which if you’ve been to a shelter you know it’s deafening and sad. The reality of these animals watching you go away without them is horrible. So we took “Skunk” home (yes, that was his very redneck sounding name, and being Irish, well, Guinness seemed a good fit for a re-christening), and guess what? Within twenty-four hours he was ill. Not just garden variety sick, but the hospitalizing, IV-giving, house-payment-equivalent kind of sick, in which he had to be monitored for days.

He was diagnosed with parvo. I was utterly flummoxed, but I knew, amongst arguments and debate as to whether to take him back to Starke County (which they would have), I knew I could not do it. I knew they’d put him down the minute I came through the door, because they didn’t have the resources to care for him. And I did.

He recovered quickly, once home and showered with TLC, and his true nature burst forth. Boy, was I ever schooled. The vet guessed he was between six and nine months old, and he had every undesirable puppy trait you can imagine. Peeing on rugs? Check. High pitched yiping? Check. Annoying jumping? Check. Destructive? Well, let’s see. Gloves, shoes, rare caps from Ireland that couldn’t be replaced, a tent, pencils, pens, a DS player, Star Wars figures, and AT LEAST fifteen different types of dog beds. All shredded over a two to three year span and maybe even longer with the beds. I’m sure there are more valuables I’m forgetting.

We were informed that a tired pup is a good pup, that he did these things out of boredom, and he had working dog traits and we needed to provide substitutes for that and we should enroll him in classes. So I dutifully walked him and walked him and walked him, and our oldest son helped me the most with this. I even tried running with him (and trust me, I am NOT a runner), but all he wanted to do was sprint and then jerk to a stop to sniff every blade of grass in between. I was told all of this could be trained out of him. It was all training, training and more training. Eager to do whatever I could, Danny and I took him to obedience classes, and that, too, was a complete fail. He leaped around constantly, anxious at the other dogs and the incessant barking/whining around us. The instructor told us we were too soft, our voices weren’t firm enough, that we needed to be the ones in charge, and on and on. We became official doggy school dropouts.

I had dreams of whatever dog I adopted becoming a therapy dog. Needless to say, this vision was put to rest in record time. Not only did he not have the temperament, but HE should’ve had one for himself. And one for me, too, now that I think of it.

Aside from the chewing and typical young dog stuff though, he was sweet, whip-smart, and he kept me active, which, as much as I might have groaned at all the rain, wind and snow storms I walked through with him, was good for me. I was at a point in my life where my kids sadly didn’t need me much anymore, and he filled that gap and then some. He depended on me, worshipped me, loved me in the way we humans can’t, and that goes a long. long, way when you’re feeling invisible.

It went a long way to help make up for the other behaviors that soon were unearthed, that’s for sure. When he reached dog “adolescence”, his protectiveness kicked in. He began acting unpredictably around strangers coming to the house and strange dogs. If he didn’t like what he smelled or saw, he’d nip or snap with a lip curled and the hackles raised. I became an expert at interpreting his signals, but it was exhausting and embarrassing. And, I was worried it would spiral and lead to something really bad.

My mom was in the hospital, dying, when hubs and I took him to another trainer for a consultation. It did not go well. He was his usual anxious, non-listening, whining-at-being-restrained self, and she wasn’t impressed. She snapped her fingers at him, yelled “SIT DOWN”, and he did, to his credit, but not for long. She looked at me and said, “this dog is incredibly rude. He needs appropriate manners.” Of course, that meant enrolling in her classes. I said I would think about it, fled to the car and promptly burst into tears. I had tried so, so, hard, and with one dismissive wave of her hand and my mom slipping further and further away, I felt complete defeat.

Perhaps we just were not the right fit for him, I thought. Even with our endless hikes, every single day he eyeballed the front door for an elusive crack in which he could pry open, the tiniest opportunity to slip through and bound out like a reindeer into the freedom of the waiting forest. He’d be gone for hours, even in the bitterest cold, trailing after the thousands of animal scents and chasing God knows what. I’d wake up every couple of hours, calling him, getting in the car sometimes to drive our circle and try to entice him to the car. Frustratingly he would run up to me or one of the family, head to toe in creek filth and slime, and leap off the second we got close to catching him. If you have dogs, I don’t need to tell you the rage that bubbles up at this “nah-nah-nah-nah-nah” cat and mouse crap. And yet, what do the “experts” recommend when your animal decides to saunter home? “Greet them joyfully, do not scold them, or they will be afraid to return.” I actually managed to achieve this, MOST of the time, because damn it, he knew. He’d slink in apologetically and sleep off his jaunt for hours. Until the next time, again and again.

All these things combusted to make me wonder if I shouldn’t try to find a loving farm home for him. He probably would chase off all the undesirables and whatever else is needed in an outside dog, and he’d get to do his favorite thing. Run. Constantly. In the end I decided I would make the best of it. The idea of another adjustment, of him sleeping lonely in a cold barn at night, and his strong attachment to me, won out. And I’m so glad it did.

Like many of us, Guinness mellowed as he grew older. He became gentler, more accepting of other animals and people, and more enjoyable to walk. He always, always, attracted comments for his beautiful coat and form. “Such a handsome fellow,” folks would say. Kids naturally gravitated to him, wanting to pet him, and for all his tendencies, he never, ever, showed aggression toward children. That would’ve been and is a deal breaker for me. He loved camping and laying in the sun and breeze, and he truly was easier as time went by. Someone I knew once said, “That’s the thing about dogs. You put up with their bullshit for years, they become the perfect dog, and then they die.”

Yes. They do. They lose their hearing, their teeth get bad, their hips and hearts fail, or they might get crankier or more anxious. Sounds like a day in my life. And just like the human dying I’ve witnessed, what felt especially cruel to me is the way in which Guinness met his end. The fastest, most agile and light-footed dog I had ever seen, falling victim to a weird and evil syndrome, attacking his balance and ability to even stand. Of course, death in any form is never pretty, but this. This was on a level that knocked us both to our knees, with the worst part being I couldn’t explain to him, “Look, dude, this is what’s going on.” All I could do was lay next to him, stroke him, tell him I was sorry, and make the dreaded call. I hope he knew.

We wonder what is wrong with us that we keep signing up for this heart-wrenching gig over and over, knowing the end is likely the same. Sort of like when you give birth to a baby and you think, “that’s it. Never again.” Some people don’t, so scarred by the loss, or life circumstances, but most cave in at some point for one reason or another. As for me, we shall see. I’m in love with my granddog Grace, the BEST, BEST, BEST, dog ever, and that’s enough for now.

First, I gotta get used to the vacant rug, beds, dog dish, leash, and the heartbreakingly empty space next to me as I walk our beautiful Michigan trails. But even with all that, there’s the hardest absence, that thing we humans haven’t conquered, which is absolute, total adoration and unconditional acceptance of the ones we love. That was his gift to me, effortless on his part, and I thank him for that lesson and the many others he taught me.

Cheers, friends. We’ve got work to do.

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