Sunday, January 16, 2005

Loving Toby

This morning we are licking our wounds, psychic and physical, Toby and I. Always a needy dog, Toby came to me as an abused puppy. He walked up to me on the street and licked the back of my knees as if to say, “Could I please live with you?” On that day, he was only about four months old, too little to have been through whatever he had been through, too little even to know how to climb stairs. He was dragging a blue and white leash behind him, so he had a home that he had dared to leave.

I looked for this little lost puppy's home. We walked around the neighborhood asking if anyone knew where he belonged. And because I expected to find his home, his family and his proper name, I just called him “Baby.” After a few days, he thought that was his name. To this day, when I want to soothe the big dog’s anxiety, I croon to him, “That’s my baaaaaby, my baaaby dog.”

Naming him Toby was an effort to name him something he might recognize, but that might be a little more dignified than Baby for a big dog who looks like a fierce Rottweiler. I’m told he is likely a Rottie-Shepherd cross. Menacing as his appearance may be, Toby is a marshmallow. A sticky, clingy marshmallow who loves me more than anything in the world. Everyone should be loved this way once in life.

Both nine-year-old Toby and eleven-year-old Max, the German Shepherd, have patiently worked through fostering Nell and her nine puppies. They went back to the shelter on Wednesday for little puppy operations and to find new homes. Nell went back, too, having displayed an unfortunate tendency to bully my dogs and to chew up the woodwork. Sweet Pea, who has been adopted by my friend J, is back with us while J is on vacation. Sweet Pea is blissfully fond of both old boys, whom she has known all ten weeks of her little puppy life. She pats them on the nose, eats from their bowls alongside them, piles on top when we all curl up on the sofa. And both old boys are tolerating puppy antics well, now that there is only Sweet Pea. Sadly for me, it turns out that she is the puppy who knows how to unplug the TV and the lights every ten minutes.

J adopted Sweet Pea after an unfortunate experience with Boomer, a rescue dog from New York City. Billed as a Rottie mix, Boomer has sweeter, rounder features than Toby and long, long legs good for jumping and running like a greyhound. His temperament reminds me of Toby as a young dog, all high anxiety, high energy and passion. He is a wonderful dog underneath the anxiety. He does not appear to have the history of abuse that Toby had, but is desperate for attention. He is so anxious that he has chewed the end of his tail raw, with the effect that he sometimes sprays wide washes of blood wherever he goes. His rescuers claim that he is a year old, but he still has the same puppy energy as Xena, a year-old German Shepherd girl we used to know in Brooklyn. Xena’s parents faithfully brought her for an hour’s hard run in the park morning and another hour at night, sometimes with a shorter outing mid-day. That was what it took to keep Miss Xena’s energy levels down to a level consistent with being a house dog, and it is far beyond what Boomer gets in a shelter that is required to walk all dogs on leashes.

Because I love Toby and because Boomer reminds me so much of Toby, I thought we might try him here. He would have to be confined in the back yard, but maybe if he could run down puppy energy, he might get along with the big dogs. If he couldn’t get along with the big dogs, he would have to go back. I love my dogs, and their safety and happiness comes first.

Somewhat to my surprise, it went reasonably well at first. Boomer was more manageable that I remember Toby being; he doesn’t have Toby’s muscle. And someone has taught him a little bit about how to be on leash and some house manners. He needs more training, but he shows promise. He did chase Sweet Pea mercilessly, but did not attack her. Sweet Pea took off screaming, displaying a touch of sister Daisy’s gift for the dramatic. But when Boomer backed off, she came back for more. Max, as usual, gave the new kid a lecture. Max is very verbal.

The anxiety was tough to manage. Boomer needed to run, but he refused to chase toys. He needed to calm down, but refused to be alone. In four hours, we managed only a couple of quiet minutes. And I did take the precaution of taking down the new white nubby silk curtains to protect them from the spray of blood. Everything else in the house is either puppy-proof or aged upholstery or ugly wallpaper soon to be replaced.

The big surprise was that Toby liked Boomer. Toby only rarely romps with other dogs. Chasing and wrestling are not his thing, but with Boomer he had fun. And Boomer seemed to recognize that Toby was top dog around here, a position that Toby has ably defended even against the evil Buppy of yore. Boomer even tolerated Toby putting paws on his shoulders and back, demonstrating Toby’s dominance. Still, I took the precaution of having Boomer in a harness and on leash in the house.

Long ago, I promised Toby that we would never again live through the Buppy days, when I used to come home from work to find new gashes in Toby’s skin. Those were the days when a Buppy tooth punctured Toby’s salivary gland, causing a huge saliva balloon to form under his chin. The vet drained it and bandaged Toby’s head and neck tightly…Franken-puppy. Those were the days of the three-inch gash across Toby’s head; today you can still see the scar.

When I turned to unload the dishwasher, it started. I don’t know who started it or why. The kitchen was suddenly full of whirling, snarling black and tan dogflesh and teeth. I know better than to get into the middle of a dogfight, so all I did was scream and grab for leash. It was over in seconds. I separated the dogs and assessed damage.

There was a lot of blood, but most of it was from the tail spray of the last four hours. Both dogs appeared unhurt, but I had a small tear in my left forearm. I ran it under cold water, somewhat surprised that it really didn’t hurt, then washed a generous squirt of Betadine over it and bandaged it. Now what to do?

Boomer went back to the shelter. He is a lovely dog underneath that anxiety, and the shelter is only making the anxiety worse. He might, with training, fit into our family and become a good companion to Toby and to Max. Or he might keep fighting Toby. I promised Toby he would not have to go through the Buppy experience again, and I will keep my promise.

And I went to the emergency room. You will recall that among the things I fear most in the world, doctors rank in the first three, but a dog bite is nothing to mess around with. They asked who bit me, and I really don’t know. I hate even to report that it was a Rottie mix who did it; these dogs have such bad reputations and in these two cases, undeserved. The tear in my skin had neatly lifted off the top layer, showing the subcutaneous fat and not engaging nerves, which accounted—along with initial shock—for why it didn’t hurt. The memory of that view of subcutaneous fat may turn out to be a powerful weight loss motivator, and this on my forearm, not one of my pudgier limbs. The docs numbed up my arm, washed out the wound and elected not to stitch it up. I go back Wednesday for a re-look. They also insisted on washing down the blood spray (that tail!) on my coat that made me look like a fugitive from a chain-saw-massacre movie.

And then I came home to Toby and to Max. After the requisite verbal harangue, Max allowed that it was all okay with him. Toby was so calm that it made me wonder if I had done the right thing taking Boomer back to the shelter. I had dinner and a glass of wine and fell asleep on the sofa curled up with Toby (Sweet Pea on top!) before Prairie Home Companion was over.

This morning, the truth. Toby huddled close, needing and demanding comfort. Stroke his head, rub his belly, croon softly, “That’s my baaaaby dog.” If I stop stroking to turn a page in my book, the paws come down on my arm, insistent. Yes. Taking Boomer back was necessary. It might have been okay eventually, but it might not. And it might have taken a lot out of Toby and of me before we knew for sure whether it would be okay. I promised Toby that he has priority for my love. I will keep that promise.

As much as we might like to think we have enough love to take care of everyone, it’s not true. Feeling kindly toward everyone, that we can do. But the important kind of love—the active pledge to do everything in my power to make your life happy—that we earthly creatures must each reserve for only a few. If we make those bonds strong enough, we create a unit that can spread more love in the world. Our little family would like to take care of Boomer, but first we have to steward the psychic and physical resources that make it possible for us to live and love in this world. I like to think that God’s love has no such constraint, that it is a love that is as devoted as Toby’s for me and a pledge as inviolate as mine for Toby, but big enough to take in all the world.

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