It’s a Dog’s (and Your) Life

How a sweet pooch came to one cou­ple’s emo­tional res­cue

ZOOMER Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Rona May­nard

I’D JUST SET OUT MY MAT for Pi­lates when I felt the in­struc­tor’s eyes on me. “Rona, your skin looks beau­ti­ful!” she ex­claimed. “Are you in love?” The last time this woman re­marked on my ap­pear­ance, she was urg­ing me to tighten my tush. But some­thing had bright­ened me, and it wasn’t a fa­cial. I’d fallen hard for a ragged-eared res­cue mutt named Casey, whose frol­ick­some pres­ence cast a glow on the world. My step felt lighter, my out­look more play­ful. After more than 60 years of could­have-beens and should-bes, I was lov­ing my life as it was right now. And all be­cause of a dog I hadn’t even thought I wanted.

When my hus­band and I met Casey, un­der the ea­ger gaze of a fasttalk­ing yenta who called her­self his fos­ter mom, noth­ing about him said, “I’m yours.” His legs looked too short for his bar­rel chest; a pointy snout gave him a woe­be­gone air. But within min­utes he’d parked his rump on my right foot as if stak­ing his claim. “He likes you!” crowed Fos­ter Mom. My right toe hasn’t bent since Brad Pitt mar­ried Jen­nifer Anis­ton, and I rather liked hav­ing it warmed by a dog, al­though I still wasn’t sure about the beast him­self. My hus­band clearly had no such doubts. His ten­der smile told me we’d found our starter dog.

This whole pro­ject was Paul’s idea. When he said, “Let’s get a dog,” I nearly re­torted, “Let’s not!” In more than 40 years to­gether, we’d man­aged just fine with­out a dog. First we had too many com­mit­ments, be­tween our son and our ca­reers; then we came to like hav­ing no com­mit­ments at all. I re­minded Paul that we loved to see the world; a dog would slow us down. We loved the sooth­ingly empty nest where no one but our­selves ever repo­si­tioned a book; a dog would slob­ber and shed.

And what about walk­ing this dog? Within re­cent mem­ory, Paul’s knees had been so bad that he could barely make it to the bank two blocks away. The cane he no longer used still hung on our coat stand, just in case, and he’d be­come in­creas­ingly seden­tary. I couldn’t coax him out to the park on balmy days; a dog needs to walk no mat­ter the weather. I could pic­ture my­self nag­ging, “Dear, you haven’t walked the dog” be­fore even­tu­ally tak­ing the dog out my­self with grit­ted teeth and op­er­atic sighs. We’d been down that road as 20-some­things ar­gu­ing about the dishes. Damned if I was go­ing back for a dog.

There sat my hus­band with his hand on mine and a bring-it-on look in his eyes. Yes, he was up for all the walk­ing. This was no whim. “Okay, then,” I said. “But there’s one con­di­tion: the dog stays off our bed. I don’t want paw prints on the sheets.” I

“I’ve some­times wished I could be more like He­len Mir­ren or Glo­ria Steinem. Lately I’ve re­al­ized I should try to be more like Casey”

thought I was mak­ing one of those com­pro­mises that a healthy mar­riage re­quires. I couldn’t fore­see how lov­ing Casey would change me.

We set the bar high for our starter dog. Smallish but not itsy-bitsy. Yap­ping, shed­ding and chew­ing not al­lowed. Grand­child-friend­li­ness es­sen­tial. As condo dwellers not up for potty runs, we’d need a house­trained dog, which ruled out buy­ing a puppy from a breeder. Of the res­cue dogs who met our cri­te­ria, we found just one with all four limbs, no daunt­ing med­i­cal or be­havioural prob­lems and years of life ahead – Casey, then known as Tucker and be­fore that as Shot­gun. The first thing he did in our condo – and, thank­fully, never did again – was lift his leg against a din­ing room chair and drench its taffeta skirt with dan­de­lion-yellow pee. A de­signer and I had spent hours on the choice of that silk. To my sur­prise, I didn’t care. Love had al­ready soft­ened me.

With hu­mans, I’ve been slow to fall in love. On early cof­fee dates with my hus­band, I kept ask­ing my­self, “Can I trust him?” When my in­fant son screamed at night, I asked, “Am I a bad mother?” Casey made lov­ing easy. He whim­pered all the way from Fos­ter Mom’s place to ours, strug­gling for bal­ance on the back seat while I stroked his neck and mur­mured, “It’s okay, Casey.” By the time we got home, he knew his name and my touch.

I don’t won­der Casey was ner­vous. The last time he was driven any­where, in the van that brought him to Toronto from a shelter in ru­ral Ohio, he got the worst of a fight with an­other dog who ripped his ear and scarred his legs. Like most res- cue dogs, he’d knocked around a lot. Born un­wanted, he spent his first year in a prison pro­gram that matches dogs with con­victs who school them in the ba­sics. Some­one must have loved him there but didn’t get to keep him. Next stop: Death Row, the over­crowded shelter where he had the good for­tune to be spir­ited away by Cana­di­ans who’ve made it their mis­sion to give en­dan­gered dogs a sec­ond chance. In down­town Toronto, he started over with us – two sex­a­ge­nar­i­ans ready for a fresh start of their own.

We’d al­lowed things to get too quiet around our place. Casey in­tro­duced joy­ful noises: clink­ing of tags when he shook him­self, thump of his tail against fur­ni­ture, squeak­ing of his ball as he chased it all over the liv­ing room. The cheer­ful tu­mult re­called our son’s tod­dler days, mi­nus tantrums and pep talks about big-boy pants. With Ben, we looked for signs of in­tel­li­gence; with Casey, we could revel in his goofi­ness. He’d perk up at the men­tion of his name – but he did the same for Kevin Spacey, Count Basie and John Wayne Gacy. So what? We weren’t prep­ping him for Har­vard. All we wanted was to love him now.

On Day 1, Casey chose Paul as his best pal. I stepped out; Casey didn’t lift his head. Paul went for cof­fee; Casey kept vigil at the door, bleat­ing. He saun­tered to me but gal­loped to Paul, ears fly­ing: How can I serve you, Adored One? I didn’t mind be­ing his sec­ond-favourite hu­man. The only thing bet­ter than re­ceiv­ing ca­nine de­vo­tion is watch­ing it lav­ished on some­one you love but don’t al­ways like – the not-lik­ing parts be­ing all but guar­an­teed in a long mar­riage. When I catch my­self wish­ing I could change a thing or two about my hus­band, I look at him from Casey’s per­spec­tive. I see my two guys rough­hous­ing to­gether, a no-holds-barred dis­play of lick­ing and bel­low­ing. I won­der why that cou­ples coun­sel­lor never asked, “Have you thought of get­ting a dog?”

The open-hearted spirit Casey brought to our home ex­tended to our morn­ing walks. Walk­ing had once been my men­tal and phys­i­cal work­out, pur­sued with an as­sertive stride and a don’t-both­erme ex­pres­sion. Wher­ever I thought I was go­ing, the real des­ti­na­tion was my pri­vate world. In Casey’s com­pany, I had to slow down so he could choose just the right pee­ing spot, a process that in­volves much sniff­ing, sev­eral re­ver­sals of po­si­tion and at least one aborted hoist of the leg. Still­ness opened my eyes to the neigh­bour­hood’s small de­lights – tucked-away gar­dens, red­wing black­birds in flight. It made me re­cep­tive to strangers who asked, “Can I pet him?”

One day I waited with Casey

at an ATM, grit­ting my teeth as an el­derly woman laboured to com­plete her trans­ac­tion and stuff the bills, one by one, into a faded wal­let. Didn’t she re­al­ize her walker, slung with over­stuffed bags full of odd­ments, was block­ing my ap­proach to the ma­chine? The woman turned, saw Casey, held out her arms. He leaped into her em­brace. It might have been the high­light of her day. Lucky me, I got to share the plea­sure.

Walk­ing Casey pre­sented one chal­lenge: his blood lust. Squir­rels abound in down­town Toronto, and Casey’s a hound mix, de­signed by na­ture to hunt. His bay­ing, back­flip­ping, leash-yank­ing gy­ra­tions nearly knocked me off my feet. Thanks to our trainer, he now sits when I curb his an­tics, ears back in a sign of sub­mis­sion. He yawns, as dogs do when stressed. “I’m try­ing,” he seems to say, “but I’ll al­ways be a hound. Bear with me.”

I’ve some­times wished I could be more like He­len Mir­ren or Glo­ria Steinem. Lately I’ve re­al­ized I should try to be more like Casey. If he could talk, he’d never ask, “Why did I fail to catch that squir­rel?” or “Does this har­ness make me look fat?” He thinks his day is fine the way it is. Ev­ery rat­tle in the kitchen, ev­ery waft of ba­con from the stove is to him a prom­ise of hap­pi­ness. When no tasty scraps come his way, he just waits for next time. He re­minds me to hope for the best in­stead of brac­ing my­self for the worst the way I did when Paul said, “Let’s get a dog.”

De­spite my fears, we’ve never fought over walk­ing Casey, nor have I done a minute more than my share. Be­tween us, we give him two hours a day, ex­cept on weekly trips to dog­gie day care for a high-en­ergy romp with his own kind. I’m an early-bird walker, out the door with school kids and of­fice work­ers; Paul’s been known to walk in the mid­dle of the night, when he and Casey have the streets to them­selves. I find this per­plex­ing but what­ever works for Casey works for me – and is do­ing great things for Paul. A few months after Casey joined us, my hus­band’s car­di­ol­o­gist no­ticed a sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ment in his blood pres­sure and blood work. Had he lost weight? “I wish,” said Paul. “I’ve been walk­ing a dog.”

Peo­ple with dogs ex­er­cise more, worry less and en­joy a stronger sense of pur­pose, stud­ies have shown. Dog own­ers over 60 make fewer vis­its to the doc­tor. But while th­ese find­ings ring true for me, they’re not the main rea­son I’m glad we fi­nally have a dog. Casey’s great­est gift is the sense of comfort he ra­di­ates, wher­ever he hap­pens to be.

On Casey’s first road trip, we dis­cov­ered the truth about dog-friendly ho­tels. The ones with­out ru­inous pet fees of­ten have drab rooms rem­i­nis- cent of col­lege dorms. Yet with our dog curled up on the bed, ev­ery one of th­ese rooms felt like home. All the sheets came to smell like Casey in­stead of laun­dry prod­ucts. The gen­tle sound of his breath lulled us in the night. I told my­self that with his pa­tience in the car, he’d earned his place with us in ho­tel beds. Our own bed, mean­while, re­mained a dog-free zone. Months went by, and quite a few ho­tel stays, be­fore I re­al­ized what should have been ob­vi­ous: Casey’s “spe­cial treat” had also been a treat for us hu­mans. Why deny our­selves any longer?

Our sheets have paw prints now, but I can’t see them in the dark. And I’ve found Casey a first-rate sleep­ing coach. When I’m wake­ful, I rest my hand on which­ever part of his torso feels right. His breath trav­els the length of his body, all the way to his thigh. My hand rises and falls as he breathes me to the edge of sleep.

Some­times I marvel that the three of us be­came a fam­ily. If Casey had got­ten any breaks as a puppy in NRA coun­try, he wouldn’t have landed with us. He’d be rid­ing around in a pick-up truck with a gun-tot­ing hunter who praised him for leap­ing at squir­rels. As for us, we might have waited for a dif­fer­ent dog if we’d known the truth about Casey. Fos­ter Mom told us he was only 30 pounds; in fact he’s 40 pounds of muscle. She said our grand­son would love him; they keep a wary dis­tance from each other. She as­sured us he “hardly sheds at all;” his fur turns up in the strangest places (kitchen counter, bath­room van­ity). Her sales pitch built to a ring­ing conclusion: “He’s the per­fect dog for you.” She nailed that part, the only part that matters.

The au­thor, with Casey

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