The Mystery of Rescue Dogs

This week I have a “guest writer” for my newsletter. My old friend Tor Shwayder is here to tell you the story of his lifelong love of rescue dogs, specifically Stan.

Uncovering the many mysteries of rescues is an experience that is so very different from my own with purebreds. Or should I say, different in some ways–but not at all in others. Dogs, after all, are dogs. Read on and enjoy!

Tor and Stan…out and about

Linda Sexton and I met during our freshman year at Harvard. Later, she married my roommate, and our families have been friends for the last four decades. When we visit Linda in California, there is always been a bevy of Dalmatians careening around.

My wife and I can relate to Linda’s love of her dogs. Over the years, we have taken in the flotsam and jetsam of the dog rescue world to love and call our own for as many years as the doggie deities give them. My parents did this, and my brother and my grandfather as well. It runs in the family.

There is a lot of mystery to adopting a rescue dog, and it is that mystery which I love. Nothing is more intriguing than going to the pound and looking at the dogs in their cages, peering up at you, begging for acceptance. As cute as they all are, you mostly wonder: what kind of home did he come from before? How was she handled? Will he be loving with our children? What behaviors will we uncover?

Not so surprisingly, I still have a blurry B & W photo of our first rescue dog over my desk to remind me of the pure essence of childhood that is exemplified in Linda’s newsletter, “Give The Boy A Dog.”

A series of rescues have come through my home in the ensuing decades. Some good, some naughty, all great companions. Two dogs ago we had a (mostly) black lab we re-named Stella. I did this because I always wanted to lean out my back door and shout STELLA!!! at the top of my lungs, like Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee William’s “A Street Car Named Desire.” After we lost her, we were dog-less for over a year.

One day right around my next birthday, my wife told me to get in the car and follow her directions and not to ask any questions. She then had me drive to the local mall, even though I am not a shopper and wandering around malls gives me hives.

She led me to a store where several volunteers in bright yellow aprons emblazoned with “Last Day Rescue” were each holding a leash with a dog attached. I might be slow at some things in life, but this set of events I got and I, of course, couldn’t help but respond.

We looked seriously at several of the dogs. One in particular “spoke” to us. He had been found along the side of the road, was possibly a lab and Border collie mix, with shots current. “George,” as they were calling him, had initially been rescued from the top of the kill list at the local pound. The shelter had delayed euthanizing him, hoping to find an adoptive family because he was so amiable.

Handsome Stan

On the way to our house, this dog was calm–no whining, no barking. He nestled his head on my shoulder, looking through the windshield. Off death row, into a new home!

The first thing we had to do was change his name. Stanley was the obvious choice, as Stella had been married to Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Amazingly, Stan knew the borders of our home instinctively. We live on a corner lot with houses on two sides and not a fence in sight. Unlike all the other dogs I have had in all my life, this dog–mirabile dictum–stayed put! My wife set up the hammock, I lay down in it, and the dog settled in at my feet. And stayed there.

We started with the basics: Sit, Stay, Shake. Stan already knew these. I made a circle with my hand and he rolled over. And so the questions I would ask began–even though there would never be answers: who trained you, my new friend? What was your old home life? Your mysterious cough took us to the vet, for an x-ray, which revealed three freshly healed broken ribs–did your old owner kick you?

Stan was not motivated by food. Who ever heard of a dog that did not jump up for a treat? We had to find something that would interest him. We read a PuppyWire guide about specific dog foods but it turned out to be a simple: Stan loved to chase after tennis balls and frisbees. Unfortunately, he refused to release them upon returning. I tried yanking, I tried cajoling, I tried multiple balls at the same time. Nothing worked. A quick talk with friends who have border collies resulted in some answers, all of which required patience.

Come on! Let’s play!

Imagine the scene: on my front lawn, the street just yards away, no fences, doggie distractions everywhere, but Stan stands stock–still watching my hands. Will I throw the tennis ball left? Right? In front of me? Behind me?

His eyes never leave that ball. I flip it and he nabs it on the first bounce. Now the Border collie dance begins: he chews and chews the ball as his head slowly lowers to the ground. I step back, he moves forward, chews and lowers his head again. As instructed by my friends, I take another step back. At last, he releases the ball and we begin one more time–for however long my arm will hold out.

Stan was not a demonstrative dog. I like to joke that there are a lot of dogs that have OGD: “obsessive greeting disorder.” Stan did not. I realized quickly that I had to find the small signals in his behavior that would tell me he was enjoying his life with us. Every night, he came directly to the door with an expectant look that seemed to say: “Where have you been all day? I am definitely in need of a few tennis ball retrievals!” At other times an occasional lick of the face and a cock of the ear was the most I got.

Still, he would put his head on my knee at dinner (even though it was forbidden to feed him at the table). He would sidle up to me and present his back end for a thorough “butt-rub,” and his eyes would close with pleasure. He loved to climb into my wife’s lap on the couch as we watched “Downtown Abbey,” (though lying on the couch was also forbidden).

Stella had slept at night in the laundry room with the door closed, but Stan just barked non-stop the first time we settled him there. We eventually moved his bed outside the door of our bedroom. He kept track of all the traffic in the hallway and especially loved it when our three grown children came home to visit. Stan just wanted to be with his people.

Unfortunately, he did not like being with other dogs. We tried doggie day care, where a few expensive bites to other dogs quickly taught us he did not play well in the sand box. Again, we wondered. Is this why you were ejected from your first home? Or your second or third–who knew? The mystery of our rescue dog continued.

Stan in one of his many spots

Stan declined over the last couple of years from leg and lung problems. He coughed and wheezed and stopped running. We tried different medications, on which he remained for the last five years of his life. He started to hobble, could not go on walks, no longer even enjoyed chasing his ball. I had to carry his seventy pounds up the stairs each night and down in the morning, and even outside to pee. He spent the evening moving from one spot to another uncomfortably. I kept asking the vet: “When is the last good day?” He only said: “You will know.”

After Stan had been more than a year on strong painkillers at ever decreasing intervals, one weekend I sensed the time had come and resolved, with my wife, that Monday would be the day. I spent my time at the office dreading coming home because I knew it would be the last time he would greet me at the door.

That night I sat on the lawn stroking his head, our last time together outside. When my wife got home we took Stan in to the vet’s. We cradled his head in our arms and stroked his furry face. As the injections were administered, my hand was over Stan’s chest and I felt the life go out of him. I was numb, my eyes filled with tears. My wife kept stroking his ears and cooing his name.

After more than a year of pain, Stan finally looked peaceful. On the wall of the vet’s exam room was a small plaque: “Heaven is the place where all the dogs you ever loved are there to greet you.” We unclipped his collar and brought it home as a remembrance. To this day it is hooked on the coat rack in the back hallway where I kept the tennis balls for our daily game of fetch.

One year later, we still pause on entering a dark room at night, careful not to step on Stan. No dog has taken his place in our home–yet. But intuitively I know that another rescue dog has our name on his collar. And so, the mystery, the discovery, and the joy that all come with a rescue dog will be ours once again.

–Tor Shwayder

I hope this story moved you, as it did me. If you enjoyed reading this or have a rescue story of your own that you would like to share, let Tor know via my Facebook page!



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