Gladys had been gone from our lives for one month when I said to Tom that I wanted to get another dog.
His response was, “No. No more dogs. It’s just too much heartbreak because we always outlive them.”
I looked at my husband and I knew he was still keenly grieving. It had been rough on him. Gladys was Tom’s first and only dog, and they had one of those close partnerships where they knew what the other was thinking. When Gladys died, it was the most intense emotional experience in Tom’s life to date. Gladys had a peaceful, uneventful passing—but Tom sobbed so hard that he ruptured the vessels in his nose and he started bleeding all over Gladys as she lay still on the ground. The more he sobbed, the more copious amounts of his blood gushed out all over Gladys’s fur. I sat on the ground silently witnessing this scene. In the end, Gladys was so covered with Tom’s blood, it looked like she’d died a violent, gory death. It was brutal.
But now I was standing my ground. “Listen, my love. I am giving you a two week notice.”
Tom leveled me with his “Oh really?” stare with his cornflower blue eyes.
“Really. I don’t like being dogless.” I argued with myself. “I especially don’t like being dogless at Bad Beaver. I want a dog that will be a good watch dog.”
Tom sighed. He said, “Do what you have to do. But it’s going to be your dog.”
I first checked out all the local shelters, but most of the adoptable dogs they had were rescues from down South that you could view online. What is it with Southerners and the way they disregard/discard animals? It’s disgusting. At first, I was looking for an adult dog; after all, Flo had come to me at five years of age, and she was the dog of my heart. But when I looked in these dogs’ eyes, there was just too much pain and fear. I didn’t want to inherit someone else’s abused baggage. I started looking at puppies online.
I used the Animal Rescue League website. I knew roughly what I was looking for, but unfortunately there were thousands of puppies begging to be adopted. It became depressing. I must have looked at several hundred puppies, and I was just about to take a break from it all when I saw a puppy that made me laugh right out loud. I knew in an instant, this was the one!
In the description, her name was Reilly and she was nine weeks old, and was a German Shepherd-Rottweiler mix from Clarksville, Tennessee. The blurb went on to say she was born on a farm in a litter of seven puppies that were bred for dog fighting. The four male puppies were taken for the dog fights and the three females were dumped in a high kill shelter. Apparently, they don’t fight with females down south…how bloody noble.
This puppy melted my heart because she had a black mask with two golden spots above her eyes. From the photos, I could tell that she could raise and lower the spots independently of each other. This gave her a very intelligent look—when one golden spot was bobbed upward, it looked like she was saying, “Really, do tell!”
I made arrangements with the puppy rescue people in Tennessee, those angels of abandoned canines, and I was now solidly committed to the masked puppy, sight unseen. I told Tom we were getting an addition to our family on the Summer Solstice—we were getting a pure bred Shepweiler! Then, I began to stress about having a new puppy in the household. I hadn’t had to train a dog in decades because when Flo was around, she taught all the new dogs—Gnarly, Stella, Gladys, Phaedra—all the ropes and the rules. Training had been a cinch. But now I was going to have to go back to square one without an alpha bitch to instruct her. Actually, I was going to have to be that bitch.
I made the mistake of reading books on puppy training, like “How to House Train Your Dog in Five Days.” These were all about giving your puppy a treat as a reward about every ten seconds for good habits. I didn’t want a dog who was in love with me for my damn treats, so I threw all the books away.
One night, about a week before we were to pick up the masked pup, I turned to Tom in bed and said, “Her name is Rhoda. Rhoda the Rottherd.”
He just looked at me for a long time, digesting this, until he said, “You mean ‘Rhoda,’ as in ‘Rhoda Morgenstern?”
I hadn’t thought about this, but I said, “Well, I hope she’s just as funny.”
The night we went to pick Rhoda up was the night of the “Super Moon,” when the moon is closest in its orbit to earth. We left the house at 2:00 in the morning, to be in Plainfield, CT by 5:00 AM. Tom slept the whole way and I drove, directly under the most enormous golden moon I have ever seen in my life. It guided us the entire way. I took this to be a very fortuitous sign.
We got to the assigned Park & Ride just before sunrise. There were a lot of other cars from several New England states waiting for the arrival of the Puppy Bus coming up from Tennessee. Many people stood outside their cars nervously smoking butts. It felt to me like people waiting for a huge drug deal to go down. Then the Puppy Bus pulled into the Park & Ride and all the people eagerly lined up to claim their new friends.
The side door to the van slid open to reveal floor to ceiling crates of crying, vomiting dogs. It’s a sad testimony to the plight of a dog’s life in the southern states that this happens on a weekly basis. The saintly women who drove all day and all night to deliver these dogs began to call out names and unload the dogs. Suddenly I realized how nervous I was. My stomach was in a knot.
Rhoda’s sister, Regan, came bounding out of their crate first. She was large and shiny and energetic and playful. She had been adopted by a couple living in an apartment in Boston. Then Rhoda was handed to me. My dog was small and trembling and matted and mangy. Her fur was dull and lifeless. Her neck was full of bites and scabs. I put Rhoda on her leash but she tried to slide under her sister to hide. Then the Boston couple took her sister away.
I led Rhoda over to the side of the parking lot and she peed for what seemed like five minutes. I thought, “Well, I guess this is a good sign…she’s obviously held her pee all the way from Clarksville.”
When we got in the car, I said to Tom, “Oh my god, this dog is like one of those pathetic, sick Mexican street dogs.” I could feel myself starting to become dismayed. Doubt was creeping in. Then I heard a shout in my head, “Listen. This is YOUR DOG. THERE IS NO MISTAKE AND NO TURNING BACK.”
Right. I began to relax. Tom drove, and I sat in the back holding my new pup in my lap and gently stroking and massaging her little body. I offered her some puppy chow that she gulped down like she was starving. I surmised that she was the runt of the litter and hadn’t gotten enough food at the overcrowded puppy rescue facility.
As Tom drove quietly toward home, I slowly began to acquaint myself with this new being. I rubbed her ears and laughed at how soft they were and how they clownishly flopped over her head. I looked at the size of her front paws, which were huge. Maybe some day she would grow into them. Rhoda trembled and shook the entire time I was doing my inspection. I caressed her fur. I knew her coat would be spit-shine glossy in just a matter of days. I was falling in love.
Somewhere around Worcester, Rhoda finally made eye contact with me. It was as if she had only just then noticed me. She held my eyes for a long time. Then her eyes became soft and full of trust and contentment. She rolled over on her back and gave me her little freckled frog-belly to soothe. She sighed and closed her eyes to sleep.
I swear I saw her smile.
[To be continued…]