Linda Stansberry will be providing a column for Redheaded Blackbelt once per month. If you don’t know this homegrown writer’s work, we’re betting you’ll soon come to look forward to every column. And if you do know, you’ve probably already skipped this intro to get to the good stuff, her writing:
When does a dog become your dog? Puppies become your dog almost as soon as you get them home. For the first couple of nights she’ll cry because she misses her mama and her litter, and if you’re softhearted you might get up and snuggle her. It won’t be long until you’re her human, and she’s your dog.
With rescues, it can be a little more complicated. Consider my friend Shannon and her third dog, who came to her as a feral foster. Shannon is a saint, the kind of person who can get away with calling her menagerie her “furbabies.” Buddy wanted nothing to do with her or her husband, the other two dogs or the cats for the first few months. Mostly, he hid under their bed and growled. Shannon would push food towards him and talk to him daily. She set up a separate area in the backyard so Buddy could have his space. It took months of work, but eventually he submitted to her touch. Buddy became her dog, and she became Buddy’s human.
I also have a Buddy. He’s middle-aged going on elderly for a dog, and terribly spoiled. Our best guess for his heritage is McNab and terrier, but he most closely resembles a harbor seal. Even as I write he’s prancing in circles next to my desk. He gets dinner every night at 5 p.m., but his sense of timing has been thrown off by my new work-from-home routine, and he now starts bugging me at a little after noon.
He wasn’t the dog I wanted. I knew that when I became a homeowner I would definitely be adopting a dog, but I saw myself with something smaller. A chihuahua, probably. Maybe a Yorkshire terrier. I answered the ad on Craigslist mostly because the woman who put up the ad was including a bag of dog food and a leash.
“Let’s go check it out,” I said to my boyfriend.
It wasn’t love at first sight. Buddy was skinny and scared and didn’t want to get out of the woman’s pickup. He let us pet him but he didn’t seem to enjoy it. The woman’s elderly mother had had him for a few years, adopting him after someone had thrown him out of a truck on Rohnerville Road. She already had a few McNabs, but they were bigger than Buddy, and tended to pick on him, eating his food and ganging up on him. The woman had a back injury and couldn’t give him the attention he needed.
“He really needs to be someone’s pet,” her daughter said. I agreed. This was no cow dog. There were scars on his muzzle, manure matted into his fur. We tried to take the leash and walk him in the parking lot, but he pulled away from us. There’s a part of me that can’t resist loving on things that have been thrown away – dogs, kids, old furniture. We took him home. He shook like an uncalibrated engine the whole way back to Eureka, farting and darting anxious looks out the back window. When I got him into the yard he pooped effusively, turning his head away from us in apparent embarrassment.
That shaky, scared dog is unrecognizable now, and not just because he’s put on a good ten pounds. He’s a ham, a lovebug, a source of unfettered positivity. When I come home, or when I get up in the morning, he greets me like I’m a soldier back from the front, prancing, yelping, licking my hand. Around people he likes – my friends, my father-in-law – he flops over onto his back to show off his pink belly and writhes back and forth until they pet him. He’s still timid – he’s afraid of cows, of sheep, of balloons, of cats – but he’s lost the terror he had when I first got him of strange humans and bigger dogs.
He will not ride in the back of a truck, not for love or money. I made him do it once or twice, but he soon cottoned on and began playing a fun game with me where as soon as I made him load up he’d jump right out and circle back to the driver’s side door, squirming under my arms to ride shotgun. I let him do it, partially because I think he must be thinking of those assholes who threw him out of the truck on Rohnerville Road, but mostly because he’s got me trained. Sometimes I’ll pet him and look into his big brown eyes and feel tears start, thinking about how scared and confused he must have been when they drove off and left him. What fools, throwing away a treasure like this, the best dog in the world.
Not everyone can pinpoint when their dog became their dog, but I know the exact moment with Buddy. We had only had him for a few weeks, and we were walking him at dusk near the old Zoe Barnum campus. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a chihuahua showed up. You know the type: Big eyes, big balls, big attitude. It growled at Buddy, who began to pull at his harness in terror. Then a pack of other dogs, all just a little bit bigger than the chihuahua, arrived and began their assault. Buddy screamed. I screamed: Big, full-throated screams I had never heard come out of my mouth before. Buddy pulled the leash from my boyfriend’s hand and ran off into the dark, the small dogs in hot pursuit.
I didn’t know what to do. The other dogs’ owner showed up and got an earful, and the three of us fanned out to try and find him. Buddy hadn’t been chipped. We hadn’t even walked in that neighborhood before, so I didn’t think he knew how to get home. We were ten blocks away from our house and there were several streets with moderate traffic.
Even as we called him, I wondered if he would respond to the sound of my voice. He could be anywhere – hit by a car on the side of the road or huddled under a bush. He was a country dog lost in the city, not really fully my dog yet, and I had let him down. My boyfriend agreed to keep combing the streets while I went home to get my phone so I could post his photo online. I got it, walked down the steps of my porch, looked left and looked right. There was a familiar-looking creature at the corner of Summer and Harris – a small black and white dog towing a red leash. How he had ended up so far away from where we split was a mystery. How he found his way back to our street, and off busy Harris Avenue, was an even bigger mystery, but there he was.
“Buddy,” I cried, running towards him.
At the sound of my voice his whole posture changed, from uncertainty to joy, and he lunged pell-mell down the sidewalk to where I kneeled with open arms. He whined and licked my face and when I got back to the porch I lifted him onto my lap and cried.
This is my dog, I thought. This is my dog.
Linda Stansberry is a writer, journalist and rancher who lives in Eureka with her family. Hometown is a syndicated monthly column. For more information or to contact Linda, visit www.lindastansberry.com.