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Benny

Writing “Minding Monkey” last time triggered a cascade of memories about the years I spent in dog rescue.  But while “Minding Monkey” was uniformly upbeat, rescue is not.  There are at least as many not-so-good outcomes as good ones.  As you will see.

Perhaps many who engage in [dog rescue] affirmatively choose to do so. Others, like my ex-wife Laura and me, just stumble into it.

Perhaps many who engage in the activity affirmatively choose to do so.  Others, like my ex-wife Laura and me, just stumble into it.  Our rescue work was breed specific – Maremma Abruzzis, sometimes called Maremma sheepdogs.  Maremmas are working dogs, livestock guardian dogs.  They descend from an ancient breed, the Tibetan mountain dog, as do a number of related breeds – Great Pyrenees, Kuvasz and Akbash.  More about Akbash later.

Our introduction to the breed was accidental.  When I met Laura, an “other-than-first-wife”, shall I say, she had a mixed breed dog, Jenny who was getting on in her years.  By age sixteen the infirmities of age overtook her.  We had settled into a new house and decided that we would get two dogs, one of her choosing and one of mine. My dog experience to then was with Labradors, and I had known several. I was pretty sure there was a Lab in my future. But Laura attended a craft workshop one Saturday where she encountered Nemo, a Maremma.  Laura was entranced.  We learned that Nemo came from a breeder on the Connecticut shore, and we visited.  Two dogs from that litter remained, a male and a female.  They were about seven months old at the time.  Laura and I became instant converts and adopted them.  They were essentially rescue pups because the breeder ran a working farm and needed to place them and, because, as it turned out, they had medical issues.

The male, who we named Capotosto (“hard head” in Italian, my native Italian mom’s favorite nickname for me) had significant problems from the outset.  We took him to Tufts for evaluation and learned little other than that the malady would progress and progress quickly.  Sometime later we discovered that the bitch that bore them had Lyme disease, which all the pups had contracted.  Euthanizing Cappy was hard.  And the female, Lena, was distraught.  She would lie at the end of the driveway waiting for her brother to come home.  By chance, however, we learned from the breeder that Nemo’s craftsman needed to find a new home for him.  Sometimes solutions just drop into your lap, and we brought Nemo home, renaming him Tino.

I think it’s fair to say that Tino and Lena thrived with us.  About a year after they came into our lives we relocated to Chicagoland in connection with a job transfer.  I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but it was there that the idea of Maremma rescue bloomed.  We created an organization, North American Maremma Rescue (hey, dream big).  In just a few years NAMR rescued sixty dogs.  Now, “rescue” involves multiple steps, much of it logistical.  Our rescues were largely a matter of connecting dogs being put into rescue with fostering families who would evaluate the dog and prepare it for “rehoming” and then finding that home.  Much of the actual contact with the animals was providing transportation for them, and we traveled all over.  But then things changed a bit.

We learned of a young dog in Dayton, whose “owner”, a professed gentleman farmer, had given up on him as a working dog.  Laura had already found an eventual home for the dog when we went to pick him up.  We would foster him for a month or two and then hand him on.  When we came upon the farm and turned into the driveway, which was quite long, we could see a dog chained to a small shed at the end.  I have no idea why it happened, but I immediately thought “uh oh” and knew that there was no way I was going to part with this little guy.  “Little Bear” (so named because when he strained at the leash he revealed a rather geeky neck that reminded me of a treasured stuffed animal from my youth) bonded with me quickly.  But he had some issues.  Food issues: I think he had been undernourished for some time.  He was unusually “hardmouthed” and would lunge at proffered treats with little regard for the fingers that held them.  And it appeared that he had been left outside, chained to his shed, in thunderstorms.  They terrified him.  We discovered this back home when a strong storm emerged out of nowhere, and Little Bear desperately ran from door to door, scratching (and ruining) the screen inserts in each one.  And he was wary of men.  I have no idea of the back story, but Little Bear had adopted a defensive strategy of nip first and ask questions later.  And he did.  Several times. Several men, contractors, and one androgynous-looking woman who worked for the electric company.  Not ideal, but we took precautions thereafter.

Not long after we learned of another animal, a female, in Kansas City.  Turns out she was not a Maremma, but an Akbash.  Akbash are very similar in size but the temperament differs a bit.  “Molly”, as we named her, was spectacular.  The bravest dog I ever met.  An Amazonian athlete with a delightful personality and a fiercely protective instinct.  She would be your first choice as your own personal guardian.  We had made no prior plans to rehome her and were content to keep her.  We could handle four dogs.  But.

Sometimes issues emerge when several dogs are kept together.  One Sunday afternoon Molly, without warning, suddenly attacked Lena with a vengeance.  Laura said “let them work it out” but I saw that Molly was inflicting some real damage so I literally grabbed her jaws to unlock the two of them and tackled her.  Laura took Lena to an emergency vet clinic and she returned with over one hundred sutures and drains and what-not that made her look like the bride of Frankenstein.  But she healed well.  Despite my misgivings, Molly remained.  Until she repeated the attack.  Fortunately, I was able to separate them quickly but Molly’s fate was sealed.  We learned that that behavior in the breeds – female on female aggression – while not typical, was known to occur. Our vet was kind enough to make a house call to euthanize Molly.

About a year later we decided to relocate to the Adirondacks.  We rented a house in Lake Placid for a year to learn the area so as to make an informed choice about where to buy, and put the Illinois house on the market.  I stayed in Lake Placid and Laura, for the most part, stayed in Illinois.  Early on we learned of another rescue situation in New Hampshire.  Laura and a local friend retrieved the dog, a male.  “Bady” (rhymes with lady) was almost a year old, and he was an Akbash, like Molly.  He had lived on Staten Island with a family of Albanian emigres. The patriarch was terminally ill, and he had gotten Bady to protect the family he left behind.  But Akbash, like Maremmas, need room to roam, so the family put him into rescue.   Bady’s stay in the rental house was to be temporary:  Laura  was to take him back with her to Illinois the next day.  We kept Bady in the heated garage overnight, and when I checked on him next morning, I was struck by two things: first, he had a special presence, a quality that made it clear that he was an unusual dog; and second, I realized that if the family had done any training it would have been in Albanian.  Whatever.  We managed.

Meantime Laura had gotten word of a woman who had quite a reputation as a kind of dog whisperer.  The woman lived in Iowa, I think, and Laura thought it would be a good idea to take Bady to her for training and fostering.  Laura took Little Bear with her on the trip, and on the spur of the moment decided to have him stay, too.  We paid, in advance, for a multiple week “engagement”.  This was around the first of the year in 2005.  I remained in Lake Placid, studying for the New York bar exam.  From Illinois, Laura kept in touch with the dog whisperer and wanted to pay a visit to see how things were going.  The DW kept putting her off, saying she was too busy. Finally, Laura said she would come anyway and that DW wouldn’t have to meet with her, she just wanted to see the dogs.  The DW then told her that Little Bear had died – “torsion” or twisted gut – which can happen to dogs and horses, and perhaps other animals, when they somehow get far more food than they can handle.  The story was that Little Bear had gotten into a grain bin.  Several weeks earlier.  DW hadn’t told us because she assumed, rightly, that we would demand a refund of the unearned prepayment.  Laura didn’t press the matter but retrieved Bady and returned to Illinois.

Later that year we found our Adirondacks home in Elizabethtown and settled in, the two of us and three dogs.  Tino and Lena were then about eight, and medical issues began to emerge.  Recall that they had both contracted Lyme disease in utero.  Tino suddenly went blind.  He began to have joint problems that hindered movement. Lena had a persistent sore in her mouth that resisted treatment.  Over the next two years their tribulations grew, and early in 2007 Tino’s time had come.  Our local vets – a husband and wife team – took good care of us, and he came to our home to euthanize Tino. Late in the summer, Lena’s mouth sore had turned into a full-fledged tumor and we did the humane thing and euthanized her.  Leaving Bady all alone.  And miserable, the way Lena had been when Cappy died.

As it happened, Laura had learned of a breeder in the Hudson Valley, not far from where I now live, who had three puppies.  They planned to keep one but the other two were available.  Laura and I decided that we had earned the opportunity with our rescue work.  We visited and brought home the one male of the litter, who I named Ciolo, short for cucciolo, puppy in Italian.

Ciolo

Ciolo and Bady bonded instantly, and it was then that we discovered Bady’s gift: a love for “babies”.  Bady showed the same love for the eleven-month-old daughter of a friend, who would climb all over him and cuddle with him to Bady’s infinite delight.

“Uncle” Bady and Ciolo

For whatever reason Laura and I decided to get the other available pup, a female, too.  Just a day or two before we were to pick her up, we learned of another rescue, a young male Maremma in the care of an animal control officer in Connecticut.  Perhaps feeling a bit guilty for taking the puppies, we decided to rescue him, too, so we extended our trip to pick up “Benny” when we brought “Lola” home.  Back to four dogs.  Briefly.

Ciolo and Lola

Benny was the sweetest of dogs.  But Laura and I knew well a fundamental truth in rescue: animals seized by animal control officers are abused animals.  Benny was no exception.  Although we didn’t know particulars we were on alert.  It didn’t take long.  Likely as an outgrowth of abuse Benny had developed the most intense case of dog on dog aggression I had ever seen.  Paradoxically, Benny was absolutely fine with the other three in our household, and I wonder whether the fact that Benny had arrived at the same time, literally, as the two pups, as well as Bady’s phlegmatic nature, made the difference.  And Benny was truly at home with us.  But then one day some friends dropped by with their Kuvasz.  We stayed outside to talk and at some point, Benny, who was inside, noticed.  He began barking and lunging at the window in full fury.  Our friends, who were about to leave anyway, did so and Benny quieted.  Within a day or two, however we had another incident.  There was a barn across the road where several people boarded their horses.  One of them brought her Labrador with her each morning when she came to feed and take care of her horse.  Her dog, ill-behaved, wandered about, usually depositing his business on our lawn.  [I would thereupon carefully scoop it up with a shovel and deposit it at the foot of the driver’s side door of her station wagon.]  This day I heard a commotion and saw all four of our dogs at the limit of the Invisible Fence closest to the road confronting the Lab, who was at the edge of the road.  I ran out and found Benny going berserk.  Absolute, unmitigated fury.  Blind rage. I grabbed him to keep him from attacking the Lab, and it took all of my strength to hold him back.   I realized it was only a matter of time before some catastrophe would occur.  After consultation with our vets and the animal control officer we decided euthanasia was the only choice.

As was usually the case, the “dirty work” fell to me, and I took Benny to the vet’s office.  We went in the afternoon, when things were quiet.  We were the only “clients” there.  Neither vet was in at the moment, so we waited.  While we waited Benny sat in front of me, his eyes never leaving my face.  It was agony.  The door opened and a woman about my age entered.  I think she sized up the situation quickly.  She made much of Benny, talking to him and petting him for quite a number of minutes.  Benny loved it. She had come to pick up medication, did so, and as she was leaving, said to Benny, “I’m so happy to have made a new friend today.” I am forever grateful to that woman for making Benny’s last moments pleasant ones.

A short while later Christine, the head vet tech, my favorite, came out and asked whether I wanted to wait for one of the vets or just have her do it.  I thought the time was right so we proceeded.  And that was that.  But I think Christine must have been watching for a while before she asked her question.  After Benny’s new friend had left I had put my hands behind Benny’s head and pressed my forehead into his.  I was completely  crushed.  Rescuers eventually lose their reservoir of resilience and mine was gone.  I knew it at that instant.  I could not continue in rescue.  I think Christine must have seen this because later that year, at the office Christmas party (we were always invited) when she came into the room she came up to me and threw her arms around my neck.  She saw and she knew.

Postscript: Laura and I split up three years later.  It was not pretty.  And due to circumstances, Bady, Lola and Ciolo went with her.  By now they’re likely all gone.  But my new friend Monkey, who visits regularly, will do just fine.

Post-postscript: In the short time between Benny’s arrival and departure I created a video, a slide show with a sound track, “Nine White Dogs” as a remembrance of dogs past (and passed) and a hopeful preview of things to come.  Subsequent events, sadly, nullified the latter. I watch it from time to time now. And it warms me still.

Profile photo of Tom Steenburg Tom Steenburg
Retired attorney and investment management executive. I believe in life, liberty with accountability and the relentless pursuit of whimsy.


Characterizations: moving

Comments

  1. I’m really a cat person Tom, but your story has touched me. Your love for your dogs is inspiring and each dog’s face in your video so very soulful.
    We both know it’s always the humans who are rescued as much as the animals!

  2. John Shutkin says:

    A really powerful story, Tom. I’m a dog person — perhaps even a dog myself — but I think your tales would move anyone. And, yes, some of them are very sad — though our generation has been conditioned to that possibility ever since “Old Yeller.” And equally amazing that you made the slide show video that complements your story so perfectly. Thank you.

    • Thanks, John. I think I, too, have a bit of canine in me and it’s not just a few teeth. Perhaps it’s odd but I don’t think of the tales or the video as at all sad for a couple of reasons. Writing the story and seeing the video again constitute touchstones of memory that go far beyond the text and pictures for me, so it’s good. And to me rescue is about giving these dogs a second chance. We did.

  3. Laurie Levy says:

    As the mother of a vet who has adopted dogs described as “only a vet would take that one,” dogs who required expensive surgeries to deal with strange anatomy that resulted in incontinence, I really related to your tale of dog rescues. She currently has 4 dogs and 6 kids (3 from her second husband’s marriage) – a busy household indeed. My other daughter is dealing with a very anxious and clearly abused rescue who loves her and her girls but is not too crazy about her husband and men in general. My son had a rescue that became increasingly vicious and had to be “re-homed” or possibly put down. That one really frightened me. Enjoyed your video.

    • Thanks, Laurie, and hats off to your children. Yes, it’s interesting – and disturbing – how prevalent the “fear of men” issue. Writing about Little Bear made me once again wonder why he bonded so thoroughly with me yet treated every other man he encountered, as well as a woman he might have mistook for a man, the way he did.

  4. Somehow I just knew your story was going to make me cry. It’s not that it’s inherently sad…but, I don’t know, maybe it’s that animals often bring out the breadth of our humanity. And those photos…each dog such a deep and unique soul. Beautifully done!

  5. Marian says:

    I so admire folks who rescue animals, Tom, and the photos of these dogs warmed my heart. A good friend rescues all breeds of dogs, and it’s always fun to go to her house and meet new canines, although it’s sad when they die. Like some other Retrospecters, I’m more of a cat person, but some other friends were connected to a greyhound rescue group and often “dogsat” these animals. For some reason the grehounds and I really clicked, and I enjoyed tending the older dogs especially.

  6. Suzy says:

    I too am a cat person. Funny how this story is causing many of us to declare which side of that dichotomy we are on. But I’m impressed with your devotion to all these dogs, and how well they responded to you. And the slide show video is a great addition! Thanks for sharing these memories. And I applaud your use of a song of our era for your story title. Fontella Bass was resonating in my head the whole time I was reading it.

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