The Loyalty of Sadness
I saw my first image of him on a website. He was staying at a kind animal shelter, one of those that does not put healthy animals down, one of those that walks them and feeds them well. I thought him beautiful.
We had 3 dogs with us before. There were two male Irish Water Spaniels and one mixed breed mostly Pitbull girl. I’ve written about the Irish Water Spaniels and the girl was among the smartest most independent and stoic girl that you could imagine.
We had thought no more dogs but my wife was ready and I was willing. We wanted a female dog with curly hair, you know the kind that does not shed.
My wife saw his picture as well and thought he was very handsome. And so even though he was a male and shed more than any dog I have ever had and weighed in at 106 pounds, we immediately knew that he was the one we wanted.
His previous owner had become a mother and what was explained to us was that he would do best in a house without children or other pets. He had been at the shelter for four months. They had to put him on Prozac because the idea of the shelter was not something he tolerated well. They told us that he would be shy when we met him, but he was not. He was pure black with a little grey on his muzzle and he ran like the wind and he came close and accepted petting and the warmth that the three of is exchanged.
The vet who visited him at the center was also our vet. They called him a German Shepherd Black Lab mix but she told us that he was more than 95% German shepherd. She explained how to ween him from the Prozac.
He took to our home immediately. We had a large fenced in back yard and he romped and ran with the joy of his freedom. He chased birds and found that a groundhog had the audacity to cross into his yard. He did not kill it but it never did come back.
Sy was very vigilant and so in need of love. He yearned to be petted and be close to us. He loved his snacks, his off favorite being ice cubes. He did not like strange people in the house and he had a very powerful bark that let them know was there. After he went and sniffed them he would settle down but their departure would bring on a fresh round of barking that I never could quite figure out. He was content to be behind a closed door in my study while they worked though.
It was hard for him to relax unless we were both there and then he would settle down and from time to time come to us for petting and kisses and of course the hope of a snack. But he never one time ever took what was not given to him. He could easily reach the table or counters where there was all kinds of food but he never did. He accepted food gently and with a soft mouth. If one of us was out he would lay by the door to await a return. If we were both out he would not eat or drink until we came back. Although after a while he did take comfort in the smells of our bed.
Dogs living with a couple choose one as a favorite, one to whom they cling. For Sy that was me. He was too powerful for anyone else to have on a leash and so it was me who out on his harness and leashed him when we ventured out for his beloved car rides.
Seeing me get the harness and leash was always cause for his celebration. He would dance and run in circles around my legs and then slow down and wait to be attached. Then I would always say softly, “easy now” and he would wait for the door and then not pull but dance in the fresh air that must have seemed different from the back yard. He would leap into the backseat and wait for his window to lower and off we would go.
Sy took pleasure in announcing his presence with authority to passersby. Sometimes they were shocked and surprised. Some saw him and smiled and laughed at his need to let you know he was there. At first we apologized to people by after a time, I shared a grin with those who understood and was sympathetic to those that did not.
When we had to leave him in the car he would bark nonstop until we were out of sight but we could feel a quiet joy with our return. He didn’t care that the back seat was a bit too small for him. What mattered to him was that he was with us.
Sy was never destructive when he was left alone. We knew that he suffered from separation anxiety but he never displayed it by ripping anything up or relieving himself in the house. One of the reasons that we originally wanted a female dog was that we were sure that males were much harder to housetrain. This was not the case with Sy. He was totally trained in this regard. Not one time did he ever make a mistake. He would let us know when he needed to go out. Yes, sometimes he would fake it because he wanted an ice cube to crunch in his powerful jaws but that too was just his way of telling us what he wanted.
When he did go out Sy had a pattern of patrol for his yard. It covered the 60 yard deep long portion and went from side to side in the 35 yard of the more narrow section. When the house next door went vacant we decided that we preferred that and would let Sy out into the back yard to patrol when we knew that there were people next door and my wife and I would giggle to each other about what the people who were looking at the next door property must have felt when they saw this very large very muscular dog letting them know that he was there. We even saw some jump back into their cars and pull away and this suited us fine.
Contrary to what we had been told, Sy did very well on the few occasions that young children visited. One three year girl approached him fearlessly and petted him and hugged him and Sy was as gentle as he could be with her. He took direction from my 10 year old grand-daughter and used that same soft mouth to gently take the snack that I gave her to give him.
On more than one occasion my wife said to me that he did not listen to her. I did not think too much about this because she has said the same thing about our other dogs. I assumed it had something to do with my voice or her voice. I tried to back away from giving him his daily meals thinking that if she fed him that he would learn to have more respect and be more responsive to her. But his devotion to me did not change. If anything it grew stronger.
If I was in my study he would lay outside my door and as my wife put it pine that he was not in the same room with me. My wife said that she was only his food dispenser and yet there were times when he would lay in bed and cuddle with her or get his large body up on the couch to feel her warmth and strokes. We constantly told Sy that he was part of the family now and that was his home forever.
Off the leash down by a lake Sy splashed in the water he ran with abandon but the sound of my voice would always cause him to come full speed towards me and he would sit patiently while I put his leash back on and reload him into the back of our car.
Sty shed profusely. I got a grooming glove and would take him out back and pet him with it which he tolerated best when I alternated between the gloved hand and my bare hand. It was the human touch, the contact that he craved.
My wife and I love to travel but Sy made this more of a challenge. We could not bring him to a house where there were other dogs and we were reluctant to bring him to a place where there were children, even though he never ever exhibited the slightest aggression towards them. I looked into what would be the criteria to have him designated as an emotional support dog and it would have been pretty easy, but I knew that Sy could never tolerate strangers on a plane.
We have a cousin who comes by fairly frequently to do handyman repairs and Sy would play with him and he would rough house with Sy who enthusiastically took part by the rough play always gave me pause. However, when we wanted to go away for a couple weeks it was this same cousin who volunteered to come and stay at our house while we were gone and although I did worry about it some, we made arrangements to have that happen. We were confident that he would be well treated and as long as he was in his home and knew the person there with him all would be well.
It did not happen. One Saturday afternoon, I lay down to take a nap. Sy, as was his custom came with me. He always wanted to come with me. He would curl next to me and I would kiss him and he would lick me and then I would drift off and he would lay there guarding me. I did not realize that he was guarding me. When I woke up he was instantly alert and ready to go. This happened in the middle of the night as well. Sy would sleep on the floor on my side of the bed. A man of my age seldom goes through the night without having to urinate and I would swingout of bed and if I forgot my feet would land on him. He would give a plaintiff grunt and move back over to his bed while I got up. Then he would be back on my side of the bed.
On this Saturday, there were workmen doing renovations on the recently sold property. I slept and Sy guarded. My wife came into the room and opened the shade to get a look at them. He went over to look with her but quickly returned to the bed and watched. He was in a heighted state of alert. Because he did like to bark, my wife wanted to move him so he did not wake me up. She waved an absent hand in his direction to get him to move and he bit her.
I woke up startled. She said, “Sy bit me.” It still did not register. We held her hand under water and there was blood on her palm and blood on the top of her hand. I still did not grasp the import. My wife was angry. She said she wanted the doctor and did not want me to go with her. To my shame, I let her wrap her hand and drive to our doctor. She called and said the doctor wanted her to go to the emergency room. She drove back home and I met her and we went to the hospital. Sy did not come with us or make any move to express a desire to come.
There were no fractures. They gave her a tetanus shot and we came home. Her hand was swollen and the doctor at the ER advised that we contact our family doctor on Monday. For the rest of the weekend I took care of my wife and tended to Sy. She did not want him near her. She did pet him a few times but hesitantly and with trepidation. Sy seemed to not understand. He kept going to her and I would call him over. Of course he listened.
That Monday the doctor informed my wife that she had cellulitis and needed to be hospitalized immediately. They kept her for three days. I visited frequently, Sy laid by the door and waited for her to come home. My poor wife was pumped with massive doses of antibiotics round the clock.
Even when she was discharged she was told that she would have to return daily for infusions of antibiotics. We spoke on the phone while she was in the hospital and she said, “You aren’t being mean to him are you?” Of course the answer was no. When he left the door he came to me for reassurance regularly. I was lost. My wife was hurting in so many ways. We have been married for 37 years now. We have been round the block together. We are close and very much in love but she was angry and hurt at both me and Sy.
I had minimized her injury. I have wracked my brain but I don’t know why. I think that I could just not wrap my head around it. Our daughter, who had only met Sy one time, told me while her mother was in the hospital that Sy should be gone by the time she was ready to go home. I could not grasp that.
I reasoned that what he had done and the cellulitis were somehow different events. It was bacteria. He did not mean to hurt. He was in protection mode. I told myself all of these things. It was that one perfect storm, that one instant and he reacted in a way that he thought was protecting me.
When my wife came home Sy was happy to see her but she was frightened to be around him. She did, brave person that she is, give him a snack but then had to sit down and was visibly shaken. We spoke to our vet who had known him the longest. We spoke to people who work with dogs.
The vet could not guarantee that it would not happen again. He is highly vigilant and highly protective of me. Our cousin, who has spent her life working with dogs, urged patience. She said that he was trying to “make up.” But that next my wife told me that she could not feel safe in the house with him.
The shelter asked that we bring his bed with him and a week’s supply of food. He danced when he saw the harness and leash. He obediently jumped into the back of the car. My wife and I went inside and I filled out the surrender papers. We have them the bed and the food.
We went back to the car and he waited as he always did after I opened the door until I said “come.” I walked him around back to his cage, I put him in and handed the leash to the worker. “There won’t be any other dogs,” I said.
Si let out a keening sound of distress and pain. I can still hear it every day. I call the shelter as often as they will let me. He had a hard time. I am tormented by the idea that he must think that we never really cared for him. They will not let me visit him. They say it would be too hard on him. My family says it would be too hard on me. I can’t help but feel that he must feel disposable.
For me, it has been a month. I hear his keening every day. When I wake up in the night, I still reach with my foot to try not to disturb him. I look at meat leftovers with nothing but sadness. Each time an ice cube drops on the floor, my heart hurts.
Everyone has the right to feel safe in a home. We never have the right to promise forever to an animal. We just say that because it makes us feel good at the time. We don’t mean it.
Because of his size and age, Sy is 6 now, the director tells me that there is a 98% change that he will never have another home. He is too large. He is too nervous. If I could say one thing that he might not understand it would be that he should never try to protect anyone again. We just aren’t worth it.
But I tell myself that he is tended by kind volunteers but in my heart I know that he will always be remembered by everyone else as the dog that bit. There won’t be those happy memories of his affection and play because he did not die. He is in a cage a few miles away. People will not recall his grace and will refer to his strength with wariness.
So this is my love letter because he is more than the dog who reacted that Saturday afternoon. He is a truly magnificent creature.