If you have ever lived the rural life you have heard this question, “Do you want a dog?” It invariably comes with a sad story of a pet that did not fit, was too big, too yappy, not good with children, or someone was allergic. (The last was how we got the Labrador who moved to the country with us.)
My husband Keith and I heard this many times in our nineteen years of country living and mostly the answer was, “No.” I always felt guilty, but you need to be honest with yourself. If you can’t give the animal a better home, don’t take it on.
The one time we said yes, we did so reluctantly and with conditions. We got more than we bargained for, but then so did our neighbours. Let me tell you
Arlene was our closest rural neighbour. She helped us settle in. We helped her when her Toronto life (where she owned a house converted to apartments) kept her away. Like so many of us raised in the city, her dream was to retire with her family to a rural property, and to this end she brought the family and their dogs up as often as possible. We were used to seeing dogs trailing about her as she took long walks up and down the gravel road. We became friends right away partly because we both had dogs.
Ebony was our smart, black Labrador/Collie cross. When we lived in Guelph my Mom was with us for two years. She was disabled by rheumatoid arthritis. Ebony immediately saw what Mom needed – a fetcher! Ebony would lay in wait and retrieve anything that was dropped; from utensils to oranges to money to books. And she never left a mark on anything. In a way moving to the country was Ebony’s retirement bonus. She loved exploring our acreage but never strayed, preferring to be close to home.
Our fifth winter had been long, with lots of snow that did not melt away completely until early June. Everyone was very happy to get out for a wander once the nice weather arrived. It was also a sad time because Ebony had gone blind. The veterinarian warned us that brain tumors often produced blindness in Labradors and that if that was the cause we could expect her to deteriorate in the coming months.
One beautiful day late in spring, Arlene stopped by to ask how Ebony was coping, how we were doing, how our son Doug was enjoying university, and told us how her family was doing and then oh, by the way, came the “dog question”.
Cash (short for Cashmere) was the dog in question. She had been abandoned in one of Arlene’s apartments after suffering an abusive owner. She was a gentle mutt who showed heritage of Collie and Rottweiler. At two years old she had had a litter of pups and reportedly had been a good mother.
After discussing the pros and cons as a family we got back to Arlene with a proposition. We would have Cash visit for a weekend to see how she and Ebony got along and then we’d decide.
Arlene dropped Cash off the next weekend. It was as Ebony had been with my Mom. Cash instinctively knew what Ebony needed – a leader. All weekend Ebony followed Cash, staying inches behind and to the right. Cash never led her into any danger and this meant Ebony could once again roam the backyard. They had a great time. It was lovely to see. Cash seemed to know this was her shot at a better life. She came when called and followed Ebony’s lead on how to behave both in the house and with us.
When Arlene returned she saw we were impressed with this mild-mannered creature with the so soft brown coat. Our final reservation was that Cash had not been fixed. We were not interested in becoming puppy owners as well! Arlene offered to have her spayed and we agreed to give Cash a new home as soon as she recovered.
Life can sometimes be cruel. In the time before Cash returned to us, Ebony got worse to the point we had to let her go. Shortly after that final visit to the veterinarian with Ebony, Cash came to live with us.
I often wonder what Cash thought, where had her new friend gone and why? Cash took Ebony’s spot on the old couch in the living room, so I believe she did understand on some instinctive level.
As in any new arrangement, things did not always go smoothly. Because she was mature with a fully developed personality and had only basic house training, Cash had a few annoying ways, things that were unacceptable to us. She drooled a lot and begged when we were eating. She had only ever had table scraps so feeding her dry dog food at a regular time helped immensely.
One thing that took longer to change was for Keith to gain her trust. After about a month he could pick up the broom or mop without Cash cringing and warily backing away.
Cash also gave us trouble with the fetching thing. I suppose we had been spoiled by Ebony. Whenever we tried to play fetch with a ball or stick, she’d go and get it quickly, but then plop down where she was to chew on it; or annoyingly bring it back within ten feet and plop down to chew on it! You had to retrieve from her to play again!
Also, how did Cash know how to guard the house and more specifically, the lady of the house? She never hinted at this skill until circumstances called it into play.
One day in late summer, Keith was away helping a neighbour. I was puttering in the house when a pick-up truck turned in the lane and parked behind the house. Cash and I went out to see who it was. A stranger stepped out and Cash immediately stepped an equal distance between him and where I stood on the back steps. She raised her hackles and let out one short low growl. The man stopped moving with his hand on the truck door and told me Keith had said he could come and get some firewood and he wanted me to know he was on our property and he would get back in his truck now! I never worried about being home alone after this incident.
I guess everyone has certain expectations for their dogs, sometimes without being aware of them. I always walked the boundaries of our property with a new dog the very first day we owned them. For our other dogs this had sufficed. They only left home with us. It came as a complete surprise that Cash was a wanderer. We realized later that she was not off looking for adventure. She had purpose.
It wasn’t all her fault. Arlene’s grandchildren recall that as soon as they arrived, Gramma would face our property (half a kilometer away) and call Cash. Arlene enjoyed her well behaved house guest and would simply tell her “Go home now” when the visit was done. For a long time this and visits to the occasional campers and hunters using the property east of us were her only solo outings, but one Friday a fierce summer lightning and thunder storm spooked her. We could not find her. We searched, drove the roads, checked the ditches and asked neighbours if they had seen her.
It is a good thing we believe in dog tags. A new neighbour to the south, called the township office on Monday inquiring who owned the dog with this tag number. Anne called us right away. We were so relieved. Cash had arrived at Anne’s back deck door in a terrible state, soaking wet and muddy with twigs and burdock tangled in her coat. Anne figured that Cash must have gone through the river, fields and woods between our houses, going over two and a half kilometers.
Anne had kindly taken Cash in and cleaned her up. Cash in turn developed an attachment to Anne and her husband Frank. Anne is most grateful for this. Frank had not been well for some time and spent a lot of time sitting and resting. When Cash came to visit she would lie quietly beside Frank’s chair, accepting any petting he could give. Anne would provide the odd treat and send Cash home for suppertime (as Cash had figured out how to use the sideroad by then); or call us and laughing say, “Your dog’s visiting is done now.” After Frank passed away we understood that he had been her purpose. Cash somehow knew and never went by herself again.
People most often do outlive their pets, and this story is no different. For Cash, a series of strokes incapacitated her but she was still glad to be put on the leash because she knew that meant she was going to the veterinarian and she was always a good patient even at the end.
Writing this story has brought a lot of good memories back to us and so I want all the rural residents to consider carefully and honestly when someone asks, “Do you want a dog?” You may not get what you thought you were getting, you might get something far more valuable.