Monday, May 31, 2010
“Dogo Argentino,” said the man’s voice on the phone, “The national dog of Argentina, very rare in the U.S.”
I agreed, amazed that there was a kind of dog I hadn’t heard of. Always a bookworm, I had numerous books on dog care and behavior including several large colorful volumes with photos and descriptions of each breed. I had no problem identifying a Cane Corso, a Hartz Polski, or a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, but a Dogo Argentino? This I had to see.
The door opened and I was almost knocked over by something very large and white. “King, no, bad dog!” I recognized the voice of John, the dog’s owner, from our phone conversation the previous day, but I could see nothing past the wriggling mass of white. Pushing my way in the door and closing it behind me, I got a look at the creature who was loving me to death; it looked very much like a pit bull, with muscular body, big shoulders, small waist, and a great jowly maw that was wide open in a pink smile. The only difference between it and a pit bull was size ... this animal was about the height and weight of a Great Dane.
I sat on the couch with King, who attempted to crawl into my lap, and John, who said, “Sorry about that, he’s still a puppy.” Wondering how large this animal would be as an adult, I managed to squeeze my arms out from under his bulk to hand John the paperwork, and we started to discuss the service I would be providing. I was to walk King five days a week while John was at work. King was confined in the kitchen when John was away, and there was no yard so he would have to be leashed and walked down several flights of stairs to the street to relieve himself. Because he was not neutered, King would lift his leg all over the house if left to his own devices. When I inquired why he was not neutered, his owner indicated an interest in going to special breed shows and get-togethers. I would find a leash, treats, payment, and anything else I might need on the kitchen counter. While we were talking, another man came into the apartment, said not a word, and went into one of the bedrooms. John looked uncomfortable. “One of my roommates,” he said. Roommates? The small San Mateo apartment was hardly large enough for one human and one 100-lb dog. As if to answer my unspoken question, John quietly said, “Um, you might see my roommates when they are at home. They don’t handle King.” It wasn’t long before I discovered why the roomies did not want to handle the adorable creature.
I had a couple of days before the service started, so I visited my favorite library in Burlingame to learn more about the Dogo Argentino; the results were not encouraging. I sat on the floor, legs cramping, always too involved in the books to make it to the table and sit in a chair like a civilized person. According to the books, the breed’s most notable characteristic was its aggression, “So aggressive they will attack each other while mating.” Yikes. In the pictures, they all looked the same: large and white with cropped ears and a baleful expression. Oh well, I sighed, I do enjoy those difficult cases after all, this should be no different than my other successes.
I walked up the stairs to John’s apartment and listened with a smile to the whining and thunking of a great tail against the wall as I unlocked and opened the door. There was King, as immense and white as I remembered, doing the happy dance. Piece of cake, I thought as I reached for the leash. I was surprised to note its flimsiness, and that of the attached choke chain which was small and thin; the rig looked more appropriate for a chihuahua. Oh well, I thought, that’s what the owner uses, so it must work. After reading the note that read, “King is happy to meet you, have a nice walk!” I slipped the choke chain over the big white jowls and stepped out the door. I was immediately catapulted down the stairs by an excited mass of dog and almost lost my footing. “Easy!” I shouted, pulling on the leash. King slowed down a bit, but this display of self-control was tempered by the pee that started dribbling out of him. I walked as fast as I could down the crumbling staircase, stepping in the urine which was splashing everywhere. We finally reached the bottom where he released a flood of water, then looked very much relieved.
Regrouping, I started to walk and was pleased to find that my new friend stayed pretty much by my side. We explored the neighborhood and stayed out long enough for him to get exercise and do his personal business, then we headed back towards the apartment building; I didn’t want to wander too far, as this was an area known for drug and gang activity. Rounding the corner , we suddenly came face to face with a pit bull, an unneutered male, tied in the bed of a pickup truck by a stout rope. The words, “So aggressive they will attack each other while mating” rang in my ears as I was yanked off my feet. I looked down and saw that my sweet friend had transformed into a snarling, lunging beast who not only wanted to kill the other dog, he wanted to eat him and pick his teeth with his bones. I quickly regained my footing and used every leash-pulling technique I remembered from dog training class to get control. I damn near had to drag King the entire length of the block and into the apartment before his fury subsided. I closed the door behind me and collapsed on the couch, with the great white pup soon in my lap.
After a few weeks I got into the groove, learning which streets to walk on for maximum conflict avoidance. When he wasn’t in attack mode, King was sweet and easy to control, but when he saw another male dog, there was nothing I could do to get his attention. I was quite concerned that he would actually break the leash or collar, so I put a call in to his owner to see what we could do. I had recently become a member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, and at their latest conference I had learned how to use the Gentle Leader head collar. Similar to a horse’s halter, the device goes around the dog’s head rather than his neck, maximizing control in a humane way. I explained the concept to John, who had never heard of it but was willing to let me give it a try. I suspected that there wasn’t a long line of pet sitters willing to handle Dogo Argentinos, so a suggestion to walk King in a party hat probably would have met with agreement.
Gentle Leader Day. I walked up the steps to the apartment and put the key in the lock, smiling as I heard the thump-thump-thump of a tail inside. “Well now King,” I said to the smiling face, “I have something new for you.” With some difficulty, I fitted the head collar onto the wiggling dog; it was royal blue and looked very nice against his white face. To that I attached a stout leash, and off we went. I didn’t have long to wait for a test situation I rounded a corner and there were two young gangster wannabe guys with their oversize pants and puffy jackets, walking an intact male pit bull. King didn’t hesitate as he leaped towards them snarling, but a little twist of my hand brought him right back to earth. He looked startled and tried again, but I was able to easily control him by simply turning his head away from the threat. Because his head was turning away, the other dog thought he was showing respect, and the situation was quickly diffused.
“Damn!said one of the youths. Look at the SIZE of that dog! How old is he?”
“Ten months,” I answered, to which the other man replied,
“Damn, he’s just a puppy, his nuts ain’t even dropped yet!”
I continued walking him with my leash and head collar, thinking our troubles were over. That changed one afternoon when I returned from our walk to find one of the roommates at home, a young woman named Judy. I had a bad feeling about her right away, something about the way she looked me up and down with a judgmental expression. I introduced myself and made small talk, and the conversation quickly turned to Judy’s complaints about the apartment. She ranted about how John so often left King alone until late in the evening, forcing the roommates to either take him outside or to clean up the pee in the kitchen. She said she wanted to move out but she was afraid of losing her deposit money because of the damage done by the dog. I sympathized, but moved for the door; the last thing I wanted to do was get involved in a stranger’s personal problems, especially if it jeopardized my relationship with a client. The bad feeling continued as I drove to my next pet sitting visit.
That night I got a phone call from John who sounded very upset. He said that Judy had told him about meeting me earlier that day. I said yes, we had met, and wondered what she told him. “She said you’re walking King with a muzzle!” Exasperated, I explained that the Gentle Leader is not a muzzle, that it does not restrict the mouth at all, that it is merely a humane way of having better control over a large, active (and I didn’t say, vicious and out of control) dog. Today, the Gentle Leader is in common usage, so most people understand how it works, but back then, in the mid-1990's, it was pretty new, so people often mistook it for a muzzle. I was not entirely sure that I had convinced him, so I was uneasy when I hung up the phone. One thing I was sure of, that I had not seen the last of Judy.
Things went smoothly for the next two weeks. I became very attached to King and was always happy to see his wagging, wiggling self. His behavior improved and our walks became easier; after each walk, I would spend some time snuggling with him on the couch, which became increasingly difficult as he grew larger! All was well until I got another phone call from John. “I’m sorry, I have to cancel the dog walking service.” I groaned. I relied on daily dog walking for steady income in addition to the seasonal holiday/weekend pet sitting, and losing a regular client was always a blow. He explained that he was being evicted from his apartment, and he was going to have to move in with his parents. It seems that Judy, concerned about losing her cleaning deposit, had called the landlord and asked for an inspection without notifying John. When the landlord came over, there was King, in his apartment building which had a no pets policy...
Saturday, May 29, 2010
I am enjoying a day of writing not because I voluntarily took a day off, but because I am sick. Yesterday, I received my second rabies shot in a series of three. I wasn't a bit worried, as I'd had no reaction to the first shot, so imagine my unpleasant surprise when by evening I felt stiff and developed a blinding headache. Trying to sleep, I tossed and turned with chills and nausea. I got up this morning feeling as if I'd been beaten about the head and neck with a lead pipe.
Why, you may wonder, did I subject myself to this? Hasn't rabies been eradicated in the U.S.? Not quite...
About 50,000 people die of rabies worldwide each year. Only a handful of these are in the U.S., where vaccination programs are in place for all dogs and cats, and for people who may be exposed to the virus. Here in California, a number of wild animals do test positive for rabies, mostly bats and skunks. Occasionally dogs and cats, after coming into contact with these animals, also test positive. Since the disease is 100% fatal once contracted, it's nothing to take lightly.
Dogs, cats, and horses can be vaccinated against rabies. Ask your veterinarian what is recommended for your area. Human pre-exposure vaccines are only recommended for people who have direct contact with possibly infected animals, as I do every day at the animal shelter. For now, I'll take this time to work on some stories about my very first pet sitting experiences in San Francisco. Stay tuned!
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
After several months of walking her granddaughter Amy’s dogs, we’d gotten to know each other pretty well. Pearl was frail and spent most of her time at home listening to a police radio; because she lived in the crime-ridden city of East Palo Alto, many of the broadcasts involved shootings and pit bull fights. After listening, she’d advise me where not to walk the dogs that day. I enjoyed her company very much, and it seemed we always had a lot to talk about. This day, we were discussing nationality. I said something about being Irish-American, and she replied, “Do you have red hair?”
“Excuse me?” I asked.
“Do you have red hair, and freckles?”
I replied that I did, and felt a bit strange, because my hair is not just reddish but bright red, and my rosy freckled cheeks can be seen for miles. Sensing my discomfort she laughed and said she was vision impaired, almost completely blind, but she got around all right with the help of her granddaughter. The conversation continued and moved, as it often did with clients’ family members, to pets. It was then she told me the most interesting story.
Pearl grew up in a very different world, one without birth control for humans and animals alike. Her family was large, as were most families at the time, and many sadly died young of diseases and accidents. People didn’t bother with adoption agencies in those days, she explained; unwanted babies were often given, or sold, to childless couples. The animals weren’t so lucky; spaying and neutering of pets was unheard of, so the unfortunate method of getting rid of unwanted puppies or kittens was to drown them in a sack, or dump them somewhere far from home and hope they died or became someone else’s problem. Pearl’s family were farmers, and like all farmers they needed cats to keep down the rodent population which could destroy hay and grain stores.
Pearl’s favorite cat Mollie had just given birth to a lovely litter of kittens, two calicos and two orange tabbies. She snuck into the barn every day to play with them, dreading their fate. One day she entered the barn and they were gone. Mollie was crying and looking all over. When she asked her father what happened, he said he didn’t know, and his face had the expression saying "Don’t ask about it any more." Like lots of other things, some topics just weren’t discussed. Pearl said nothing more, but when night fell she snuck outside, climbed into her father’s car, and drove away into the countryside. She was only 13, but at that age most farm kids knew how to drive. There was only one real road leading away from their farm, so she figured she had a pretty good idea where those kittens had been dumped. Her gamble paid off, and after a long drive she spotted them, eyes glowing by the light of the head lamps. She carefully rounded them up, placed them in the car, and drove home.
The next morning, Pearl’s parents did not ask where she had been, nor did they question the reappearance of the kittens. They probably figured she’d endangered herself enough by driving off alone into the night, and they just let it go. The kittens thrived and lived long lives on the farm. When I asked Pearl why she had taken such a risk, chancing not only the dangers of the night but her parents’ wrath, she grinned and replied, “Well, I figured there was already enough on the road to Heaven for me to trip over, and I didn’t want those kittens there too!”
Pearl’s last day on earth was a happy one. We enjoyed the usual afternoon tea and conversation with many laughs. Pearl said that, despite her heart trouble, she was feeling especially good that day, almost euphoric. At some point I looked at the clock and couldn’t believe it said 3PM. “Yikes, I’d better get on the road!” I said, rising from my chair. She was all smiles as she said good-bye.
At 9PM I got a call from Amy. “Grandma passed,” was all she could say. I later learned the details; when Amy arrived home from work at 6PM, Pearl said she was feeling lightheaded. She insisted a good night’s sleep would put her right, but Amy took her to the hospital. By the time they arrived she was losing consciousness. As the hospital staff wheeled her away, she waved frantically for Amy to come and hear something.
Bending low she said, “What is it, Grandma?”
In a whisper she said, “Don’t forget to call Brigid [with next week's dog walking schedule],” and they wheeled her away. Her heart stopped minutes later.
With the loss of Grandma’s pension, Amy had to economize and could no longer afford dog walking. I sadly arrived for my last visit two days after Pearl had passed away. Before leaving I touched each precious thing of hers: her cane, her Bible (which she could no longer read but still kept in the living room), her police radio, the little tin of cookies we had dipped into just days before. As I touched each thing I said good-bye, and by the time I stepped out the door I was no longer crying. I had a wonderful vision in my mind of Pearl walking down that long road from her family farm, not in darkness but in the midday sun, with Heaven in the distance and the road lined with old friends including two calicos and two orange tabbies, waiting not to trip her up but to lead her home. A smile on her face, she reaches down and strokes them, then walks on.
Thank you for being a part of the creation of this book, or series of books! My model is James Herriot's All Creatures Great and Small. If you like my stories and haven't read his, I highly encourage you to do so.
I apologize for having not posted a story in so long. Work in the animal care field can be all-consuming, but this year I have made a conscious effort to make time for my passion, writing. I have 35,000 words in this particular book and need 50,000 for it to be "novel length." I can't do it alone, so here's how you can help me: first, I need a title. Adventures in Pet Sitting will be a sub-title, but I need something more appealing and attention grabbing for the proper title. Second, those of you who knew me in the pet sitting days, please remind me of funny or touching things that happened. I have a good memory but your jogging it has been a big help.
I am reformatting this blog and promise to post something every week: a story or part of a story, a picture, a request for your input... Comments are welcome and encouraged! I'll post more info and a story later today. Off to walk the doggies now...