e was standing quietly in line at the owner euthanasia counter when I first saw him - I almost hadn’t stopped at the shelter that day. It was nearly noon already, but I was just a few blocks away and a lost Italian greyhound named Buddy might have been picked up over the holiday weekend. As it turned out, Buddy was not there - but on my way out I stopped anyway to speak with the officer behind the "Pay Here--No Checks" window. If his phone hadn’t rung, I’d have been on my way home already and I wouldn’t have seen that bedraggled black spaniel at all.
At first, it didn’t register with me that he was any breed in particular. Even from a distance I could make out the scraps of leaves and debris embedded in his matted coat - a stray someone is bringing in I thought, as my attention shifted to the other end of the lobby where two little girls were playing with kittens.
"When he realized that she was leaving him there, the energy seemed to drain from his body and for the first time he looked old and tired."
Glancing around again, I noticed the woman with the matted dog had moved up to the counter and begun filling out paperwork. All of a sudden, the little dog reared up on his hind legs and began scrabbling for her attention. Maybe the odors or sounds drifting in from the rear holding area had set off an alarm in his head - or maybe he had just gotten tired of standing there. Whatever it was, he was certainly acting like he knew her. Evidently he wasn’t a stray. She ignored him at first but he wouldn’t give up. Finally, she glanced away from the form she was filling out.
He went right on bouncing and clawing at her.
"I said... down!"
To my surprise, he dropped to a perfect sit. What a good dog, I remember thinking. Other than the rhythmic sway of his stubby tail against the floor, he didn’t move again, just sat there waiting with his face fixed attentively on hers. It was then I first realized he was a cocker spaniel.
I had visited this shelter many times while doing breed rescue, but I had always been able to stay on task and keep moving. To this day, I don’t know why I was so mesmerized by that cocker spaniel - so locked in to his thoughts and feelings. I didn’t want to watch this scene play out, but by then it was too late. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him sitting there gazing up at her, so expectant and trusting.
Finished, the woman passed the pen and paper back to the officer and turned to leave. I remember the joy that flooded his face as he bounced along in tandem with her first few steps. Great! We’re finally getting out of this place! He’d been concentrating so hard on being good, on staying "sat", that he hadn’t noticed his leash being tied to a hook at the counter.
I could barely breathe as he reached the end of his tether, then dug frantically at the concrete in an effort to keep up with her, but his determination was no match for the tensile strength of that nylon webbing. When he realized that she was leaving him there, the energy seemed to drain from his body and for the first time he looked old and tired.
I rummaged around in my mind for a palatable explanation and came up with cancer. I had lost two seniors to it recently, so that was something I could understand. Still, I needed his owner to confirm my diagnosis so I intercepted her near the exit to ask if the dog she was having put to sleep was very sick.
"No, it's blind."
My expression must have revealed I was expecting something more. She paused, then added, "It's my son’s dog and he doesn’t take care of it."
"Surely, after nine years any good dog deserved a few kind words and a pat good-bye - if only from a stranger."
"Any other problems? How old is the dog?"
"Nine years old. No, it’s been a real good dog. He just won’t take care of it. And its blind."
She was impatient now, on the move again, edging around me toward the door. Over her shoulder she repeated, "Its his dog, not mine!" and then she was gone.
I was surprised to see him still there when I turned around. He looked so forlorn that I couldn’t leave without walking back across the lobby to speak to him. Surely, after nine years any good dog deserved a few kind words and a pat good-bye - if only from a stranger.
Not struggling now, he stood at the end of the outstretched lead and stared off, unblinking, in the direction he’d heard her footsteps disappear. He never moved as I knelt to brush the hair back from his clouded eyes, then gingerly ran my hand under his belly. Yes, he was a boy dog and probably neutered though he was so matted I couldn’t be entirely certain of that, not wanting to intrude any more than necessary on what little was left of his dignity.
I remember wondering if anybody kept statistics on euthanizing healthy blind dogs. I thought of my Lili, blind from PRA by the time she was five, yet she acts so normal I rarely remember she doesn’t see. There was nothing I could do about this one though. Anyway, I’m a sight hound person and I had enough dogs of my own waiting at home.
I stroked his nose and gave him a final pat as I stood to leave. All I could think to say was, "I’m sorry. It wasn’t your fault. You were a good boy."
From the sidewalk, I looked back through the double doors and caught one last glimpse of him trailing obediently behind the officer who had come to lead him off to the euthanasia room. He was moving slowly now, head low, feet shuffling along as though lifting them at all took nearly more energy than he could muster. He exhibited no fear or panic, just dulled resignation.
Random thoughts tumbled around in my head as I drove off. I told myself he was probably lucky in a way. He hadn’t been abandoned in the country to fend for himself or left to starve in one of the city parks. He wouldn’t have to face the baseball bat or bullet to the head that awaits mill dogs when they are through producing. There are worse endings, certainly, than his. Still, it was hard to shake the look on his face when he realized she was leaving him there.
I was sure I had done the right thing not letting impulse overrule my better judgment. I’d never been a sporting breed person - after all these years, I still can’t tell a Brittany from a springer - but I did know that irresponsible breeding had virtually destroyed cocker spaniel temperaments. Moving a blind male of unknown disposition into a home full of aging Italian greyhounds - not to mention visiting grandchildren - would have been a foolhardy thing to do.
Halfway home, I burst into tears. Feeling ridiculous, I glanced around at red lights to see if other drivers were noticing me. I nearly turned back a couple of times but told myself I wasn’t crying for him but for all the dogs like him. So many end up like that, discarded like some broken Christmas toy. I’m just feeling bad about the sorry state of the world in general, I kept telling myself.
I managed to get all the way home before I turned around. The officer in the cubicle looked through some papers and shook his head. I was too late. The blind cocker spaniel had been taken straight to the back and destroyed.
As I turned to leave, I was thinking about all the time I had wasted trying to talk myself out of going back for him. I knew I would never be able to forget the face of the broken-hearted little spaniel who touched my heart on that July day.
And now, for the rest of the story...
It is nearly Christmas as I write this and the world’s most delightful cocker spaniel is resting his head in my lap waiting for me to finish. He is five years old and his name is Bernie. His heavy coat, neatly trimmed in a traditional cocker cut, is midnight black with just the slightest tinge of silver at the ears. He is gazing up at me with clear, soulful brown eyes. He may dash off at any minute to join some little doggy fracas but he won’t be gone for long. He never lets me forget that he loves me best. He knows I love him, too. He is a good dog.
I will never forget the first time I saw Bernie. He was standing quietly in line at the owner euthanasia counter...
As I started to leave the shelter for the second time that day, I felt a hand on my arm. Another employee had been listening and stopped me as she turned to speak to the officer behind the glass, "Are you certain about that? I'm not sure they're back from lunch yet."
Then to me, "Wait right here. I’ll just go check."
We got real lucky that day, Bernie and I. Somebody took a leisurely lunch hour and here we are!
Other than cataracts and an ear infection, Bernie is very healthy. And, much to my delight, all the experts agree he can’t possibly be any older than five. Cataract surgery has restored the vision to both of those beautiful brown eyes and my concern about temperament was completely unfounded.
We went straight that day from the shelter to our vet where he stayed to be checked out and cleaned up. He was so matted it took them two days to shave him down but he never once snapped or lost his temper. Then this smallest of sporting dogs moved right in with my smallest of sight hounds pack with not so much as a peep or raised hackle out of anyone. He has proven to be equally adaptable and good-natured with people, even toddlers. Bernie is easily the most cooperative dog I have ever lived with and still has not had a single accident in the house since the moment he first walked in.
Once his sight was restored, Bernie’s personality blossomed. Because his stamina and high play drive can wear out an Italian greyhound, the IGs have learned to tag-team him. When one gets tired and drops out another one takes over. Their very different running styles make these chases pretty funny to watch, sometimes. What Bernie lacks in speed and turning ratio, he tries to make up for with tactical short cuts through the koi pond. So far, he’s had dubious success with this - though it does make his playmates stop running just long enough to stare at him like he has lost his mind. Its a racing strategy no water-phobic Italian greyhound would ever resort to!
Bernie will never be special for earning a Master Hunter title or qualifying for national field trials. A spaniel who lives with a grandma in the city does not have such opportunities. But he did inherit the right stuff and could have made his ancestors proud if he had been born in a different time or place. He has made it his job to flush the birds out of our rhododendrons the first thing each morning. Bernie gets really excited about birds in his yard. Last summer, he proudly trotted up to me with something in his mouth, then just stood there looking as though he wasn’t exactly sure what was supposed to happen next. When I knelt down and held out my hand, he dropped a fledgling dove in my palm.
No stranger to IGs taking out chipmunks and squirrels, I expected it to be mangled or dead but apparently the little bird was only stunned. It was able to cling to a branch in the shrubbery, then hop awkwardly from branch to branch, and a few minutes later it flew away. Yes, with proper training, I expect Bernie could have earned his keep as a retriever had that been his lot in life.
Bernie is special to me for a different reason. Every time I look at him I am reminded how precarious all of our lives really are and how readily we take our blessings for granted. One man’s trash often is another man’s treasure. And while timing can be everything, fate or the angels do still intervene occasionally and set things right for us fumbling mortals. On that day last of July, Bernie and I were grateful beneficiaries of some of that cosmic good will. I thought I had lost the little black dog who had affected me so deeply. Only because two animal control officers stayed too long at lunch was that special spaniel still alive. Today, Bernie has a good home, I have a great dog, and everything else is gravy!