To all the dogs I’ve loved before,
Who traveled in and out my doggie door,
I’m glad they came along, I dedicate this blog
To all the dogs I’ve loved before…
(with apologies to Willie Nelson & Julio Iglesias)
Before Toffee and Bella, my current sweet, weird, annoying dogs, I previously owned two dogs. I always wanted a dog, but we could not keep one in our little apartment in Minsk. But America was the land of opportunity, and that included the opportunity to have a house and a yard and a dog. The very first dog I got was for my 15th birthday, and I named him Leo (pronounced “Lay-o” like Lays potato chips, not like “LEE-o” the lion). I found the advertisement for him in the Rocky Mountain News, and all the puppies in his litter were given away for free.
He was a German Shepherd and Collie mix, a most interesting looking dog. He had the short hair of a shepherd and a long nose of a Collie, was brown with hyena-like large black spots all over his body and, as one friend put it, was “so ugly he was beautiful.” He was incredibly smart, so smart, in fact, that anyone could talk to him like one human to another. One day, my uncle was walking towards our house and he encountered Leo, sauntering casually towards him and away from his house.
“Hey, Leo, what are you doing?” my uncle asked the dog, who wagged his tail in recognition. “You better get back home.” At this, Leo turned obediently around and walked back with my uncle to his house.
Now, reading this, people may think that Leo walked around willy-nilly. He didn’t — for the most part, that is. He was either inside the house, or tied to a chain outside if no one was home. But Leo also had a magical gift of being able to clear our fence at home, the four-foot chain-link fence, without even touching it. He could also, from time to time, escape his collar and go galivanting about town. Twice we were ticketed, because the police would try to catch him, and he would back away from them, leading them straight to our home. Several times my parents and I walked around the neighborhood late, late, screaming Leo’s name into the night, after discovering that he had performed his disappearing act.
Once he had saved me — I think. I would take Leo for a walk behind my parents’ house, where there was a walking/biking path. By the path, and surrounded by trees, ran Cherry Creek. There, close to the back of the little creek, was another path, this one just for walking. It, too, was overgrown with bushes and trees. Leo and I would go down to the creek, and I would take him off the leash. Granted, I would never do that now, but Leo was well-trained. He always came when called, no matter the temptation. He would run ahead of me, sniff and pee, lag behind, catch up and repeat the cycle. That day, suddenly, he took off. I was actually off the path, standing on the sandy bank, watching the water when I saw him give chase.
My first thought was of squirrels, that perhaps my dog was chasing a squirrel, but then I saw the naked man. Since it was summer, everything was green, and the visibility wasn’t great, but I definitely saw the man’s pale pink butt and his bare back as he was booking it away from Leo’s snapping jaws. Leo wasn’t barking, and instead was so focused on nipping his pray — the naked man.
I was stunned into silence. A few moments went by before I found my voice and called Leo to my side. When he came, I praised him lavishly, petting him while fastening the leash back on his collar. Because, honestly, I could think of no reason why a grown-ass man (pardon the pun) would wonder around a creek in his birthday suit unless that man had something nefarious on his mind.
I had Leo for two years. He fell in love with a Great Dane, a dog who lived a few houses away from us. He used to pine for her, staring at that yard when tied outside, and we knew that when he escaped, he could be found with her. He didn’t care that she was twice as tall as he was, nor that she was indifferent him — he was wooing her the best he could. And one day, the day before Halloween, he jumped to her, although he was still tied to the pole. Somehow, he managed to throw his body over the fence and broke his own neck.
My Leo, the smartest dog in the world, the dog who licked my tears away, seemed to have killed himself for his love. We didn’t think the chain would even reach the fence, but he just managed to pull and pull and fling himself just over the fence. We were heartbroken.
My second dog was a purebred German Shepherd, and the most beautiful of dogs, and, unfortunately, one of the stupidest. People see a German Shepherd and think police dog, military discipline, brave and brilliant. But no. Not this dog. Strangers would stop me on the street to tell me how gorgeous he was — and he was as beautiful as a model. And like the models in Zoolander, he simply was a vacuous, lovely, empty vessel. I named him Yurik, for a family friend from Minsk, who used to bring me huge chocolate bars when he visited my parents; a short, stocky, bald and kind man who had a little crush on my mom and who would blush easily.
When Yurik was 9 month old, I took him to his first (and only) obedience class, which took place in a park. The instructor made me train him away from all the other puppies, and gave me a choke collar, the kind that comes with spikes. “Keep it,” she told me when I tried to return it after class. “You’re going to need it.”
Through much training at home, Yurik did learn how to shake paws, and sit on command. To release his sit, I would make a kissing sound — and off we’d go, since healing was not one of his mastered skills. I made it a point to walk him on the other side of the street — the one where we would have to sit and look at the street before we crossed it. It was there, at one corner of the street, while Yurik was sitting and waiting for my release that a child of about 3 ran out of her house, ran up to us, and made a dash for Yurik, throwing her arms around my dog, hugged him fiercely. They were face-to-face, and my dumb, sweet dog was panting patiently into a child’s neck, still waiting for my kissing sound, not caring while my heart jumped into throat and I forgot to breathe. He could have very easily bit her face off, had he been meaner, but he didn’t have that in him. Once her mother screamed at her impulsive daughter, she disengaged and sullenly walked back into the house. I was still staring at Yurik, who was staring at me, only caring about getting on with the walk.
I left Yurik with my parents to move to Missouri, to go back to college, and be with my boyfriend. My parents took care of my dog, and I took pleasure in hearing him bark, whenever I called home and some squirrel or a meddling postman who insisted on doing his job needed reminding that a dog lived there. And he lived a good long life. One day he woke my parents up because he was crying like a human baby. He had been arthritic and slow for quite a while, but that morning he couldn’t even stand up. My parents bundled him in a sheet, carried him to the car and took him to a vet, who said that there was nothing he could do except put Yurik to sleep. My parents didn’t tell me for a few days, and only when I asked why I didn’t hear Yurik bark did they finally tell me. I understood that it was the right thing to do. My parents still have a picture of Yurik in their home office — a picture of a beautiful, young and really sharp-looking German Shepherd.
These dogs could not have been more different — Leo from Yurik. But one thing they had in common — they gave me and my parents unconditional love and acceptance, the kind that only dogs are capable of. And, I loved them right back.