It was just after one o’clock on an October day. The sun was bright but thin as I wended my way through the streets of Rochester to the shabby side of town. A converted funeral home had the correct address, a building battered by weather and the need to beg for every dollar. This was “Paws and Claws”, the Rochester Humane Society. From the gradually graying sky down to the leafless trees and the sidewalk turned to gravel, an air of “last chance” hung heavily. I parked near the door, not out of laziness but an anxiety to get this going.
Inside, the grabbing smell of wet dog and pee stopped me immediately. The frantic barking was deafening. When I nervously approached the desk, the older woman seemed almost surprised that I kept my appointment. I said I was here to see the Westie they called “Newman”. She told me to wait a moment before he came out.
From the yapping back room, a young woman bounded out nearly as excited as the white flash at the end of her short leash. I knelt to meet Newman, and was greeted with a frantic bath of dog spit. As I became wetter and wetter much of my anxiety melted. His handler recited how happy she was to see me, too, and maybe we should go in the pen to let him off. Here was a loving creature and not just a hopeless case looking for a reprieve.
As we went to the pen a different kind of anxiety rose. The hardened death row feel was gone, replaced with the blur of a hyperactive puppy zooming brainlessly. He could destroy a tennis ball in less than a minute, a frantic pace required by his nanosecond attention span. He could leap over a very high wall to get out, and stopped only to pee on everything.
With the little dog having no attention to give me, I grabbed him and cradled his head in my hands, staring into his eyes. Peacefully limp for a moment, Newman looked away, as if unworthy of such attention. Gradually, his discomfort wiggled him out of my hands. “Sit!”, I commanded, but he had no idea what I meant. “Sit!” again, and this time I pushed his back end down. He sat a just long enough to say in a glance that he had it, and went back to being a white blur.
His handler saw that I was trying very hard to connect. She spoke in stutters, telling me how great the little white furball was and what honest difficulties he had. Her attention could never be fully on anything except endless puppy antics, so we only spoke in bites of conversation. He was 11 months, they thought. He had been there a week. He wasn’t house trained, but maybe neutering would help. He didn’t know any name. He was always this hyper.
While she talked, Newman busied himself by destroying another toy. My mind went back to Watney, my best friend. He was a Westie as well, and he had died just two months before at the age of 14. At the end, his spine had nearly fused, and he moved too slowly to bother chasing squirrels. He was once this busy, wasn’t he? Wasn’t he the little rabbit-dog, not yet grown into his ears, that bounded through the snow? Sadly, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t see Watney in this little dog. Watney was always dignified and in control, even when he was little. He loved me from the moment he saw me. Though I was a “terrier person”, this little thing wasn’t my dearly departed Watney.
I smiled at this puppy all the same. I decided when I signed up with the Westie Rescue e-mail list that I wasn’t just going to get a dog – that I was going to offer a home to someone who needed me. I never knew one would come along this fast, who needed me this much. Looking around the pound, however, I could see that was delusional. Dogs like Newman came along often, guys like me a sad little bit less so.
I said good-bye that day, taking a little time to be sure I could handle this. I would return on Saturday with my kids, and we would decide then. The long drive home would help me think it over, but there wasn’t much to think about. Since I had first heard of him, on the day of August Wilson’s funeral, I knew this was a simple matter of doing the right thing. Gradually, I decided I would name him August. From then on, adoption was a formality.
The next meeting was with a different handler, in a much bigger space with plenty of room to zoom. This handler was less optimistic, hardened by seeing dogs like him before. “He’s very dominant”, she offered, but she just didn’t know terriers. This dog never had a social life, and constantly challenged not to dominate, but to learn where he stood. I grabbed him at one point, and commanded, “Sit!” He did it immediately. He remembered me, and he was smart. He was already my dog.
It was then that I learned his whole story. He had been found wandering through a trailer park in Stewartville, and was held there a while. Rather than execute him for the crime of being a dog, they offered him to the larger Rochester pound. He was beyond his last chance, and no one else was interested in him. I was it for him. I signed the papers and promised to neuter him. We put him in the cage and drove home, whining all the way.
Weeks passed quickly as we went through training. August stayed in the cage most of the time at first, especially after neutering. My cat, Tony, investigated this new dog carefully. Tony is also a veteran stray, having bounded out of the woods near Spooner, Wisconsin. When the two of them finally met, it was clear that not only was Tony unafraid, he was skilled enough to beat the crap out of August when appropriate. That part worked well.
What was most difficult, however, was socializing. Gradually, I came to realize that placing this wild dog in the cage only made him crazier afterwards. The small sore on his nose from poking it through cage bars said it all – he had spent far too long in a box already. Finally, I allowed him up on the sofa, the seat of power for the family pack. August settled into an utterly peaceful slumber. The white-hot flashes of energy cooled into the warmth of a dog’s unconditional love.
Finally, we reached a point where I had no choice but to trust him, and let him have run of the house when I was gone. August responded by listening to me more carefully than before, and soon learned to sit and shake and stay and a few other tricks. He still got so excited that he would pee on the floor when a leash was produced, but quickly learned to sit while I put it on. He learned to calm himself down. He knew what was right.
It has been a long time since last October, and each day has been filled with a little more trust and a lot more love. August knows exactly where he belongs, and that is all a dog really wants. His puppy energy didn’t seem like a kind of desperation, but that is what it was. Without the pack and the love he needs, a dog will keep moving. As long as he is moving, he may yet have another last chance.