This is the part of keeping dogs I’ll never get used to.
It was 2006, and my quest for tenure at Indiana University had rounded the far turn and was heading into the home stretch. The semester had just cranked up and I was trolling for evaluators to come to my classes and keeping the pedal to the metal on research and writing.
In that panic, I had abandoned my sweet wife Tracy even more than usual. She was already neck deep in dog rescue. For years, she had been reporting to the Bloomington Animal Shelter, where she would inventory the dogs up for adoption and do her creative best to smoke out the blood of some pure breed. Then she would contact the rescue group for that breed and try to get them to take the dog that was plainly an “almost.”
Bloomington was a kill shelter, so we were always fostering as a bridge to save doggie lives. I’ll never forget how we got the dog that was just a mass of black mats. I was thinking this pooch was kind of ugly and I asked Tracy how long we would have this one?
“Forever. Her time was up.”
She had terribly crooked teeth and her shelter name was “Spook.” Tracy said she was kept in the back and there was little effort to find her a home before her date with the needle. She was not considered adoptable.
We took her to a groomer and, when all the mats were trimmed away, she was plainly a toy poodle. After we tried half a dozen names, she informed us that her real name was Shadow by answering to it.
Shadow turned out to have great entertainment value. When Tracy and I married, we each had two dogs. So it was that we took a pack of four with us when I moved from the University of Texas at San Antonio to IU.
The last of the four still among the living was a black Afghan hound named Odessa, who liked to lie on her big dog bed in front of the fireplace with her paws in the air and invite any humans in the vicinity to give her a tummy rub.
When Odessa passed on, Shadow tried her best to take up the slack. She would lie on her back in the same place, paws in the air — a very small version of a very large dog. We let her inherit Odessa’s dog bed — which was way too big for her — because her efforts were so cute.
A few months later, we took in a foster from a rescue group that I decided I wanted to keep, and what could Tracy say with our history? Sammy was another toy poodle, the same size as Shadow, but white in color and without the crooked teeth. I suppose this pair could logically have been “Salt and Pepper,” but Sammy came to us with a name and Shadow had named herself. It was not necessary to buy another dog bed, because Sammy and Shadow could both curl up on Odessa’s bed with space left over.
Toward the end of my tenure hunt, Tracy got a call from Small Paws, an international rescue group based in Tulsa, specializing in bichon frises. She had been working with Small Paws long enough to have fostered many bichons, and I had gotten to know the breed as some of the most good-natured dogs in the universe. Small Paws had somehow gotten in the position of liquidating the inventory of a puppy mill at the Ohio State Fair and the call was going out for fosters. Tracy hit the road towards Ohio.
She came back that evening with the scroungiest looking bichon I had ever seen. He did not look white and he did not look fluffy. Small Paws sometimes referred to their customers as “fluffs,” but this one would need some spiffing up.
His name was Tippy, which I thought was kind of odd. Tracy explained that there were five pups from the same litter and they went under the names State Fair Tommy, State Fair Terry, and so forth. They were getting short of T names when it was Tippy’s turn.
State Fair Tippy’s oddity did not end with his name. He was coming up on two years old and he had been livestock, kept for making more bichons. He lived in a wire cage with gravity feeders for kibble and water. He had little human contact.
We found that he preferred female humans to males and he was scared to death of males with beards, which was a bit inconvenient for me. I have still not shaved clean since 1968, when I got out of the Air Force with a nasty scar I chose to cover with a beard because the VA would not do cosmetic surgery and I could not picture myself getting up in front of a class with that scar.
Just as inconvenient, Tippy had been a livestock dog and he did not know how to be a pet dog. When we turned him loose in the house, he was just bewildered. He scared us when he fell down trying to navigate stairs. He did not know how to eat and drink out of a bowl or walk on a leash. He did not know what dog toys are for — play was not in his repertoire.
Shadow and Sammy took Tippy in paw and taught him what he needed to know, but the poodles could not cure his fears. An Indian veterinary student in Ohio I had known when he was an undergraduate speculated that Tippy’s fear of bearded men meant he came from an Amish puppy mill. The Amish, he told me, often bred puppies for sale but treated them coldly and spent as little money on them as possible.
I was ready to believe it because Tracy had a run-in with Amish about abusing a horse. That blew me away, because the horse pulled the buggy that was their primary transportation. If they would treat a working animal badly, it seemed to me that inventory would have little claim on their attention.
Whatever the cause of Tippy’s fear, when Tracy went out of town, she had to leave a leash on Tippy, so if I needed to pick him up, I could step on the leash and reel him in. He nipped me a couple of times when I frightened him by moving too quickly or he didn’t see me coming. Nothing serious, but very unlike any bichon I had ever seen.
During the time we had Tippy as a foster and the poodles were still working on socializing him to be a pet dog, Small Paws came down with an edict that any bichon that showed any aggression toward a human should be put down rather than adopted out. We paid the rescue fee immediately and Tippy was our dog.
As the poodles did their job, there was no more nipping, but Tippy would often flinch as if I were about to hit him — which hurt my feelings. But there came a time when Tippy was my dog when Tracy was not around.
When we retired back to Texas, Tracy took Tippy and Shadow. I kept Sammy for company because I still had one more semester to teach. When I got loose in December 2009, I returned to Texas and we were a household again. I had been tenured and took the customary sabbatical to write my first book, Sequoyah Rising. Having taken the sabbatical, I owed IU another year of teaching, which I delivered.
Back in Texas, we got old and so did the dogs. Shadow went first. Sammy and Tippy were upset, but seemed to get over the loss. Then Sammy died and Tippy was inconsolable. Whenever Tracy was gone, even just to run an errand, Tippy would sit by the door and cry. The cries would shortly become little howls, and then he would come into my office and put his head on my knee as if to say,
Please pet me.
I would pet his head, scratch his ears and tell him he was a good dog. He would settle down for a while but soon would park himself by the door and start the cycle again.
When Tippy had been grieving for weeks with no change, Tracy went online and found a white dog up for adoption. So it was that we traveled to the Universal City shelter, located at the gate to Randolph AFB, where I was stationed in 1964. Sunny was the last dog in the house, perhaps because she was heartworm positive.
We had a bit of a scare when Sunny would not follow the vet’s instructions to not move around while the heartworm treatment was going on, lest a piece of a worm break off and give her a stroke. Even before the treatment was over, Tippy had adopted Sunny as his new pet dog role model. I guess he thought he still needed one.
I did not think Tippy needed any further instruction. He was great as a pet dog, and I’m certain he did not miss being livestock. Lately, his kidneys had been shutting down, according to the vet, and his days were numbered. When he had not eaten for several days but he was throwing up bile, he was miserable and it was time.
I can’t believe we’ve lost Tippy so soon after losing Max the Magnificent, but we are now a one dog family for the first time in 24 years of marriage. Sunny is upset, but she has just been unusually clingy. Nothing like Tippy when we lost Sammy.
Unless Sunny can’t handle being the only dog, we are downsized for a while. We won’t go hunting, but rescue dogs have a way of presenting themselves. For now, we’ll cry a little and say,
Rest in Peace, State Fair Tippy. You were meant to be a pet, not livestock, and you did well. Your poodles would be proud of you.
Previously published on medium
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Photo credit: Steve Russell