Several months ago, my son acquired a dog, Hank, from a rescue shelter. Hank was the name of my grandfather, with whom I was close, so I liked Hank from the start. He even looks like my grandfather, with a prominent nose, a furrowed brow, and large, protruding ears. Having two Hanks in the family can be confusing, so we differentiate between them. One is Grandpa Hank, the other Hank the Dog. Grandpa Hank died in 1999 but is still very much alive in our family life and lore. None of his grandchildren bears his name (we were named for Catholic saints), but he was a great supporter of dogs and would be pleased to know his name lives on.
As the narrative goes, Hank the Dog was born in Oklahoma, abused by his original owner, and taken in by some well-meaning soul who had too many dogs already. There is, from what little information I can coax from my reticent son, an Underground Railroad for rescued dogs, and Hank came north to Putnam County, not far from our home. My son learned of Hank’s plight, believed adoption would improve both of their lives, and so brought him home to his apartment. He has decided not to tell Hank he was adopted. The family resemblance is strong, he seems to accept my son as his natural father, and my son has no wish to confuse him.
Dogs no longer show up on our doorsteps like they did when I was a kid, worming their way into our hearts and homes through the subterfuge of children and the eventual and reluctant consent of an adult. Today, they must be rescued. The acquisition of dogs has taken on moral overtones, a testament to the owner’s kindness and courage in liberating an animal and saving its life.
I was recently walking in the woods near our house and came upon a woman walking two dogs. I stopped to chat with them, as I do with every dog I meet, and commented to the woman that they were fine dogs.
“I rescued them,” she said.
“From what?” I asked, expecting the worst. I braced myself for a horrific story about a house fire, an automobile accident, a flood, or a blizzard.
“From a rescue shelter,” she said.
“Oh, so the people at the shelter rescued the dogs and you took them in?”
“No, the dogs were born at the shelter.”
“So you adopted them?”
“No, I rescued them,” she insisted.
Apparently, there isn’t enough nobility in simply getting a dog. They must be rescued.
When I was a kid, our dog Zipper fell off a creek bank and into the water. I jumped in after her and lifted her out of the water onto dry land. For the next several days, I told anyone who would listen how I’d rescued my dog. In retrospect, I think Zipper was tricking me and didn’t want to climb the creek bank. Zipper never took the simple way out if there was drama to be had.
The most commonly rescued dog appears to be the greyhound. I’m not sure why this is, but I suspect it has something to do with greyhounds’ manic tendency to run in circles, depleting their time and energy in aimless activity. From all indications, they are a high-maintenance animal, as opposed to the average mutt, which faces life with cool equanimity. Hank the Dog lets nothing ruffle him, and though he entered our family as a “rescued” dog, I suspect if no one had intervened, he would have resolved his problems ably on his own.
Our family had two dogs when I was a child, Zipper and Fanny. Zipper arrived on our doorstep when I was just a year old, and Fanny followed us home from the park, pregnant and homeless but with an indomitable spirit. To say that they were rescued diminishes their self-sufficiency and resourcefulness, which they had in spades. It was never clear who was doing whom the greatest favor. If it was true that we rescued them—a claim I hesitate to make—it is also the case they repaid the favor many times over.
I’m not certain what led to this rash of dog-rescuing, whether we have a heightened need for drama or whether dogs aren’t as robust and capable as they were when I was a kid. Back then, dogs lived outside, under the front porch—unless it was cold, and then they slept in the barn. This was a perfectly acceptable arrangement for man and beast alike. Our dogs seldom saw the inside of a veterinarian’s office, ate table scraps, drank from puddles, and lived into their middle teens. On the few occasions they did come inside, they were hesitant, like a backwoods farmer visiting the White House, dressed in his Sunday suit, shiny with wear, standing at awkward attention. Our dogs’ discomfort was not because they considered themselves inferior, but because they could sniff out pretension a mile away and wanted nothing to do with it.
Dog-rescuers are, no doubt, kind people, though they too often assume the dog wouldn’t have made it without them and forget that the domestication of dogs is a relatively new wrinkle. Dogs did just fine before we came along bearing Milk-Bones and chew toys. Should evolution, in its merciless grind, decide to eliminate us, dogs would go cheerfully on. They know this instinctively, yet choose to make their habitation with us anyway. Thus, the presence of a dog is a gift; we do not own them.
Dogs are so, pardon the pun, doggedly self-reliant that, given the opportunity, they will face death alone rather than trouble us to ease their way. I have seen dozens of dogs born, but not once have I attended the natural death of a dog. It appears to me that a dog, knowing its end is near and neither wanting nor needing help, will slip away to a corner and bid the world its quiet goodbye.
I have a friend who claims to have rescued a greyhound, which he walks about town on a regular basis, always on a stout leash. I once asked him what would happen if the dog slipped the leash and were free.
“He would run so fast and far, I would never see him again,” he said.
So, are dogs ungrateful? Or are they so desirous of independence they will bolt at the first opportunity? I’ve never met an ungrateful dog, so I can only assume the latter is true. In the 16 years Zipper and Fanny graced our lives, my parents never slipped a leash around their necks. No more than they would have slipped chains around my ankles. Ours was a relationship of mutuality, dog and man together, each entering the relationship freely and equally, no one needing saved, no one saving.
Illustration by Ryan Snook
This article appeared in the June 2013 issue.