“There will be some days when you leave this place in tears,” said John, the trainer at my dog-walking orientation when I decided at the beginning of this year to volunteer at my local animal shelter. “You will show up one day and a dog that you’ve taken a liking to will be gone. It can’t be helped. But there will be many more days when you show up and the dogs you walk will treat you as though you are the best thing that ever happened to them.” I decided that was a very worthwhile trade-off.
I also thought, as a secondary motivation for giving away my time, that this might be the best way to meet my next canine soul mate. And hopefully when I meet that special canine person, he or she will be a collie.
That is a preference instilled in me by my mother. She sure did love her collies. She didn’t actually get to live with a collie until she was a grown woman with three children, but the first dog love of her life was a collie that freely roamed the streets of Dardanelle, Arkansas. All dogs roamed freely when my mother was a child.
My mother didn’t actually live in Dardanelle. Her parents were dirt-poor cotton sharecroppers who lived about 20 miles outside of Dardanelle proper. But any reason to go into town was reason for her jubilation, because it meant she would get a chance to see the collie she adored.
When she was four years old, the collie inexplicably turned on her and attacked her. It was soon apparent to the town folk that the collie had gone mad; it had all the symptoms of rabies. Some men got together, hunted it down, and killed it. Then they sent its body to Little Rock to be tested.
My mother almost didn’t make it. Even today, post-exposure prophylaxis has to be administered within ten days to prevent the beyond-hope onset of the disease. After testing confirmed rabies in the dog, the serum had to be shipped from Little Rock, and it did not arrive in Dardanelle until the last day of my mother’s window of opportunity. She underwent the horrific intramuscular and deep abdominal injections that ward off the disease. It was worth it. She survived.
My mother usually welled up when she told me this story. But her tears were never about the painful treatments that had to have been terrifying for a four-year-old. They were for her beloved collie. Her perspective at the time of the incident was that she was responsible for the dog’s death. The men who’d hunted it had hunted it on her behalf. I think she grieved for that collie for the rest of her life, and her allegiance to the breed was triple that of Lassie’s allegiance to Timmy.
“The worst thing that can happen while you’re walking a dog,” John told us, “would be if it got away from you and it bit another person or dog. If that happens because you lost control of it, it will have to be put down.”
I am always mindful of this. When I take a dog out, I let him or her roam the parking lot for several minutes first, smell what they want to smell for as long as they like, let them get used to the open air and burn off their exuberance at being out of the kennel before we make our way to the street.
That is what I tried to do today with Tiger, a beautiful brindle pit bull who had not been out of his kennel for a week due to the heavy rains in Northern California. Tiger was so gentle that he was one of the dogs John used in our orientation to show us how to handle a shelter dog on a walk. All of the dogs today were leaping out of their skins when they saw the volunteers with leashes. Not Tiger. He looked at me with soulful, calm, begging eyes.
So I opened his kennel and slipped the lead over his neck. As soon as I did so, it was like every stereotypical western where the bronco reacts to the first-ever saddle put on his back. Tiger became a dervish. He leaped, he strained, he wrapped himself around my legs to tie me up in the leash. Then he grabbed the leash in his teeth and ran for the gate with me trailing him in a stumble. When I got unwrapped and thought I had control, I opened the gate that led to the parking lot.
In the parking lot, Tiger became even wilder. He again took the leash in his mouth and dragged me. The leash was only nylon and I realized that it would be no time at all before Tiger severed it. I reached for the leash to take it out of Tiger’s mouth and he reflexively jumped and clamped the leash harder to keep his control on it. The trouble was that my hands and arms were in the way of his efforts to keep clamped to the leash. From that moment on, it was nothing but motion and frenzy.
I did not want this to escalate. Fortunately, there were people in the parking lot and I asked one of them to let an animal control officer know that I needed assistance. The officer came out immediately and he and I wrangled Tiger back to his kennel. My brain was racing through a deliberation: Did I really need to report that Tiger had bitten me? He didn’t really mean to. In actuality he was trying to bite his leash and I had put my hands in harm’s way.
But the officer had already seen the manic frenzy in the parking lot. As he was putting the bolt back on the lock of Tiger’s kennel, he told me, “His behavior has changed this week. He’s already gotten away from one walker and we had to get out the truck to go retrieve him. But this is first time I’ve seen him behave like this.” Then he saw the blood on my hands. We exchanged a sad look and he went back to the office.
I washed and disinfected my wounds. Five scratches, three puncture wounds, and a ripped finger. Then I headed home. It wasn’t until my car had made its way down the hill and I was well away from the shelter that I began to cry. Crying because the bites hurt? A little. Crying because I knew Tiger was doomed now? A lot. But mostly I was crying for the new insight I had into my mother, aged four, mourning a collie in Dardanelle, Arkansas.