UNCONDITIONAL

10.25.15 4:01 AM ET

Why Everyone Should Rescue: Inside the Life of an Unwanted Dog

A visit to any animal shelter will open you up to stories of unimaginable neglect and cruelty toward man’s best friend.

Last spring we got a dog—another dog, making it three to three in the house, dogs to people. The new guy is a 10-year-old, pre-owned model, as they say in the car business, a Labrador retriever previously called Spike but whose name is now Stanley. The name change isn’t much of an adjustment for the dog because for the seven years previous nobody talked to him anyway.

The shelter is just off the freeway in a section of Los Angeles that you wouldn’t like even if you liked Los Angeles. It is dark in back where the cages are, the air is damp and fetid. Animals howl, day and night. I used to work in a place like this, a nicer place than this actually, and it still shows up once in a while in bad dreams. I have more of those than I used to.

But leave it at this: I am pretty sure the animals know why they are here, that this is the last stop.

The previous owner came in both to get rid of the dog and to add the loss to his own long, sad list of personal tragedies. They use the word “adopt” a lot around animal shelters, but for a dog like Stanley the chances are slim. In addition to being 10 years old, he is 15 or 20 pounds overweight. His ears are red with infection and have not been cleaned out in years, he scratches at them even in his sleep. He seems to have trouble getting up and down, suggesting hip problems. Suggesting surgery, suggesting long-term financing. And there are hot spotsbedsores that dogs get from lying on concrete.

The man looks at the animal. “You just get to the point where there’s nothing you can do.” He has brought his girlfriend along, but he wants the woman at the counter’s sympathy too. You can never have too much sympathy. The woman behind the counter thinks he is trying to work up tears. She has seen that enough times before. Without waiting for the man to finish, she leaves the counter and kneels beside Spike, looking him over. Cooing, letting him drool on her hands. Thinking that a dog like this has no chance in the world.

“We just don’t know what else to…” says the girlfriend, who wants the animal shelter woman to know she feels bad. The man cuts her off, though, holding up his hand like a traffic cop. She stops mid-sentence.

***

The idea came from a television show, actually an evening of reruns of the program The Dog Whisperer. It was 10 years ago. The star of the show, a man named Cesar Milan, visits dogs with personality disorders and gets them to stop chasing senior citizens up maples trees. Some viewers are mesmerized by The Dog Whisperer, and some viewers think he may have a personality disorder himself. Something in there of a vaguely Central American dictator flavor.

A few days and several episodes of The Dog Whisperer later, the man and the woman and their 3-year-old boy drove out to the cheapest Labrador retriever breeder the man could find. He picked out a lab because he liked one that he saw in a TV commercial.

From the beginning it was a test of wills. The man wanted to be obeyed, the puppy wanted to be a puppy. Reality showed its ugly head.

Puppies make puddles, indoors and outdoors, wherever they are when the mood strikes, that’s where the puddle is. They gnaw shoes, they gnaw reading glasses, and pillows, and furniture. They tip over garbage and they whine at night, and sometimes they leave spectacular piles of poop—if, for instance, one eats a box of crayons in the night—in unexpected places. It was a funny thing, the man told the woman at the shelter, but he had the same problem with the puppy that he’d had with his son. That is, he has an aversion to excrement of any manufacture—puppy poop, baby poop—anywhere, anytime. He can’t even look at poop without gagging, and possibly losing dinner. Thus all the dog’s errors in this department fell to the missus to clean up.

***

It was not a friendly divorce. The man got custody of the lab—now a full-grown dog—not because he wanted the dog, but because she did. Meanwhile, the day the man’s wife left, the lab was no longer allowed inside the house. There were no more walks or visits to the dog park. The back yard was mostly cement, and except for the negligible shade of one California buckeye tree, there was nothing out there for the dog at all. The fence cut off most of the view, and for seven years the animal’s days were divided into the 14-minute intervals between bus stops at the corner. The high school let out at ten minutes after two, the highlight of the day. Every two or three days the man wordlessly set a large bowl of whatever dog food was on sale at Walmart outside the back door, filled up the water bucket, and that was it.

Seven years of isolation.

No exercise, no company, no play. This is misery for a dog, especially this kind of dog, labs being arguably the most sociable breed in the world. Endless boredom, pain.

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***

And then one Saturday morning it ends. The man comes out of the back door holding a leash, and he and his girlfriend lift Spike into the car. At the animal shelter the man signs the papers and begins to tell the woman at the counter how his life has fallen apart, and in this story the dog becomes an accessory, one more sad thing that has happened to him. The ex-wife, the son, the dog. The shattered dream. The woman behind the counter is not interested, encountering this as she does all the time, people wanting her blessing for behavior that turns your stomach, people obsessed with the opinions of strangers. It is a symptom, but she isn’t sure of what.

The man starts and stops, stops and starts. Even when he has finally caught her interest, he can tell from her questions—which the girlfriend, who has obviously not been taught yet to keep her mouth shut, keeps butting in, answering—that he is not getting a sympathetic hearing. 

“You don’t walk him at all?

And: “Where does he sleep when it rains?

And: “What does the vet say about his hips?

There are no answers, especially with the girlfriend repeating all the things he has been telling her: 

“He doesn’t like walking because of his hips.

And: “Labs like the rain.

And: “It’s the breed. There’s nothing the vets can do.

In the end, the man cuts his losses and leaves, returning to the life he has made for himself to live. And maybe that’s enough justice—it would be for Stanley—and maybe it’s not. I look at the animal sometimes and still seethe at the waste.

As for Stanley, in six months he’s lost his belly, along with most of the bedsores. His ears don’t drive him crazy anymore. His hind legs seem stronger all the time—as it turns out, the hips weren’t the problem, the muscles back there had atrophied from simple lack of use. Still, these days this is strictly an indoor beast and more than anything else he just wants to be around one of us all the time. Daytime, he and Sam sit in strange, contorted positions on the floor or the sofa, and nighttime he gets in bed, either with Sam or with us. Unlike the rest of the animals in the house, Stanley will not get in bed until he is specifically invited.

I don’t know when he sleeps, but most nights I wake up two or three times in the dark, no particular reason, and he is always there watching. That is to say, no reason but three dogs, two cats, Mrs. Nale and occasionally Sam, kicking, twitching and throwing elbows in their dreams. So far the hamster hasn’t shown up, but you never know.

I wake up scanning the room, and there he always is, Stanley, head cocked and watching me from his regular place in the bedroom/the corner of the bed, staring up out of the dark.

Christ knows the memories grazing around in that animal’s head, and for that matter in mine.

Put it like this: Stanley and I are light sleepers.