Wednesday, August 31, 2005


I was only working five hours a day at the time, so I was off at 1:30. The bus took me back to Shorewood by 2:PM. Sometime during the afternoon of July 24th, I got a call from my girlfriend, asking to go to the Humane Society. I had the whole afternoon, I had been talking about getting a dog, so why not?

I was hesitant because I was still in some debt and I hadn't talked to my sister, who was also my landlord. But I went. Who doesn't want to go see a bunch of dogs? We walked through the aisles, and as Jessica moved down the row ahead of me, I found my dog: golden color, happy eyes, he had his front paws up on the door, as if to open it for me. "This is my dog," I said aloud.

"But that's the dog that's been doing all the barking," Jessica protested.

"That's my dog."

He was four years old and trained in the basics. The first owner had him for four years, but gave him up for lack of time. Then some dumb-ass took him for three days, didn't let him out, realized that dogs have to go too, and then returned him to the Humane Society. My good luck. He'd been in a house fire, and he had some scarring on his legs that didn't clear up for at least the first year I owned him. The info sheet on him mentioned he might not be great with other dogs.

After getting the OK from my sister, we headed back to the Society and got Ranger for the bargain price of $75.00. We decided to go to Jessica's mother's house to show her the dog (she was also loaning us a crate). This was my first meeting with my future mother-in-law and Ranger commemorated it by trying to eat her dogs. "Might not be great with other dogs." Indeed.

When we got him home, he explored the house. Found the mirror on the back of my sister's door and ran around and around to learn it was just himself. He didn't test me too much. In the early days, he jumped up by the dining room table and scarfed half of my Tuna Helper. Last time that happened to me. I took him to my alumni meet that fall. He ran the course with me, even though his back legs got out of joint. I remember he took a dump right in the middle of that overrated course.

He got to know the neighborhood. We'd run the river trail, walk by my old kindergarten school, and he would sit under my feet as I finished my first book. They were good days.

The focus, as owners, quickly became his fear and aggression of other dogs. We tried a dog training class that taught us to keep him away from other dogs. He was a people-dog, there was no changing that. "Something happened to him," the dog trainer said. "Somebody damn-near ruined this dog." We ran into our first dog fight one Friday night when a big black dog came out of nowhere and they went at it. They finally broke off, just as I was going to kick the black dog. It amazed me how non-oblivious Ranger was about the other dog's size. It was simple to him: another dog in my space, kill.

I didn't let the second fight go too far. An unleashed mutt walked up to us on a walk and wouldn't leave. He started to go for it, and I held Ranger back. No good, the dog was still coming. So I let Ranger move him off a bit. When the dog came back for thirds, I smacked him in the jaw with my spade. I still love the sound that spade made.

He loved my sister, and she loved him. Taught him to roll over. She never just said, "Ranger", but said, "Ranger, Ranger, Ranger!" like the mother said "Hercules" in that Eddie Murphy movie.

His ears always gave him problems. They got red and dirty as many as four or five times a year. Otherwise he was healthy. We didn't throw down, but once, when I messed with him while he chomped on a big rawhide bone. He growled and I messed with him some more, getting my face in his, grabbing his ears, being an idiot. He had enough and chomped down hard on my nose, puncturing on one side and slitting the nostril on the other. Better than a tattoo, the worst part is explaining to people it was my fault.

He was there with me when I lost my job and worried about what I would do with myself. He was there when I moved in with Jessica. He was there when we got engaged a week later. He heard all our stupid fights, as well as the fights of the elderly married couple next door.

We got to explore Bay View together and make Delaware Avenue home, loud as it was. There was a big backyard behind the house, raised with a tree, roses, rhubarb, raspberries and garlic. Ranger sat up in the small bedroom with me, occasionally looking out at the tall apartment building several blocks away, with its blinking red light at the top, as I began my second book.

And as quickly as we discovered our neighborhood and finished making our house a home, we were moving again, a mile and a half away. And Ranger and I had another new neighborhood to explore. This time it was always by walks, as running bothered his hips too much. We took him up to Eau Claire again, to a wedding. He was good for us, and I always remembered to give him credit, knowing he would honor my trust. Sometime last year, as Jess battled her pregnancy, he was here under my feet as I typed the opening to my third book.

He found his nooks in this house. Aside from the kennel, he could squeeze under the end table and the couch. He could hide under that damn dining room table, pretending we weren't there as long as he liked -- even if we were looking right at him. And he spread out on the mattress pad I had on the floor up here in the attic. He grew into an old dog in this house, now more than nine years old.

But he was still happy. He'd still run through the house after coming in from a walk. He'd still go crazy when we said "walk" or "car ride". He still peed the house whenever my sister came over. And he'd still involuntarily lay down on his back so the new person coming into our house would pat his belly.

But for a dog who was always afraid of other dogs, to the point of aggression, it was not good news to hear from our dog trainer that Ranger was treating our seven-month-old son like a puppy. But we could work on some things. We could try. Ultimately, it was up to his behavior. When I got the e-mail at work Monday night, I knew that night would be my last night with Ranger. After Ranger bit my son in the head, Jessica ushered him up to the attic. When I got home, I didn't have it in me to punish him, given it was hours later and he only had hours left. I got a pillow, a movie, his treats, and a hot dog, and I went up to the attic to sleep on the twin bed for the night. I had never let him on the bed before and I never gave him hot dogs before, so I wonder if he knew something was up. But he was his fine, likeable self even the next day as I handed the leash to the attendant at the Humane Society and she took him to the back room and I walked away, out into the bright sunlight, pulling my hat down hard, trying to find my car and remember that I had a busy day ahead of me, with a job interview, and that I had to embrace it like nothing had just happened, like nothing had just changed.

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