Sunday, February 27, 2011


My dog Harley came into my life at a time when everything I knew for sure was falling apart. The man I loved, who had swept me off my feet so passionately I thought our love could never wane, was leaving me. Not only that, the daughters he had brought into my life, the littlest one calling me "mom" and both of them acting like sisters with my own daughter, were going to be taken from me as well. It's one thing to lose your best friend, the man you thought you'd be spending the rest of your life with. I've had heartbreaks like those before. They hurt. But it's another thing altogether to lose children you've grown to love, children who have grown to love you in return. Into this impossible scene came Harley.

camping But let me back up just a moment. Before everything had fallen completely apart, when I was still hanging onto the thinnest spider's thread of hope that things could, would, be salvaged, my love asked if we could take a trip together, to California, to visit his brother and niece. "One more try," he reassured me, to see if we could work things out. I had no idea what we were supposed to be "working out." As far as I knew, we were, should still be, truly, madly, deeply, in love. At least, I was. Although I didn't want to acknowledge it, I had been feeling that he had been distancing himself from me, although he never talked about it, never admitted it. So when he asked if we could make a visit to see his brother, I clung to the thought that if he were willing to make this journey with me, it would bring us back together again. So we set off for California, on my frequent flier miles, rented a convertible and drove into Merced with the top down despite a chilly 50 degree night. One of the first things we noticed the next day, while his brother was at work, were the dogs in the garage. I have known dogs my entire life and loved many. But I had never before met any like this pair. Harley, a Schnauzer mix, and Flicka, a Jack Russel mix, looking completely unkempt and disheveled, barked and growled at us, but when we tried to approach them, they cowered away from us. No matter how hard we tried to coax them over to sniff our hand, or offer a treat, they just stayed away. Over time we heard the story. Harley had been their first dog, and he went everywhere with them. He was their "baby." A few years later came Flicka, but shortly after that, they had had their own first child, and the dogs were suddenly banished from the house. Having no kennel for them to run and play outside, this meant they found themselves imprisoned in the garage, night and day. Feces and urine were scattered all over the cement floor. There was food and water for them, but it was clear the couple had grown tired of caring for their first "babies" and found them a complete inconvenience when faced with the needs of their own human child. The situation bothered us greatly. How could his brother, whom he adored and admired, who led countless church groups and was tirelessly religious, act in such an inhumane and unChristian way? After talking it over several times, my love decided to approach his brother about taking the dogs back to Minnesota with us. To do so we would need to get them in to see a vet, and get them kennels and plane tickets, all within a matter of a few short days. The first time we tried to load Harley into the kennel, he bit us. He had to wear a muzzle during the vet visit (and most vet visits thereafter). ready to walk! Several hundreds of dollars later (again on my tab, since my love was completely broke of course) we were headed back to Minnesota with the two dogs somewhere in the baggage compartment below us in the belly of the airplane. Our arrival back at my house in Duluth was greeted by a fair amount of excitement by my daughter, who could not believe the souvenirs I had procured for her in California. The first night in our house, I went downstairs to check on the dogs, which were corralled into our kitchen until we could ascertain their behaviors. I bent over Harley to give him a pat and an encouraging word and he promptly tried to bite me. We settled back into our routines, and my love, I mean ex, disappeared as quickly as he had come sweeping into our lives. With no place of his own to stay, the dogs defaulted to being mine. Consolation prizes perhaps for his bailing out without explanation or reason. The dogs were not well trained. Flicka was not even house broken yet. I had never had indoor dogs before, and didn't know what I was getting myself into. Harley was such a good jumper, on several occasions we discovered he was able to snatch entire loaves of bread off the counters next to the wall, bringing them down for he and Flicka to enjoy. It wasn't long after that we decided they needed to be kenneled at night and while we were out of the house. Getting Harley into a kennel, however, was another matter entirely, as he tended to bite anyone who tried to lay a hand on him. A treat thrown into the kennel finally did the trick, safely. unshaved, lookin' scruffy I half-joked many times the first year, "Harley, if you were a big dog, you'd be dead. Nobody would tolerate you biting so much!" Luckily for him, his small mouth did not inflict much harm, but it sure didn't ingratiate him with me. Little dog with a big attitude. But despite the behaviors and inconvenience, the dogs also offered us something in return. As they slowly learned to trust us, they became a great solace to the empty, aching hole inside of us. As C-baby and I grieved our multiple losses, the dogs snuggled up to us on the couch, nestled their backs against our bellies and exuded comfort and companionship where emptiness and sorrow tried to rule. As we healed them with kindness and compassion, they healed us with loyalty and companionship. Their new life afforded them many pleasures. Loves and pets and pats and kind words. Freedom to go outside. Long walks around town and hikes in the woods. Harley would become so attached to me that he actually overcame first his fear of water, to learn how to ride the back of my kayak so he could accompany me on many of my paddles, and then later, to ride in a basket on my bike. He also accompanied me on many long hikes on the Superior Hiking Trail. He camped with us frequently, too, despite my constant fear of him being a tick magnet. Harley & I kayaking New members were added to our pack over the years. I already owned one cat, a tabby that just went by "Kitty," who lived to be 19 years old. Papa Bear moved to MN from WY, bringing his cat Remington along. After both of those cats died, along came Mojo, then Kali. Harley learned to accept them all. And there wasn't much Harley wouldn't do with, and for, his new family. But he always did have an attitude. We butted heads many, many times. Flicka would eventually be given to one of my closest friends, who had three small children at home and a lot more time and love for a dog that really just needed a lap to climb into. She would live out her days in the country, romping beside the kids and running freely through the pastures. We didn't dare give Harley away, despite the many times I had considered it. It seemed too dangerous as he was still too unreliable when it came to anything that required handling. at the dog park Many years after adopting Harley I came across a book by Jan Fennell, the Dog Listener. Jan's work would unlock many of the behaviors I had struggled with around Harley. He thought he was alpha. We couldn't pick him up. He wouldn't heel or mind on our walks. He would bark a lot if we left the room (or house). I found out the majority of his anxieties had to do with his mistaken belief that as the alpha, he thought he was in charge of us, his pack, and when we didn't behave as we should, he needed to put us in our places. Jan's book shed light on so many things, I immediately put many of them to work with Harley, with great success. It added many more years of enjoyment to our time together. But, I still wasn't exactly in love with this dog the way I have been with other dogs, or with my cats for that matter. I loved him and hated him, sometimes simultaneously. Perhaps it was only because in some small way in the back of my mind, he reminded me of being used and dumped. How stupid I was, how taken advantage I had let myself be. His constant daily presence was a subtle reminder of this negative, painful chapter in my life. Or maybe it was because he was a lot more work than the outdoor dogs we had while growing up (and now I know why they were all outdoor dogs). Harley never once indicated he had to go outside, so for his ten years with us, we had to be the ones to remember to put him out several times a day. We also had to be careful how we fed all of the animals, so that he couldn't gobble up all of the cat food. Our daughter learned the hard way when we first brought them home that hiding her Advent calendar (with a piece of chocolate behind every window) under her bed was no deterrent to a small dog capable of crawling around under a bed to retrieve it. Thankfully, there was no bad reaction to the chocolate, or this story might have been a lot shorter one. Or maybe it was his bad attitude, his never acknowledging me completely as Head of Household, rather, giving me the suspicious eye and wondering when I, as alpha, would fail so he could resume his post as Superior. Whatever the reason, or reasons, Harley became the ultimate test of faith and patience for me. I had agreed to take on the life and care of this sometimes vexing creature, and I wasn't one to break my promises. I wasn't going to be the person my ex had been, leaving all of us for better weather elsewhere. Harley was 5 when we adopted him, and he lived with us for another ten glorious years. By the time he turned 15, he had no teeth (they had all been pulled - small dogs teeth often rot faster than big dogs). His bark was, quite literally, worse than his bite. His eyes and ears were failing, and he had to wear a doggy diaper at all times in the house and be put outside even more frequently. Harley, age 15 We brought him in for a vet visit when he was having some breathing issues and learned he had congestive heart failure. We were given meds to prolong his life and make breathing easier, but were told there was no cure. The heart meds made him even more incontinent. Not only that, but his anxiety began to rise like never before, to the point where at night he would bark incessantly, even if we were in the room right beside him. We had to start giving him sedatives so he, and we, could sleep at night. As much as I thought I despised this dog and the memories of hurt he carried with him, my heart was breaking with the decision in front of me. During the day, he seemed OK. But I wasn't OK with drugging him to sleep every night. And I knew he was slowly drowning in his own fluids. After 5 nights of sedatives, I called the vet. It was the same vet who helped deliver Brigid when she was born at the farm. He came to the house and there, surrounded by the people Harley loved, he was gently, compassionately, and painlessly given back to the universe from which he had come. Kali & Harley That was Jan. 5, 2010. It has taken me over a year to write this story. There is something about the story of Harley and I that is so intertwined and deeply personal I couldn't face the pain of putting it all down in words. Until tonight. To be hurt by the ones you love most, to be betrayed, abused, abandoned, neglected... to fight back, to bite, to persevere, to never give up... To learn to let go of the pain of the past, to learn to trust again, to love again, and then to lick, and wrestle, and wiggle, and bite, and hurt, and make amends, and forgive, and to lead, and follow, and play, and protect... Harley is the metaphor for all of our lives, all of our struggles, our pain, and our ability to rise up from the ashes and learn to love once again. Such a small dog, such a short life, yet so many lessons. I have heard it said that we don't choose our animals; they, choose us, for the lessons we have yet to learn from them. I thank Harley for those lessons, for showing us the will to survive and for never giving up. And for learning how to trust again even though everything he knew for sure was falling apart. I love you Harley, and I miss you.


J said...

Such lamentation, such mirth, such thought. The story runs the spectrum of emotion. Thank you for sharing such a poignant story, and Harley's lessons.

Victoria Strauser said...

Thank you J. I am still learning those lessons.

Frances Lawrence said...

I stumbled upon your blog, and then upon this post. I chose it because the dog in the top picture could have been my (recently deceased) dog Bling. Although perhaps on a rather grumpy day. I owned Bling the silky terrier for 7 years, and she amazed me every day. Your story reminded me of all of the times that she was opinionated, and stubborn, and sweet, and so completely aware of my emotions. That dog comforted me through more than I could describe. I really appreciated hearing your story of a similar little pooch.

Victoria Strauser said...

Thank you Frances! He was quite the pooch. I don't expect to have an other dog quite like him!

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