Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Dog Days of Summer

This post was originally published August 14, 2010.

With the oppressive heat settled in -- 109 F (43 C) on Thursday -- drought conditions, and Sirius, the Dog Star, rising in the east, what better time to introduce you to the dogs at Rainbow's End?

There seems to be a misguided belief by those living in the city that dogs abandoned in a rural area have somehow been dropped off in doggy Eden. That they will be free to run and play and that generous country folk will take them in. I'd like to introduce those city folk to the coyotes, wild hogs and bobcats that hunt the countryside. Or to the wily prey that laugh at the dogs who have never been taught to survive. Or to the neighbors with shotguns out to protect their livestock.

Sure, there are kind-hearted folk to be found. People who will take in strays even though the number of animals they already have is straining the limits of their abilities and their budgets. The lucky ones find cramped quarters and a daily dollop of dry food. The unlucky ones are spotlighted on the news when the authorities raid their compounds.

Even I can't handle every animal that comes around. A few months ago I had to take a litter of beagle/bassett-mix pups one of my dad's caregivers found and brought to me to the county animal shelter. These seemingly sweet, adorable pups were actually little devils in disguise. Faced with five unexpected dogs, I plopped them in the only place I could -- the pen with Lucy and Rowdy, the two pygmy goats. The cute puppies immediately turned into a precision hunting machine, their clumsy puppy bodies transformed into something resembling the wild cats of the Serengeti Plains and their attack as coordinated as the Blue Angels' aerial maneuvers.

The goats, however, have attitude and horns, and the pups learned pretty quick not to mess with them. Still, things went downhill from there. Some of the pups dug under the fence and escaped into the pasture where they found some chickens to harrass. A couple wriggled through the gate into the backyard and attacked the ducks. It was a Keystone Cops moment chasing them all down. Had I been prepared for them and had proper fencing and facilities, it all might have ended differently. As it was, I had little choice but to either turn them loose farther down the road or take them to the shelter. I hoped their Houdini impersonation was what put them on the road in the first place and their family would turn up to claim them. Unfortunately, what could only be their mother turned up instead in the classifieds a couple of days later as a free dog needing a home.

Still, the occasional dumped stray does find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Three years ago, a 4-month-old brindle-and-white mix with a hint of pit bull and precociously cocky behavior wandered in off the road. He was skinny and hungry and I offered him a handout. Three years later he's still asking me for handouts. I named him Loki, after that trickster of a god.

It was clear from the outset this little dynamo had ambition. I already had four dogs and by rights the interloper should have been at the bottom of the pack. But he was an alpha male (though not an intact one for long) and he knew it. Three of the other dogs -- all betas by nature -- knew it, too, and they deferred to him. The fourth, though, was Bailey, an American Pointer mix, who had ruled as alpha queen for four years. Like Loki, Bailey always wanted to be top dog, but she'd had to wait a few years for the then-reigning king, a Doberman named Lance, to die before she could ascend the throne. And like Bailey, Prince Loki had to wait his turn as well. I'm still not convinced Bailey wasn't cleverly assassinated.

To me, Loki is the epitomy of a country dog. More than one person has told me he reminds them of Chance from The Incredible Journey. He's annoyingly full of energy and always ready to play, and too friendly for his own good -- he'd leave without a thought if someone opened a car door for him. He regularly goes off to visit an 8-year-old neighbor girl who absolutely adores him, goes fishing with another neighbor's family, and goes swimming in their pond. He gets along with the chickens and ducks and cats.  He plays tag with a neighbor's calves -- he chases them, they chase him, and they all know it's a game. He kisses the horses on their noses. He hangs inside during the heat of the day, and he sleeps on the bed with me.

But he's also quick to defend his extended family. Whether it's a rogue coyote hunting in the daylight or a neighbor's bull that's broken through the fence, if it comes on the property, Loki is after it. It never occurs to him that, tough as he thinks he is, he is, after all, only a 40-pound dog.

What I admire most about him is his boundless optimism. Each day means an opportunity for new friends, new fun and new adventures. His glass is never half full -- it's always full. Such a positive outlook exhausts me sometimes, but I never fail to be seduced by it. If I'm mad or sad at life, I have only to look at Loki to be reminded that there's joy just in living. That it isn't circumstance itself that defeats us, but how we respond to it. And that we should always hold to the hope that this time we may finally catch that squirrel that's been teasing us so mercilessly.

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