Leader of the Pack

“Walkin’ the dog. I’m just a-walkin’ your dog
Well if you don’t know how to do it. I’ll show you how to walk the dog”

–          “Walking the Dog,” Rufus Thomas

My friend Dan Watson was a man of patience. Over our twenty-year friendship, we became as close as brothers. As our friendship grew, I saw him through many changes. When we first met, Dan was a year into his third marriage, as was his wife, Dawn. They say the third time is the charm. In this case, it seemed to have been true. They had many ups and downs as do most couples. But they persevered, learned to deal with each other’s quirks, and gave each other the ultimate gifts a couple can share – love, respect and mutual support.

Originally, Dan was not a “dog” person. Before marrying Dawn, Dan was a single “man about town” and gave no thought to the responsibility of being a pet owner. Dawn, however, was an animal lover. She and her young son and daughter lovingly cared for three ferrets and two birds. Dogs had not yet arrived on the scene. Until the day Dawn adopted her first rescue dog.

While volunteering at a shelter, Dawn “found” Sami. Someone handed Sami to Dawn and said, “Here. Hold onto her.” And she did – permanently. Sami, a Shih-Tzu, was the first of the rescued dogs to reside in the Watson home.

At that point, Dan still wasn’t enamored of dogs, but he begrudgingly began accepting Sami as a member of his now growing family. When Dan told me he and Dawn were now dog owners, I was mildly interested. I had no idea – and neither did Dan – that that single rescue would eventually lead to the growth of the Watson Pack of Misfit Dogs.

Sami was very old and ill and didn’t live very long after becoming a Watson. After Sami passed, the next addition was Skippy, a little white canine fluff ball with two back legs that couldn’t support his weight. That never stopped Skippy from going anywhere. He was faster on his two good legs than the rest of the Watson pack were on four. I could see that Dan was becoming close with Skippy.

To me, that little white fluff ball became Skippy the Pinhead, a twist on the comic strip character Zippy the Pinhead. Needless to say, I was not on Skippy’s best friend list. According to Dan, Skippy thought of me as Uncle Takeaway – every time I showed up, I would take “his Dan” away for the evening.

Over the succeeding years, “Dude, we got another dog,” became an oft-repeated phrase. There was Oliver, a Gordon setter, who died after having surgery. Atah and Chucha, two Maltese-poodle mixes, were rescued from a breeder. Ozzie, a hairless Chinese-crested, was a terrible biter. I could personally attest to that – not once, but twice. Along came Balon, a big, nasty dog of some sort. He hated all men and was on a permanent time-out in his kennel whenever I visited. And then there was Odie. Dawn and Dan thought Odie was just a typical run-of-the-mill mutt. They were surprised to learn that he was, in reality, a half-coyote mix. During those years, there were always at least four or five dogs in the house.

Eventually, Dawn began working part-time as a dog trainer. She enjoyed working with dogs much more than working with people. She decided to take advantage of an opportunity that allowed her to open a school for training dogs and other dog trainers. A supportive Dan helped her establish her business. He worked closely with Dawn and supported her growing customer list as well as occasionally working in the shop.

Life took a dark turn around that time. Dan became ill. He developed a particularly virulent form of cancer that would eventually take his life. In the meantime, he became homebound and eventually bed-ridden. The dogs became his constant companions. He doted on them, and they in turn kept him great company. Though weakened by the ravages of his disease, Dan remained the Alpha male in the pack. If the dogs got too rowdy or out of control, a simple word from Dan instantly calmed the canine cacophony. Dan was still the boss.

As he became increasingly ill, Dan decided he wanted his “own” dog. The dogs that had come in over the years had been pretty much Dawn’s choices, not Dan’s. So when Dan announced he wanted a dog, it was a bit of a milestone. Enter Summer. For some reason – cancer drugs can really make you do strange things sometimes – Dan wanted to name her SummerFall WinterSpring after the princess on the old “Howdy Doody” TV show. She became Summer for short.

Summer was a thirteen-year-old Chinese-crested-Maltese mix picked up as a stray in New York. The group that rescued her believed Summer had been a breeding dog, turning out as many as twelve or fifteen litters during her life and then most likely abandoned by the breeder. She had no teeth, a tongue that constantly hung out the side of her mouth, and was extremely timid toward people.

I’m still not sure how Summer arrived in southern New Jersey from New York. But I do know that for Dan and Summer, it was love at first sight. Summer immediately took to Dan and became his constant companion. When the brood decided it was “cuddle with Dan” time, Summer always found a way to be closest to him as they all settled in for the evening.

Two months after Summer entered the scene, Dan passed away. He had been at home, in a hospital bed and under hospice care. Dawn had been sleeping in a chair near the bed. That Sunday morning, Dawn was woken up by the howling of first one, then the full complement of the Watson Pack. The first to begin the chorus was Summer. She knew she had just lost the closest human friend she had ever had.

It’s been a few years now since Dan passed. Summer still roams the Watson house and is considered Grandmom by the pack. A number of the brood have gone on to join Dan, and new names have been added to the Watson Rescue Hall of Fame: Bonnie, the beagle; Trixie, a terrier mix; and Cosmo, a hairless Chinese-crested/Chihuahua mix. Cosmo is so hyper that he’d start an earthquake if you attached his feet to the floor. There’s also Petey the Law Dog – another terrier mix; and a Great Dane that was eventually adopted by Dawn’s daughter, who named him Brodificent the Magnificent.

Somewhere, Dan is kicking back and watching football with Odie, Oliver, and Sami crowded around him. And Skippy, who is now very content knowing that Uncle Takeaway can’t take his Dan away from him anymore.

One thought on “Leader of the Pack

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s