We got a new dog last Tuesday. Not that any dog could ever replace our beloved Basset Hound Woody, who died last month, but we all were wishing we had a dog to complete our little family. We were thinking of a medium-size dog, such as a pug or a bulldog or a beagle or a small hound dog of some kind. Something big enough to scare away burglars with its bark, but small enough for the kids to handle.
Two weeks ago my husband went to the county animal shelter and there, in a small hot cage in the middle of the Arizona desert, was a St. Bernard. My husband has always loved St. Bernards, but has never wanted to get one here in the hot hot desert. We have both always felt it is a little bit cruel to bring such a big, furry, adapted-for-the-snow dog to the desert-climate Phoenix metropolitan area. It's just too hot. But there he was. Here, in Arizona, apparently abandoned. And if not claimed or adopted, doomed to die at the shelter. As my husband said, the only thing worse for a St. Bernard than living in Arizona would be dying in the gas chamber at the animal shelter in Arizona, for a crime you never committed.
He had been found - a stray - rather than brought in, so they didn't know exactly how old he is. They guessed he was "about 4." And there he sat, panting. Hot, matted, dirty, looking sad... and still beautiful. My husband said he had sweet eyes.
My husband looked at some other dogs, too, and was particularly interested in a cute little pug with bright eyes and a sweet disposition. It had been brought in by owners who could no longer keep it, so they knew that it was good with kids and other pets, house-trained, and up-to-date on its shots. The pug was the rational choice. The St. Bernard tugged at my husband's heart.
So one week ago - last Tuesday, the first day my husband's two favorite dogs were available for adoption - my husband returned to the shelter with our daughter to see how each dog would react to a child. The pug already had been adopted. The other dogs my husband had been mildly interested in had already been adopted or had a "lottery" going to see who would get them. No one else was even looking at the St. Bernard - just my husband and daughter. The staff said no one else had expressed interest all week.
The workers brought him out to the "yard" so my husband and daughter could look at him, pet him, evaluate whether to bring him home. He was a mess. His tail was dirty and matted and so heavy that it dragged the ground. The matted clumps attached his tail to his butt and hind legs so he couldn't even wag his tail. His fur was so dirty and stringy that he looked like Chewbacca from Star Wars. He was beyond "been at the shelter for a week" messy and into the "been neglected for weeks or months" range of messy. He felt a little thin beneath the thick, matted fur.
And yet his eyes were kind and sweet, and he smiled at my husband and daughter. He was gentle and friendly with my husband, my daughter, other people, and the other dogs in the yard.
So my husband adopted him. And brought him home and spent the next 4 hours giving him a bath and brushing the worst of the knots and matted clumps away. (We're still working on a couple of particularly stubborn clumps). Our new dog didn't seem to like the water but tolerated the bath, and genuinely seemed to enjoy the brushing. He alternated between patiently standing, sitting, and lying down, and seemed to smile the whole time he was being brushed. It turns out he has typical St. Bernard coloring - white with brown spots - and he no longer looks like Chewbacca. And his fur is so soft! And now that he is able, he wags his tail every time we pat his head, which happens often....
And oh, what a sweetie he is! We took him for a walk to our favorite pizza place. He trotted happily along, as dogs do, sniffing and peeing here and there. He greeted everyone we passed with a smile and a wag. People would ask if they could pet him and we would warn them, "We just got him so we can't guarantee he won't bite, but he seems friendly so far, so if you want to take the chance, you can pet him." Invariably, they would. And invariably, he was sweet and gentle and kind and happy for the attention.
We passed the dog park. Other dogs barked and ran next to him on the other side of the fence. He looked at them, wagged his tail, and walked on. No growling, no barking, no pulling on the leash (good thing - I think he weighs almost as much as me!).
Fire engines drove by, sirens blaring. He looked around, watched with interest, but did not seem overly concerned.
Bicyclists rode by. He watched and wagged his tail, but did not bark or chase them.
Of course we will be cautious over the coming weeks and months. It takes time to trust a dog not to "snap." Especially one that is as tall as your dining room table and nearly three times as heavy as your six year old. But he is off to a good start. He seems kind and gentle and unflappable. He seems to love sleeping on our cool tile floor in the air-conditioned house. He hasn't tried to pee in the house, but instead gets up and walks to the door when the need arises, and pees nicely on the bushes in the back yard. He was obviously well-trained by someone, probably well-loved at one time. But he is also a little head-shy, as if someone, at some time, may have smacked his head with their hands.
My kids cried the night we got him, and again last night, about missing Woody, their beloved and faithful friend. There were big sad tears and declarations that they will always love him best and never forget him. No dog will ever replace him in our hearts.
But they have also smiled frequently this past week, and they seem genuinely happy to have a big, soft, sweet teddy-bear of a dog to love and pet and care for.
After much debate, we named him "Sparky," after the ASU mascot.
Then we watched the movie Beethoven, which is about a huge St. Bernard and his little terrier friend (I've been advised it was a Jack Russell Terrier, but I'm not an expert, so I could be wrong). Turns out the little terrier friend in the movie is named "Sparky." So we've accidentally and rather ironically named our huge St. Bernard after the tiny terrier in the same movie. (It's ok by me. I've always been a fan of ironic pet names. I once named my tiny tiger-striped kitten "Spot," for example.)
Welcome to our family, big sweet furry dog, welcome to our family!