Canine Companions

Otis - an Unexpected Gift

"Mother, I’m coming home!” my twenty-something daughter said through the phone line. For six years, I’d waited to hear those words. “Otis and I need to stay with you and Dad for a while,” she continued.

Otis—not Otis, the dog! Scenes of dog hair in the carpet and beef bones under the coffee table when we had visited Suzanne in California flashed before my eyes. Otis—a nervous white shadow to my daughter’s every move.

Three children had grown up and moved away. For several years, my husband and I had become accustomed to going out to eat on a whim and traveling on long weekends. We were comfortable with our orderly house. I could not visualize a dog living with us.

“Can’t you find a home for Otis?” I found my voice to ask.

“No, Mother, I can’t and I won’t give Otis away,” Suzanne answered.

A dial tone clicked the end of our conversation. My elation at my daughter returning home quickly turned to anxiety and complaints.

“What will we do with a big white lab that lives in the house?” I fumed to my husband.

We counted off days waiting for Suzanne—and Otis—to arrive. She and two friends drove a battered van pulling a yellow speedboat cross-country. Travel slowed even more when the dog became sick.

“I told you,” I said in answer to her phone call. “Otis should have been left behind.”

After a week on the highway, the van, a white monster perched on black wheels, roared into our driveway. Otis bounded from its side door and raced around the vehicle. We grabbed Suzanne with excited hugs, adding to his confusion in new surroundings.

Despite not having a fenced backyard, we determined to make him an “outside dog,” and he ran from door to window leaping and barking when we went inside the house. Any time a door opened, Otis nudged inside.

I shook my head in dismay. He was the same skittish dog I remembered. What will we do with him? I asked my husband. We chained him that night to prevent his wandering, then worried that his barks disturbed the neighbors.

The next morning, I unhooked his chain. He ran around the house looking in every doorway. But he didn’t venture from the yard. One plus, I surmised. Suzanne unloaded potted plants from the van and arranged them on a corner of the deck. Otis claimed that spot, sensing the plants were part of his former home.

The second day after their arrival, I started on my morning walk. Otis ran after me, so I snapped a leash on his collar and took him along to the high school track. As I counted laps, Otis romped on the football field with a newfound freedom. He is a beautiful dog, I thought.

Other walkers and some fast runners came on the track. A toddler trailed behind her jogging mother. At the sight of Otis, the tiny girl screamed, piercing the early morning air. I remembered that Otis panicked around children, but his sudden bolt from the field caught me by surprise.

I ran after him, dragging the leash and shouting his name. Like a white streak, he raced toward the street and down a hill out of sight. My heart pounded with visions of a white lump of fur lying in the busy intersection between the track and our home. He’s been with us only two days. He won’t know the way home, I reasoned. I dashed 12 blocks to find him in the driveway, wagging his tail. The dog is smart! I thought, breathing a sigh of relief. Maybe I didn’t get to know him before.

Days turned to weeks as our family adjusted from two people and no pets to three adults and Otis. The dog’s personality surfaced when he stood at the patio door, cocking his head as we interpreted his movements with lively narration. My resistance cracked as I recognized the bridge he made for communication.

In my school teacher jargon, I announced, “Otis is gifted!” Suzanne rolled her eyes, a reminder that I had wanted to give him away.

I held fast to my opinion that Otis should have stayed in California. But I began to see another side when I discovered my daughter and her dog crouched together under a storage shed during a fierce midnight storm. As rain pelted and lightning streaked the sky, Suzanne’s arms securely locked Otis close to her chest. I suddenly realized that she needed to cling to this dog during a stormy phase in her life.

Merging an adult child’s lifestyle into the parents’ home tries the patience of even the strongest families. But through difficult days, Otis wagged his bushy tail and licked our faces with impartial love. On mornings when everyone felt too grumpy to speak, we each made our way to his spot on the deck for a greeting. At bedtime, we gathered again, bidding him goodnight.

Each day when Suzanne and her dad left for work, Otis became my companion for brisk walks, always prancing at the end of the leash like a spirited stallion on parade. Neighbors gave me funny looks when they overheard my one-sided conversations with a dog. I wondered aloud if his perception of me as an extension of Suzanne prompted his growing attachment. My family insisted the bond between us had more to do with my hand-feeding his meals.

Whatever the reason, day by day, Otis inched into my heart and my house. Never mind the patio glass bore a design of nose prints and the back door had to be re-screened because he charged through when neighborhood children blasted firecrackers. I overlooked his toenail scratches on the painted deck as he made flying leaps up the steps to accept my treats. His antics, both delight and dilemma, created a common ground for family communication.

Along with boundless energy and a cunning personality, Otis brought his own quirks and needs that required time and attention. We welcomed his watchdog nature, but when he held standoffs with visitors, new worries arose. The thought we might have to give away the dog I had not wanted pushed me to find solutions.

We built a fence around his backyard domain. I hoped it would eliminate the possibility he’d nip the heels of company. For a few weeks, it worked. Then fall rains softened the earth, and Otis dug out under the gate. Every few days, we filled up holes and reinforced the fencing. As a last resort, my husband installed an electric wire around the enclosure. After one encounter, Otis respected the fence, and we never had to electrify it again.

However, cold winter winds brought frigid weather. We purchased a dog house, complete with heat lamp. But cold air and snow-covered ground offered challenges for a California dog. On snowy days, Otis joined us inside. Soon I relented to rainy days, and then to windy days. By summertime, I decided the heat was unbearable for a thick-coated dog. So Otis lounged inside whether outside temperatures rose or fell.

I smiled to myself. This furry white dog served as the common link in our family relationships. When love is difficult to communicate, patience and companionship often abides in one of God’s creatures. And from my narrow viewpoint, I almost missed this gift—a dog.

Run, Spot, Run

I was 61 years old. A widow. And I’d never had a dog I’d picked out and brought home just for myself. To be sure, there had been dogs in my life. As a child, I loved my cousin’s collie, Bing. (named for her favorite crooner, Bing Crosby.) My first love asked me to keep his dog, Lassie, when he went to work in another state. My young children paraded several dogs through our house. But no dog snuzzled a black nose straight into my heart until Otis, a white lab-shepherd mix my daughter brought home with her from California. On the second day, I revoked her custody.

Next, my son moved back into our home with a pit bull named Carmen. After the deaths of both my son and my husband, the sleek, brindled pet transferred her affections to me. As a single woman traveling in a motorhome, Carmen’s head bopping up from the passenger’s seat gave me a sense of security.

After Carmen died, I argued with myself for several months the pros and cons of owning another dog. My daughter told me about a co-worker’s pups, a litter from a stray mother and a father unknown. What would it hurt to look?

The friend trotted out a medium-sized white dog with a brown face and one black spot marking the base of a long, white furry tail that stood straight up. He wore no collar, having romped through the woods around their house for all of his nine months. The owner assured me he was housebroken. His chocolate brown eyes melted my heart.

With my daughter driving, I settled all 50 pounds of white and black spotted fur in my lap, and I brought Spot home. From freedom to chase rabbits into the woods and splash daily in the lake, Spot protested the confinement of a house by peeing on a chair leg and depositing a pile of poop in the living room. He strained against the new concept of a leash for his outdoor excursions.

The first time, I left him alone, I returned to shredded magazines, lamps askew, and chewed decorative fruit. Different from Carmen, who roamed the yard without venturing into the street, Spot lunged through any cracked door and raced over the neighborhood, his tail waving like a white flag. He did not comprehend the command, “Come.”

After the first week, I decided I could not cope with this furry four-footed white tornado. I went to bed, praying, “God, what would You have me do with this dog?” From a drowsy sleep, my mind suddenly leaped alert. I clearly sensed God’s answer: Keep the dog. I never again doubted that Spot and I were destined to be together.

That’s not to say, “…we lived happily ever after.” Spot still does not heed the “come” command. On the eve of my second marriage—and only minutes before a celebration dinner at a downtown restaurant, grandchildren opened the sun porch door and invited Spot outside to play. For an hour, members of my new family chased a white streak around the neighborhood in what Spot considered a grand game. Once we corralled the muddy, dirty mess, he had to be bathed and dried.

My patient new husband agreed to tolerate Spot in our lives, accepting the flurry of white dog hair with every hearty shake. Only a few weeks into our marriage, I overheard him say as he commanded him to jump in the backseat of the Jeep, “I guess you know I love you!”

Over nine years, we’ve adjusted to each other’s personalities. Lee still calls Spot a nuisance, a definite consideration when we want to take a day trip. But his heart, like mine, caught in his throat when our dog bolted from the motorhome on the shoulder of a busy Interstate where we had pulled over to strap down a flopping awning. We both watched as our dog leap-frogged back and forth across lanes of traffic. We’ve learned that Spot does not want to leave us; he will return. But that doesn’t erase the fact that he might not dodge a vehicle.

I once stood on the corner of a busy city in Mexico, believing I would never see my dog again when he sprinted across four lanes of speeding traffic. As he disappeared down a side street, visions of somebody whisking him into the back of a truck raced through my head. Yet, he returned to the compound where we had parked, and lay down to pant and watch us from a distance. With Spot, his runaway antics are a wait and see game. Eventually, the pop of a firecracker spurred him through the motorhome door and to safety.

At home, Spot gets into a large kennel when we go out. He has become so accustomed to this arrangement that he often goes to his kennel when he sees us dressing for church on Sunday mornings. One summer, we spent 12 weeks as support staff at a training camp for aspiring opera artists. Every morning, we left for breakfast in the dining hall. For some reason, Spot experienced separation anxiety when he saw us walk away together. One day, he ripped the screen from the motorhome door. My husband found me and said, “I don’t want him anymore!” I knew his anger was momentary—and he knew that I could not give up this dog. Yet, I was confounded about what to do.

I suggested that Spot needed the security of his kennel when we left in the mornings. Since we did not carry his solid, large box with us, I borrowed a wire one from a co-worker at the camp. The next morning, I put Spot in the cage, and when I returned to the motorhome, he greeted me at the door. He had clawed his way out of the wire contraption and totally destroyed the cage door.

We solved the temporary problem by putting Spot in the backseat of our Jeep and driving 200 feet to the dining hall, leaving him in the vehicle. He was content. After breakfast, I took him back to the motorhome, and all was well, at least for that day.

Stretched between our seats in the motorhome, this dog that once roamed freely on Arkansas hillsides has traveled from Mexico to Alaska and from the Pacific Ocean to Atlantic shores. He completes our family—and we wonder what we would do without him.

Run, Spot, Run—Forever Free
My 15-year-old Spot is free from his wobbly back legs, his limited hearing, and his dimming eyesight. I believe two messages from God stand as bookends to his life with me. No, God didn’t speak audibly to me. However, on two occasions I had sudden clarity about what I should do for this loyal animal entrusted to my care. 

A week after I brought Spot to live with me, I decided I could not cope with this furry four-footed white tornado. He was so different from Carmen, my son’s pit bull who became my dog when he died. Carmen never left the yard—despite the lack of a fence. She never bothered anything when I left her alone in the house. Why did I not realize that dogs are different—have different personalities? I had raised three children. I should have expected that dogs have minds of their own, just like kids. I went to bed, praying, “God, what would You have me do with this dog?” From a drowsy sleep, my mind suddenly leaped alert. I clearly sensed God’s answer: “Keep the dog.” I never again doubted that Spot and I were destined to be together.

That’s not to say, “…we lived happily ever after.” But over the years, we adjusted to each other’s personalities. Spot totally accepted a new set of grandchildren into our home when I married for a second time. He never snapped at one—not even when two-year-old Brandon led him around by his tail. He barked wildly each day when the mailman pushed envelopes through our mail slot. The mailman once asked me if he tore up the mail; he felt him grab it as it passed through the door. No, he never did. He simply thought someone was not supposed to be at our front door. The doorbell’s ring sent him into wild barking and leaping. Yet, at other times, he did not bark—never at a dog we passed when out for a walk.

Because of his separation anxiety, I bought a large solid-sided kennel. Spot climbed into it when we went out. He became so accustomed to this arrangement that he often retreated to his kennel when he saw us dressing for church on Sunday mornings. In his last years, I no longer closed and locked the gate. However, on sunny afternoons, he chose to nap inside his kennel. 

One winter, we spent a month at El Golfo, Mexico. The beach of the Sea of Cortez served as our backyard. One day, we drove our Jeep a long distance down the deserted beach. For the first time, we let Spot off his leash. I will always remember his frolic in the salt-water waves. He had not experience such freedom since he had been a pup born near the waters of Greers Ferry Lake in Arkansas.

In November 2014, Spot passed his 15th birthday. He became increasingly slower and more frail. He lost weight. He no longer heard the mail pass through the slot in the door. He did not bark at the doorbell. At times, I thought he suffered from dementia. His back legs slipped on the kitchen tile when he stood to eat. I bought a long doormat and placed it in the corner under his food and water bowls so his legs would have some traction. Yet, he had moments when he would forget he was an old man. He would run in the backyard and leap onto the deck with a loud thud. He often barked enthusiastically for special treats. Still I knew the day was growing closer when I would have to let him go. I asked God to tell me the right time.

The afternoon before I was scheduled for hand surgery, Spot’s legs buckled in the kitchen floor. He could not get up on his own. In an instant, I knew God was saying, “It’s time.”  And I knew it had to be done immediately before the veterinarian’s office closed for the day. We put Spot into the backseat of the Jeep and drove away. I sat with him, assuring him that all would be right. And it was. He slipped away peacefully and quickly. The veterinarian said it was time.

I know the vet was right, but there are empty spaces all over our house where he had beds and cushions. He followed me from room to room and fluffing up a particular pillow before he plopped down. I still hear the jingle of his tags and his footsteps across the dining room floor. When we return home and unlock the door, I miss him not being there, wagging his tail. But I believe he is safe, happy, and free to run without anyone calling him to “Come!” I believe that my other dogs, Otis and Carmen, were waiting for him—and together they wait for me to join them one day. In the meantime, run, Spot, run in your forever freedom.