I had decided to get a dog because my husband mentioned he wanted a dog. Since he was on a business trip, I decided I would go visit the county pound. That visit resulted in me bringing home the best dog I’ve ever had. I can’t say I own him because it’s more like he owns me.
Sitting in a cage, nose on the cold floor, the dog in front of me was quite the contrast to the surrounding others who were yipping, barking, and craving attention. His sad brown eyes looked up at me, his tail thumped, and he licked his dry lips. Something about this particular dog drew me in.
Dull black coat. Nasty cut across the nose. No excitement. There was nothing about this dog to make him stand out among the two hundred others up for adoption at the Prince George’s County Animal Shelter—nothing except those tired, soulful eyes begging me to give him a chance. I marked him as a possibility on my piece of scrap paper and moved to the next row.
I found an adorable female black Labrador retriever puppy with the enthusiasm of a typical puppy. The attendant brought her out of her cage to the play room, and she jumped and licked and wagged her tail saying “take me home!” I looked at a tawny Chow Chow puppy resembling a living stuffed animal. I realized neither of these dogs would have trouble finding a home. In fact, they both had several applications in on them for their adoption already.
I thought I’d take another look at the lonely, sullen pup. His cage tag read: “Labrador mix, 1 year, stray – Capitol Heights, Md.” I noted the date of his pick-up: 14 days earlier. This wasn’t a no-kill shelter, meaning his days were numbered. He didn’t have a single application in on him. The attendant took us to the play room. The poor dog was so exhausted he laid down, a vast difference from the last puppy. I petted his head. He lifted it, sat up, and put his head in my lap. My decision was easy.
I’d had dogs most of my life, but never a lab; although I had always wanted one, due to their disposition. This new pup was black, scruffy, and seemed eager to please. He came willingly with me to my car and trembled the entire ride home, likely recalling where he ended up at the end of his last vehicle ride. When I stopped, he hesitated, but trusted, and came with me into our house. Once inside, he explored and sniffed, navigated the stairs, inspected the rooms, and plopped on a rug by the back door. He was home.
A visit to the vet confirmed he had kennel cough, treatable with medication and rest. This explained his listlessness. The vet guessed the puppy was closer to six months old than a year, but overall was in good shape. A good bath, grooming, medication, good food, and lots of love were the prescription he needed. Within weeks, I had a happy, healthy new member of the family. My husband was surprised by the new addition, but realized I had made a good choice. We named our dog Diego, after San Diego, California, where the two of us had met.
As Diego matured, his mix looked like he might have some Rottweiler or pit bull in him. If that was the case, I wanted to know. During our vet visit, I had read about dog DNA testing. I ordered the kit, swabbed his cheek, sent off the sample, and waited. It’s not like Diego would go anywhere no matter what he turned out to be, but I’m a curious person.
When we received the results, my husband said, “The card on Diego’s cage should have read laboratory mix instead of Labrador mix.”
Diego’s canine heritage revealed at least five breeds in his background. In the days of designer dogs, there couldn’t be a better mix. Loyal, protective, smart, handsome, silly, and fun. He talks like a miniature schnauzer, protects like an Akita, herds like a Border collie, struts like a Chow Chow, and loves like a Shih Tzu. We chuckled at the Shih Tzu, wondering how our 70-pound puppy had a toy breed in the mix. But it made sense. The Shih Tzu is also known as the little lion, and one of its characteristics is the expressive eyes. We had already nicknamed him Mufasa, from The Lion King, because of the way he rules his yard kingdom. And those eyes….
Diego showed me right away how easily he could be trained. Housebreaking was a snap. We purchased an underground fence system. And when the installer spent a few minutes showing how to train the dog on the system, even he remarked how trainable my puppy was. What I didn’t know at the time was the talent Diego would also have in training me.
My dad used to say, “You do something once with a dog, and it becomes a routine.”
Diego must have heard him. I run in local parks and decided one day to take Diego along with me. I didn’t normally do this for two reasons. First, we live on a few acres, with plenty of room for dog exercise without the limitations of a leash. Second, after getting Diego, we decided he needed company, so we now had three dogs. It seemed unfair to take one dog and not the others, but I can’t handle all three by myself. However, I thought, just this once, I’ll take him along for protection. The last time I’d run in this same park I’d had an uneasy encounter with visitors who were up to no good.
Diego was ecstatic. He got to go for a car ride with head out the window – clearly over the trembling of that first ride. He got to sniff marshes, go for a run, and have his own special time with his human mom. Since we communicate in our own way, I understood how grateful he was, and I was glad I had taken him. I believe he also enjoys what I call the “nanny-nanny-boo-boo” factor, which he displays upon return when our two girl dogs sniff and question where he was. Although I wouldn’t encourage such behavior in children, I do let Diego get away with it. After all, he is the senior dog.
Not that I could stop it if I wanted to.
And so Diego trained me that once I have my running clothes on, I cannot get in my car without him. In the morning, he follows me into the bedroom to see which attire I choose. If it’s work clothes, he takes his position on the porch, still watchful, but not anticipating his run. If I pull out Nike shorts, he turns in circles, speaks like a schnauzer, and hops like a small child, telling me he’s ready to go. I cannot get in my car without him.
Yes, Diego trained me just as easily as I had trained him. “My” run has now become “our” routine. And the other dogs? They get it. My husband and I take the three together about once a month. But the girl dogs seem to understand that if it’s only me, it’s only Diego. Diego has trained them, too.
My mom says dogs never forget who rescued them, and she should know, having rescued her fair share herself. Every day, while the other two dogs bound out of the house to go chase squirrels, hunt moles, or lay in the sun, my Diego stays behind to make sure I am protected. He maintains his station, turns his eyes up, thumps his tail, and licks his lips, as he did on our first meeting. I, in turn, scratch the top of his head and tell him how special he is. We both know how lucky we are that we found, and have, each other, no matter who is training who.
This story first appeared in “More Than Best Friends – An Anthology in Support of Guide Dogs for the Blind,” by Kevin Morris.