About a year earlier, we'd lost our venerable old hound Arlo, and our other dog, an eccentric and wound-too-tight hound/border collie cross named Doolin, was clearly lonely. So we decided to start looking around for dogs at local SPCAs.
Pretty soon, Nathan and I saw one that we both thought was cute, up at the Seneca County SPCA, only about fifteen miles north of us.
We showed the photograph to Carol, who was at first less than sanguine.
"I don't know," she said. "He's kind of... funny looking."
Nathan and I insisted that he was cute, and that we go up and meet him. Although, upon consideration, we had to admit that she was right. He was kind of a funny-looking dog. Square, stubby muzzle, curly tail, coat like a German shepherd, ears that cocked at a goofy angle when he was interested in something.
Even so, we thought he was worth a visit. So about a half-hour later, we were in our car driving north, with Doolin riding shotgun. She, of course, had to get along with whatever dog we got, so she had to have first right of refusal, as it were.
The lady who was staffing the SPCA that day told us this dog's rather horrid backstory. He'd been badly abused, she said, ending with his owners moving away, leaving him tied to a tree, in an upstate New York November. Leaving him, in other words, either to starve or freeze, whichever came first. The neighbors heard him crying and rescued him, but they couldn't have a dog, so they brought him to the SPCA, where he lived for nine long months.
It's kind of understandable that no one took him home. He was really fearful of anything new, naturally distrustful, and had a serious issue with anyone getting between him and food. (A leftover, of course, from his being starved as a puppy.) But the lady brought him out, he went nose to nose with Doolin...
... and both of them started wagging. In fact, Doolin went into the doggy "play bow" -- something she almost never did.
So we were sold. Shortly thereafter, he was in our car heading home with us.
I decided to name him Grendel. I've always loved the tale of Beowulf, and feel a bit sorry for Grendel -- not quite human, not quite animal, sort of an unfortunate combination who doesn't fit in anywhere. Grendel the dog was a little like a dozen or so breeds put in a blender, so it seemed appropriate.
Grendel on his first day in his forever home
He was kind of skittish at first, but it was amazing how quickly he responded to love and a warm, comfortable home. He'd obviously never seen stairs before -- the door into our fenced back yard opens off the basement, so he had to go downstairs to go outside. The first time, he looked terrified, and simply stared down the staircase, frozen to the spot, and barked. I clipped on his leash, and dragged him down the stairs -- once. He got to the bottom, and sort of went, "Oh. That was easier than I thought." And never had a problem with the stairs again.
It wasn't long before he had stolen our hearts. Carol's comment: "I swear, this dog keeps getting cuter every day." His favorite thing was playing with his rope toy:
Tugging on the end of that toy, he made noises that were terrifyingly fierce. The closest approximation I can come to is that they sounded like the snarling of the Tasmanian Devil on Looney Tunes. One time we had some friends over, and they were in the kitchen talking to Carol, and I picked up Gren's rope toy. Seconds later, our friends came running into the room, because it sounded like Gren was tearing my face off.
It was all show, of course. His personality gave him the nickname "Mr. Cupcake," one of dozens of names he ended up with. He was totally attached to Carol and me, and when we were home, all he wanted was to be near us.
One thing that surprised us was his ability to climb chain-link fences. You'd never guess he was that agile, to look at him; he was -- and I say this with all affection -- the same basic shape and size as a fireplug. But he got quite adept at scaling the fence and getting out, one time doing so an hour before the one and only tornado warning I've ever experienced in my 25 years in upstate New York. The storm came roaring through -- no tornadoes near us, fortunately -- but Grendel evidently spooked and took off. He'd escaped before, and always came back, usually covered with mud and very pleased with himself, but night came -- and no Grendel.
We searched the neighborhood. Nothing. We put up signs, went from door to door down our road. (One kid looked at the photograph we had of him and said, "Oh, what a pretty dog!" Carol and I looked at each other and said, "Um... not really.")
Three days went by, and we got a call from the SPCA in Watkins Glen, twenty miles down the road. Grendel had been found in Burdett, a little village about ten miles away...
... after he climbed in someone's open car window at a mini-mart, and when the car's owner came out, he barked at them and wouldn't let them into their car. They called Animal Control, who came down and lassoed him, and then looked through reports of missing dogs. The guy who called us said, "Well, we have this dog, and we're pretty sure there couldn't be two dogs of this description, so we think he's yours."
So we went down and bailed him out. I've never seen a dog so excited to be back home.
The years went by, and he slowed down some -- stopped climbing fences, spent more time snoozing on the couch, started getting a little gray around the muzzle. Still kept being the huge presence in our lives, a funny-looking dog with an outsize personality (and who, I swear, did continue to get cuter and cuter). Our routine revolved around him -- get up in the morning, let him out, put the coffee on, let him back in, let him into the bedroom so he could climb on the bed for snuggles, and so on. But he always gave us far more than he took from us. He still wanted little more than a warm bed, a bowl of dog chow, and cuddles.
Then, about two weeks ago, he stopped eating. He'd always had a bit of a sensitive stomach, so we thought maybe it was the food. We tried tempting him with canned food, then with cooked chicken and hot dogs. At first he ate a little, then he pretty much gave up completely. We brought him to the vet -- always a last resort with us, as the final remnant of the abuse he'd experienced as a puppy was a fear of being restrained.
An ultrasound, blood work, and urinalysis confirmed that he was in the middle of complete kidney failure.
The decision was clear, but it is still one of the hardest things I've ever done, to make that final call to the vet. They were wonderful, kind, and understanding of the heartbreak we were experiencing. I held him as he drifted off to sleep one last time, and we both wept as we said goodbye to the best dog I've ever had.
The house sure seems empty without him. It's amazing how big a spot they hold in our lives. Our redbone/bluetick coonhound mix, Lena, has been at a loss, wondering where her friend went. We feel the same way. I keep expecting to look over at the couch and see his earnest and rather silly face looking at me in perplexity, wondering why I'm not petting him.
That's the thing about pet ownership; the great likelihood is that you'll eventually have to face losing your friend. It's still worth it, all of it. I'll never regret rescuing him from the SPCA and helping him work through the fear and trauma he'd experienced, and watching him grow into the sweet, affectionate little guy that was always inside him, and just needed a kind voice and a welcoming home to let out into the open.
But it still hurts like hell. It's inevitable that it would. I'll be grieving the loss of my little buddy for a long time. Right now, I need to wind this up, because I can't see the computer screen any more.