The first time I saw him it was nearly dusk. He was tied to a house pier at the far corner of the yard. He was sobbing.
I remember, it broke my heart.
I didn't know him, didn't expect to see him and even though my girls begged to pet him, I didn't let them. Maybe he was tied up for a reason. Maybe he was dangerous.
Ha. That's a good one.
Over dinner with friends, Mr. and Mrs. Tenderheart, we got to know his story: 100% black lab, a great beauty with good breeding. An amazing jumper and swimmer, he'd make a great splash dog if anyone would let him try. He started his career as a field trial dog and then was sold to a duck hunter who didn't like hunting but loved the accessories: expensive club membership, expensive guns, expensive dog. The Faux Huntsman didn't really like dogs. He had a 400 acre ranch on which he never let Gringo run. When he wasn't working the field as a gun dog, Gringo spent his days in a concrete, chain link kennel. At only three years old his teeth were worn from chewing the metal fence (please let me out) and his elbows were rough from sleeping on concrete. All he wanted was to be loved - and to be useful.
A few days before Gringo got tied to the house, he'd had a run-in with the Faux Huntsman. Although Gringo understood dozens of commands to search for and retrieve fallen ducks, the Faux Huntsman couldn't or wouldn't use them. He fitted Gringo with a shock collar, which, while not unusual, is usually reserved as a safety measure. If your dog is determined to retrieve a wounded bird that flew onto public lands, or the wrong private lands, there are people who might shoot him for trespassing. They are within their rights to do so because, in addition to the trespass, he might be dangerous. It's important to have a way to contact your dog to call him back when he's working, mind on his mission, and about to get into trouble.
Most hunters use the shock collar buzzer a couple of times a season. Not the Faux Huntsman, he had one finger on the gun trigger and the other on the buzzer. Come back. Buzz. Go left. Zap. Go right. Ouch! You get the picture. And if that collar was around your neck you'd probably get a little tired of it electrocuting you every few minutes. Gringo certainly did. On the fateful day of the run-in he refused to come back to his "master." Mr. Tenderheart was there to witness Gringo standing his ground, glaring at the Faux Huntsman from across the field, setting off a human/canine standoff.
Hell-bent on winning a pissing contest with a dog, the Faux Huntsman said to Mr. Tenderheart "I'm going tarpon fishing, while I'm gone I want you to dispose of the dog."
Dispose of the dog.
Mr. Tenderheart said "I'm not going to shoot your dog, but he can stay here while you're gone because clearly you need a break from each other."
That is how Gringo got tied to the pier. And while it was better than being shot, he was not free, his fate was still in limbo. He sat there at the foot of the house, crying of loneliness and waiting for his miserable master to come back from his tropical timeout.
Two days later we went to the Tenderhearts for dinner. In theory it was a simple dinner with friends but as soon as we heard Gringo's story we had to meet him, the stubborn boy who refused to come back even when faced with electrocution. Mrs. Tenderheart untied him from the pier, brought him upstairs and introduced us. Gringo was black and brown with mud and he couldn't stop wagging his tail. It was his first time in a house. (Akin to a bull in a china shop.) He hit everyone with his strong tail even as he was also kissing us. Hello! Hello! Hello! You smell nice! What's this? A house? What's a house? Who are you? Can I come with you?
I fell in love at first sight. Like I'd lost something important and just found it again. I needed to save him. I needed him to save me. We're dog people.
I didn't care about the person who thought he owned him, I knew Gringo was mine. I felt compelled, I needed to bring him home with me, tonight if possible. The girls (aged three and eight) were equally in love with this muddy ball of infectious joy. We volunteered to kidnap him on the spot.
Xav was faced with a conundrum. Gringo really did belong to someone. An asshole to be sure, and a Faux Huntsman to boot, but a very, very rich someone. We couldn't just snatch Gringo. Besides, Xav was not ready for a new dog. He still missed our girl lab who'd died two years before.
Sadly, with dragging feet and lots of whining (and not just from me), we left Gringo with the Tenderhearts, to be returned to the house pier. We went home. The girls were sniffling "why can't we just take him?" I looked at my husband "why can't we just take him?"
The next day, and every day afterward, I told my husband to "go get my dog." And every day he replied that Gringo was not our dog. Unbeknownst to me, he secretly called Mr. Tenderheart to see if some kind of hostage release could be arranged. Would he please talk to the Faux Huntsman and see what could be done? "There is a family with little girls that wants Gringo. A very nice family who loves him. Will you let him go?"
Huh. I guess. Okay.
The day Gringo arrived home was full of joy. We couldn't stop petting and cuddling and laughing and rolling around with him on the floor. Yes, there were a few hiccups. He would lean against us so hard we would literally topple over - especially the girls. He aspired to be a lap dog despite his 75 pounds. Having never lived in a house it took him a few days to learn that dogs pee outside and sleep inside. That big bowl of water? Try to drink out of it without creating a lake in the kitchen (he never learned). That giant fluffy pillow? That's yours, sleep on it. The rope toy? Yours too. The lambswool bone (now called "wubby") that you have to keep in your mouth 24/7? That is definitely yours.
Gringo was incapable of greeting anyone without something in his mouth. A rope toy, the wubby, a large cow bone, it didn't matter. If he didn't already have something in his mouth when you walked in the door he couldn't properly greet you until he did. Some unfortunate days he would greet us with the oversized cow bone in his mouth, inflicting bruises on our knees, and we accepted that we only had ourselves to blame. We spoiled him a little. With giant marrow-filled cow bones, cooked specially for him.
In the 10+ years he was with us he never bit anyone in anger and he never fought with other dogs. On a few occasions little dogs (and it was always little dogs) would try to nip his face or to dominate him; he would simply take his big paw and roll them onto the ground with a growl that sounded a little like "Are you kidding? Stop that."
The only behavioral problems he had stemmed from his years at the Faux Huntsman's ranch. Now that he had a home and a family to love he couldn't bear the thought of being without my husband. What if he left and never came back? Whenever he saw Xav pack a suitcase he would fret and pant with anxiety. We never left him alone for more than a few hours - he went with us everywhere. If you didn't like, or couldn't be around dogs, we would find a way. Leaving him was not an option.
This past year has been a tough one. Old age can be awful and his last year was spent going to vets and specialists, with him sleeping all day and pacing all night. We were sleep deprived in a way we hadn't been since the girls were babies. He had ultrasounds, blood tests, spinal taps, blood tests, MRIs and more blood tests. He lost weight even though I overfed him. We couldn't figure out what was wrong with him, aside from the fact that he was 98 dog-years old (not a good enough reason). I was his mother, his doctor and his pharmacist, juggling medications like tramadol, valium, quellin and gabapentin. I changed his food and gave him supplements. I never stopped trying to make him well, until the very end, when he was struck with vestibular disease and we finally discovered cancer.
I can't tell you about his passing, it's too soon, I'm too sad. But he died with his head in my lap. Peacefully. Knowing that he was loved.
He is loved.