He was, perhaps, the ugliest puppy I had ever seen. A shepherd mix of some sort, about three months old and probably 35 pounds, with a large black mask, a long curly tail, and the most enormous ears I'd ever seen. He looked very much like a baby donkey.
It was early September 1998, and I was living with my best friend Chris in the Alexandria house she shared with her partner, who worked in Maryland next to a shop that rented moving trucks and supplies. One day she called to say that there was a puppy at the shop next door that the man there had found but couldn't keep. He had been following a pickup truck down Central Avenue one night when he saw something tossed out of the window, so he pulled over on his motorcycle and picked up the object ... a small puppy ... and put it in his backpack. Naturally, Chris and I drove up to fetch the puppy, who we found tied to a chain link fence in the blazing sun, curled up in a ball and looking at us as if to apologize for offending us in any way. I fell completely in love with him. On our way back to Alexandria, Chris looked at him in her rear-view mirror and said "It's just a shame he's so ugly."
Chris had a shepherd/chow mix named Yukon, whom she had rescued as a three day-old pup that was born in the big ice storm of 1994. The puppy found Yukon intimidating at first, although not nearly as terrifying as our four cats, and it wasn't long before he was following her everywhere. The name "Jack" sprang to mind, and it suited my new dog rather well, not only because it sounded great when we called both dogs inside ("Yukon! Jack!") but also because early on, he had a terrible fondness for jumping on people. Jack was a quick study in all things, and was particularly clever when it came to negotiating the baby gates we had erected to confine him in the kitchen during his housebreaking period. It became clear at the end of each work day that "someone" had been having something of a free-for-all in the house, although sweet darling Jack was always right there in the kitchen where we had left him in the morning. I installed a second baby gate for a double-decker barrier, but was greeted each afternoon with a similar scene. I decided to set up my video camera on the dining room table and point it at the baby gate to see what was happening.
The very first day, I watched with fascination (and I confess a little bit of pride) as my dog waited for the last person leave the house, listened for the car to drive away, and then immediately sailed over the two-story baby gate as if it wasn't there. I'm not sure where he went, as he was off camera right up until the first person arrived back home and shut their car door, whereby he gracefully sailed back over the gate into the kitchen,and immediately laid on his dog bed, looking very much like he'd always been there. That's my boy!
Jack's physically awkward phase lasted a good eight years, and I kept wondering if he would ever fill out and grow into those enormous ears. Suddenly, he was incredibly handsome, and people who met him for the first time always used that adjective to describe him. They still do. I've decided he knows exactly what it means, for he always looks at new people who make that declaration as if to say "Well, duh." Over the years he has been something of a superstar, freakishly well-mannered and inexplicably wonderful with children. Jack is a tall dog, 26" from shoulder to floor, and quite intimidating in size to people who don't know him. When he met my friend's two kids for the first time, ages six and 10, I was concerned that he might be too rough with them, as he had never been formally introduced to any children and he took great delight in tackling me with his 90 pounds of fun whenever we played together. As I released him from my vehicle, the kids squealed with delight some 30 yards away, and my well-behaved dog broke his waiting stance before I could get a leash on him. I watched in horror as he streaked across the yard to see them, expecting them to be flattened in the grass. Instead, Jack slammed on the brakes about three feet away from them and sat down, calmly waiting for them to begin the adoration. They thought he was the coolest dog alive.
Jack has always surprised and delighted me, and every time I see a sticker that asks "who rescued whom?" I can't help but think about my big handsome boy. Over the last few months, Jack has started having some trouble jumping up into my vehicle, and has started getting up a little more slowly. I decided to call the Northern Virginia Mobile Vet, Dr. Cryan, to come see Jack rather than put him through the ordeal of traveling. The doctor was amazed by Jack's overall condition and, like so many others, couldn't believe he was sneaking up on 14 years of age. Jack's got some arthritis in his hips, a spot of cataracts on his eyes, and he listens really well but doesn't hear quite as much...
I think the phrase "dog owner" is inaccurate. To call a dog one's "pet" is a disservice to the dog. Jack has been a remarkable friend, and I find myself ensuring he has the best of everything almost without thinking, although I spend hours researching. Best mobile vet? Dr. Cryan, no contest. Best pet sitting/dog walking service? Sierra Stroll Pet Care, bar none. Jack has been such an incredible joy in my life, and I can't imagine how many tranquilizers I will require when the time comes for him to leave me.
If you are fortunate enough to be spending your life with a dog, you know exactly what I mean. And good for both of you.