Harley was grieving. Travis passed on Saturday morning and all weekend he seemed withdrawn. He was scheduled to visit the kids in juvenile detention that Monday and I nearly cancelled, but thought it might be a nice distraction for both of us.
I’m glad we went. I talked with the small group of teenage boys about love and loss and they shared their stories of pets past and present. They were gentle with Harley, offering him great compassion and love during that visit. It was exactly what he (we) needed.
That night after dinner he seemed more interested in engaging us. He seemed to have lost the weight that was dragging at his shoulders. Harley was playful and seemed to be experimenting with being an only child. Since he’d joined my pack, Harley had always had another animal in the house, first Kallie (the cat) and then Travis. He was alone now and not sure what to do about it. He decided that running though the house like his pants were on fire was a great place to start. After that didn’t get the results he expected, he tried tossing toys and demanding to sit on the couch between us. He wanted all the attention he’d been missing with other pets in the house. But I’m not convinced he wanted it because he wanted to be closer to us. Harley was bored. He’d never needed to entertain himself before and, frankly, he wasn’t very good at it.
From that point, we knew he was ready for another packmate. And so was Kathy. Oddly enough, I was the only one who wasn’t ready and I’d only spent 18 months with Travis. I wasn’t ready for a new dog. I was ready to sit with my loss, reminiscing about Travis’s soft fur, soulful eyes and uncanny wisdom. I was ready to rest after six long months of caring for a dying companion. I was ready to reconnect with Harley. I wasn’t ready to start again. But the choice was not only mine. Kathy had told me just a few days after we lost Travis that she was going to be ready sooner rather than later. Harley was showing signs of wanting canine companionship. And sooner came very soon.
There was more in this than just the loss of Travis. There were so many parallels
between Travis and my Dad that it was hard to ignore the sense that I was losing Dad all over again. Loss is complicated and moves at its own pace, with prickly thorns tearing at your emotions when you least expect it. The pack couldn’t – and shouldn’t – wait for me. We needed to move forward. And we did.
“So soon?!” I heard that more than once from clients and friends. I ignored it or passed along our justification for rescuing another dog so quickly after helping Travis pass. I bit my tongue each time, though, not wanting to expound on how personal the grieving process is. Losing Travis was difficult, but Kathy gave me terrific perspective: “There will always be a Travis-shaped hole in my heart, but another dog will walk through that hole.” That made perfect sense to me. We loved Travis, and always will, but there was another dog that needed our love and who was meant to enter and change our lives. A week after Travis passed, Kathy found her.
We were supposed to be meeting a hound named Houdini that morning at PetSmart. She sounded perfect. She was laid back, had an ornery grin and absolutely no desire to jump fences or dart out the door, despite her name. Perfect or not, she would have to pass the Harley test. This would be a family decision.
Harley’s assessment would carry significant weight. Although he’s a terrific therapy dog, he’s not as compassionate with other dogs. When we knew Travis would be joining Kathy on her journey to Tucson, we worked very hard to prepare each dog for the other. We exchanged clothes and rags each dog had slept on so the scents would be familiar when they finally met. The introduction had to go well. The challenge was for Harley. Travis had little interest in other dogs, a trait that made him an exceptional neutral dog in therapy dog testing scenarios. A slow introduction was out of the question — and there was no sending Travis back to Knoxville.
But this time was different. Harley would meet any dog we were considering adding to the pack before we made a decision.
We loaded up and headed for PetSmart to meet the folks from Arizona Desert Rotties and Friends and young Houdini. Excitedly, we made our way to the back of the store where the available dogs waited in kennels and on leashes with volunteers. Looking anxiously for the hound, we checked all the crates but no hound. When we asked about her, the volunteer told us she’d been adopted. We were disappointed, of course, but then she pointed us toward an underweight brown dog in one of the kennels and told us that this dog had all the things Harley was looking for in a packmate: neutral to shy personality, female, medium stature, younger and with energy, but not a puppy. In short: a little sister.
This dog was thin, ribs and hip bones showing plainly under her bristly, dirty coat. She was obviously overwhelmed with all the visual and auditory stimulation. Her eyes were huge and round and nearly the same color as her coat, a warm, baked cinnamon. Her ears seemed too short for her head, bouncing in the sides of her head like a little girl’s pigtails. The black skin on the bottom of her snout curved from just under her nose to well her under chin and gave her the appearance of having a Keen sandal for a bottom jaw. Her breed? Our best guess was Boxer-Rhodesian Ridgeback.
She came out of her kennel and walked with Kathy willingly but cautiously. Kathy walked slowly toward us with this little brown dog. I did my best to remain calm, loosening my grip on Harley’s leash and giving him plenty of slack. I needed an honest evaluation from him, not a reaction to my uncertainty.
As Kathy and the dog moved toward us, I waited for the posturing that never came. Instead, he was curious. He moved toward Kathy and the brown dog casually but with purpose. There was something about her scent that drew him closer. They sniffed each other, head to tail, circling easily and without intensity. After a brief evaluation, they turned their attention elsewhere. The entire exchange lasted about 30 seconds. I smiled. She would be a great match for him.
Kathy looked at me and said, “Her name is Girly.” Seriously? “Yeah, they thought that was more creative than Girl, the name she’d been surrendered with.” We talked with other volunteers and got two different versions of her story. Girl was either an owner-surrender in Santa Cruz County or a stray who was found with two very young pups. Either way, she didn’t know her name and was clearly confused by all the activity around her. We spent nearly two hours in the store with her before we decided she was the one. Did it matter that she was the only dog we’d seen so far? Not really. When you find a match on the first try, who’s to question? Harley had accepted her as a packmate almost immediately. We’d made it over the first—and most significant—hurdle.
The first order of business was a name for her. Girl would not do. We tossed around some options before Kathy turned to me and said “What about Helen Gurley Burke? You know, like Helen Gurley Brown?” (Burke is Kathy’s last name) I had to stop and think about that one. Not too many dogs named Helen….But since I’d worked in publishing for 15 years, the name meant something to me, too. Finally, Kathy said “Helen!” to the back of Girl’s head and she whipped around instantly. We have a winner! Helen it is.
And she is a winner. She’s already picked up where Travis left off as my muse. She’s teaching Kathy and me things we never would have considered, like how scary it is to cross the threshold from the foyer to the courtyard or what a new experience the sights and sounds of the television can be. She’s done some pretty amazing things for Harley, as well, like reintroducing the joy of toys and how biting hocks can be very effective during tussle time. You’ll hear more stories about Helen’s journey and her effect on the pack. It’s too fun not to share.
But for me, it’s especially touching to watch Harley as his role changes to big brother. He’s accepted the role graciously and is doing a terrific job so far. Good boy, buddy. Good boy.