Shadow, the Curly-Skinned Dog

 

He was a ton of trouble, but he was never more trouble than he was worth.

 

Seventeen years ago I answered a newspaper ad for free puppies. It was a cold December night. The advertiser was a substantial woman in a second-floor apartment. The puppies bestrew the room and the woman never lifted from the couch.

 

I spotted a pup dragging a helpless sibling across the rug and I said, "I'll take those two." They were the size of grapefruits and about the same shape.

 

And so the pups who would soon be known as Shadow and Broccoli began their journey with us. They became Christmas day gifts in our log house after canceling a week of sleep at a friend's apartment.

 

For Broccoli it was a brief journey. She was killed by a car during a Shadow-engineered jailbreak that summer, but not before leaving us with the memory of a most sweet, serene and peculiar looking creature. It was as though God was interrupted a couple of times while making her and forgot what kind of dog He was working on.

 

When Shadow returned alone that evening, my daughter Suzy and I went out in search of Broccoli. We found her a half mile away beside Brambleton Avenue. A neighbor told us she and Shadow were crossing the road when the car came.

 

It was certainly not their first jailbreak. That occurred during an ice storm a week after they came to the log house. I opened the door to move a shovel on the porch and turned to spot two furballs sliding down the hillside. My memory of this is vivid, as I soon followed in bathrobe and boxers, legs skyward.

 

Countless escapes followed. There were acres of thick hilly woods behind the log house. It was, and still is, a game preserve. Shadow's mission in life was to ensure that no critter there went unannounced, especially between the hours of midnight and 3 a.m.

 

Epilipsy

 

Shadow's first seizure occurred when he was a year old. Our first encounter with epilepsy was frightening, but we soon adjusted. He had a seizure about every 90 days and we grew to recognize the odd thud that signaled he had dropped to the floor, helpless. There was nothing to do but pet him until the moment passed.

 

Arrested!

 

Shadow's first arrest came when he was 6 months old. He had been taken prisoner by a neighbor who claimed Shadow impregnated his dog. The neighbor – an eccentric and thoroughly unpleasant man who I once witnessed cutting a car in two using an electric saw – brought in the Roanoke City authorities. A court date followed. We were acquitted when we produced our papers from the vet.

 

Many more incarcerations followed, but these were at the hands of the staff at the Salem pound, a much more forgiving crowd. We had moved to The World's Smallest Five Bedroom House on Lee Hi Road, and now Shadow had a new partner in crime -- Stella the black lab.

 

It's fair to say that Stella would never have entered criminal activity had it not been for her entanglement with Shadow. She was the most genial of animals – with the exception of those times she was in the company of the neighbor's Jack Russell Terrier – and not by nature a sinner.

 

Shadow could, and did, coax her into anything. First, though, he taught her the art of escape.

 

Nothing could hold him. When we put in an electric fence, he would hurtle to the edge of the yard and leap high, taking the convulsing shock in the air. When we put him in a chain link fence, he would batter the gate open, ramming it with his shoulders at full speed. When we double locked the gate, he jumped over the fence. When we put extensions on the fence, he jumped those. When we put extensions on the extensions, he climbed the chain link like a cat.

 

All escapes were for the same purpose – to race the half mile to a creek and follow it west. The creek was a dog funhouse. First there were the kennels for the vet. Then there were the kennels and rink for a dog trainer. Finally, there was the Salem pound. All three venues provided something priceless to a dog – other dogs to disturb. That and holes to dive in, critters to pursue and Urgent Dog News to sniff.

 

Failing arrest, it was usually an all-day excursion that began and ended with a pass through the tall grass of a nearby meadow.

 

And so Stella was led into a life of crime. Shadow would clear the fence and stand on the other side with a look that said "Well, what are you going to do?" Stella would hesitate and stamp and paw, but unfailingly joined in. It was a bittersweet moment to watch them career away, free and beautiful for it, but headed in harm's way.

 

They would return spent and happy and sporting a spectacular nose-to-tail coating of hard red mud that encased a layer of burrs from the pasture. Stella you could hose off, but Shadow's thick matted hair was a half day's work.

 

He often returned mincing along in hilarious tiny steps. The hair on his belly was so matted with burrs that he couldn't move his legs. Once he came home dragging a twenty foot stick, a limb from a tree actually, leaves and all, that was ensnared in his fur.

 

The truants were banished to the cold concrete of the basement upon return. Stella would go straight there without bidding, head lowered in shame. Shadow never understood what the fuss was about and felt himself abused by the punishment.

 

Shadow operated alone at night. He would tree a possum and the ceaseless broadcast would begin -- yelp (one thousand) yelp (one thousand) yelp (one thousand) – until he was collared. This wasn't easy, as he had learned in the woods behind the log house to flee a flashlight.

 

Otherwise, the two dogs were inseparable. When they weren't on a crime spree, they played a dog version of hide and seek around a large tree behind our house. It was a joy to behold.

 

A Full House

 

By now, we also had two cats. Guests who overnighted with us were often awakened to find all four trying to get in bed with them. Twice the house was overrun with kittens, which was indeed a population bomb at the World's Smallest Five Bedroom House..

 

The day finally came when Stella could not match Shadow's unbounded energy. My wife watched as Shadow looped in and out the dog door, beseeching Stella to come out. She stayed on her dog bed.

 

And so the wild excursions turned into nightly walks with us, walks that grew slower until Stella couldn't go at all. The two spent their days in my studio and their nights in our kitchen. There was plenty of snoring, but all awakened for Dogtails at five.

 

It wasn't until Stella died that we discovered that Shadow was deaf. He had been using her as a Seeing Ear dog for how long we never knew.

 

Shadow always walked a little sideways, like a car with a bent frame. As the years took their toll, the odd gait exaggerated and he began to stumble as his rear legs gave way. He was finally bed-ridden.

 

The memories will always be with us. Shadow in a nest of blankets on the living room floor, unabashed in rhinestone collar and Lilly scarf. Stella toasting cats on both sides as she slept. All in the car, noses to the glass.

 

I know that people imbue their dogs with human traits, but it was hard to observe Shadow, alone in his twilight years at his sentry post on the front porch, and not think for a moment that he was watching for Stella to come around the corner.

 

They're together now. We buried him beside her Tuesday.

 

All they really ever wanted was to be with us.

 

-- Steve Stinson, Thanksgiving, 2010