Tuesday, March 01, 2016

A Dog Named Fletcher

I first met him when I was a 16 year old summer camp counselor with newly-dyed leopard print hair. I walked past the dog cages several times per day, as this particular SPCA summer camp was held in the small yard behind the shelter. On Wednesday, midway through the camp, I walked past the rows of kennels, as I had numerous times before, and something made me stop at the second to last cage. There was a large, red, female dog who looked to be a Pit Bull/Ridgeback cross, and her kennel mate was a scrawny, young, forty pound, tan and white bully breed cross. I paused for a moment, stuck my hand through the bars and petted them both.

I’d been looking for a second dog for a while, and had been waiting to feel that “connection”, the one that helps you differentiate between dogs you like or would like to help, and the one who is actually meant to be yours. This tan and white dog fit my specs. I tried out a few of my potential names on him, one of which was “Fletcher”, and asked him if he’d like to come home with me. For some reason, the tan and white dog was missing a kennel card, so I had no further info on him, aside from a gut feeling. I went home and told my mum about him, and arranged for her to pick me up from work the following day, so she could see for herself. When she arrived, we went into the shelter’s office to learn more about him. The staff told us that “Spud”, as they called him, was about 7 months old, and had been picked up as a stray in May. This was the last week of July. I hated the thought of a puppy having spent most of his life in a shelter, spending close to 24/7 in a kennel run.

The staff liked him, but he’d had no interest, and they were overcrowded with 2-3 dogs in every run. I can’t comment on shelter-specific policies, but times were bleak in 1999, already much improved since my intro to the shelter world at the tender age of 11, but nowhere near what we have achieved now. At my first day camp in 1994, at a shelter that didn’t euthanize “healthy, adoptable dogs”, it was revealed that there was a euthanized Pit Bull in the freezer, unadoptable by default. Local shelters had only recently started to adopt out Pit Bulls and mixes, at first only those with known backgrounds, but later extended to strays. It was a slow process, and huge barriers to adoption still exist today, but at least they were being given a chance. This shelter was just ahead of the trend. I could see the hope in the staff members’ eyes, and their unspoken words: adopt this dog, because chances are, no one else will.

My mum agreed to pick me up the following day, and to bring my younger brothers to meet him. At the end of the day, they arrived, excited to meet their potential new dog. We took the tan and white pup out to one of the fenced yards and he instantly took to our other dog. My brothers were 13, so in order to kid-test him, my friend and co-worker, Nina, brought her two boys, who were about 3 and 5 at the time, out to the yard. Nina ruffled the curly fur on his back end, said he might have a bit of retriever and that she liked him. My mum later said that it was Nina’s assessment that reassured her about adopting him.

We took him home. He peed in the van just as we reached the house and the very first thing he did when let loose in the yard was pull the handle off a plastic ice cream bucket (and would do, from there on out, whenever he came across one). I announced that his name was Fletcher.

Fletcher settled in relatively easily, considering his circumstances. I was at least an experienced dog person, but he proved to be too much dog for me. The learning curve was vertical. He housebroke himself, but I couldn’t keep him from wanting to kill my sister’s cat, so we essentially crated and rotated (before I knew that was a term). He wouldn’t listen to me at obedience classes, an old school, walk around in a circle, leash-pop style, but at least we had moved on to martingales from choke chains. The instructor wanted me to do a modified hanging technique to get him to sit when asked (he was the only dog in the class who wouldn’t do so willingly). Not only did it feel wrong when I tried it, it didn’t work. I switched tactics; Fletcher had learned to sit for treats by watching my other dog, so I started having him sit before I fed him or put on his leash for a walk. Essentially, a type of NILIF (again, before I knew what that was). He certainly changed the way I work with dogs. While he never wowed anyone with his level of obedience, his gentle soul, fantastic temperament with people, and intense socialization I did after getting him allowed him to become a great dog who could go just about anywhere. Later in life, when he’d settled down considerably, people would comment on how well-behaved he was, and I would only laugh.

Part of the reason I got Fletcher was to have a more outgoing dog for the humane education work I did. Fletcher enjoyed the day camps when I worked at them on and off until my mid-twenties. He truly shone when I was in university and we visited elementary school classrooms to teach topics such as dog safety. Nothing phased Fletcher, who was as rock-solid in temperament as I have ever seen. He would walk right up to a child in a wheelchair and place his head in their lap. Once, an extremely behaviourally-challenged child ran right up to him, and before I could stop him, grabbed Fletcher by either side of his face and started screaming at him to “say mama”, one of his crowd-pleasing tricks. Even a reasonable dog might have bitten the kid in the face. Fletcher responded with a calming signal, turning his head to the side and yawning. Dogs like him are born, not made, and I was lucky enough to find one.

Years went on from that fateful day at camp. Over the next decade and a half, I graduated high school, then university, got another dog, moved to Saskatchewan, got married, graduated vet school, moved back to BC, got divorced, got another dog, got married again, had a baby. We settled in dog paradise, a house in the woods. Fletcher, a constant in my life, grew old with me. I still pictured us as a 16 year old girl and a young, spry mutt, but we both showed the passing of time, greying hair and aching joints. Shortly after we moved to our dream home, we nearly lost Fletcher. He rallied, and I got another 5 months. By the fall, Fletcher was unable to eat his normal homemade food. I experimented with different recipes and canned foods, but eventually settled on a prescription kibble. Fletcher was going downhill slowly. I debated with myself, day to day and week to week. “I need to think about putting Fletcher down” I would say, but couldn’t bring myself to do it.

One of the last shots I got of him was during a beautiful moment with my daughter, whom he adored. Later, I knew I had done the right thing by letting him go, when my sister asked if Fletcher was dead in the photo. He had wasted away before my eyes, and by the next week, he crashed suddenly, and I euthanized him at home, with my husband holding him. I held it together to perform the procedure, then broke down. Over 16 years together, half of my life. I wished out loud that I’d had the courage to give him one last great day and then euthanize him, but as my sister told me, “If he’d had a great day, you never would have been able to let him go.” It was true.

Grief came and went in waves. I felt relief, as so much of my time and energy had been spent cleaning up after Fletcher and managing him. I felt guilt, that I wanted to get another dog right away. I felt sadness as I ached to have him with me still, this constant presence in my life that was suddenly absent. I felt joy, when I thought about him racing around our huge yard, and booking it up the driveway to take himself for a walk on the trail. His life had so many moments of pure joy, even in the bitter end, that I was glad I had given him everything I could to help him live to nearly 17.

Fletcher January 1999 - October 21, 2015
Over 16 years after I walked past that kennel, and stopped just a moment longer, I was glad that I had listened to my heart and plucked this diamond in the rough from the castoffs of a municipal animal shelter. I know that someday I will again pause for a moment, as I find another who is waiting for me.

Nature’s first green is gold, 
Her hardest hue to hold. 
Her early leaf’s a flower; 
But only so an hour. 
Then leaf subsides to leaf. 
So Eden sank to grief, 
So dawn goes down to day. 
Nothing gold can stay.
Robert Frost