Home Is Where the Mutts Are


By Ed Staskus

Gracie was born in the same town the same day the same year as me, on a Monday in Twinsburg, the start of the week. She was always my best friend, more loving to me than anybody ever was, or ever has been. Unlike most of my friends she only tried to bite me once.

“Stop messing with her, stop messing with her,” my mom yelled through the kitchen where she was making meatballs, spilling her sentences into the dining room. But, I wouldn’t stop messing with Gracie, and suddenly she growled, bared her teeth, and put them on my arm, squeezing.

We were under the dining room table. Gracie had a deadly scissors bite, but she looked up at me with her round eyes when I cried out and didn’t munch her moustaches into my skin, after all.

“You deserved it,” mom shouted out, not realizing she hadn’t bitten me.

Gracie was what we called a spoodle and everybody else called a Cockapoo. She was a cross breed between a Cocker Spaniel and a Poodle, parti-colored, black with a white patch on her chest. One of my friends told me Poodles were a weird religious cult, but Gracie wasn’t like that. She was on the small side with soft heavy loose curls, big ears and big feet, and a wavy tail.

Mom got Gracie four months after I was born. Dad got Bandit, who was mostly a Beagle, two years later. I grew up with Gracie and Bandit. Gracie slept on my bed and Bandit slept underneath my bed, except when it was winter, when they slept together curled up on top of me.

I loved Gracie and Bandit. They laughed with their tails. They laughed it up every day and I gave both of them a hug every day.

Bandit was a Beagle because dad wanted a hunting dog. But, at the end of the day Bandit was gun-shy. We never found out why, no matter how many vets we took him to. They all ended up scratching their heads, saying they couldn’t explain it, since he was the only Beagle they had ever heard of who was scared of gunshots.

Dad had to put his guns away and learn to hunt with a bow and arrows.

Gracie got stopped in her tracks in our driveway on Thanksgiving Day when we were both 14-years-old. She was still full of life, still kicking around other than being blind and deaf. One minute she was standing in the driveway and the next minute she had a heart attack and dropped dead. By the time my brothers and I rushed to her she was lying on her side, still and quiet. We buried her in the backyard before the ground froze.

We had to put Bandit down when spring broke the next year. After Gracie died he started to slip away. They were like an old couple that had always been together. He went from being a healthy dog to being a decrepit dog. He gained weight, but then lost his appetite, and started dragging his hind legs behind him like a cripple. When we took him to the vet he told us there was nothing wrong with him.

Bandit just gave up on life.

When my dad carried him into the vet’s office to be put down Bandit lifted his head and looked at my mom standing beside the doctor’s exam table. He looked her right in the eye. Everyone could see that a thought was going back-and-forth between them.

“Thank you. I want it to end,” thought Bandit.

“That was hard,” thought my mom, and after we buried Bandit next to Gracie she said she couldn’t have any more dogs.

But, four years later, when I was graduating from high school, my younger brother told all of us, including mom, that he wanted a dog. “Everyone else has dogs, I want a dog, too,” he said. Our neighbor’s Lab down the street had played footsies with a Shepherd that summer. In the fall there were a bushelful of black puppies. Everyone we knew took one, including my brother, which meant mom took one.

Dad named him Willie Mays, after the baseball player Willie Mays. My dad had been a big fan back in the day. He grew up to be almost like a full-sized Lab with a delicate face, small ears, and a spotted tongue. When he was a puppy Willie Mays liked digging holes in the backyard, sitting in them, and staring out at everybody.

He was a one-man Tasmanian Devil.

Whenever we left our shoes or backpacks in the mudroom by mistake Willie Mays would chew them to pieces. He gnawed on electric cords in the house and the telephone wires on the outside of the house. Once our phones were out for a week. He ripped the aluminum siding off the house, but couldn’t chew it, and so gave that up. But, the garage was still sided in wood, not aluminum. He tore one side of it off, as far up as he could reach, and chewed the wood to shreds.

“Seriously, I was only outside for five minutes,” was the look he gave my dad when dad confronted him about it.

Willie Mays calmed down after three years, but not before being the most destructive dog anyone in our neighborhood had ever heard of.

On his second Christmas Eve in our house we left him in a cage for the night while we went to Midnight Mass in the old Slovenian neighborhood on Cleveland’s south side with my mom’s family. The next day after Christmas Day breakfast we drove home. Coming up the long driveway I heard mom ask why the windows were all open.

They weren’t actually open. They just looked open because most of the curtains in the house were gone.

Willie Mays was in the kitchen and beyond happy to see us when we walked in. The cage he had been locked up in was still locked up. Dad rattled the door and inspected the sides. He couldn’t understand how Willie Mays had escaped. Willie Mays never said because dogs never talk about themselves.

The curtains had been torn down and lay in tatters on the floor. In the second-floor bedrooms our beds were set beneath windows and Willie Mays had jumped up on them so he could reach those curtains, too, and rip them down.

“He tore the curtains down so he could see us coming,” said dad when he realized Willie Mays hadn’t ripped all the curtains apart, only those in the windows facing the front yard and the driveway.

Dad bought padlocks to secure the cage door so Willie Mays couldn’t escape again when we had to cage him, but he did, over and over, like a canine Houdini, no matter how many padlocks dad put on the gaps. There was never a scratch on Willie Mays, either. But, by then he was calming down, and his Christmas Eve rampage turned out to be a turning point.

When Willie Mays came of age dad began taking him hunting. Labs are bred to be bird dogs, but Willie Mays wasn’t the best retriever. He loved running around outdoors, and chasing anything that moved, but was terrified of water. Labs are water dogs, but even giving him a bath was titanic. He whined and cowered when we rinsed him off with the hose. Dad felt like it was like Bandit all over again.

We found out years later what had happened. Our next-door neighbor Emma Jean, whenever we were away the first summer we had Willie Mays, not liking his barking in his own backyard doghouse, would spray him in the face with our garden hose until he stopped. Every time he barked she snuck into our yard and sprayed him full in the face again.

After we found out my brothers and I, when Emma Jean was in Las Vegas with her husband, broke every window in her station wagon with baseball bats. We left her husband’s car alone.

At home Willie Mays was our guard dog. He mistrusted most other dogs. We always knew when one was on the loose thanks to him. He mistrusted strangers, too. If a stranger came by our house he watched them, and if they came up the driveway, he barked to let them know there was a big dog in the house. He knew the difference between walking past us and walking towards us.

One summer a dog living two doors down began barking all the time and wouldn’t stop. Someone finally called the police and complained, saying it was our dog. We were sure it was Emma Jean, but by then our families weren’t talking. When the animal warden came up our drive Willie Mays sat in the living room window watching him. He didn’t bark once. When the animal warden came to the front door and rang the bell Willie Mays went to the door and waited. Mom answered the door. Willie Mays looked up at the animal warden and the animal warden looked down at him. He told mom about the complaint that had been made.

“But, that can’t be right,” he said. “He didn’t bark when I rang the bell and he’s not barking now.”

We never could unravel among ourselves the mystery of how for once in his life Willie Mays knew to be quiet the only day the animal warden ever came to our house.

My dogs to this day don’t get doggie treats because of Willie Mays, who was crazy for them. Whenever we gave him a treat he would want another one right away, and more of them for days and days. When we let him out of the house after treat time he would run right back in, looking for the next one.

After graduating from college I moved away from home, living alone most of the time, except for an occasional boyfriend and weekends when Willie Mays visited. I’m immature and I know better than anybody I’m selfish. I’ve always had a busy life, but at a certain point I wanted somebody to be with me day-to-day. I missed having a dog in the house.

Willie Mays was growing old. He was getting more grayish than black and having a hard time walking. I think I knew he was dying. It was a kind of transition for me, so I decided to go to the big animal shelter in Cleveland and find a puppy.

I grew up with mutts. No matter what breed we dressed them up as, Gracie was a mutt, Bandit was a mutt, and Willie Mays was a mutt. My family didn’t pay for dogs. I knew that, but my brothers had forgotten. My younger brother bought a brown and white Victorian Bulldog for a thousand dollars. Since then he had spent thousands of dollars on special kennels, training, and designer food, not to mention weekly doggie psychologist sessions at who-knows-what an hour.

My older brother and his wife bought a long-legged black and brown Jack Russell terrier. His name was Hank and he looked like Wishbone in the TV series. Wishbone read books and dressed up like Shakespeare, but Hank had epilepsy. Whenever he had seizures he twitched and lost all his motor skills.

Hank was high-strung and drove Willie Mays crazy whenever my brother brought him along for a visit. Hank would go at him like a puppy even though Willie Mays was already a certain age and it pissed him off. “You’re in time out,” I would point at Hank, shoving him down on his haunches. ”Just sit here and don’t move.” I never really liked that dog.

Hank could never be left alone because he might have a seizure any minute. I baby-sat him while I was in college, which was how I paid for my textbooks. His medication came with an eyedropper and we all had to be careful because the potion could burn human skin.

I never understood why it didn’t burn going down Hank’s throat.

I always knew when he was having a seizure because he would get stuck behind the sofa where there was dead-end at one end. Something would happen in his Jack Russell brain, he would walk behind the sofa, and then couldn’t move backwards. He would just freeze until somebody found him. With all his medication, vet bills, and emergency room visits, my sister-in-law told me when Hank died five years after they got him that he cost more than their first child.

I wanted to get a puppy at the start of summer, since I was a middle school teacher, and had summers to myself. Knowing I probably wanted a Lab mutt, and knowing how Labs can be, I knew it would be best to get one when school ended. I wanted to be at home with the dog for three months. It would make my training it easier.

I called the Cleveland SPCA Pet Shelter at nine o’clock in the morning the day my vacation started. They told me they had 150 new puppies just in from Tennessee. When I got there at four-thirty in the afternoon there were only three left. Everyone wants puppies and everyone snatches them up like snapping your fingers. Everybody wants to start with a new dog. I get that.

I had been to other small shelters on my own west side of town, but all they had were full-grown Labs other people had given up on. I lived on the second floor of a Polish double in Lakewood and Labs start to have trouble walking when they get older. They get hip dysplasia. I couldn’t have an 60 or 70 pound already older dog on the second floor. I had to be realistic.

Walking up and down rows of stacked cages in an animal shelter is the saddest, most horrible experience. There are signs on the cages. ‘My name is Kimmy. I am a 7-year-old Labrador. I love playing with children.’ Wanting to take them all home is heartbreaking. It’s like walking through a prison where everybody is on death’s row and you can only pardon one of them.

The three dogs leftover at the SPCA Pet Shelter were two Boxers and a Lab mix. I didn’t know much about Boxers, and three other women were looking at both of them, anyway, so I turned my attention to the Lab.

Shelters say to lay the puppy you are interested in on its back. If they look at you and show submission, that’s a good dog. If they don’t they might be headstrong and you probably want to reconsider. I put the 8-week-old Lab on her back. I held her down even though she wasn’t trying to go anywhere. She looked everywhere except up at me.

But, I loved the white on her chest, and her one white paw, and that she was missing her tail. I thought it was a unique personality trait, even though I could tell when I felt it that it was a deformity.

“I’ll take the Lab,” I told the attendant at the counter.

“Are you sure?” he said. “Did you see her tail? I just want you to know her three brothers and sisters were adopted first thing this morning and she’s been sitting here until now.” That broke my heart. Because of the tail she didn’t have she might not make it. That’s why I took her, finally, because of her missing tail.

I called her Fenway because the Boston Red Sox were my favorite baseball team and the year before had beaten the Cardinals in the World Series.

When I went back to work in the fall I enrolled Fenway at Pawsitive Influence, a cage-free doggie day care. It took more than a week, but she warmed up to it. After the first month she got excited every time we drove there, passing landmarks like the Speedway and Merl Park. A friend of mine worked at the doggie day care. He paid special attention to Fenway, clipping her toenails, training her to sit and heel, and keeping me filled in on her progress.

I don’t know what got into me, but after a year I began to believe she needed a brother. I went back to the animal shelter. It was in August and it was hot, humid, and sticky. The shelter smelled like underarms and hot dog water. I thought to myself, you know what, the puppies are all going to get adopted. I’ll look at the older ones. But, most of them were too big for me, until I came to a row of cages full of puppies, all jumping up and down. In a cage below them by himself was a medium-sized black Lab mutt.

“No one’s going to look at me, and that’s OK, la, la, la,” he seemed to be thinking, laying there, his paws crossed in front of him. .

“Can I walk him,” I asked, and got a leash.

He didn’t just walk when he walked. He pranced when we got going, which surprised me because he was a stray, and not even a common stray. He had been trucked up to Ohio from Tennessee, where there are lots of strays and kill shelters, but he was different. Even though things had gone wrong for him, he hadn’t gone wrong with them.

“We think he came from a dog-fighting ring, a big one that got broken up. He has scars, his front and back dewclaws are missing, and his tail’s been clipped,” said a vet technician cleaning a nearby pen.

Tails are a weak point because they can be grabbed, and when dewclaws are ripped off they get infected, so dog fighters surgically remove them. It’s painful if the dog is older than a few weeks old because dewclaws are more like an extra toe than a toenail.

He was missing part of his right ear, the inside of his mouth was scarred, and there were lesions on his snout. He was just over a year old and a big wide smile was pasted on his face as I walked him around the perimeter of the cages.

“I’ll take him,” I said.

“He’s got some Pit Bull in him.”

“That’s OK, I’m good with mixes.”

He was timid around Fenway for weeks. I called him Grounder so he and Fenway would get along on their baseball field, but they got along, anyway. I stopped taking Fenway to the doggie day care since they had each other.

I bought long leashes for them and took them for walks in the Rocky River Metropark. Off the leash they ran into the river and all that fall had a ball. But, whenever another dog came near him, Grounder would get aggressive, barking and feinting at them, although when I looked at him I could see he was shaking. I didn’t go to the Lakewood Dog Park so they wouldn’t be around too many other dogs for me to worry about.

I was walking them down Roycroft one day when I overheard talk on a front porch, talk about Grounder. “I think he’s a mini-Doberman Pinscher,” a man hissed, as though Grounder was a supersized rat. “Dude, you don’t know dogs, at all,” I said. I’ve had three vets look at Grounder and all three said they weren’t sure about him. I could have him genetically tested, but that’s not going to happen. I need a new vacuum cleaner before I pay for anything like that.

Grounder is black, but looks more like a Pit Bull than a Lab. When he pins his ears back his face goes sleek. I get nervous about it because many people are anti-Pit Bull. Fenway is Miss Little Independent, but Grounder wants attention. He doesn’t bite anybody. “Please just rub my head, that’s all I’m asking.”

Both of my dogs love ice cream. I’m not the mom who says, “No ice cream.” We always have it in the house. If they knew how to break into my fridge at night, they would.

Whenever I take them to the neighborhood cone shack they’re ready to lick it, life and ice cream. We drive to the DQ on Detroit Road in my drop top Chrysler 200. Anyone can be in a sour mood on a sunny day, but not in a convertible. The dog days of summer are the wind in your face days for my dogs. Fenway and Grounder vault into their seats like the Dukes of Hazard when we’re ready to go.

Fenway and Grounder like to have people around them and get excited when their friends come over. They freaking love it. They will bark and warn me about strangers, but the people they love, they get beyond excited and are all over the place.

My brother used to have a cage for Hank. It was bigger and sturdier than the one my dad had for Willie Mays the escape artist. “God, why did you buy that big-ass cage for that little dog?” I asked him. “I don’t know,” he said. “I think I felt bad.”

My mutts are my kids. I don’t necessarily want kids of my own, so they are my little things that I love and spoil. They don’t pay rent and I have to feed them and clean up after them. I know some people say they’re just dogs. I don’t care what they say. I make sure I come home after work every day so they’re not by themselves. I try to walk them two and three times a day, in the morning, after work, and before bedtime. I could have read the collected works of Tolstoy and become a wise woman given the amount of time I’ve spent walking my dogs.

I make sure to always be home for Fenway and Grounder, or take them with me whenever I have to leave home. I never put them in a shelter or a kennel, even for a weekend, because in a kennel they would be put into a cage for twelve hours a day.

My dogs couldn’t handle that. I know they couldn’t. Neither could I.


Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.