Monday, November 8, 2010

Devil Dog

A long time ago, my stepfather owned many gas stations, a heating oil business, a lumberyard and a hardware store.

He also owned a big lot on the outside of town where he kept his delivery trucks (lumber and oil) and had a large shop.  This shop was part woodworking shop, part garage for fixing the many vehicles he owned for the businesses.

This big lot had a ten foot high chain link fence around it with barbed wire at the top, but still determined people could get in.  He had a lot of expensive stuff on that lot.

One day, he went to the SPCA and told them, "I want the meanest son of a bitch you have here."  He's not a man who minces words.

Back then, I don't think the SPCA had as many regulations or rules about what they adopted out to who.  If a man wanted the meanest son of a bitch they had, well that was his lookout, clearly he knew what he was getting into.

The dog they brought him was a male German Shepherd who really was about the meanest son of a bitch my stepfather had ever seen.  Ask and you shall receive.  This German Shepherd was on his last day, slated for euthanasia first thing on the morrow.

So, my stepfather adopted him, and took him to live at "the yard" as we called it.

He was christened The Devil Dog.  Actually, he earned it.

I'm not sure what it is about saving a dog who's time is running out, but they know it.  Somehow, they always do.  The Devil Dog didn't start out having any sort of relationship with my stepfather beyond a "You leave me alone and I'll leave you alone," sort of agreement.  By all accounts, this was a much better relationship than he'd had with anyone else who had ever tried to work with him.  If you want my opinion, I think it was the combination of my stepfather being the person who took him out of the SPCA, and the fact that at the yard he had as much room to run as he wanted, and could do it whenever he wanted.  He had a dog door into the heated shop, where he had a bed and food and water.  Other than my stepfather, nobody went on that lot.  Devil didn't have to answer to anybody about anything, ever, he just had to live up to his reputation as the meanest damn dog anyone had ever seen if somebody tried to go over, under, or through that fence.

And he did that job, admirably.  After Devil came to live at the yard, very few people tried to go over, under, or through that fence, and the few who did had nasty looking mug shots and probably lived in fear of German Shepherds from that moment forward.

Devil could have gotten out of the yard if he'd wanted to.  It wouldn't have been any job at all for him to dig  a small hole under that fence and be gone.  He never did.

Who knows what his history was, what ordeals he went through that took him from a puppy to the dog who earned the moniker "The Devil Dog" (which is always, still to this day, spoken in our house in capital letters). Whatever his history was, he wasn't a stupid dog.  He knew he had it good at the yard.  He was safe from all scary unknown people.  They were on one side of a fence, he was on the other, and I really think he preferred it that way.  He got fed every day and had warm place to sleep and nobody to bother him.  Life was good.

The Devil Dog was the scariest of all yard dogs, because unlike most territorial dogs, Devil wouldn't patrol the yard and bark at people who came near the fence.  Unless you had had a run-in with him before or worked for my stepfather, you'd never know he was there.  He was quiet.  He gave no warnings to intruders of what was about to happen to them.  Most of the people who tried to break into the yard afterward said, "If I had known there was a dog there.."  But they didn't, and they never saw or heard him coming until it was too late.  Word must have gotten around though, because by the time the Devil was too old to live up to his name, nobody dared go into that yard.

My stepfather never made any attempts to train Devil.  The only things Devil needed to know (don't bite my stepfather or anyone with my stepfather and don't eliminate in the shop) he could sort out for himself.  Once given control over his own life, Devil was an amazingly docile animal.  In the yard, he had enough room to retreat away from anyone he didn't feel like interacting with, and as long as someone didn't try to force him to interact with them when he didn't want to, nobody was in danger of being mauled.  My stepfather made it clear to anyone he took into the yard with him, don't touch that dog and he won't touch you.  You've been warned.

I was about 7 years old before I first met Devil, who was five or six at the time.  My stepfather was making me bookshelves for my room, and we went to the shop every evening so he could work on them.  Devil usually stayed out of the shop when other people were in it, and I was dying to see the notorious Devil Dog.  He stayed out of seeing range.  The bookshelves for my room were massive, and took many trips to accomplish.  On one of them, I was coming down with some illness, I was very tired, and I decided to go lay down in the empty dog bed.  I didn't know where Devil was and I wasn't concerned about it, because he had kept himself out of sight every other time I had been there.

I fell asleep in the dog bed for I don't know how long.  It was one of the nice big overstuffed round LL Bean variety.  I came awake to people excitedly talking, and the first sentence that made sense to me was my stepfather saying to my mother, "Gretchen I wouldn't do that if I were you."  Then I heard growling, and I opened my eyes.  When my stepfather saw me open my eyes, he said, "You lie still.  You stay right there and don't move."

Devil was in the bed with me.

My stepfather made my mother retreat to the other side of the shop with him.  As soon as they were both about ten feet away, Devil relaxed and put his head down.  My stepfather poured food into his bowl and called him, but he didn't get up.  It took a few times of my stepfather rattling kibbles around in his pan and yelling, "Devil!  Let's go," before he finally got up and left the bed, and I could get up too.

From that time on, Devil wasn't wary about me.  We weren't friends, exactly, but he was more at ease with me than with any one else except my stepfather.  I'm not sure what happened that night.  I really don't think Devil took it into his head in ten or twenty minutes or however long he'd been there to protect me from all comers, even my mother and the man he respected.  He didn't even know me.  I think he just decided that I, as a kid and not an adult, wasn't a threat (especially not asleep), and wanted to lie in his bed so he did.  When my mother realized it and went to wake me up, he growled at her because that was his bed, and she shouldn't be reaching down in his direction.

It scared the bejeezus out of me though.

By the time that German Shepherd was an old Devil, my stepfather had gone from describing him as the meanest son of a bitch in town to the best damn dog he'd ever had, status that Devil kept for ten years until my Sainted Labrador.  My stepfather never set out to get a German Shepherd.  If the SPCA workers had brought out a Heinz 57 mix as the meanest dog in the place at the time, he'd have taken that dog just as well.  It just turned out that way.

Devil eventually had to be put down at 13, when his hips gave out and he could no longer get up on his own.

Some people might think that Devil Dog had a pitiful existence just because he was a yard dog, and not a house pet, having limited human contact even though it was daily.

I think Devil would never have made a pet, he would have killed somebody or been killed by somebody eventually if someone had tried to force him into it.  Maybe if he had gone to a different home as a puppy, things might have been different.  Who can say.  All I know is that he was happy being his own master of his own house in his own yard and having nobody to answer to and nobody making demands on him.  He got fed at the same times every day, rain, snow or shine, and he could depend on it being the same person.  That's all Devil really cared about.  If he wanted human contact, he certainly could have received it, but until he was a much older dog, he never sought attention or affection, even from my stepfather.

When he got very old, and nobody expected him to do the job he was originally obtained for anymore, it was talked of bringing Devil to the house in town to live with us for the remainder of his days.  I was all for it, but the adults (my mom and my stepfather) after careful consideration, decided to leave him as he was.  Not because they were afraid of him or what he might do, he was fairly feeble at that point, and I was a teenager and not a child who might do something stupid around a dog without thinking.  It was just decided that he simply wouldn't like it.  He was old, and used to just being master of his own days.  We honestly didn't know if he was technically house trained or if when given the choice he just preferred peeing outside in the grass to peeing on the concrete floor of the shop.  All angles of the scheme were looked at and debated, and the final conclusion was that Devil in a new home around people day and night, deprived of the freedom of choice he had enjoyed for the last 11 or so years would emotionally upset him more than making him that little bit more physically comfortable could justify.

He could have been killed by lethal injection at the age of two, instead he lived to the ripe old age of 13.
He could have died with people knowing only that he was vicious, instead we gave him the space and freedom to show us that he could be noble, dignified and loyal.  We gave him a job that fit him and an environment in which he could be himself and free reign to do that job.

He could have died as a number and been a statistic, mourned by nobody, with nobody remembering him fondly today.  Instead, he will never be forgotten by my family, and we all remember him with laughter and joy.

In memory of The Devil Dog:  We're all grateful for the time we had with you and the work you did for us.

1 comment:

  1. And this is maybe why if I had to point to a dog with fear, I'd always point to a German Shepherd. Tendency towards neurotic, unpredictable, huge ass teeth.

    The only dog that charged at me and ripped my arm apart was a German Shepherd... retired K9 unit of all things.

    But you know they have the potential for devotion, which is the scariest part of all.
    The beasts have the capacity for empathy.