Layla Comes Home

Layla at Jockey's Ridge.jpg

We’d been without a dog for three years plus, after losing our two huskies and the rescued rottweiler in eight months. Anyone who’s needed to put down an animal knows the pain, first the building dread of what’s coming then the too-quiet aftermath. The lives of those three is in Dogs and Disturbance. During that same ugly year, we’d been living through (with, against, between) a whole house renovation on all floors with nowhere to escape. At one point the living room/dining room comprised an eight by six alcove in which we had two chairs, side table and three large dogs looking at us like ‘boy is this a crazy way to live.’

As much the sorrow of losing too many of the pack as the exhaustion of living through daily contractor conferences, we needed a break.

Mojo died in October before the construction was completed. I brought him home from his last trip to the Outer Banks and four days later his last seizure took him. My only consolation was that he had one last round as ‘fish dog.’ Molly was next, after several months of bagging her intravenously with fluid. Maddie was last to go; she’d barely made it to the end of the renovation and had found her winter spot in the sun by the sliding glass doors. That was where we asked the vet to put her to sleep. The finished house felt as empty as my heart. I’d watched Molly struggle to enter the vet’s office, and that was just too much more pain to watch the little husky go through.

So the years passed before I began a modest campaign for another dog.

D and I each had our requirements. Having not learned from our three previous ones, I was after another husky. Hers were more specific, that she a) didn’t want to train a puppy; yeah, OK, b) didn’t want more than one; boy that hurt, and c) wanted to adopt. The last requirement x-ed my plan to drive up to upper New York hard by the Great Lakes to visit Innisfree Kennels, from whence our two puppies descended. A breeder who names their place after a well-known poem by W.B. Yeats has the advantage far as I’m concerned.

We saw Innisfree, which is an islet in a small bit of water near Sligo, Erie. Yeats must have been in real need of subject matter when he wrote the poem, is all I’m going to say.

One of the first opportunities I pursued resulted from a text from a good friend who’s crazier about canines than I. She’d caught wind I was looking. Her text was about the placement of a husky pair (of course) whose owner sadly had died. The dying woman had begged her brother to place both of them together. I left it with the brother that if a home was found for one, I’d take the other. We stayed in touch, and a few weeks later, he emailed me that he’d found a home for both–together, so I was happy for the dogs. What I was thinking was ‘dude, these dogs have just suffered a traumatic loss, and they know you.’ But that’s just a dog lover talking.

There’s a great husky rescue website out in Indiana, only the site says ‘don’t come unless you’re within driving distance.’ Boo. I’d been thinking about upper New York state, for crying out loud. Maybe I’d drive to Alaska. Probably a lot of retired sled dogs up there.

A month or two later, walking the neighborhood, I said hello to a man walking two large huskies. Later D mentioned she’d seen a woman walking two huskies she didn’t recognize. We came on them a third time, and I climbed the short hill and hopped the road guardrail. I’ll talk to anyone with huskies if only so I can pet the beasts.

Coincidence or fate, he said he volunteers with a husky rescue group, Pet Harbor located about a trafficked hour south. I-95 is measured by the hours between exits these days. If only there was a rail system…

Pet Harbor’s application was five pages, 8 point font, and included questions such as ‘do you have kids, dogs, cats, hamsters, other? Is your yard fenced? Is the fence at least six feet tall and well secured at the base? (Huskies being skilled diggers among other talents.) What would you do if your dog escaped (other than freak, I presume)? When did you stop beating your wife? OK, not the last one.

Several email conversations ensued. Pet Harbor’s chief interrogator wasn’t going to put up with much BS it was pretty clear.

A scheduled home visit came next, complete with a test husky brought to our house by another volunteer. Once introductions were sniffed out, she promptly rolled over for a belly rub (dog not her handler). I figured that was the easiest test ever. Show me a belly that doesn’t need petting. We passed.

A couple of weeks later we were invited to our first (and only) dog showing. Pet Harbor works with a series of foster families while the dogs are being placed. From the videos on their site, D had already picked out a small, five-year old husky listed as having a ‘moderate energy level.’ Name of Gracie.

The Saturday showing was at a Pets Mart in southern Stafford County. At dawn D drove us to the Pets Mart, arriving before the rescue group. So we helped a bit with the setting up of the cages. One by one the dogs arrived with their foster families.

Furthest from the door at the end of the cage row, Gracie, as she was named, was howling desperately. So long as I scratched her head through the cage wire and talked to her, she calmed. Somewhat. She was focused on her mission, though had no better way of expressing it.

While there, Gracie investigated, talked to, jumped on about anyone within the range of the leash I had her on. She was a busy little girl. Five years old, though everyone thought she was a puppy. We did a practice run taking her outside, and she clawed herself and us out the door. I doubt she understood what the whole affair was about, but she was perfectly willing to demonstrate her pulling ability, and a keen sense of determination. “Gracie?”

Much paperwork, medical history, immunization records, cash contribution and two hours later we were back on I-95 heading home, our very vocal, extremely HIGH energy rescue project pacing side to side and front to back in the rear. I felt as if we were kidnapping her. She acted like she agreed. Constant reassurances calmed her momentarily.

“Whoever would name this one ‘Gracie’?”

I suggested Lady, seeing how proper and mannered she was between her more desperate moments. D came back with Layla. OK, Clapton, here’s to you!

There’s a natural disinclination to adopt an older dog. But the confidence in one’s skill at training a cute puppy isn’t always well placed. Compared to how hard it is to anticipate what bad habits, phobias, etc. an older dog might have picked up. After all, there’s a reason for all the rescues. We had learned with Molly the Rottweiler that she liked to launch herself in a roar at strangers she didn’t like. And she hadn’t liked many. Ninety pounds of quickly accelerating rottweiler can be a challenge.

In Layla’s case, all we knew was that she’d run away after living three years with a family, and when the county animal shelter called the phone associated with Layla’s implanted ID chip, no one came to claim her. Eventually, Pet Harbor claimed her. Had she been that difficult to handle? Maybe escaped too many times? The tests that Pet Harbor did on her personality gave no clue. Other than the test for compatibility with cats which was a blunt ‘don’t even think about it.’

Layla’s two most outstanding characteristics are, in order, her pale blue eyes and an extremely friendly nature; she loves people far more than most huskies. If you google breed information, you’ll run across the husky’s noted indifference toward people. Not dislike, just indifference, unless something strikes their fancy, like a good long run or crispy grilled salmon skin. I’ve heard it put that huskies encourage human behavior that suits their needs. Their stubbornness is legend.

Huskies are a prey-driven. And they love to run like most domestic dogs pretend to do. Both are serious handicaps in an urban environment with speeding cars, drivers focused on cell phones and getting home.

We’d adopted our first dog by offering the dude behind D’s mother’s house to take his howling husky off his chain, that was the first time I’d ever spent with a husky. Butz was something. From the first day, put a harness on him and he was ready to run! He ran his last twelve miles days before he passed. We did a bit of slow jogging so he wouldn’t struggle, but he refused to quit.

In Layla’s case, a month after she came home with us, she raced straight through the invisible fence after the neighbor’s cat. She was several blocks away when she was intercepted. The cat survived, though these days stays closer to home, no longer wandering through our yard. On a spectrum of husky behavior, Layla is out somewhere past Pluto on her goal of ridding the world of cats.

The history the rescue group provided said that the household she’d been raised in had other dogs. Perhaps, but Layla’s record with meeting dogs ‘in the wild’ hasn’t reinforced her history. With memory of Molly the killer rottweiler still registering, it’s possible we were helicopter parents. Really, us? D said Layla needed remedial training and glared like that was my job. For the record, the closest Molly had gotten was to chew on my ankle one time when she was startled out of a deep sleep under my chair.

Back when Molly was still a recent arrival, my buddy Steve came over to meet her. Walked in, held a hand out, and let her sniff him and that was that. Molly was a good judge of character. Steve’s wife was who’d sent me the text on the two huskies needing a family. Dogs know people who know dogs.

From the first that Layla was introduced to Steve’s animal menagerie, she took to them and they to her with no bloodshed. So we took off for Europe, and Layla joined their menagerie for the duration. The video of her teaching Nola, the menagerie’s six month puppy, was hilarious. Nola became Layla’s project. “See, this is how you play. Keep your mouth open and make lots of growling noises with a show of teeth but NO nipping or biting.” And when Nola (a mixed cane corso/pit bull) [i] would get out of control, as puppies are wont to do, Layla would lay her head flat against Nola’s, pressing it against the floor to settle her down. “Like this, see?” Damn if it didn’t work.

If Layla recognized how massive Nola will become, it didn’t faze her. And I suspect now that they’ve bonded it won’t faze Nola either.

Huskies are one of if not the oldest dog breed according to genetic research. Reinforcing this, a recent article in the Atlantic magazine talks about eye muscles that dogs use in their communicating with humans, an evolutionary feature that distinguishes them from their ancestor, the gray wolf. The gray wolf has neither of these eye muscles. Dogs have two separate eye muscle groups, allow them to respond to humans more on their terms. Dogs’ Eyes Have Changed Since Humans Befriended Them is a quick read and worth the time.

However, unlike other breeds, huskies have only one such muscle group, leading the researchers to conclude that they are a degree closer to the wolves, or said another way, had evolved the earliest. I suppose it also might be argued that huskies don’t want to be seen as being too mopey around people.

That huskies are closer to the wild wolf is a fascination beyond just their appearance. But it’s also their handsomeness that carries the seeds of their own greatest risk. The general public simply doesn’t understand that huskies are in many ways throwbacks.

Huskies are not the same as labs or poodles, or rottweilers. Though they are expected to behave like other dogs. So their unsuspecting owners let them loose through ignorance, indifference, or forgetting to close a door only to learn they’ve slain the neighbor’s cat, or gotten into the chicken coop. But it’s the husky who learns the hard, sometimes fatal lesson. Essentially you are asking an animal who’s evolved a spectacular skill at hunting and bringing down game, to turn off their instincts.

It’s a cliché that humans claim they are superior to other species; our egos run away with us. The truth is, we don’t know jack about other animals and still strut about pretending that we do. It’s nothing any other specie would consider. Bad inter-species chauvinism.

One night at the Outer Banks, walking my brother and sister pair, all enjoying a nice moonlit evening heading toward the ocean, the huskies sensed (smelled, heard) an animal just down the road I couldn’t see, and instantly they both went into stalking mode, tails dropped flat, heads lowered level with their bodies, footfalls stealthy, no cries. Huskies are silent stalking game. They separated, spreading out as far as their leads would let them to encircle whatever was ahead of us. It was their instinctual separation that surprised me; it was so totally natural. Neither needed instructions.

I would argue that instinct as it’s called, is just a keener sense of purpose. And that wolves taught humans to work as a team. Temple Grandin gave me that last piece of insight.

One trick you can train a husky to do (and it’s not the dog that needs the physical training) is distance running. At six months, we began with the two puppies and there was no looking back from there. Huskies are four legged engines, hearts and lungs, and will pull as long as you can keep up. They offer us loyalty. Even if their humans don’t always appreciate the need to dive occasionally into the bushes beside the trail pursuing rabbits. No one’s perfect.

Having babbled on about Jack London before, I’ll only nod here to his ghost to thank him. Was he one more scurrilous character up from Frisco chasing news stories of the Alaskan gold rush, or just that curious to see how it turned out? I’ve never dug that far. But with his story about a half-breed wolf, he gave me an early clue about writing[ii]. The scene when the wolf pack brought down a moose became mine.

First edition cover,  White Fang , Macmillan Company, New York, 1906

First edition cover, White Fang, Macmillan Company, New York, 1906

I have a photograph from my childhood taken in a typically mild South Carolina winter, hanging onto a cat with as much love as a kid could muster. We didn’t have cats, my family. Nor dogs. My Granny was sure felines were trouble, but if she told me why, it never registered. Not a lot does.

This particular feline had been looking for love in all the wrong places. Including the bushes behind our house. Granny relented enough to put out food. In gratitude, the homeless cat contributed a still squirming snake. Wasn’t that the deal other cats had struck with farmers, snakes for shelter?

She’d brought home a barely flexing garden snake, but wanted to contribute. Snake soup perhaps. She meant well, that’s the thing.

Granny was sure the cat or the snake either would bring down a plague, and what did a totally clueless punk who loved creatures knew about plagues? Or had lived through holding down her mother while they sawed her leg off without anesthesia? Granny never discussed it in my presence, and I have no conception of what that could have been like.

The cat weighed all of eight pounds and the snake how many ounces? Logic is moment to moment.

When the cat delivered her kittens in the back bushes, it was too much for my grandmother. No money to spend on nonessentials, no money period. Already in her seventies she’d left a home in Pennsylvania to care for her daughter’s offspring. Life was brutal, and I witnessed it earlier than some.

While yet a child, I was instructed that humans alone are sentient. They taught me that we should husband earth’s lesser creatures. The Bible told me so (as did the nuns). To rescue a solitary husky is hard enough at times. I have to rescue the rest of them, too?

Sitting on the deck tonight with Layla, I might have heard her mutter ‘damn cat’ eying the neighbor’s feline doing a slow, investigatory circuit across the way. In the year and a half since she’d been with us, she’s learned it isn’t necessary to scream full-voiced to convey how she feels about felines. Dogs learn their wisdom in time.

[i] Cane Corso is an Italian square-jawed dog with attitude.

[ii] White Fang by Jack London propelled the first creative story I ever wrote. That I can remember.