In December 1983, a week after my husband, our daughter and I moved into our two-story home in the country, our son was born and our family was complete. Or so Steve and I thought. Two months later our friends came to visit and brought along a year old dog named Rags.
Rags was an Airedale Terrier/Old English Sheepdog mix, which…trust me on this….makes for an interesting looking dog. He had long tan curly hair and sort of resembled an overgrown Benji. Our friends brought Rags to ask us if we would keep him. They said if they couldn’t find him a new home, he would have to go to the pound as our friend’s mother would not let her keep him. As they were explaining this, our then two year old daughter was following Rags around, hugging him whenever she could and he was loving it; covering her in doggy kisses, tail wagging.
Although my husband and I both grew up with dogs, my husband did not want a dog, let alone what he considered to be someone else’s problem dog, and he did not want a dog in the house. So he immediately said no. Unlike him, I immediately said yes and after pointing out how good Rags was with our daughter, he finally relented but said that Rags would have to sleep in the basement, that he did not want him in our room. That seemed like a fair arrangement, so I agreed. Our friend assured us he was house trained and well-behaved and great with kids. She was right on one of those points – he was great with kids.
That first night was awful. Although I wasn’t happy about it, I did agree to it so Steve took Rags downstairs to the basement when we went to bed. And although I didn’t like the idea, Rags hated it. He sat at the bottom of the basement steps and howled for at least an hour. Just above where he sat and howled was the cold air return grate, so his howls came up through the grate, up the stairs and right into our room – loud, loud mournful howls. Finally, Steve went downstairs and got Rags and brought him upstairs to our bedroom and shut the door so that he was confined with us and we all fell asleep.
The next morning when Steve got out of bed, he stepped right into a large pile of dog poop. So our morning began as our night went, which is to say….badly. As the day progressed, Rags proved again to be great with our daughter; he was a calm and loving dog around her, but he had other issues. He would not go to the bathroom outside when he was on the leash. So I took off his leash and he promptly ran out of the yard. Although I called him and called him, he kept going only to return a short while later. As the day went on, I noticed that he either did not know very many commands or the ones he was used to were not what I was using. He would not come. He would not sit. He didn’t even seem to respond to his name. At one point, I thought maybe he was deaf, so I dropped something on the counter and he looked. Nope, he wasn’t deaf. But it was obvious that he wasn’t very smart.
That night, he slept in our room again and he went right to sleep. In the morning my husband stepped out of bed and into a large pile of dog poop. To say he was furious that this happened again would be an understatement. I told him Rags probably only pooped there again because despite cleaning the area, he could still smell his scent there from the day before. Later in the day, I re-arranged the bedroom furniture, covering up the area that had now been pooped on twice with furniture. The rest of the day continued as the day before, with Rags not listening or responding to his name and running off at any opportunity only to return in his own time. By the time Steve returned home from work, he had forgiven Rags for pooping on the floor and was hopeful that the rearrangement of the room would take care of the issue.
The next morning Steve stepped out of bed and into a big pile of dog poop. And that was it! Steve grabbed Rags by the collar and led him down the stairs, yelling at him the whole way into the kitchen. Steve opened the kitchen door, put Rags outside and said, “Go ahead, run away now! And this time don’t come back!” And Steve told me not to dare, under any circumstance, not to dare let that pooping dog back in the house. He was furious. There are times in marriage, when you pick your battles. This was not one of those times.
Steve and I worked opposite shifts then, he worked days and I worked evenings. So I was home during the day and kept an eye on Rags as he sat on the porch all day. He didn’t leave, he didn’t run off, he just sat there. When Steve came home and saw Rags sitting there on the porch he was dumbfounded. He knew Rags had run off several times in the couple of days he had been with us and yet, there he sat, and to top it all off, he was happy to see Steve. Steve brought him in, but only long enough for Steve to go outside and get his kennel ready. There was an old dog kennel out in the yard and Steve said since Rags kept pooping on the floor he was going to have to sleep in the kennel. I couldn’t really argue with that. Getting Rags to go to the bathroom in our yard was not working and we needed a different approach. So once Steve made sure it was secure, he took Rags out and left him there for the night. The next day when Steve got out of bed, he did not step in any dog poop and life was good.
I don’t know if there is such a thing as an intellectually disabled dog, but if there is, Rags was the epitome of it. He was a sweet as he could be to both kids, to me and Steve and to anyone who visited but he was as dumb as the day is long. I have lived with and trained dogs my whole life, but Rags, Rags was special. He’d run off every chance he got and calling after him did no good because even when he wasn’t running off he acted as if he didn’t know his name. I worked with him for hours, giving him treats, teaching him his name, to come, to sit. After a few weeks, he finally understood what “sit” and “no” meant. But he still would not come when off of the leash.
Over the years, Steve and Rags developed an understanding. When Rags ran off our property, Steve would get in his truck, an old red International pick-up, and go looking for Rags. When he’d spy him, he’d pull off of the road, toot on the horn, lean over and open the passenger door and Rags would come running and jump up into the cab. Steve would shut the door and drive him home. This went on for years. Rags didn’t come if called, but he would come running to the sound of the truck horn.
One day when we were all in the yard, Rags, who was 4 years old at the time, took off again, and like always I started calling him back. Then both kids joined in, “Rags! Rags, come!” And for whatever reason, that day Rags stopped running, turned around and stood there looking at us with his head cocked. “Yes! Yes, Rags! Come!” I yelled. And he did. He had lived with us for three years at that point. Three years to get him to come back when called, but after that, he finally would come when he was called.
Although Rags slept outside in the kennel, the kennel itself was located right in front of my husband’s workshop. He had his own business where he repaired small engines in the evenings after work and he spent most nights out there, in his workshop. He would often take Rags into the workshop with him and I could look out through the kitchen window and see them out there, sometimes sharing a snack that Steve had made for the two of them.
When Rags was five-years old, he developed a small growth on the top of his head. The vet said it was probably just a fatty tumor but to keep an eye on it and if it changed to bring him back in. Within three weeks it was golf ball sized and we were back at the vet. Rags was scheduled for surgery to remove the growth although the vet was still not concerned and felt it was just some type of skin tumor. Rags’ surgery went well and he healed quickly and before long he was back to his old self, playing with the kids, running off when he could and sharing midnight snacks with Steve in the workshop.
In 1989, about two years after his surgery, I received a call at work from my neighbor who said that Rags had torn a large hole in his new kennel and was running around the neighborhood. Steve had recently built Rags a bigger, nicer kennel to stay in when we were not at home as by then, both of us worked during the day while the kids were at school. I left the office and went home to find Rags sitting on the porch.
He had escaped by tearing up the dog kennel wire from the bottom and crawling out underneath. Although Rags liked to run when he was out in the yard, he had never done anything like that before and frankly, I was amazed. It was standard outdoor dog kennel made of galvanized steel, and he had bent it and lifted it up enough to crawl out of it. When Steve got home from work, he got some pipe and curled the kennel wire back down and secured it to the pipe.
The next afternoon, I got another call at work that Rags had escaped his kennel and was running loose again. This time, I could not leave the office, so I called Steve and he ran home to find Rags had torn a very large hole in the kennel wire and run off. Eventually, Rags came home, but he was a mess. His mouth was bloody and he was missing teeth and claws from using both his mouth and his front paws to tear the hole in the kennel.
After confining Rags, Steve called me and told me what had happened and that he was taking Rags to the vet and that he was very concerned because of the number of teeth and claws that he had pulled out. Steve said he did not seem to be in any pain, but that given his injuries, surely he was.
Things got worse when Steve went to put Rags into the truck, the same truck that Rags would run to all the time, the truck he loved to go for rides in….he tried to bite Steve. Our friendly, happy, dumb boy was suddenly very mean. None of us had ever seen a mean bone in his body so it took Steve by surprise. After a few minutes, Rags calmed down and seemed himself again and Steve put him in the truck.
Once the vet got a look at Rag’s teeth and claws and heard how he tried to bite Steve, he recommended that Rags be put down. The vet said that his mouth and claws would require surgery and even with surgery, Rags would be missing many teeth and have difficulty eating. More importantly, the vet suspected that the tumor that had been removed may have re-grown, or may have always been, on the inside of his skull and had penetrated his brain. Our sweet, loving Rags could no longer be trusted to be good with our kids or with us.
So Steve, the man who didn’t want a dog – who didn’t even like the dog at first – but who grew to love him and his reckless, free running ways eventually had to face the hardest thing we all face as dog owners, making the decision to let him go.
Rags was not the smartest dog on the planet, but he was one of the sweetest. While he taught us all patience, he taught my children that dogs are not to be feared, but to be loved and cuddled and played with. Because of Rags, my children grew to love dogs themselves and they became good caregivers of our family’s future canine companions.
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