Last Dog on the Hill
The Extraordinary Life of Lou
By Steve Duno
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2010 Steve Duno
All rights reserved.
Rotties, Roadkill, and the Canine Cartel
Black topcoat hairs and tufts of downy undercoat lay in the corners of our home, in the periphery, like ghosts. The black hairs were odorless but his undercoat still held scent, and I'd lift some of him up to my nose and be back in the mountains with him, listening to coyotes or owls, or to mice nibbling on the tent fly. In death he had spoken to me in a way he knew I would best appreciate. His smell, still there in the carpet, sidestepped my brain and went straight for the heart, where the memories are.
The essential crime committed against all dog owners is born of the love we hold for them, which, like the love of a child, runs deep. No parent should have to bury a child, they say, but that is what we dog owners must do, not once but time after time, throughout our lives. While we remain unchangeable to their sweet eyes, they run from birth to the grave in an instant of our own measure. They burn like kindling, and though we know we can never replace one dog with another, we keep trying, in hopes of reviving hints of some great dog gone by. No; they are not children we bury. But dogs like Lou come close. They come very, very close.
Highway 101 sweeps north into the small Mendocino County town of Willits, California, gateway to redwood country, home to vineyards and fast rivers, and to the resting place of Seabiscuit, the great racehorse. And it is where I found Lou, the greatest dog I have ever known.
In 1986, teaching degree in hand, I packed my Civic and left the grit of Queens for the glitz of Los Angeles. Upon arriving, I renewed an old fascination with dogs, one I'd first nurtured in childhood. Living in a one-bedroom New York tenement with my parents and brother, I'd asked for a dog but had gotten only a pale blue parakeet named Chipper, a bitter bird who'd bend apart the bars of his cage and escape, to strafe our heads and scream his discontent.
In Los Angeles I read scores of books about breeding, training manuals, and pet magazines until I fancied myself a bookish "authority." I thought I was ready for a dog of my choosing. Then chance changed the course of my life, and the lives of so many others.
My girlfriend Nancy and I took a few December days off, packed the car, and drove up Highway 101 toward Northern California. The entire West Coast had fine weather; we took our time, often detouring over to the coast in places to enjoy the scenery.
North of Ukiah, in Mendocino County, the highway snaked through the countryside. Halfway through a long, right sweeper, we spotted furry shapes porpoising up a steep grassy hill, toward the tree line above.
"Puppies!" said Nancy. We pulled over onto the wide shoulder and got out.
On the crest of the hill a half-dozen dogs scampered for the cover of trees; midsized, dark-coated mutts with shepherd looks, tongues flagging, teeth bright in the sun.
"Five, six months old," I said, suddenly aware of a much larger creature lying by the shoulder ahead, half hidden in the grass. An enormous Rottweiler, he basked in the sun like a Dakota buffalo, his black-and-tan coat dusted with dirt. And in his mouth rested the tawny snout of a limp, road-killed deer.
"Don't go near him," I said, the deer's snout crunching like a carrot stick in his jaws.
"Not a chance," Nancy said, more interested in the puppies, who had a lithe, black, shepherd mix with them, perhaps their mother.
The Rottweiler gnawed away thoughtfully and watched us.
Following their skittish mother up into the tree line, the pups were nearly out of sight. I gave a quick whistle just to see what would happen; all but one scampered off. But the last dog on the hill stopped, gazed down at the road, then made a mad downhill dash toward us, as if recognizing someone.
Black and tan, it looked more like a diminutive Rottweiler than did the others. Like a Looney Tunes character, the quick little mutt skidded to a stop right in front of us, dropped into a perfect soldier-sit, then stared up at me like I was Simon Cowell. It was Lou.
Those lucky enough to meet Lou were struck by his soulful eyes, riveting good looks and brotherly charm. People simply couldn't get enough of him. But the dog sitting politely in front of me that day was anything but debonair. At most six months old, he had an infected tear on his throat, and ticks peppering his face and body. The bloated bugs hung like Christmas ornaments, even from the corners of his eyes and mouth and inside his ears and nose.
"He's infested," I said. "And look at that gash."
"Look at his eyes," Nancy said, grinning. "He's gorgeous."
Lou looked up at me and let out an interrogative, "Rower?"
"That gash is infected. And who knows anything about him."
"But look at him," she repeated. "Look at those eyes."
I felt Lou's warm breath on my hand. The sound of his dad crunching deer snout punctuated the swish of cars passing by.
I petted him. He looked at me like I was Mother Teresa. Fleas popped off his head like seltzer bubbles and ricocheted off the palm of my hand.
As I stood there wondering what to do, a pug-nosed Freightliner pulling a load of timber hit its air brakes and snorted to a stop across the road, onto the shoulder. Out popped a gritty little guy in Levi's and a dirty white T-shirt. He shuffled across 101 as if wearing leg irons.
"The biggun yours?" he asked, pointing to the Rottweiler with a shaky cigarette, looking like he'd been up for a week.
"Biggun?" I asked.
"The biggun chawin' on doe face," he said, bouncing on the balls of his feet.
The deer's snout secure in his mouth, the Rottweiler eyed the little trucker. The big dog was thoughtful and calm, a first clue, perhaps, to what his son would become. I remember thinking at the time that this dog could kill us all without much fanfare, then go back to his venison sashimi. He didn't, of course; he simply took the measure of the trucker for a moment, then kept chewing.
"He's part of a pack of strays that just ran up the slope," I said.
"Bitchin' truck dog."
"I don't know," I said, picturing the jumpy little guy sideways in the big dog's mouth.
"I think I'll take him."
"Oh I wouldn't," said Nancy.
"I got a way with dogs."
Before the trucker could commit suicide by Rottweiler, a park-ranger pickup pulled over and a boyish- faced fellow got out, plugged on his ranger hat, and came over.
"Howdy, folks," he said, eyes on the Rottweiler and doe.
"Gonna shoot him?" asked the trucker.
The Rottie dropped the doe and shook drool from his rubbery black lips.
"No. If he'd downed this deer on his own, we'd have to deal with him, but this was roadkill from last night. I saw it at sunrise on the side of the road."
"Rower," said Lou.
"You'd kill a dog if it hunted down a deer?" I asked.
"Stray dogs that hunt deer get euthanized." He seemed too nice of a guy to shoot a dog.
"Who owns him?" asked the trucker, scuffling his cowboy boots in the dirt, moving closer to the Rottie.
"This big boy and the shepherd bitch up the hill are guard dogs from a marijuana grow over on the other side of this ridge. This time of year there's not much to protect, so they just wander about, looking for food."
"Marijuana grow?" asked Nancy.
"Yeah," he said. "Patches of pot grow all through here, mostly on national forest land. Big cash crop. Not much else to do around these parts."
Lou scratched himself, then looked up at me sweetly, calm but impatient, as if he'd made up his mind about us and expected the same.
"I'm guessing this one and the pups up on the hill are his," said the ranger. "Dad and Junior here seem sociable, but the rest are wild. A local rescue group tried to catch them last week, but they're too cagey."
"I like that biggun," said the trucker, rubbing his furrowed neck and snickering like a kid.
"I'd think twice about him," said the ranger. "There's a reason why he hasn't spooked yet."
"What about him?" I asked, petting Lou on his head, the fleas flying.
"Tame, isn't he? I bet he'd go with you. Lean and cut up, though. Might have gotten caught up on some barbed wire."
"Nothing that can't be fixed," said Nancy, already deep in Lou's camp.
"We're four hundred miles from home," I said. "He needs a vet and he's infested."
I had imagined it this way: find a caring breeder, choose the perfect, healthy pup, frame the pedigree, and live happily ever after. I hadn't planned on making a snap decision beside the road with giant dogs and dead deer and caffeinated truckers and ganja fields and boyish rangers and sweet gypsy eyes looking up at me, wondering when we'd be going home.
"If you don't want him, I'll take him," said the trucker, laughing oddly, as if he'd decided to slow-roast Lou at the next rest area.
Nancy giggled. She knew what pushed my buttons.
The big Rottie let go a thick stream of pee onto the asphalt, then stretched his back legs out one at a time. I wondered if Lou would get that big.
"There's a vet in Willits as you come into town," said the ranger. He had a slow, bearish quality. I imagined him quietly tending to his own secreted pot patch. "It's Sunday morning, though; you might have to wake him up."
The Rottie grabbed his meal by the neck and dragged her up the hill into a grove of pines, cords of muscle flexing beneath his shiny black coat. Lou watched his father go.
"He would have killed you," I said.
"You want the youngun or not?"
"You said you wanted a dog," said Nancy, poking me. "Trust me, this is the dog."
I felt like I was on the phone with a telemarketer, about to buy a time-share in the Bronx. "Let's clear out the back of the car," I said, surrendering. "We can put down the tent tarp."
"Yes!" she said, jumping up and down. "Let's go find the vet."
"He's on the right side of the road as you come into town," said the ranger. "Big sign by the side of the road — Willits Animal Hospital, or something like that."
The trucker stomped out his cigarette and walked over to Lou. "Good little feller," he said softly, waving off a flea and caressing Lou's ears. For an instant he seemed almost normal, almost somber. "Make sure you feed him chicken livers!" he blurted, back to his old self. Then he checked the traffic and shuffled back across the highway to his idling semi.
I've thought about that trucker a lot over the years. We'd both been searching for a friend; he wanted a copilot, and I wanted an Old Yeller who'd fight the wild hogs and make me laugh — someone I could count on, like a truck dog, like a sentinel. The trucker would keep looking, but, thanks to Nancy, my search was over.
Providence, timing, pure luck — whatever one chooses to call it — graced me for the first time in my life, in the form of a flea-ridden Mendocino mutt. His dignified father, wiser and more kindhearted than I'd realized at the time, watched from the pines as I lifted his mangy son and placed him into my hatchback, fleas leaping off him like shooting stars. I'd found my Old Yeller.
Fleas suck. Our car became a traveling flea circus, a condition that would last until we got back to Los Angeles, where I'd unleash an aerosol bug bomb inside the confines of my Civic, killing the vermin, shorting out the interior lights, and leaving the car with a cancerous stench for the next year or so. I learned a lot about fleas on that trip — how alien, how invulnerable, how prolific and incredibly annoying and evil. And how it helps to have fingernails long enough to slice the armored bastards in half.
Lou got comfy in the back of the car among the now-infested camping gear and clothes. He gave Nancy a lick, then gazed out at the scenery passing by, the outdoor kindergarten he'd never see again.
"He likes your socks," said Nancy.
I looked at Lou in the mirror. He had his nose deep into one of my wool hiking socks.
"Cheese connoisseur," I said.
Lou was inquisitive but oddly calm for a stray. He'd be that way always: serene, involved, intense. From eating garbage and dodging cars in the wild to living in an inner-city apartment and eyeing derelicts shimmying down drainpipes, Lou would take it all in stride. In the wild he'd learned to think, adapt, and get by, like a wolf. It would remain one of the keys to his success later on.
A tall, gray-haired man in a bathrobe opened the door. He wiped his mouth with a napkin and sized us up, the scent of coffee wafting out of the old house. Using a bungee cord for a leash, I let Lou stretch out toward the big man, who gave him a pet and me a look.
"Found him down the road, I'd guess," he said.
"About three miles south."
"I'm Dr. Smith. Bring him into the exam room. I'll be right back."
He came back wearing a white lab coat, a stethoscope draped around his neck. Lou walked around the room, scenting out whatever pets had been in there recently.
"Get a weight on him, then put him up on the table," he said, pointing to the scale in the corner. He was considerate but all business, and probably wanted to get back to his coffee.
He wouldn't be the last Dr. Smith in Lou's life. A year later, Lou would befriend Jonathan Harris, the actor who played Dr. Smith on the television show Lost in Space. I would leave Lou tethered outside my health club while I played racquetball, and Harris would fawn all over Lou, by then fully grown and Hollywood handsome.
"Thirty-four pounds even," I said, lifting him off the scale and placing him atop the slippery steel examination table. Lou tap-danced around as I kept him steady.
"He's about six months old," he said, looking into Lou's mouth, his teeth white as cream. "Some sort of string in here."
"He ate a sock," I said.
"A park ranger said his parents were guard dogs on a marijuana grow," Nancy said, proud of Lou's criminal pedigree.
Dr. Smith listened to Lou's heart and lungs. "Bigger than logging around here. He's got a slight heart murmur."
"Is that bad?" asked Nancy, picking at a tick that had burrowed into Lou's ear.
"No — the murmur."
"Most dogs with murmurs live normal lives. He's crawling with ticks and fleas, though, and this wound is infected."
He squeezed yellowish pus from the gash, then wiped it clean with gauze.
"Gross," I said, looking at Nancy, who smiled. Pus always pleased her.
He irrigated the wound with Betadine solution, then administered a local anesthetic to numb Lou up for suturing. He worked like a watchmaker, examining the wound, removing dead skin, and cleaning it up a bit. Lou wiggled but didn't seem to mind; his tail wagged as I fed him tears of string cheese, which he took gently.
Lou had a "soft" mouth, like a Lab: he always took treats tenderly. It made him great with kids and helped him learn to pick objects up off the floor without damaging them. I once taught him to fetch a chicken egg as a prelude to my training service dogs, whose mouths had to be soft enough to pick up dropped eyeglasses or medication bottles, or retrieve food from a cupboard or refrigerator. Practicing these things on Lou helped me prepare for the real thing. Of course, I always let him eat the egg afterward.
"Before I suture him up, he needs a flea-and-tick bath," said Dr. Smith. "No sense in letting vermin get into the wound before I close him up."
"Can we help?" I asked, watching him pack the wound with what looked like petroleum jelly. Lou let out a soft "rower," his way of asking, "Is this necessary?"
"Take him over to the tub and run the water. I'll bring you the shampoo. Don't get the wound too wet."
The water ran dark with so much flea dirt and dying fleas that it nearly clogged the drain. Lou wasn't at all fond of water, a trait that would stay with him his whole life.
"This is gross," Nancy said, rinsing dead fleas off her hands and dodging one of Lou's many shake-offs, the flea-infested water and foam fanning out in every direction.
"Pus is okay, but this is gross?" I said, ducking another shake-off. Most of the ticks would have to be pulled off one by one later, a chore that would take weeks. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Last Dog on the Hill by Steve Duno. Copyright © 2010 Steve Duno. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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