A couple of months ago my old dog Stella started slowing down, walking behind me instead of running ahead, and panting after a good walk, which she never did before.
Stella is a reject from the Nebolish Mastiff gene pool, rescued by son Pete from the ‘Big Shot’ when her collar was no bigger around than a furniture leg. Stella arrived post utero with offset jaws and a tongue that was a half-a-length longer than it should have been, which meant it hung to the right side of her mouth and often carried residuals from wherever she’d been recently been in repose–dirt, sand, hay and, oddly enough, whole pine needles.
These structural defects guaranteed that she’d be the last feeder at mama’s teat. So she became a runt. Mama ignored her because her nipples were tender from seven other puppies; the bite of a misaligned jaw was just too much. Then she was bullied by her siblings until she became soft-eyed, skin blotched and emaciated. Nature has its ways and these owners were putting her down to save her from inevitable starvation and abuse. And that was that.
These were not puppy-mill people, but they were practical, even humane I’d argue.
But they didn‘t count on my son Pete falling for her on the day slated for her–what? Demise? Destruction? Stella showed up at his house in the hands of a former girlfriend.
“She’s going ‘in’ if you don’t take her,’ she said, holding this teacup of emaciated flesh out to him.
‘I looked in her eyes,’ he told me, ‘and I just said ‘yeah, I’ll take her.’
I get that; I look in those eyes every day.
Stella doubled her weight the first week Pete had her, then doubled it again the second week–she was a fighter. She was adored from the get-go and she was bright and she used her front paws as tools, which we all found fascinating.
Soon though, he lost his apartment and approached us to take his dog for a short period while he found a new place.
‘Un-uhh,’ Annie and I said. We were recently bereft from our dear Mercy, a remarkably intuitive, blue eyed mostly Malamute dog who found us by way of a matchmaker neighbor to whom we are forever in debt. Still, we were alternately feeling relieved of the responsibility of caring for an incontinent 16-year-old 60-lb dog, and yet still in mourning for her, so we were emotionally ill-equipped to take on another.
But we did. Soon she morphed from lodger to house dog, and the warmed her way into our daily lives. This was around the time when we bought some acreage on the N. Withlacoochee River, near the Suwanee River in Live Oak, North Central Florida.
Stella was a year old when I introduced her to the freedom of woodlands. You’d think I’d introduced her to food. It’s fun to watch anything, human or animal, discover purpose, their raison d’être.
Stella’s purpose was a hundred acres of wildly lush forest adjacent to and surrounding our small house on the river. Her calling was chasing deer, and rabbit, and fox, and armadillo; especially deer, and it was the chasing, the running, that really cut her loose.
She lived to run and her hind legs grew into hams. It would be hard for you to overestimate the pure delight Stella took in chasing a surprised deer. The deer, fleet and confident, never imagined a dog like her. Confidence was a deer’s hubris and Stella threw that back in so many deer faces I’ve lost count. If a deer leapt a stand of palmettos, so did Stella. Jump a fence and zig-zag? So did Stella. After a while though, the game gave out and Stella would come home sweating buckets from her distended tongue and happy as any animal that draws breath.
But large-muscle extensions and violent leaps take a physical toll and a year or so ago she took to limping badly. Our vet Moody told us she’d torn an ACL and that she might learn to live with it, but she’d never run like she did without surgery.
‘Even with the surgery,’ he said, ‘she might not run like she did.’
And so we had the operation, which entailed replacing her ACL with 100-lb test mono–fishing leader. Then, we did five months of intensive home therapy, and that meant me hauling her 75-lbs of heft up or down 20 steps every time she had to pee. I was starting to develop muscles and a bad knee.
Half a year after surgery we let her free to run again, and she did, some, but then she start to favor the surgery leg. Soon we knew and she knew she’d never run like she did in the past. Stella never brought running up in conversation again. She is a good sport and pretends she isn’t disappointed, but I know she is.
So I cobbled together this rusty Stella-mobile from old parts and left behinds. She was a bit unsure of it ‘til I lined it with foam from our neighbor’s chairs. Now she smiles when I take the fast curves on the ATV, yanking the rattling Stella-mobile behind me.
When I go fast, her tongue and her ears flap back at nearly equal lengths and her black eyes glow like coalfire. And Stella pretends she’s running again.