Loyalty, Thy Name is Dog

19 05 2017

This afternoon we took the dogs for a walk out back.  It’s been our usual routine for the past few years.  Once in the morning and once in the evening we would put the leash on Shae and head to the utility line path behind our house, Tembo plodding along behind.  We used to walk on the street around our neighborhood, but as Tembo’s back legs started giving out it became harder and harder for her with her back legs shaking and scraping the hard asphalt.  At least on the back path she could be off leash and walk at her own pace.  We never forced her to come, either.  As a matter of fact, anytime I wanted to go for a longer walk, we’d have to make sure Tembo was inside or she would follow her nose until she caught up with me.  She used to keep up with us, walking in front and exploring smells on either side.  Lately, she would lag behind, head down and ponderously moving forward.  Occasionally her back legs would fold up under her and she would collapse for a while.  When that happened, we would go back, scratch her ears, and wait on her.  Tembo would eventually pull herself back up with her strong front legs and continue on the way.  Walking behind her was a special kind of torture.  Her left back leg scratched a comma in the sand, pulling her sideways as she walked the path.  I looked the other way, remembering the dog she used to be.

More than 14 years ago, Tembo came into our house as a pup whose litter mates had been abandoned on the side of the road.  We weren’t too sure she was a good fit for our family.  As a matter of fact, for the first year, or maybe a bit longer, I referred to her as “that Devil Dog.”  The Tembo pup nipped and jumped on our terrorized girls.  One of Christa’s first memories of her was running and jumping on top of the picnic table to get away from Tembo.  And then the rotten boards gave way and Christa found herself up to her waist in picnic table while we stifled our laughter at the sight.  I could remember how old our sofa was by the chew marks in the upholstery.  Each day at school I’d entertain my students with the misdeeds of Tembo the Devil Dog.

Her name was the subject of much mirth.  For years, the neighbors mistakenly called her T-bone.  Not a bad name for this hulk of a dog.  Most visitors to our house assumed that as big as she was—over 90 pounds—and with a name like Tembo, she must be a male.  In truth, her name came from the name of a character in a Chinese folktale:  Tikki tikki tembo-no sa rembo-chari bari ruchi-pip peri pembo.  Our first dog was Tikki, so Tembo was the logical next name.  The hapless visitor who would unwittingly ask about her name would soon get an earful.

From the start, she was stubborn and strong.  We enrolled her in agility classes to give her an outlet for her energy, but after almost tearing my arm out of the socket as she raced downhill to sniff at the other dogs, we took the instructor’s advice and bought a “Gentle Leader” harness.  That helped, but she still pulled so hard she wore sores on her muzzle. In class she crawled through tunnels, climbed up ramps, over bridges, and down steep slopes.  She learned, but only what she wanted to.  She would chase a ball, but not fetch it back.  She would sit, but only for a treat.  The wireless fence was more of a suggestion than a barrier.  Squirrels feared her and nothing could hold her back.  She was Dog.

As time went on, she mellowed.  We gave up on the wireless fence.  She roamed the neighborhood, following a set path in the morning and evening but mostly staying in the yard.  Early on, she and I had a “come to Jesus meeting” and the nipping stopped.  She suffered the little children pulling at her, moving when it got to be too much.  As a guard dog, her only power lay in her size.  Warning barks deterred the occasional salesman, but the mailman soon learned that she was not to be feared. And we learned, too.  One short woof: “I want to go out.” Several short barks: “Mail’s here.”  A long series of barks: “Come on outside, you have visitors.”

Years passed, and we all fell into a routine.  Then almost three years ago, Tembo’s world was overturned.  A rambunctious pup named Shae appeared, rocking her order of things.  This pup wanted to play, and Tembo wanted nothing of it.  Our placid old dog began baring her teeth, growling and snapping.  We couldn’t blame her.  Shae was relentless, nipping at her back legs, inciting her to join in the fun.  For more than a year, we tried to keep them separated.  One dog in, one dog out.  People walking by our yard must have thought we were running dog fights; ferocious growling, yapping, and snarling sounds broke the silence of our peaceful neighborhood.  Eventually, Shae’s rough-housing slowed such that they could both exist in the same room for a while in the evening.  And the old dog learned new tricks: how to plop down so that Shae couldn’t nip her back legs, and how to climb through a doggy door into the garage.  Her woofs to come in or out became more insistent.

Other things changed too.  She began to lose bladder control.  At first, meds helped but gradually even that didn’t stop the messes.  Her back legs shook and weakened as her joints gave way.  The vet diagnosed kidney failure: a new regimen of special food and high priced medicines.  She could see fairly well, but she became deaf as the proverbial door nail.  She would sleep so deeply in the front yard that on more than one occasion walkers stopped to ask if our dog was still alive.  But she hung on.  Walks were optional, but she never missed a one.  It was her job to be with us, to protect us from harm.  She was ever loyal.

So this afternoon we took the dogs for a walk.  It was her last.  As always, she plodded along behind, her back leg scratching commas in the sandy path, her claws worn down to the nubs.  And then, we took her to the vet.  Silent tears later, we took her home where we had prepared a place for her under the shady pines.  Brian affixed a cross made of PVC pipe as a headstone onto which I hung her collar.

Someone once asked me if I thought dogs went to heaven.  I replied that if it helps your faith to believe that, I didn’t see any harm in that belief.  I do know that our lives were richer because of this dog.  This Loyal Dog.  Whose name was Tembo.Tembo



3 responses

19 05 2017
Deborah McMurtrie

I am so sorry to hear this! She was an awesome dog.

19 05 2017

Beautiful tribute, Beth!

This is one of my favorite poems. As an ecologist, I think you will appreciate it:

The Heaven of Animals

By James L. Dickey

Here they are. The soft eyes open.
If they have lived in a wood
It is a wood.
If they have lived on plains
It is grass rolling
Under their feet forever.

Having no souls, they have come,
Anyway, beyond their knowing.
Their instincts wholly bloom
And they rise.
The soft eyes open.

To match them, the landscape flowers,
Outdoing, desperately
Outdoing what is required:
The richest wood,
The deepest field.

For some of these,
It could not be the place
It is, without blood.
These hunt, as they have done,
But with claws and teeth grown perfect,

More deadly than they can believe.
They stalk more silently,
And crouch on the limbs of trees,
And their descent
Upon the bright backs of their prey

May take years
In a sovereign floating of joy.
And those that are hunted
Know this as their life,
Their reward: to walk

Under such trees in full knowledge
Of what is in glory above them,
And to feel no fear,
But acceptance, compliance.
Fulfilling themselves without pain

At the cycle’s center,
They tremble, they walk
Under the tree,
They fall, they are torn,
They rise, they walk again.

James Dickey, “The Heaven of Animals” from The Whole Motion: Collected Poems 1945-1992. Copyright © 1992 by James Dickey. Reprinted with the permission of Wesleyan University Press, http://www.wesleyan.edu/wespress.

19 05 2017

That’s beautiful, Kathy. Thank you for sharing it.

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