S.M. Park’s continuing column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “A Dog Named Hobo,” Park writes about companionship with his dog Hobo.
I’ve always loved dogs. We had a series of them when I was a boy, everything from Collies and Boxers to Terriers and Beagles. The last of them was a huge Basset Hound named George. He was too lazy to leave the backyard, so he didn’t meet the fate of his predecessors (i.e. being run over by a car).
Though my mother wouldn’t have minded if he had, as her neatnik nature abhorred his ground-hugging genitals.
“My God!” she’d say. “Look at his giant whoozit! He rubs it on the lawn all day, then drags it in here!”
Which only made my brothers and I love him more, of course. Plus he was a Basset Hound and I was a cartoonist: we were simpatico … one glance from those baleful eyes would melt me. We had him a year before my mother shipped him to her brother in Japan. China wouldn’t have been far enough for her, but she reminded us we were moving to Oregon and still had George’s predecessor, a Beagle named Happy.
Who had issues of his own as he aged. He had regular “heart attacks” that would leave him frozen; so you might walk by the sliding glass door, for instance, and notice an immobile dog on the lawn, his legs stiff in the air.
“Hey, Dad!” we’d call. “Happy’s had another heart attack.”
My father would hurry outside and work a nitroglycerin pill into Happy’s mouth. Almost immediately he’d scramble to his feet, wag his tail and run off. Seriously. I haven’t seen or heard of anything like that since, and I’d imagine Happy was having some kind of seizures, but if so … why would nitro work?
George? He wowed them in Tokyo, winning several dog shows before he died of heart worms.
I twice adopted dogs as an adult but confused my love of mutts with the responsibilities of owning one. I wasn’t great at that part, any more than I’d been with female relationships. (I had a cat for twenty years who pretty much raised herself, and that worked out okay. She had six toes on her paws and would trot inside for a petting every day between 3:30 and 4:00 p.m. The rest of the time—judging by the scattered remains in the yard—she preyed on anything that moved.) But dogs, particularly puppies, were like kids: they required time, love and attention. Even as I was a penniless drifter who rode Greyhounds when I wasn’t hitchhiking. I gave both those dogs away and it wasn’t until decades later, after Hindsight the cat died and I was nearly sixty, that I considered adopting a dog again.
The impetus was how much I walked every day, anywhere from five to ten miles depending upon my mood. Usually in the same urban neighborhood where I lived (what was once the Italian section of Portland) so after twenty years I’d watched whole generations of families come and go without meeting any of them. I liked that: I was out there telling stories in my head, anyway, and rarely ran into other people walking alone. Most of them had a dog in tow (usually, because it was Portland, a black Lab). It tugged at my heart when they passed, as I’ve always preferred dogs to humans, so why was I still without one?
Eventually I convinced myself it was selfish to walk as far as I did by myself. And unlike the younger me I had a home and a regular (if illegal) income now. Surely I could handle a dog at fifty-nine. And if not then … when?
It was a tough call. At jeopardy was my freedom, the ability to do what I wanted when I wanted, the main thing that separated me from my married friends. Was I ready to give that up for a pet? And wasn’t I too self-absorbed to take care of someone else?
In the end I told myself a dog was doable if he or she were quiet enough. Not just no barking (that was the minimum), but no sniffling or snuffling or scratching, either. I was still in the pot business at the time and had to see occasional customers, but mostly I was a hermit who treasured silence above all things.
But where would I find a mute mutt, assuming such a thing even existed? Other than loving you, noise is what dogs do. Over a period of months I exhausted every shelter in Portland and environs, then finally headed to Longview, Washington. Their Humane Society had some intriguing dogs on their website, and I tried to remain positive as I drove north.
Then I stepped into their kennel and my hopes were dashed: it seemed like every dog in there was barking. I felt for their bored, lonely souls but knew I had to stay strong. I was backing out the door when I glanced at the dog two kennels down. He had huge brown eyes, a giant head, beautiful markings, a helicopter tail that spun in circles and, most importantly, he wasn’t barking.
He stared back at me, a wide, goofy grin on his face. It was love at first sight. I opened his cage, he leapt into my arms and the deal was done.
Instead he stared back at me, a wide, goofy grin on his face. It was love at first sight. (Which scared me a little: that had never worked with women.) I opened his cage, he leapt into my arms and the deal was done. Oh, I took him for a walk, did my customary muteness check, but it was perfunctory, really: as long as he didn’t bite anyone, he was the one.
The shelter guessed he was a year old. (It was nearly 9/11 at the time, so I made that his birthday.) I named him “Hobo” because he’d been found on the railroad tracks outside of town and he was, in my estimation (later confirmed by DNA testing), a German Shepherd/Pit Bull mix. A “Gerbull,” as I called him.
When we were seated in the car I took his sweet face in my hands and vowed I’d never abandon him no matter what. This was mandatory for me because—fickle as I am otherwise—I never break promises, even to animals. I brought him home and was relieved to discover he was housebroken; then I raised a treat in the air and he dutifully ran inside his crate. Jesus, I thought, someone’s done the hard work for me … maybe, like Hindsight, Hobo can raise himself.
He tried. I had to feed him and pick up his shit, of course, but otherwise it’s hard to imagine a more unobtrusive companion. He was a friendly dog who barked once a year (just to let me know he could), and while I spent my days reading, writing or drawing he’d lay quietly on my bed upstairs. No aggravating growling when people walked by outside (or worse, knocked on the door), no scratching or whimpering that he wouldn’t cease with a glance. He lived for our thrice daily walks and rarely required a leash. We covered 25,000 miles in the dozen years I owned him and from March through September the first thing we did every morning was a three-mile hike on the beach. (In the winter we’d slog through the local forests.) He got occasional diarrhea from eating crap he shouldn’t have, but he never gained weight or went to the vet with ailments. (Well, except for the time a German Shepherd bit the end of his ear off. He had a half-dozen fights in his life, all of them instigated by other Shepherds: they acted like his father ruined the brand by humping a pit bull.)
There was the occasional problem with his jaws, of course, and the fact he treated the ten-gauge steel in dog crates like taffy. This irked me for awhile (mostly because I couldn’t believe a dog his size could generate that much crushing power), but I finally gave in and bought him a lion’s cage. (His normally swirling tail sunk to the ground the moment he saw it.)
Mostly, though, I just did the best I could for him, if only so I could tell myself that later. I don’t like walking dogs, for instance. I think walking should be a solitary, contemplative activity, and that’s pretty much impossible with a squirrelly goofball beside you. I also don’t require company per se, so having another being around twenty-four/seven was difficult.
Which is, of course, exactly why I needed it: my love for Hobo was the greatest gift he gave me. When we drove somewhere he’d sit in the passenger seat and lean his head on my shoulder. He always slept a few feet away, and when I called his name in the morning he’d sit up, put his front paws on my chest, then nuzzle me with his nose. I never taught him anything, not even that, yet he always did what I asked. All while making as little noise as possible. The only thing I didn’t like about him was how much I’d miss him.
Then gradually, over the last six months or so, his mighty engine wound down. He was thirteen and they talk about dementia in dogs that age, but I think it’s just them wondering where the hell the vigor went. I’m a very fast walker and as Hobo and I did our once-around-the-earth trek (in terms of miles) he was normally far ahead of me. That eroded until recently he’d slowed to a crawl. The vet couldn’t find anything structurally wrong with him (“There’s no arthritis, he still has a spring in his step and a heart like Secretariat,” he told me), so I stayed optimistic right up to the moment he toppled over in the street, unable to rise without assistance. When a German Shepherd or Pit Bull gives up like that … it’s curtains.
He fell twice more over the next couple days, and when he finally stopped eating I took him to be euthanized. As the vet slid the needle into his vein he laid his huge head on my foot, looked up at me one last time.
I wanted to dissolve in tears. Instead I grinned, reached down and scratched behind his ears.
I owed him that much.
He was the best thing that ever happened to me.