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David Miller: Feisty rescue became the dog we deserved

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- I sat and watched him die. From the time he was diagnosed with cancer, we had been dreading this moment. He'd been fearless to the end, but finally succumbed. Reflecting back, it occurred to me that his arrival into our lives had been no less dramatic.

It had been a typically dreary Sunday in March 2005 when my wife Debbie asked, "Did you see the dog in the paper today?"

"Which one?"

"The one where the owner had to give him up because she had to go into a nursing home and couldn't keep him. It's so sad."

I said I didn't read shelter listings. We already had two dogs. Later that day, I was watching TV when Debbie stopped and said, "I guess we're not going to do anything about that dog?"

"What dog?" I'd already forgotten the earlier conversation.

"You're right. It's dumb. Never mind."

An hour later we were at the shelter. Nick, a half-crippled 5-year-old beagle/Jack Russell terrier mix, rolled his big brown eyes lovingly whenever Debbie spoke, but for me, offered a look that was clearly willful. I'd brought along our border collie, fully expecting the two not to get along, figuring that would end to nonsense. They met nose to nose, sniffed and then ignored one another.

"Idiot," I grumbled to the border collie.

"How does he do with cats," I asked, remembering we had a cat at home.

The shelter attendant didn't know, so we took him to the cat room to see. The dog just hung his head.

"I guess he gets along OK with cats," my wife said.

But as we exited the room, I caught another sideways glance from the dog, and maybe a wink. The die was cast. Nick was going home with us.

The instant our new dog entered our home, he spied our cat sleeping under a table and exploded in chase, racing through the house with the other dogs in hot pursuit. We heard a crash. With the cat dispatched, Nick marched back through the room, stopping just long enough to take an enormous dump on the rug before heading to the food bowls to polish off every remaining crumb.

"Nice dog," I said to my wife.

Over the next few hours, there were more chases and crashes, and Nick managed to steal all the dog toys and hoard them under a table, where he issued deep, threatening growls when approached.

Our other dogs grew increasingly agitated, and my wife grew increasingly distraught over the prospect of returning Nick to the shelter. Then our older son, who was away at college, called and learned of our predicament, and offered to take the dog.

Nick's exposure to higher education was short-lived. Our son's housemates objected to his presence and he was quickly returned. Still, he gained something from his college experience -- a new name: Rusty.

Rusty apparently picked up a bit of political science knowledge because upon his return, he established détente with the cat. He and the other dogs managed to settle into an agreeable living arrangement. Most important, he quickly expanded his alliance with my wife. Then, in a move that won me over and for which I became eternally appreciative, he did something I truly admired -- he bit my mother-in-law.

Good dog. Rusty was home.

Our new dog possessed physical deformities of unknown origin. His right front leg failed to fully support his weight and his hind end was twisted in a manner that caused him to skip when walking or running. Yet he was fast. If he got free, he was uncatchable, although he rarely ran far. His beagle nose would catch scent of a rodent lair and the terrier in him would start digging. We would find him head-down in a hole, excavating a tunnel with his butt in the air and tail frantically waving. He was never happier than when he was digging. Or eating.

Rusty loved to eat, and over the years, put on a few extra pounds. He would bay while his dinner was being prepared and rarely left anything but a clean, well-licked bowl.

In the early days, he would snap at my hand when I'd reach down to pet him. This faded over time, but if I held my hand in a certain manner in front of his nose, he would curl his lips and snarl, then relax and lick my hand as if to say, "Just remember who's in charge here."

I was devastated when our border collie died, and Rusty crawled into my lap and rested his head on my arm. It became a ritual he repeated nearly every morning for the rest of his life. For all his external fierceness, he had a gentle interior. When a new pup joined our family, he welcomed the pup graciously and they became close friends.

Before Rusty got sick, he started spending more time with me. I'd find him under my desk or where I'd watch TV, often snoring so loudly I couldn't hear the show.

On the day he died, Debbie and I had left briefly to visit a neighbor. Returning, we found he'd been throwing up. I told Debbie I'd stay with him and suggested she go to bed, then I sat on the floor, trying to make him comfortable. He calmed down and slept, and I stretched out on the couch to keep an eye on him. All of a sudden he stood, looked at me out of the corner of his eye, and then crawled under my desk. He died soon after.

Rusty was definitely my wife's dog. He adored her. Debbie has a saying. "You don't get the dog you want. You get the dog you deserve."

Debbie's love, caring and affection turned Nasty Nick into Trusty Rusty. And she deserved all the love he gave her in return.

David Miller lives in Canaan Valley and may be emailed at rostline.wv@gmail.com.


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