Sherpa: circa 1996-February 27, 2012

February 27, 2012

From September 13, 1998

Life is very different a foot above the ground. Indoors is particularly dramatic — perspective is flattened, bookcases loom, vaulted ceilings float wastefully high, maybe 20 times your height at the apex.

Most dogs don’t notice, they don’t know the world through their eyes, but for some reason Sherpa has learned to look up. She watches the fan, spinning above her head, she sits back and raises her paws and noiselessly snaps her mouth. She has learned to clown, to flirt and gambol, to bat with clown’s paws. She has found her spots to drowse and she can twist and spin around and under her blocky brothers. She is a happy dog now.

I will admit that I thought she was a mistake; an impulse decision I would come to regret. We have two dogs already–Bork and Coal–and they are males long past puppyhood and settled in their scents and senses, comforted by their routine, their runs and their walks, the rattle of food bowls and the rough rub of rawhide between their teeth. I wasn’t sure they would tolerate another dog or that the addition of a female–spayed–wouldn’t upset the delicate balance of power between them.

Things have never been quite settled between the boys; there is always a whiff of competition in the air. Coal has his prerogatives and Bork has his jealousies and once in a great while the only resolution is the one arrived at by the flash of teeth. It is something more ritualized than fighting–more a loud dance–but it is not something to be encouraged. And Bork and Coal are used to one another, each knows the other’s limits and idiosyncrasies. Introducing a new dog to the mix was necessarily a risk–she wouldn’t know that the galvanized tin washtub belonged to Bork or that the muddy tennis ball was Coalie’s property. She might cross some invisible barrier, give unintended but clear offense.

We saw her in the pet store where we sometimes take our dogs to browse and sniff; she was one of a few animals brought in by a local non-profit volunteer group, Helping Hands for Little Paws. They had saved her from destruction by placing her with a young lady named Marlow Ball who served as her foster mom.

I don’t know how long young Marlow Ball cared for the dog who would be Sherpa, but I must say that I am deeply grateful that she undertook the chore. Part of the reason I am writing about Sherpa is to let Ms. Ball know that she did good and that Sherpa has adjusted well to her new home. She loves her brothers and they have not only accepted her but allow her to take liberties they would deny each other. She plays with Coal’s ball, flipping it up into the air and chasing it through the gravel. She has commandeered Bork’s sock toy and the two of them romp and flash together, rolling each other over and tucking their necks. Both of them tend to defer to her, and Bork will not raid her food bowl.

(Coal will, but that is the alpha’s privilege. These days he doesn’t get the chance–he’s dieting and is fed outside, away from the others. He has dropped 15 pounds. We’re all very proud of him.)

She was not a beauty, but she had her charms, a thick white coat that dragged the ground; she looked like a miniature sheepdog though we suspect she’s really a mix of Lhasa apso and larger cur. She is a small dog only in comparison to her brothers; Coal weighs in at a svelte 92 pounds while Bork is a little more than half his size; Sherpa makes about half of Bork.

Dreams of the Color Blind, 1998

Before she was Sherpa she was simply “White Dog,” and we suspect she was abused as a puppy. She was skittish and spooky and she recoiled from my touch. She nearly panicked when I picked her up. She was a little crack baby of a dog, and my heart cracked to see her so distressed. I still feel a pang sometimes when she reflexively lurches away from me. She has bad memories and maybe she will have them always, I don’t know.

I don’t know what she could have done to have earned mistreatment; while it is true she is not a fine dog, just a mutt with silken ears, she is quiet as dogs go and hardly pushy. By nature she is placid and even when frightened and cornered she will not bite a human hand.

I know this because the first time I took her to the vet, a week after we had brought her home, I had to chase her around the yard for 20 minutes or so, until she collapsed exhausted in a corner. Though she managed a snarl she accepted the chain I laid over her head. Her little heart tripped like an alarm and I loathed myself for not having better judgment, for having terrified the quivering, panting thatch of fur she had become.

That was our worst moment. Things are better now though she still jumps at noises–the rattling of a newspaper can cause her to duck her head and leap away–and still has her problems with men, particularly tall men of my general build. She still tends to scoot away from me when I approach her, but if I sit for a moment she will often come up and snuffle in my lap. It isn’t fear so much as a habit of wariness; I am still working hard to win her trust.

But these days I can slip her collar around her neck and take her for a walk. And sometimes she will doze at my feet. She is more manageable now; she likes to be brushed and is patient when her hair is being trimmed and she enjoys walking with her brothers in the evenings. She has a will and a spirit but she is not a problem dog–she was the star of her obedience school class and though I am still careful around her I don’t worry so much. Sherpa’s fine; she loves and is loved and though three dogs are more than enough I am not sorry she is with us.

As I said, part of why I am writing this column is to let Sherpa’s foster mom know that her charge has it made, and that we love our Sherpa and are confident that she returns our affection. Thank you Marlow. I hope that more people will adopt the critters that you good folks save, and that maybe someone else will be moved to become a foster parent. It is a good thing to do and I would do it if not for the yardful of dogs we already maintain, with their quirks and odd tempers.

But I am also moved to write this column because it seems to me that it has been a bad summer for dogs and cats; that we’ve heard too much about the capacities for cruelty among the two-legs. I don’t know how a person could be so mean to an animal, only that people often are and that we won’t change them by arguing the sentient nature of these beasts. I know there are people who disregard animal pain, who think it not worth bothering about, but I don’t understand them. They are what they are and they are different from the rest of us and I suppose they will be with us always, like the poor.

All I know is that there are things we can do and that we ought to do them; we ought do what we can to make the world less rugged.

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