Wednesday, January 06, 2010

In memory of our dog Leo

Our dog Leo passed away on November 1, 2009. We loved him dearly, and he is always in our hearts. My husband John has written a wonderful eulogy for him. We share some special Leo memories with you.

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We adopted Leo on Valentine’s day 1999, from the Oakland SPCA. He was between three and four months old, and only the second dog we had seen that day. He had enormous paws and instantly approached us in his cage with tail wagging and such an intelligent look in his eyes. We decided to look at one other facility before making a decision, but quickly went back and decided to adopt him. His given name was Sebastian.

We were driving my Volkswagen Beetle convertible, and on the 25-minute drive home Leo both vomited and pooped in the back of the car.

After briefly considering calling him Woody, we settled on Leo as a name, after Caroline’s father. I always liked the name and with him it just fit.

Because we adopted him in the springtime (for California, anyway) housetraining him was easy. We just left our large sliding doors open enough for him to get out, and at intervals took him out back to our large ivy patch. Within days he was going there religiously, which was convenient in that we never needed to clean up after him. Throughout his life, he always chose remote patches of ivy or other groundcover to evacuate, which made walks with him that much more pleasant. Getting ready for walks was another matter. While I would be tying my second shoe, he would be on the floor in front of me pulling my first shoe’s laces untied.

Caroline and I were both working at the time, and we actually had not planned for what to do with a puppy that would be home all day. I decided to take him to my office with me. I had not asked permission; my plan was to “sneak him in” and be confident that he was so well behaved and cute that all would want him to stay. It worked, although my boss treated it as an act of defiance. Leo would quietly curl up under my desk and often people did not even know he was there. I would walk him up and down the street at intervals during the day. Next door was a grass yard where we would play fetch. One colleague noted that he was so smart and responsive, “like a little person”. When he needed to go out, he would sit by the door and the receptionist would open the door.

We avoided disaster twice. I once found a devoured box of rat poison in the hallway, and had to immediately take him to the vet for de-tox. He was fine, but another time I took him out to lunch with us and had him sit out front of the restaurant waiting for us. He did fine, but unbeknownst to us a passer-by took him by the collar to the nearby luxury dog day-care outfit, assuming that he had escaped. After hours of searching, we seized on this as the likely outcome and found him there, living it up with the other pampered dogs.

Another near-disaster was when he jumped out of my VW convertible….while I was driving. At about 25mph he leaped right out the driver’s side. I heard him make the move and watched in the side view mirror as his chin banged and scraped along the pavement. Unhurt, he trotted off the road to pee on a bush. Amazingly, he tried this one other time in France while stuck in traffic on the freeway in our Renault minivan. Apparently he had had enough traffic. He actually exited the car another time when we were leaving our Paris neighborhood for a weekend out of town. While accelerating across a boulevard from a stoplight, I heard a frantic scraping of dog feet on plastic, and in the rear-view mirror saw the minivan’s hatchback swinging closed and the end of Leo’s tail disappearing through the opening. I had not latched the lid before leaving, so when Leo leaned against the door it opened and he fell out. Horrified, I stopped to go get him. A car stopped beside me with a man intent on communicating something to me. As I knew the message to be “monsieur, your dog has fallen out of your car” and it was pretty obvious that I was taking appropriate action, I ignored him. Again, Leo was fine and glad to get back in the car.

He was less lucky when I was working on a large retaining wall along the property line of my uphill neighbor. We were using steel-reinforced concrete and for awhile there were sharp pieces of steel re-bar sticking up between our yards. Apparently Leo attempted to jump over them and did not quite make it. Nobody saw him get hurt, but he became quiet and started licking a spot on the side of his body. While jumping, he had gotten caught on a piece of re-bar and it had torn a hole the size of a quarter in his right side. It did not puncture any organs but surely could have. Of course he had to be stitched up, and thus we learned the importance of the orange plastic safety caps placed on exposed re-bar.

Leo always loved to play tug-of-war, and early on could jump quite high. He could take a rope from my hand at 6 feet off the ground. He would also at times of excitement get into a sort of frenzy where he would spin around at high speed, sort of chasing his tail, and growl ferociously at nothing in particular. He would do this while in our front courtyard when the mailman visited. Leo would grab his toy rope...his mailman substitute….and thrash it about violently while growling and spinning just inside the fence from the mail slot. Dust and debris would fly out under the fence as it shook back and forth. Of course, our mailman was terrified of this 90-pound Tazmanian Devil, and refused to deliver our mail if Leo was in the driveway. Knowing Leo would never hurt anyone, once I walked Leo out to our mailman in his truck so that he and Leo could become friends. The mailman replied, “I don’t want to be friends” as he slipped my mail through the small crack in the truck window.

But my theory was proven when later, while off-leash on a walk in our neighborhood, Leo saw a mail truck with another mailman standing beside it sorting mail. Despite my yelling, Leo charged him growling viciously. This mailman looked up but did not flinch. Upon reaching the man, Leo did not actually know what to do. He sort of bumped into the guy with his shoulder, sniffed him, and then started wagging his tail.

Leo pulled the spinning move once when we took him to a dance party at the community clubhouse of some friends of ours. He followed us onto the dance floor and began spinning around to the music. The dancers cleared out into a circle and clapped in unison as he whirled and growled for about 30 seconds. I’ve never laughed so hard in my life.

Leo was a hit with the neighborhood’s two pre-teen girls. Gwen, the ten-year-old next door, would set up an obstacle course in her yard for Leo to traverse. She would cajole him through the various jumps as if he were a horse. They would invite him out to play, where we would later see him being pulled around in their wagon, wearing a pink ballet too-too, and just loving it. He was less thrilled when they took him trick-or-treating dressed in a cape. Midway through the evening, Leo somehow became spooked by the cape, it being tethered to him and following him everywhere. He bolted in a terror, shredding his cape and strewing candy in the street. They chased him for two blocks before he settled down.

Because of his good behavior and discreet defecation habits, he earned the run of our Berkeley neighborhood, at least until his last year when, unable to find or navigate his usual ivy patches, resorted to frequenting a neighbor’s garden. If he did not appear at the house after a few calls, he was usually at either of the houses next door, either hopelessly trying to befriend the cat or in the fenced yard cavorting with the neighbor’s dog. Once I look over their fence and there was Leo standing beside their golden retriever, both of them happily chewing opposite ends of the same stick. One time I heard him yelping, and followed the sound to the neighbor’s fenced-in trashcans. Leo had worked himself inside the gate, obviously after some enticing odor, and it had latched behind him. Other times he would be at the school across the street, trying to separate the Montessori grade-school students from their lunches. I’d see him facing a row of kids, all with their sandwiches held high above their heads.

I would take him running with me on my course through the neighborhood. We live on a hillside, so I’d repeat a ½ mile course five times to alternate the uphill and downhill stretches. Initially he would follow me for all five laps, but eventually he wisened up and would only join me for the first, third, and fifth lap, while sitting out laps two and four in front of our house until I passed by again. He first learned this tactic when I took him to the Cal football stadium to run the bleacher stairs. My workout was about 50 trips up and down about 30 rows of bleachers. Initially he followed me all the way up and down, but after about five trips, he stopped to wait for me five rows from the top, then seven rows from the bottom, then ten rows from the top, and eventually he just sat down at the fifteenth row and watched me pass by until I was done.

He would get upset at any human-like effigies that did not look quite real. Realistic statues were fine, it was the obviously distorted images that bothered him. One Halloween, a house on our normal walk route placed a seated scarecrow on their patio near the street. It was full-size, and with normal clothing, only with a head about twice normal size made from a round pillow. Leo decided that there was something inappropriate about this unresponsive, mute encephalitic character, and would bark at it incessantly. After it was removed, he barked at the space it had occupied for another year, as if it were haunted. In fact, Leo held a grudge against any place he felt to have done him wrong. At one street corner where he had once been frightened by a loud car, he thereafter barked at every single car that passed.

Like dogs everywhere, Leo was terrified of the ironing board and the vacuum cleaner, the latter particularly so due to my failed experiment for controlling Leo’s shedding. But nothing shook his confidence as much as when I got him to ride an escalator in a Paris department store. Dogs are welcome in French stores, and although Leo was bigger than most Parisian dogs, he was welcome and admired by the locals (“Il est enorme!”). I knew the escalator would freak him out, but I needed to go to the second floor, so I approached it quickly with Leo on leash. At a glance it looked just like a staircase to him, so he hopped on with me but instantly realized the trouble he was in. The poor guy crouched down, looked around, and tried to dig is toe nails into the steel treads. After he was peeled off at the escalator’s top, he pranced around as if his life had just been saved. Going back down later, of course, was another story. He flat out refused to budge towards it, one of the few times that he absolutely refused a command. He pulled himself out of his collar. Eventually we found the elevator.

This was not the first time I experimented with Leo and stairs. In an attempt to have him be happier while left at home during the day in Berkeley, I built an ad-hoc wooden stairway onto the flat roof of our house. It ran about ten feet from the elevated ground in the back yard, and at eighteen inches wide was eminently navigable. I’d had Leo on the roof before, and he liked it up there. I used the same technique as with the escalator, having him follow me up the stairs before he knew what he was doing. He got halfway up and, realizing his predicament, decided that moving forward was safer than moving backward. He bolted up the stairs onto the roof, and later followed me down, but of course never went near the stairs again.

Leo had several run-ins with the local fauna. We have deer everywhere, and he was able to chase a few in his early years. Caroline watched him catch one of his hated squirrels, which promptly feigned death and ran away limping when Leo paused in his attack. When Leo was home alone we often left our sliding door open for him to go in and out, and sometimes birds would wander into the house. I found bird poop on my side table once, so I knew it was fairly common. I came home from work once and found feathers strewn about the house, but no carcass. Leo had a satisfied look so I assumed that he had just eaten it. I saw this scenario almost play out again when he and I saw a bird hopping across the downstairs bedroom floor. He went after it, slipping and sliding on the slick concrete floor, so the bird hopped under the bed for cover. Leo scrambled in after it, and as I watched the bird popped out the other side of the bed, took flight, and flew two circuits around the room until it spotted the open door and flew outside. Leo appeared from under the bed looking to and fro for the bird, but alas he was too late.

He was less lucky with what I assumed to have been a bout with a bee. Arriving home from work, I noticed Leo in a subdued mood and with his face all puffy and swollen. Seeing no wounds, I began a game of tug with his rope to cheer him up and as he went to bite the rope he yelped out in pain. Opening his jaw exacerbated the pain of whatever had happened to his face, and I realized that he had probably caught one of the bees that he liked to chase around the house, and that the bee had likely gotten him, in the mouth.

And, of course, he had his one encounter with a skunk, with predictable results. He never met the small family of raccoons that would regularly appear on the neighbor’s roof to stare in at him through our picture window, but he would stare diligently back, his body tense and quivering.

He was always pretty restrained when it came to taking food off of tables. Occasionally a half-eaten burrito would disappear off of the coffee table, but things changed when we started him on a diet after returning from France. On two occasions he took whole loaves of organic whole wheat bread off the dining table and devoured them whole in the courtyard. They were not baguettes, but likely the closest thing.


His time in France was a bit less eventful, although I’m sure he is remembered in the lore of our immediate quartier after his antics in front of a restaurant one Saturday evening. It was summer and early twilight, which in Paris means about 10:00 PM, and I was walking Leo around the block, off leash as usual. I spotted my friend Tom Turchioe dining on the sidewalk with a friend, and went up to say hi. Of course Leo knew Tom and immediately nuzzled up to him for a vigorous scratch. Whatever Tom did sent Leo into an uncontrollable fit of humping spasms. He broke loose from Tom’s grip and started off across the sidewalk, sort of humping and hopping about with an embarrassed and helpless look on his face. A line had formed at the restaurant entrance and they took notice when he veered towards them. Stepping away from him, they gasped as he proceeded by them and into the empty street. Almost a full minute later he finally stopped as I led him down the street and around the corner. Mon dieu!

Such incidents did not prevent friends from getting in line to pet-sit him when we were out of town, even though he shed profusely and could barely fit alongside you in Paris’s coffin-sized elevators. One couple, while watching Leo one weekend, tried to plan a road trip with visiting friends. Overhearing the discussion of whether “Leo would get carsick, need frequent bathroom stops, or be too hot in the car” or “we would need to bring Leo’s food and water” and, finally, “he would make it harder to find a hotel“, the friends finally asked “who is this guy and what is his problem?” Not knowing Leo was a dog, apparently they thought he was some high-maintenance relative.

In his later years he developed other strange behaviors. Over time his back legs grew steadily weaker, and he had a harder time getting around on walks. Sometimes in mid-walk he would just lie down in the middle of the sidewalk, content to chill out for a while. I could hoist him up and continue, but Caroline would have to return to the house to have me go and fetch him.

One time I came home from work and I heard him yelping in the side yard. He was trapped in a raised, planted area above our retaining wall, and I still do not know how he got up there with his legs the way they were.

On his last day, he ate his lunch normally and I let him out into the October sunshine to spend the day lying in the driveway. I spent time with him there doing some work on my car. We had a short walk over to the school with the kids, and he hung out with us while they played. Later, Caroline saw him from her car, walking along a neighborhood sidewalk with Rune, a Belgian shepherd of his own age and his best friend. Rune had obviously come over to visit and they both had wandered off together.

Before dinner I went out to take Leo for an evening walk, and he was still in the driveway but was panting heavily and would not stand up. I lifted him to his feet but he would not walk or look at me. It was hot, and I was worried that he had overheated in the sun and had lost the energy to cry out. I brought him water but he was not interested. I carried him inside and realized that something was seriously wrong. I called the local emergency vet and told the kids we had to take Leo to the doctor, as Caroline was away for the day. I carried him into the car, and into the vet office where we put him on a high, rolling table for diagnosis and treatment. I stayed with him as the first fluid brought him sleep, with his signature snore, and the second put him down for good.

Leo may have passed younger than most dogs, but he did live a full life. He caught one squirrel, one bird, one mailman, chased several deer, caught one thrown Frisbee on the fly, and for one session at the beach showed the fortitude to chase a stick through some sizable breaking waves. That was my proudest and perhaps best day with him. His proudest day, or at least his most satisfying, was another day out windsurfing with me (see below). He was always a great beach companion, especially at Crissy Field in San Francisco where he would endlessly run on the grass and beach with all the other dogs. I could go sailing and leave him alone knowing he was safe and responsible. Oddly, after our first child arrived, he would never quite relax at the sailing sites. He would cry out for me as I went out onto the water, sometimes swimming after me, as if I was abandoning him. I think it was because he realized he was not the only “child” in the house anymore, and this depleted his self-confidence.

As he got older, at the beach he was content to just lie by my car anyway. However, there was some excitement one day. So I’m windsurfing at a familiar site on the Sacramento River, parked in a field below a grassy slope with Leo along, and in the process of rigging a smaller sail to handle the recent increase in wind. Leo is off somewhere.

I hear a holler and look up to see a long-haired guy running down the grass slope carrying his board and sail rig and yelling Hey! Whoa! Just then, a sudden wind gust caught his sail and this sent him out of control. The rig buffeted him around, then planted in the ground and sent him flying over the board onto his back. The rig then tumbled over him, banged off of one parked car and then wedged itself between two others.

I thought he was either 1) Really excited about the strong wind and was regaling his buddies at the car to come on out, or 2) Legitimately out of control and frightened due to the rogue wind gust or 3) Chased by bees….but then he emerged from between the cars holding something wet, floppy, and grass-covered and hollered out “that dog just ate both our steaks! Who owns that dog?”.

I looked around quizzically and went back to rigging my sail. Having been frightened off, Leo emerged from between some cars several rows away and warily wandered back to me. Of course I acted like I didn’t know him. He continued to gaze longingly back at the site of perhaps his greatest meal.

2 comments:

David Elias said...

Here's a toast to Leo!!!

megc said...

Wow, what a great tribute - Leo sounded like a real gem of a dog. I'm sorry for your loss but happy to know you have such wonderful memories of him.