Back in 2005 my friend Angie, a dog trainer and fellow founding member of Big Sky Rottweiler Rescue, and I were asked to teach a canine behavior and handling class in Casper, Wyoming. Not only was I excited to take my course material outside of Montana for the first time, but I also looked forward to the opportunity to visit my grandmother, Virginia, who was in a nursing home there. It had been longer than I care to admit since I had last seen her, and I knew that her Alzheimer’s disease was taking its toll and her eyesight had left her years before. The night we arrived, I stopped by to visit Grandma and while there, I asked for permission from the head nurse to bring Angie’s dogs, Taq and Ame, to visit my grandmother the day after the class. The head nurse granted permission, even after I explained that Taq was a very obedient Schutzhund-trained Rottweiler. The nurse, I believe her name was Judy, was still okay with the visit as dogs were always popular with the residents at the home but they rarely made visits. She was especially excited to have Ame, Angie’s Toy Fox Terrier, there since smaller dogs were better to have around frail bodies. To have the opportunity to bring dogs in to visit my grandmother was very special to me as she had always had a dog in her home, usually a stray that had wandered into her care and stayed for the rest of their life. Because of the love that Grandma showed those strays, I give credit to her for instilling in me the love of dogs at a very young age.
|My grandma and her dog, Lucky, back in 1997
The class the next day was enjoyable but long, with Angie and I teaching for over nine hours straight. By the time we finished class and grabbed a bite to eat with Kathy, a fellow BSRR founding member and the person who had set up the class, it was too late to go visit Grandma.
The following morning Angie and I said our goodbyes to Kathy and her dogs and loaded Taq and Ame into my truck with the intention of getting gas and then spending a few hours at the nursing home, before making the long drive back to Montana. Heading out of the parking lot I turned to Angie, “I really appreciate you going with me and taking Ame and Taq to see Grandma. This is going to mean a lot to her.”
|Angie (left), Ame, Taq, and Kathy and her dogs after our class in 2005.
“No problem Troy. Besides, this is good for Taq and Ame,” Angie said with a smile. I had known and worked with Angie and her husband, John, for many years, and Angie and I had previously come to the conclusion that we were siblings from a different mother given that our views on dogs and life in general were nearly always in sync.
Pulling into the nursing home, I saw Taq bounce around in his kennel and wondered if his energy level was going to be an issue. I smiled knowing that Taq’s nickname was ‘The Criminal’ due to his regular mischievous antics and propensity to get into trouble.
“Do you think Taq will be okay with all of this? He has never done this before, gone to a public setting like this, right?” I asked as I shut off the engine.
Angie shrugged her shoulders.
“Well if you can’t handle him I can take him and you can walk Ame,” she said, her smile betraying her sarcasm.
“Umm, no thanks. I’ll let you walk the rodent and I’ll stick with the real dog.”
She knew full well that I didn’t consider Ame a real dog but more of a hyperactive rat with a collar. In Ame’s defense, though, she isn’t bad for something that I worry about stepping on. Unlike some small dogs, Ame isn’t a yapper as Angie doesn’t tolerate it, and Ame actually thinks she is a Rottweiler because that is what she grew up with. Still, I preferred to have a big black and tan troublemaker at the end of the leash.
“Now don’t go picking on Ame. She is a sweetie and you know it. Besides, she will be a bigger hit in there than Taq. Everyone knows that older people like small dogs.”
“Well, we’ll see which dog gets the most attention, now won’t we?”
While still in the parking lot, I put Taq through some basic obedience to remind him that he needed to be on his best behavior. I call it getting the dog into ‘work mode’, and I use the same method with any high drive dogs I work with. The German commands did their magic on him as he sat and downed instantly upon command. Angie and John’s years of training were shining through at that moment.
I saw Judy as we walked through the front door, and she rushed from behind her desk to introduce herself to Angie and the dogs, well, more specifically to the dogs. I think she might have acknowledged us humans, that were attached to the leash, after a few minutes of petting the pups. She said we could sit at one of the couches in the visiting area while they retrieved my grandmother. As we sat at the couch I could see that Taq was a little nervous, but his training and regal attitude overcame that nervousness. There is something about the breed wherein the dog seems to know that it isn’t just a dog but a Rottweiler. Taq’s head went high and he calmed down as he took in all the activity going on around him. Angie sat on the couch and tried to calm Ame who was her normal neurotic self, her four-pound body bouncing across Angie’s lap. Seeing the two dogs together made me shake my head. Taq’s head was easily five times bigger than Ame’s entire body. One was trained in tracking and bite work and the other was simply an ornament (I’m sure I will catch hell from Angie on that comment). They really were a true contradiction of canine companions.
Judy soon arrived with my grandma, pushing her gently in the wheelchair that she was confined to due to hip problems and her lack of eyesight.
“Hey good looking,” I said to Grandma, my normal greeting for her since I was in high school, “I brought a surprise for you.” Grandma smiled a little at my voice as I gently took her hand and moved it over to Taq’s massive head. I watched as the contact with his warm fur flowed through Grandma’s fingers. Her eyes opened up and she turned her head to try and look at the dog. She softly moved her hand across his fur, feeling his shape. I could see a tear form in her eye as she caressed his ear. Taq looked at me for approval and then looked back at Grandma. He seemed to know that he was doing a job and had to be calm. Angie then asked if Grandma wanted to pet Ame and proceeded to place her in Grandma’s lap. A bigger smile came across Grandma’s face as she petted Taq with her right hand and Ame with her left.
Soon people began to migrate toward us. The energy of the dogs seemed to pull on everyone there. One by one, both patients and nurses would come by to see Taq and Ame. The air of loneliness that had permeated the place upon our entrance was gone, if only for the brief time of our visit. Off to my left I could see a frail old man sitting in a wheelchair. He was about fifteen feet away but made no effort to come closer. I could see that he was staring intently at Taq, and I couldn’t help but wonder if he was afraid of him. As a nurse was loving on Taq, I asked her about the man in the wheelchair.
“That’s Harold. He came here about a month ago. He’s a very quiet, and I don’t think he’s had any visitors.”
“Do you think he is scared of Taq?” I asked.
“I don’t know, let me go see.” The nurse walked over to the man, who in his prime, would have been just under six feet tall but now looked as though he couldn’t weigh more than a hundred pounds, his body diminished under the torment of time.
“Harold, Harold, are you okay?” The old man nodded yes. “Do you like those doggies, Harold?” The old man raised his left hand slightly, and the tremor of his muscles in response to the effort belayed the difficulty of the simple movement.
“That’s Shadow. That’s my Shadow.” The nurse looked over at Taq and me as the man’s words pierced my heart. I glanced at Angie and saw that her mouth was open like mine because of the intensity with which those simple words hit us both.
“Harold, did you have a dog like that once?” The nurse asked. Harold nodded yes.
“That’s my Shadow.”
I felt my heart tighten in my chest, realizing the connection and memories that Taq was evoking in the man’s mind and soul.
“Sir, would you like to pet him?” I asked as I stood and began walking Taq over to him, leaving Angie and Ame with Grandma. Taq strained a little at the collar, pulling me toward Harold, the Rottweiler seeming to sense something positive in the old man. Taq, without any command from me, sat next to the wheelchair and lay his head on the armrest. The withered, vein-marked hand trembled as it gently stroked Taq's head.
“My Shadow. My Shadow. You are such a good boy.” The nurse and I looked at each other through tear-filled eyes. For ten minutes the man petted Taq’s head and spoke of how good a dog Shadow was. I didn’t even try to explain that Taq wasn’t his dog. In that moment Taq was Shadow, and who was I to deny that pleasure to Harold.
After a while a voice could be heard on the intercom stating that the morning meal was going to be served soon. Angie nodded at me indicating it was time to go. We had a seven-hour drive to Bozeman ahead of us and it would take her another two hours to get back to her home in Helena.
“Sir, I am sorry but I have to take Ta… Shadow back to his kennel.” The man smiled and patted Taq’s head one last time.
“You be a good boy, Shadow. Remember, I love you. You be a good boy.” As the nurse pushed Harold’s wheelchair away he looked back at us and I saw his hand raise up slightly in a goodbye wave. I went back to sit with Grandma for another ten minutes. Finally, kissing my grandmother goodbye, Angie, Ame, Taq, and I headed out of the nursing home. I was silent as I walked into the sunlight with Angie. Taq was in a perfect heel until we were outside and then he reverted back to his normal, criminal self and began exploring the flower beds in search of one of the countless squirrels in the area.
“That was a tearjerker wasn’t it?” Angie broke my thoughts with her words as she loaded Ame into her crate.
“Yeah, I’m not sure what to say about it. Thanks again for letting Grandma see the dogs. I know it meant a lot to her, and it seemed to mean a lot to everyone else, especially Harold.”
“No problem, Troy, besides after that I don’t think I’ll ever be the same.”
I motioned Taq into his crate. With a smooth, athletic leap he cleared the tailgate and entered his crate. I petted his head.
|Taq waiting patiently while Angie and I taught our class.
“You be a good boy, Taq… I mean Shadow.” I smiled at his temporary renaming. Closing his kennel, Angie and I climbed into the cab and headed toward the interstate for home. I regretted having to leave my grandmother, as I wondered when I would get to see her again, yet those few hours with her and the time with the man who missed his dog, Shadow had changed me as well. Like Angie, I knew I would never be the same.
I was able to visit my grandmother with a dog one more time before she passed away on January 27, 2010. That dog was my boy Griz and I will share that story in a future blog. Taq passed away on March 26, 2008 and was Angie’s last Schutzhund trained dog. Though both my grandma and Taq are gone, the memory of that day, a man named Harold and his dog, Shadow, is one that I will always hold dear.
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