Yesterday as I was taking our pup for a stroll around the yard (he needs to check every blade of grass for intruders at least three times a day) Cole's fur stood on end and he began growling. All kidding aside, as Cole has matured he's become a pretty intense, protective guard dog. He's also so good at spotting possum, skunks and other troublesome critters that I pay close attention when he behaves as if something isn't right.
This time trouble was big: a dark cream-colored Labrador mix about three times Cole's size, watching us from a wooded area at the very back of our property. He barked back at Cole with a deep scary woof, and since he looked like he could step over the only fence between us and have us for brunch, I decided it was time we went back inside.
I mentioned the dog to my guy. "There's a big lab back there on John's property."
"Uh-huh. Maybe someone is moving in."
A bit of backstory: John's property has been unoccupied and untended for a couple of years; the yard is filled with weeds taller than me and there are so many critters in the undergrowth my kids aren't allowed back there anymore.
It's been a tough week. I was tired, I had a thousand things to do and no time to look after someone else's dog. Just the sound of that Lab's bark scared me. But the dog being alone back there bothered me, too. I don't know why; it just did. So I walked back by myself to say hello and have a closer look at him.
I didn't try to go near him at first. He was sitting next to the gate and watching me like I was a big chew toy. I stopped a few yards away and spoke to him until I saw a reluctant wag of his tail. Then his ears drooped and he gave me a big, toothy grin. I imagined him sinking those humongous fangs into me as I kept talking to him and went a little closer, and closer, until I was near enough to hold out my hand for him to sniff through the gate.
He was big and muscular and had a funny-shaped jaw for a Lab, more like a Rotti in Lab's clothing. He also had those cool eyes of a working dog, the kind that assess you thoroughly (and yes, I do know better than to mess with a working dog.) He was also covered in mud on his underside and looked tired and thirsty. He couldn't tell me what was wrong or why he was there, but I had the feeling that he was in trouble.
There was no one on John's property and the dog made it clear that he wanted out, but the Lab was so big he couldn't even push his head through the five-inch gap in the gate. Once we'd size each other up, I crouched down to get on his eye level and see if his collar had a tag. It did, a little worn one you can get in the pet shops. It was flipped backward, though, and if I was going to read it I'd have to reach in and turn it around.
Note here for kids and adults: never do what I'm about to tell you I did. I've been around dozens of strays and hostile pets over the years and I can make a good guess as to how they'll behave, but it was still pretty stupid.
I reached inside the gate for him to sniff my hand, and he began to wag his tail and head-butted my palm. I praised him and scratched around his neck until I was sure he felt comfortable with me touching him, and then I checked his tag. I recognized the name and address engraved on it as belonging to one of the local farmers.
I left him there and went back to the house to get some water and a snack for him. In passing I updated my guy, who suggested I open the gate and let the dog out. His philosophy is, "The dog will find his way home."
I couldn't do that. I know some people are fine with letting animals run loose, but I'm not. There are also a lot of little kids in the neighborhood who are always playing outside, and plenty of traffic on our streets. I didn't know what the dog would do; it was just too risky.
The Lab slurped up an entire bowl of water I brought back to him in a few seconds and gobbled up the snack in two bites, which told me it had been awhile since he'd been watered or fed. Sometimes it's easy for dogs to get in under fences but almost impossible for them to get back out, and John's property has a triple fence: barb wire, chicken wire and wood post and slat. There was no one who would have known he was on that property but me; it's just too overgrown and wooded and everyone avoids it. I thought it was logical to assume the Lab was trapped there and couldn't get out.
Armed with that knowledge and my theory, I went back to the house and started making some phone calls. I couldn't get hold of the farmer or his family, but I left messages at the farm and on his mobile number (which was on the Lab's tag.) Then my guy and I had to run out and do some errands, and while I wasn't crazy about leaving the dog back there alone, I had described where he was in my messages and promised I would check on him when we got back.
My guy was amused by all this. "It's just a dog. He probably gets out all the time."
I'd never seen him running loose, and while I've gained a rep as the neighborhood busybody for catching any stray pet I see, this was different. I just knew that dog was in real trouble, and when we got home I was going to go back and see if I could coax him onto a lead and walk him back home. My guy thought I was blowing the whole thing out of proportion.
While we were out, my mobile rang, and it was the farmer. "We've been looking for him for days," he told me. "We even went over to the pound to see if he'd been picked up. We never would have looked over there for him."
I filled him in on the dog's condition and what I'd done, and he thanked me and promised to go pick him up at once. When we got home from our errands, the Lab was gone, and the farmer's wife had called the house and left a really lovely message thanking me and telling me how happy they were to have found him.
"See?" I crowed to my guy. "I was right."
He just shook his head. "You could have gotten your hand bitten off."
Maybe I could have, or even should have, but it felt good to know I'd helped a lost dog and contributed to this story's happy ending. There are scary things out there, and it's definitely safer not to get involved. But to paraphrase Rilke, sometimes terrible things are simply helpless, and need help from us.
Pet owners, please consider getting an ID tag for your pet engraved with your name and emergency contact info. There are plenty of places you can get them cheaply like your local pet supply store or a web site like this one. Here at Casa PBW we've also had our pets implanted with a microchip that cannot be removed or lost; if you'd like more information on this new process check out this article or talk to your vet.
Also, if you see a stray pet in your neighborhood, the safest thing to do is contact your local Animal Control officer. You can usually find the number under your city, county or municipality pages in the phone book.