Two weeks ago, I was invited to write a “2000 or less words” piece in the context of a memoir, and submit it in a writing competition. I duly wrote “Will You Be My Friend?” however, on reviewing the terms and conditions of the competition, I decided to not enter.
Not wishing to leave it unread though ……………………..
“Will you be my friend?”
(Copyright C. Chappell 2021)
Many, many years ago, I was a 14 year old boy living in England. I had a keen interest in trains, and a busy railway line was just ten minutes walk away! The walk was very simple. Turn left outside our home, and walk for about five minutes; cross a main road, and I would be at the railway line in another five minutes. One Saturday morning, I decided to go to the railway line for a few hours. This was not an uncommon thing for me to do, and the weather was perfect for spending time with “my” trains.
I should perhaps explain that I was a very independent child, a trait learned after experiencing persistent teasing at school as a result of a speech impediment. I stammered, and saying my name was a major challenge. Children thought it was funny to keep asking me my name, and were clearly amused at my efforts to answer. There was security in trains as, not only were they very large and very exciting as they roared passed, but they never felt a need to ask me my name. Even the ones I saw standing in our local railway station seemed to be quite happy letting me simply be me.
I walked down our driveway and turned left at the end. Just a few yards in front of me was a lady who lived at one end of our street, and she was talking to our neighbour who was doing some gardening. Standing next to the lady was Sabre, a white female German Shepherd. I had seen Sabre a few times when she was on her walks in the neighbourhood.
There was nothing particularly unusual about that day until I started to walk past them. For reasons that can only be surmised, Sabre appeared to see me as a threat and suddenly lunged at me, biting the top of my leg. Given the potential power behind a German Shepherd’s bite, I think it more accurate to say that she nipped me but, as she broke my skin such that I started to bleed, it was a bite to me. I quickly returned home to show my Mom, and she took me to the hospital where I received an injection. My life soon returned to normal, except that I did not like dogs. I did not trust dogs. I wanted nothing to do with dogs.
Over the next fifty years, and while I was indifferent to dogs in general, I did get to know a few people who owned dogs. There were occasions when they went out of their way to show me their dog was not a threat and, while it was reassuring to know that they are not all aggressive, it did very little to change my overall image of dogs. There were dogs on our street who got to know me and, despite my no doubt obvious reservations, came up close and invited touching. Patting their furry bodies and stroking their ears was a rather nice experience, and I became quite comfortable responding to their requests for attention. I even found myself looking forward to meeting certain dogs.
One day a thought crossed my mind that perhaps I could find room for a dog in my life? That thought was quickly rejected as being totally ridiculous. A few weeks later, that same thought made itself apparent once again and, once again, it was dismissed. It was not long before the thought of owning a dog seemed not only practical, but worth investigating. My partner of many years had a number of dogs in her past, but she was well aware of my history and so never pursued the idea of adding a dog to our home. I eventually decided that I should discretely look into dog ownership. Discretion was important because I did not want to raise her hopes that we would be getting a dog.
I introduced myself to our local animal shelter, and explained my journey so far towards dog ownership. I explained about Sabre, and stressed that I knew nothing about caring for a dog. They were very understanding and suggested that I take a walk past the adoption bays and let them know if any of the dogs aroused any interest. Questions would inevitably arise which they could then hopefully answer. There were a number of dogs which I thought may be nice, but so many questions were spinning around in my head. How do I know which is the “right” dog for me? What do I need to know to look after a dog? What if I pick a dog who does not like me? I would like a large dog, but perhaps small would be better? We all agreed that I should go home and think about it some more. If I was still interested in a few days, then we could sit down and talk about my concerns.
The idea of having a dog in our home was constantly on my mind and, during one visit to the shelter, we discussed what I expected from a dog, and what I could offer it in the way of a home. As there were no obvious negative aspects in the context of me adopting a dog, it would now be up to me to look at the various dogs and let them know if a specific one was of interest to me. I felt that I was now “out of my depth” and so decided to get some experienced help. My partner was duly advised and was obviously very happy at the prospect of possibly having a dog in our home. We both walked past the adoption bays on a regular basis and, after a few weeks, decided that a dog named Ray could be a strong possibility. However, he was most certainly part German Shepherd which posed the question of whether I could adjust to another one without dwelling on my history with Sabre. It was mutually agreed that as my comfort level with Ray was a critical factor, I should make the final decision. With that goal in mind, it was suggested that I see Ray as often as possible until such time as I knew whether or not Ray was the one for me.
I visited Ray at least five days a week. Typically he would be brought outside to me, all leashed and ready to go. I would walk with him around a nearby park and then, upon returning to the shelter, would take him into a small fenced area where he could be detached from his leash for a while. There he would just wander around, and sometimes watch other dogs going off on their walks, or perhaps off to their new homes. This was the focus of my life for the next few weeks, until one morning in March 2013. The events on that day not only changed my life, but are etched so deep into my brain that I suspect I will remember that day, even when so many other events are forgotten.
It had started off like so many prior visits. I drove to the shelter and asked to take Ray out for a walk. They said that they would get him ready and meet me outside. Ray and I were soon off on another uneventful walk and, while I was contemplating a future with him, he was just following his nose. Upon our return, I took him into the fenced area and let him wander around as was his habit.
In the absence of any sitting area, I went into a squat position and leaned back against the chain-link fence. It was a relatively comfortable position for me as I watched Ray explore the area once again. He tended to stay close to the perimeter fence as he wandered around but, this time, he suddenly stopped and turned his head towards me. He was on the opposite side of the area, probably about fifty feet away, and he was motionless and staring at me. “What just happened?” I asked myself.
Ray is a German Shepherd/Rottweiler mix. He has the broad head of a Rottweiler, but the overall coloring and general appearance of a German Shepherd. At close to 80lbs in weight, he could be quite daunting and, from my squat position against the fence, his eyes appeared to be fixated on me.
He then started slowly walking directly towards me. It was a controlled walk, and his eyes were holding my attention. I stayed where I was and watched him coming closer, but I was starting to think that perhaps I should stand up? Perhaps his intentions are going to be unpleasant but then (I thought) I had done nothing that could even remotely be interpreted as threatening. He was now about ten feet away and I was still, quite obviously, his focus. I decided to stay in my squat position and simply trust him. As he stepped closer and closer, I was thinking about all our walks together, and our times in this fenced area. I was thinking how good he had been when leashed. I was thinking how, when the shelter staff brought him out earlier that day to go for a walk with me, his tail had been happily wagging.
My relatively short life with Ray was flashing through my mind when suddenly he was standing right in front of me. I have never before seen eyes quite like Ray’s. They are brown, with almost black pupils, and can really hold your attention. He was just staring into my eyes, and I had no desire to look away. I was reminded of something I had recently read, which stated “The eyes are the windows to the soul”. If that statement is true, then I have to believe that our souls briefly connected during those moments.
He then very slowly leaned forward until his face was probably eight or nine inches from my face. I was totally transfixed and could only await whatever was about to happen. I watched him move even closer and, still staring into my eyes, his nose touched mine. Contact was very brief, after which he turned and walked away from me.
I was puzzled, very relieved, and needed to know what that was all about. I called Ray over to attach his leash, and then we made our way back to the shelter. As the staff person took the leash from me, I asked if she had a minute because something had happened during our walk which I would really like to understand. She immediately looked concerned so I reassured her that Ray had been very good, but there had been an incident in the fenced area. I then related what had happened and, when I had finished, she was in tears.
She looked at me through her teary eyes and said “You have no idea what he was doing have you?” I explained that my experience of dogs is minimal and so no, I have no idea. She then explained that it was a dog’s way of saying ‘Will you be my friend?’ She also noted that, as far as she was aware, he had never done that to anybody in the four months that he had been with the shelter. “How did you react?” she asked. I explained that I didn’t react as I was somewhat in shock over the whole experience. It was decided that I would have a few more minutes on my own with him, before he was returned to his bay in the shelter building.
We adopted Ray in March 2013, and he still “loves” with us at the time of writing this memoir.