John Lee, Sara and Grayson

These Dogs

“Laurie. Laurie. Laurie –” Brian’s voice startles me to semi-consciousness as he’s jumping out of bed to scoop Laurie up. It’s too late. A puddle of dog pee soaks into the carpet as he carries Laurie, our 14-year-old Greyhound, outside and into the yard. It’s 3:30 AM.

This, unfortunately, is the usual time Laurie needs to relieve herself. Normally, though, she whines first to wake Brian up and he gets her outside in time. Tonight there’s no warning. Six nights out of seven, at least, she’s waking Brian up in the wee hours. I never hear her. He can’t help but hear her.

After standing in the cool night air waiting for Laurie to do her business (or, on this night, the rest of her business), Brian can’t get back to sleep. He’s been running at a deficit for weeks, at least. If I asked him to check his Fitbit data he’d probably find it’s been more like months since he had a decent night’s sleep.

If we aren’t coping well with an elderly dog in our house, how the hell can we expect to handle her in an RV? On top of that there’s John Lee, our Greyhound who can handle his bladder but not separation from me.

These two are family, and we’re not planning on leaving them behind. But something’s gotta give.

Ditch Dog

Southeastern Greyhound Adoption (SEGA) volunteers brought Laurie into their program after numerous calls to her possibly dodgy jailer – Polk County, Georgia Animal Control. Patty is one of at least a few SEGA folks who keep an eye out for Greyhounds on Craigslist and shelter websites. Patty spotted Laurie on the web pretty quickly after she was picked up, but Polk County Animal Control was for some reason evasive and difficult to deal with.

Laurie was laying in a ditch when animal control found her. She wore an electric fence collar – seldom effective for containing Greyhounds – and had a mouthful of rotten teeth, a tumor on her inner thigh, and was heartworm positive. Polk County Animal Control told Patty they were holding Laurie for her owner, but after Laurie remained unclaimed for several days they relented and agreed to release her to SEGA.

Laurie the Greyhound
Laurie, soon after coming to live with us

By the time we brought Laurie to our house to foster, she’d received the first of her heartworm treatments and was minus the offending tumor, as well as all but six of her teeth. She was 11, if memory serves. Weeks of leash walking followed, to prevent her from breaking into the 45-mile-per-hour sprint Greyhounds are known for (and thereby sending blood pumping through a possibly holey heart, which could have killed her).

Being able to simply open the back door and let a dog out is a luxury we don’t take for granted. Laurie wasn’t the first dog we had to put on a leash even for quick potty breaks, but her aversion to the leash made for a trying time. I guess after a lifetime of being left in a yard alone, it must be pretty traumatic to have a strange biped leading you around outside, begging you to please pee and/or poop.

Laurie had other fears, too. The electric fence collar must have beeped right before it shocked her, because beeping sounds – even those coming from the camera as I tried to take photos of her – made her run. She was quirky about eating out of a raised feeder, terribly thunderphobic, and did not deal well with hard floors.

Laurie is still sometimes a fearful dog. Unless there’s food involved. Then she forgets herself.

We figured not long into fostering Laurie that we’d just keep her. After a few weeks with us we were catching hints that there was more to her than the wounded orphan who’d been hauled out of a Polk County ditch. Today, despite her age, she’s sassy, sometimes bossy, and often acts as though she feels entitled. She owns Brian. Not just at 3:30 AM, either.

Walking around outside with a dog waiting for it to do its business – in the dark, the snow, rain, or whatever – is a joy we’d come to know once again anyway, as soon as we gave up our fenced backyard. Having to carry Laurie up and down the deck stairs (she’s stumbled one too many times for us to let her take them on her own anymore) forces us outside now.

I’m uncomfortable with the “why” behind our decision to no longer allow Laurie on the stairs. We know from experience that the weakness in her hind legs will worsen with underuse as well as overuse, and age. The right balance of activity involves a lot of guesswork and might not measurably change things.

Carrying Laurie’s stripey rear end up and down stairs several times a day isn’t entirely without a silver lining. She gets two big hugs each trip out. My biceps, back and quads are getting stronger. And, in case I want to apply for a Workamping or Camperforce gig, I can honestly say I have the ability to lift 50+ pounds.

Confession: I didn’t always ❤ dogs

For most of my adult life I wouldn’t have considered myself a dog person, or maybe even someone inclined to have any pet at all. Plus, I had a child whose allergies to dogs sent him on a downhill path that sometimes led us to the hospital (he loved them, and could not stay away).

The wheels of change were set in motion the day I stumbled into a pack of Greyhounds.

I was a full-time commuter student cramming all my classes into two days, working the other three, and trying to avoid sucking as a single parent of two 24/7/365. I hurried everywhere. I studied all the time. There was no such thing as a break between classes; that was homework time.

When my early class let out, I’d make a mad dash toward the library to make the most of the time I had before the next class. One day after my first class, I came upon an unusual sight on the path to the library: a small group of women gathered with their dogs. Not just any dogs, either. These were elegant, long-legged creatures of beauty. I was mesmerized.

It was obvious this was some sort of organized thing, because dogs wouldn’t otherwise have been allowed on campus. I found myself drawn toward them, and not the library. They were so zen.

As I crouched down to pet one, another came over to share in the attention. Calm, loving, gentle – these weren’t like any dogs I’d ever met. The women said that they were Greyhounds – former racing dogs. I’d never been around Greyhounds or dog racing, and had no clue that Greyhounds might do anything but run.

I must’ve asked a hundred questions before tearing myself away to head to class. Never made it to the library that day. After that Greyhound encounter I read everything I could find about the breed. I made up my mind to adopt Greyhounds once I had graduated and settled in a job.

How we came to be owned by Greyhounds

It was actually several more years before I adopted my first Greyhound, Sara. The kids were gone, and I worked and commuted so I wasn’t home a lot. It really wasn’t a great time to bring a dog into my life, but I went to the adoption kennel “just to look,” at the insistence of a then-boyfriend.

Sara M
My girl Sara, doing what she loved most.

At the time I didn’t realize how impulsive the guy was, and I gave his input way too much weight. As a result, I found myself writing a check for the $300 adoption fee – an amount that would barely clear the bank. As the adoption coordinator did the paperwork, I sat on the kennel floor in front of Sara’s run, trying not very successfully to hold back tears. This dog was the culmination of a seven-year dream.

Not long after adopting Sara I sent the goofball boyfriend packing. With him went the dog he impulsively decided to adopt as soon as I got Sara. It hit her hard. She moped, not interested in her toys or playing with me. I thought it would be a good idea to foster another Greyhound so she’d have company. She didn’t get along well with the female I took in, but when we swapped that dog for a male she seemed to get her groove back.

By this point my life was given over to dog happiness. I couldn’t disappoint Sara by letting her new friend Grayson go to another home, so I adopted him. He’d been bounced out of his previous home after his adopters had a baby and no longer had time for him, so I felt bad for him.

Sara was a fearful dog. Getting bit by a neighbor’s lab magnified that fear. I was always on guard with her because she seemed to be a magnet for troublemakers. Grayson, on the other hand, was the Best Dog Ever. Big ol’ black boy with a humongous overbite. Sweet as can be. And the second he met Brian, he was no longer my dog.

So, that’s how Brian got sucked into the world of Greyhounds. It was a package deal, but it probably didn’t hurt that Grayson stuck to Brian like velcro.

And John Lee made three

John Lee
John Lee just before his (failed) attempt at chasing a lure.

We regularly took in extra Greyhounds to foster, getting them home acclimated and ready for adoption. We grew to love each of the hounds we took in, but most of the time it was easy enough to let that third dog go. Three was a doable number, but not our preferred default.

One weekend I went up to the adoption kennel to help bathe the dogs just coming into the program from the track. We only recently adopted out a foster, and were enjoying the relative ease of handling just Sara and Grayson.

I arrived at the kennel before the new dogs. Other volunteers milled around outside, waiting for the new dogs. One volunteer had John Lee outside on a lead. I recognized him as a leftover from the previous batch of dogs.

“John Lee – what are you still doing here?” I asked.

“I guess nobody wanted to take him home,” the other volunteer said.

I scratched behind his ears and petted him. He seemed very alert, but not really all that different from other Greyhounds I’d been around. Well, except for that curly tail. Usually Greyhound tails are long, and just sort of flow behind them. John Lee’s tail was almost as curly as a Huskie’s. That should have been my first clue about how high strung he was.

“You want to come with me, buddy?” I said. He didn’t give me much of a response. If I asked him that question today he’d bounce on his hind legs, jump around like a kangaroo, and bark nonstop until he was absolutely sure he wouldn’t be left behind.

I later learned that someone had, in fact, taken John Lee home from the kennel. They brought him back the next day, after he’d kept them up all night.

Continuity…or not

It was sometime in 2011 when John Lee came to live with us as a foster (we’ve had so many Greyhounds come through our house that it all kind of runs together). In December of 2011, we decided to adopt him.

By this time Grayson was 12. We feared we would lose him soon, because the vet had seen something funny on an x-ray. Since we didn’t want to make Grayson suffer through the painful tests required to confirm the suspicion (osteosarcoma, which is unfortunately common in Greyhounds), we just assumed every week could be his last. Keeping John Lee, we thought, would maintain some continuity for Sara down the road.

Our big guy, Grayson

As it turned out, Grayson didn’t have osteosarcoma. This bone cancer would have taken his life in short order, but he was with us for at least a couple of years beyond that fateful x-ray. The spot on his bone was likely a remnant of an old racing injury. Grayson was quite a big boy, and a very competitive racer (we once had him clocked at 56 miles per hour well after his retirement!).

It wasn’t a definitive disease that took our big guy. It simply became increasingly difficult for him to move – especially in his hind quarters. We struggled with the decision to let him go, because it was only his rear end that wouldn’t cooperate. Some days he seemed a bit better. But when it became clear that our sharp old boy was frustrated more often than not, we forced ourselves to let him go.

In May 2013, we had a wonderful mobile vet service come out to the house to help Grayson gently make that last journey. Brian almost never cries, but that day he and I both cried over Grayson. Still do sometimes. Yesterday I picked up Grayson’s paw print made that day four years ago, and burst into tears again.

In the weeks leading up to Grayson’s death, Sara began refusing food. I loved my girl, but she was easily the most neurotic of all the Greyhounds I’ve kept. If something was different or out of place, she wouldn’t eat. While we were losing Grayson, everything and everyone was upset, so her behavior wasn’t surprising. She’d lost quite a bit of weight, though, so as soon as we’d said goodbye to Grayson I made a vet appointment for Sara.

Eleven days later – four years ago to the day, as I write – I sat on the floor at the vet’s office holding Sara in my arms as she received the drugs that would first ease her pain, then carry her out of this life. Some sort of colon cancer – not emotional upset – switched off her appetite.

Losing Grayson was very difficult, but we knew it was coming. Losing Sara unexpectedly as we did, and less than two weeks after Grayson, was devastating.

Suddenly John Lee was an only dog.

Mama’s boy

Even before deciding to live in an RV full time, we had plans that were complicated by the fact that dogs were a part of our family. The more dogs, the less flexible we could be about how we would live in our new life.

Since John Lee had flunked out of racing school, we adopted him at a fairly young age. He’ll likely be with us until 2020 and beyond. We hoped he’d be OK as an only dog, and he sort of was. But not in a good way.

Instead of having to compete for attention with two other dogs who beat him out every time, John Lee got it all. His overreaction to stimuli – say, me opening my sock drawer, picking up my keys or merely touching a collar or leash – intensified. We tried to make leaving a positive experience (nice music, treats when being crated), but by the time we returned he’d be frantic, barking, pawing at his crate.

John Lee & Laurie
Squirrel?!? – John Lee & Laurie

We hoped having Laurie around would ease John Lee’s separation anxiety and help him calm down, but we adopted her more for her sake than anything else. That’s a good thing, because while John Lee likes having a buddy, she isn’t enough to keep him from acting like the biggest spaz of a Greyhound I have ever met anytime he thinks I might be going somewhere without him.

He also acts like a big dork if he sees other dogs – pulling on his lead to try to get to them, bounding around in circles like a whirling dervish, barking and whining. I tell him this is why no one wants to play with him, but he’s not listening. Ears straight up like Anubis, yet he doesn’t hear a word I say.

It’s never good when a dog freaks out when he’s left alone, or when he sees other dogs. When we have to stay in RV parks and leave to go work, or take John Lee out several times a day, it really won’t be good.

What’s next?

We worked with both Sara and Grayson to establish rules and expected behavior, and they were great dogs who were fine around people and okay alone when we weren’t home. When we brought Greyhounds into our home to foster, they quickly picked up on what we’d taught Sara and Grayson.

John Lee came into the picture when our focus was on an ailing Grayson. Soon after, he had no canine role model at all. And then, he had Princess Laurie of the Polk County Ditch. Although not as reactive as John Lee, she sees little reason to obey humans and we mostly let her get away with it because she’s in shaky physical shape.

I should have started working with John Lee four years ago. But ya know when’s the next best time to start? Yep – now. The “can’t teach an old dog new tricks” saying (almost always used when speaking about how stubborn humans are) has little basis in reality. It just takes time, and consistency.

I’ve been using the Treat&Train system with John Lee for a couple of weeks now, and following their recommended course. It’ll take longer to deal with separation anxiety and overreactive behavior than to simply teach him tricks, though the system does help speed the training.

It’s just one more thing on the to-do list.

Next month we’ll put some of this training and theoretical stuff into practice when we spend a week at a nearby campground. We’re only taking one car, so I won’t be going much of anywhere. Still, I can leave the RV for short periods as we work on John Lee’s separation anxiety. Also, as many RVers as travel with pets, we ought to have some opportunities to work with John Lee on acting normal when he meets a potential new friend.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure how we’ll handle Laurie on this trip, or how she’ll react to the change of place. I do not know how I’ll manage carrying a long dog through a narrow RV doorway and down somewhat shaky steps several times a day – especially if there’s another impatient long dog at my heels. But I suppose now’s as good a time as any to find out.

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