Man walks into a rescue… and walks out a Dogfather

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I’d never thought of my dad as a dog person. Not anti-dog, of course — we’d had two purebred Cocker Spaniels when I was growing up. But Buffy and Coco lived outside year-round, and Dad spoke of them with approximately the same level of fondness he’d describe a tuna fish sandwich or the chance to play checkers.

Truth is, he’s not a particularly demonstrative guy to begin with. We’ve always gotten along well — sharing similar senses of humor and a love of the written word — but over the years friends have admitted it’s taken a while to get comfortable around him. Acquaintances have politely called him “stoic” or “deadpan.” A few have said “intimidating.” Think Clint Eastwood (without all the pesky emotion).

So about this time last year when my father announced he was thinking of adopting a dog, I literally did not believe him. Not that you need to be ol’ Sappy-Pants like me to appreciate a pet, I just had never known him to be particularly interested in canines — or rescue. What’s more, Dad’s deep voice hovers somewhere in the decibel range of James Earl Jones clearing his throat. Hearing him coo at a shy shelter pup seemed about as likely as witnessing him host a tea party with my teddy bears.

But as my dad sent me links to various dog profiles from local shelters and rescue groups in his area, I began to realize he was serious about this. Why do you want a dog? I’d ask him over email. He never responded with any degree of insight, usually something along the lines of: Because there are no decent zebra rescues around.

It was a few days before Christmas when Dad announced he was going to meet a three-year-old Boxer — a cancer survivor who isn’t great around other dogs. That ought to nip this in the bud, I thought. Five minutes with a high energy breed who’ll need training, vet care, walks, poop pick-ups, etc., and my dad will move on to talking about taking barbeque classes or investing in a classic car.

So I was in no way prepared for what happened next. My dad didn’t just hit it off with this dog — now called Xena — he went totally coconuts.

From the beginning, he took Xena everywhere. Each morning he goes out to get his coffee and each morning Xena hops in the car to go with him. I swear, my dad used to roll his eyes at people like that: Who takes their dog with them to get coffee? But the routine stuck. Now, they not only enjoy their daily Starbucks ritual, Xena goes along for Home Depot errands or trips just to fill up the tank.

Pretty soon I started to get emails that sounded less like the reserved, almost macho-type I’d always known my dad to be and more like… well… me:

“Xena constantly amazes me with her ability to communicate. She pretty clearly lets me know what she wants… She’s real good about noticing anything out of place, and I know she understands what I am telling her. Pretty cool dog!”

I’m not sure which one of the two of them appears more proud as they take their walks around the neighborhood. They make a striking couple, each large for their species and with a commanding presence. Dad praises Xena as she pees only on the curb — never on someone’s lawn — which I used to attribute to my father being neighborly. Now I’m convinced he just wants to show off how well behaved and beautifully trained his dog is.

I remember when I first told him we were paying for Uno to go to doggie daycare (we didn’t want our pup to spend long stretches during the work week all alone). He nodded and said “Oh, uh-huh.” But I knew he was thinking, “My daughter has lost it. I don’t want to be around when she starts talking about getting that mutt an ipad.”

So I keep waiting for the honeymoon period to wear off, for my dad to stop reporting on Xena’s antics or taking endless photos of her on their adventures together. But he never does. Life with Xena stories arrive regularly. I get emails in which he truly marvels at — and savors — the human-animal connection:

“Xena understands a lot: I ask her if she wants to play with her ‘outside ball.’ She gets all excited so I tell her to meet me outside and she tears open the back door and patiently waits. So cute.”

Cute? I don’t think I’d ever heard my dad use that word before, and certainly never preceded by “so.” Like I said, there are many things we’ve shared over the years — a propensity for writing, Coen brothers movies, and hot beverages to name a few. But I hadn’t expected him to ever truly understand what my dogs mean to me.

What happened? I’m not sure, other than that Xena happened and my dad is now somewhat of a different guy. Something about that dog changed him from a dogs are fine in the yard type of person to an I have no choice but to let this big baby sit on my lap type of person.

So maybe it’s not for me to question. Maybe taking in a totally innocent soul with nowhere to turn affects someone in ways you’d never be able to predict. Or maybe my love of animals is less unique and more universal than I’m ready to admit. If that’s the case, I’m thrilled to welcome my father to the club.

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Lap dog Xena
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