Big magic happened with Alex in his lifetime — the magic miracles are made of. To change on the outside, we must first change on the inside, one step at a time.
It was November, very close to Thanksgiving, as I made the drive to the animal shelter where I volunteered. Once there, I immediately noticed a large black lab huddled and shivering at the back of a cage. I did a double take, for he was stunningly handsome with chiseled features and the most beautiful eyes I had ever seen. His coat, dingy and dull, reflected his hard life. Instinctively, I grabbed a leash and opened the gate.
“Watch out for that one! Don’t trust him. He don’t like no one,” warned a worker who was passing by.
I briefly looked up to acknowledge the warning, but this dog’s eyes looked soft and gentle despite the fear I saw in them. I decided to take a risk and slipped the leash over his head. Once outside, he relaxed slightly. He even played a little ball while he forgot his troubles. I reluctantly walked him back to the same cage where he immediately moved toward the back again. Our eyes met, and I heard “Thanks,” as he literally nodded his head, tipping his nose down and then back up as he looked at me. It was very direct, very intentional, and quite moving.
Over the next few days, I couldn’t keep my encounter with the black dog out of my thoughts. I kept recalling his demeanor — cautious yet gentle, spirited yet respectful, direct yet shy. His eyes — windows to his soul — revealed a depth of awareness and character that could easily be overlooked. After all, he was just another black dog. I realized that I had a deep connection to him, even though we had just met. Two days later, the day before Thanksgiving, I adopted him, and Alex began his new life.
Alex had a lot of “detoxing” to do both physically and emotionally, and it took him quite some time before he could sleep with both eyes shut.
His nervous system stayed stuck in high gear: he would jump at the slightest noise and startle easily from sleep, growling and jumping on all fours with his hair raised. But his greatest issue to overcome was that of needing space. Alex couldn’t bear feeling trapped or closed in. His theme song was the old Gene Autry song, “Don’t Fence Me In.”
Over time he grew more relaxed with the other dogs in our family. They were a ragtag bunch of labs and golden retrievers, all of whom had checkered pasts. Being lighthearted didn’t come easily to Alex, so he always kept his space from any roughhousing that went on in the group. And they kept a respectful distance from him as well. Because of this, he became a loner, taking long walks by himself. I always felt Alex had a lot of bottled up memories and emotions, ones that he kept tucked far away because they were too painful to feel. I wondered if his shadow side would erupt one day, triggered by something that had meaning only for Alex. Often I would remember the worker’s warning.
It was during this time that another dog joined us — a big, energetic black lab we named Mikey. If Mikey had been a young boy, you would have seen him sporting a baseball cap backwards, looking like Bazooka Joe popping bubble gum. With his blocky lab head and athletic build, Mikey was larger than any of the other dogs. Naturally friendly, he went right up to Alex to introduce himself. A look of fear immediately entered Alex’s eyes, and he backed up. It was a tense moment, and I wasn’t quite sure what Alex would do. Mikey completely ignored his behavior and, in what would become his standard greeting, gave Alex a paw-shake, fist bump, pat on the back kind of move. Surprisingly, Alex didn’t lash out or run. A friendship had begun.
The two could often be seen taking long morning walks around the property discussing dog stuff as they sniffed out “varmits.” In fact, we soon referred to them as “the brothers.” It wasn’t long before they got involved in more creative endeavors.
One night I woke up to a terrible stench in the house, and, like Toucan Sam on the Fruit Loops box, I followed my nose straight to the lab room. The smell was overpowering — choking even. Molly, our yellow lab, was standing at the dog door with a determined, albeit exasperated, look on her face.
“It’s about time,” she grunted. “I can’t hold this door much longer!”
“Molly,” I said, trying to be reasonable, “I need to get outside. Where are the boys?”
She stared at me and didn’t budge. I heard some rustling outside.
“Excuse me,” I said as I wedged myself beside her and stuck my head out the dog door.
“Move over,” she grumbled as she stuck her head out, too.
Alex and Mikey were on opposite sides with a live skunk in the middle! It was dark, but you could see their eyes glowing as they stared each other down. Suddenly, there was scuffling followed by barks. Molly and I retreated inside. When we peeked again, Alex and Mikey were facing the dog door, waiting patiently to get back in — no skunk in sight. They stunk to high heaven!
But perhaps the most incredible sight to witness was during frisbee time. I would lug the big bucket of balls and frisbees outside, and the dogs would line up like good little soldiers. One by one, I launched the frisbees in the air and off to the races they would go. And though each had his own frisbee, Alex and Mikey would invariably end up running after the same one, each racing to catch it mid-air. Like choreographed dancers, they would leap into the air at the same time, catch it, then race back side by side, each holding a side of the frisbee. It became their signature look — best friends, side by side, sharing the frisbee.
Big magic happened with Alex in his lifetime — the magic miracles are made of. His beginnings as a street dog, rough and wary of anyone ready to pick a fight with him, to his life as a fun-loving, open-hearted free spirit is what healing looks like. To change on the outside, we must first change on the inside, one step at a time. And that takes courage. We have to make an inner decision to take the windows of opportunities that are offered, to step through the doors that we are afraid of, to see what is on the other side of what we know. And along the way, we get lots of support from earth angels we just happen to meet. I know Mikey was heaven sent, for he brought with him the key that unlocked Alex’s trapped heart. Nowadays, when I look out my kitchen window, I can’t help but see the spirits of Alex and Mikey patrolling the property in search of those pesky critters — best friends forever.
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