Wally’s Gift

Ten years ago we gave Wally a gift that he didn’t want: we rescued him. The Humane
Society couldn’t tell us much, except that he was between eight and nine months old, based on
his teeth, and their best guess was some kind of husky-shepherd mix. Found on the streets of a
small town in Mississippi, he was being called Buddy because he was so friendly. His
temperament screen classified him as a “goofball,” meaning he was bright, people-oriented,
stubborn, and a bit quirky. He padded up to us, tail swishing in full circles, and plopped down on
Steve’s feet to be petted. He peered up at us with curious dark eyes; his wavy black fur was
incredibly silky. Sure, we’d be fine with a goofball.

Wade, our German shepherd, understood better than we did how much we’d transformed
our home. Wade had been depressed since his companion, a gentle Australian shepherd named
Domino, died a few months prior. He welcomed Wally, recognizing another shepherd. But
Wally did not have the German shepherd obedience genes, so when he ignored directions, Wade
was clearly perplexed. When Wally snarled or snapped at being forced to comply, Wade either
moved away from the tension or came alongside to protect us. We’d reassure Wade that it
was okay. Wade tried to believe us. And our vet simply said, cryptically, to expect some bad

For most of the first year, Wally tried to escape out the door every time we opened it, not
really loving a roof over his head. He’d climb the backyard fence at night to explore, and we’d
spend hours walking with flashlights, calling, offering treats since he led with his stomach. He
liked to play keep away when we found him yet would let a neighbor lead him home to us.
Everybody knew Wally. Similarly, at the dog park he trotted up to every person to be petted. He
would have left the park with anyone, having no special preference for us. So Steve would get on
the floor and pet and pet and pet Wally, who happily curled up between his legs to receive the
attention. Steve figured Wally would bond despite himself. And it mostly worked.

Wally learned to live in a house and be quiet at night, although if I got up, he was usually
awake, peering out a window. He was a hunter: rabbits, squirrels, opossum, even a fox and a
skunk. Once he’d killed an animal, he had trouble letting go of it and would be keyed up on
adrenaline for hours. We called it “going feral” and gave him space. We were careful taking
away anything he was guarding: we’d have to double team him to physically separate him before
we could take the rabbit carcass out of the kitchen or the bloodied fox out of the garage.

But Wally was mostly charming and funny and inquisitive. When our adult kids came to
visit, he was their best buddy. He and Wade loped around our big yard together. Wally howled
when sirens sounded and Wade felt compelled to howl with him, a low guttural howl that was as
funny as it was earnest. So we learned to accommodate the guarding of animals. And later treats.
Then we found he could get triggered by tight spaces and would bite if he felt crowded. He
snapped if he anticipated pain. He lacked what our animal behavior specialist called bite
inhibition. He was touchy about feet being near him. Did he get kicked when he was a puppy on
the streets? We tried to understand, tried to manage the environment, understood many of his
behaviors as helping him survive as a feral or neglected puppy. Steve forgave several sets of
bites on his feet. Each time that happened, I asked Steve if we needed to surrender Wally. But
Steve, the human equivalent of a German shepherd, was loyal. No, we just needed to pet him
more, love him harder, accept some quirks that weren’t his fault given his start in life. So we all
settled in.

Then Wade died unexpectedly. Wally was bereft. He stared out the windows for Wade.
Watched for Wade when we took walks. About a month after Wade was gone, I took Wally to
the dog park, his idea of Disneyland, hoping to cheer him up. His tail swished a little, but not
with the frenetic enthusiasm usually evoked by the dog park. He trotted around, took his
obligatory two poops, started to seek out some people to pet him. Then he froze, totally alert,
locked in on a black and tan German shepherd at the far end of the field. He cried out—really
more than a yelp—and went racing full tilt toward what he thought was Wade. As he got close,
he slowed, slumping to a halt, realizing it was not his buddy. I tried to engage him in park
play, but he would have none of it. Wally just plodded to the gate and plopped down, his back to
his favorite place on earth. He just wanted to go home.

One month later, we brought home Dilly, a seven-week-old collie, also a rescue. We
introduced them carefully, but their bond was instantaneous. They were zipping around the house
within hours. Wally was a good big brother, letting the puppy pounce on him and try to herd him
in the backyard. He let her tag along when he ran off to explore, although often she returned
home by herself. He taught her to chase deer from our yard into the woods across the street, and
she consistently circled back, teaching him to come back home. They were great together until at
some point he stopped seeing her as a puppy, worthy of some special inhibition. Snacks, food,
toys: all could provoke him attacking her with three or four bites. More training with the
behavior specialist, more management of the environment. Now spaces like doorways were
guarded. We learned to trust Dilly’s assessment of whether she needed to avoid Wally. Her
sensitive temperament became more fearful. She rested behind chairs to feel safe. We gave them
separate, closed rooms for eating and sleeping, so she could relax. They still romped around
outside, but in the house, Dilly was always on guard.

Again, we settled in for a mostly good stretch, although I worried about Dilly, wondering
if we’d forced her into an unhealthy environment. And then a month ago, I stopped wondering.
Dilly accidentally startled Wally and got cornered, bitten on her neck and through her ear. I got
him off of her and outside, then choked out teary apologies while I tended to her poor punctured
ear. And then the next day, Steve accidentally stepped on Wally and got cornered and bitten. He
had so many bites on his foot and hand that he had to go to a hand surgeon. And still he didn’t
want to give up on Wally. But I saw that Wally was, after ten years, never going to have a
normal attachment. He was as attached as he was capable of, but it wasn’t going to be enough to
co-exist anymore. Our hearts were broken, but we knew we needed to put him down.
We took a week to say goodbye with extra treats and walks and trips to the dog park.

Wally climbed the fence one night, staying out several hours. “He knows,” Steve suggested,
clearly hoping Wally would just go back into the wild and spare us an unequivocal end. I found
myself calling him Buddy more than Wally, as if I finally realized he’d never completely stopped
being the Buddy we met ten years ago. I’d put down several dogs across the years but was
unprepared for this, to put down a dog who wasn’t sick, a dog we loved and who loved us in his
own way. Ever the survivor, Wally tried to stay on his feet after the shot, trying to survey what
was happening. It took a second sedative for him to let go. Steve and I both sobbed despite our
resolve to be calm for our pup.

Maybe ten years together was a success, but it felt like a qualified one. Had we rescued
him? We gave him a home he didn’t want, required him to live in our human space, assuming we
had improved his life. But he was, as my mom would have said, betwixt and between, loving and
trusting us a bit but probably incapable of more than that. What had he learned about humans in
the first few months of his life? Would he have been happier feral or is that romanticizing a bad
situation? Was there really a good outcome possible for Wally after his rough start? I hope he
trusted that we loved him, that we were trying to gift him a good life. But we’ll never really
be sure that we got it right by him. So living with the mystery within Wally, perhaps that’s the
gift we didn’t want. But we all tried.

Margaret Kasimatis

Margaret Kasimatis is a psychologist and writer.  Not Pink, her first novel, debuted in 2018. She has also published comparatively boring journal articles and much more interesting short stories and poems. A Chicago native, Kasimatis has lived in Wisconsin 30+ years with her husband, kids, and goofy rescue dogs.

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