His name was Dakota, but we always called him Cody. Because I’d adopted him from a Jersey shelter, his past remained shrouded in mystery. We knew the people who dumped him had gotten him at the Philadelphia SPCA, so he’d already been abandoned twice in his young life. I use a harsh word—dumped—to describe their action because they had not done right by Cody. They’d kept him chained up in their yard 24-7 by their own admission, and then took him to the shelter because they “could not control him.” He was fifteen pounds underweight and suffering from Lyme Disease and chronic diarrhea, but neglect and loss had not soured his sweet nature. Because of his size and breed, the shelter offered him to the local police department. He flunked their test, though; they wanted their dogs to have more of an “edge.” As soon as I heard that, I knew he was the dog for us.
My dad was living with me then, and when we drove to the shelter to get him, he jumped into my car as if he’d been waiting for us to take him home. “Home” was a house with a large, fenced-in back yard and two other dogs, Caitlin, my elderly poodle, and Randy, who I called my G.K. dog, for God Knows what her ancestry was. She was a neighbor’s dog with a sad history of abuse and neglect that I’d taken in on a “temporary” basis that would last for twelve and a half years. Cody always liked the ladies, even though he had to settle for platonic friendships, and seemed pleased to have two female roommates. He had lunch, explored the house and yard, and soon afterward, we heard an odd noise coming from the living room. We discovered Cody rolling around on his back, waving his big feet in the air, and moaning like a water buffalo in rut. We would soon learn that this was how he expressed happiness. I know I may be ascribing human emotions to a dog, but I’ve always been convinced he suddenly realized that this home was going to be different, that he’d be welcome in the house instead of being banished to the back yard, that he’d have other dogs to play with, and enough to eat at long last, and he was overcome with joy at this remarkable turn in his fortunes. He did something else that night that I’ve never forgotten. I’d given him the choice of sleeping upstairs with me or downstairs on the bed which my Norwegian elkhound had once used, and he’d chosen to stay downstairs. But I awoke in the middle of the night with the sensation that I was being watched. I opened my eyes to find Cody standing by the bed, looking down at me. He reached out then, very gently nuzzled my cheek, and then turned and padded back downstairs to sleep.
I did not fall totally under his spell, though, for another two weeks, not until the day we discovered he could open doors; we would later learn that he could turn the latch on the back door with his nose or hit it at the bottom so it would pop open and he would be kind enough to teach the other dogs his new skill. But on this day, my nephew had come over to show us his puppy. My dad and I walked out to his car to say goodbye. Suddenly the storm door swung open and Cody and Randy burst out, racing for the woods across the street. I should mention here that Randy was an escape artist par excellence; I’d once caught her climbing into a tree to stage a jail break. Fortunately she was never gone long—it was the challenge that seemed to motivate her—and because she looked like a Disney dog, I didn’t worry about her frightening anyone. Cody was another story. German shepherds are very beautiful dogs, but they do not look warm and cuddly, especially one as big as Cody. And so when they came flying past us, I was horrified, worrying how people might react to a huge shepherd running loose and not sure if he’d be able to find his way home like Randy could. Just as they disappeared into the woods, I called them. Randy, of course, ignored me and continued on her great adventure, but Cody put on the brakes, practically leaving skid marks in the grass, and then headed right back to me. Visions of Casablanca flashed through my mind, Bogie and Claude Rains walking off into the fog together, saying “This could be the start of a beautiful friendship.”
When I’ve told people about Cody’s sad past, they’ve often talked about how “lucky” he was, and that is true. But I was lucky, too, for he came into my life at a very difficult time. My dad lived with me for the last six years of his life when he was suffering from Alzheimer’s, surely the cruelest of all ailments; it broke my heart a dozen times a day to see this wonderful man slowly fading away. Cody proved to be a blessing for us both. My dad adored him, and he gave me comfort when I most needed it. I honestly am not sure I could have gotten through some of those dark, despairing moments if not for Cody.
Not that he was a candidate for canine sainthood; there was no halo hovering over those oversized ears. Cody could counter-surf with the best of them and was known to root in the trash from time to time. I remember coming into the living room one day to find my dad napping in his recliner, with a tray on his lap, and Cody standing beside him, with his nose in my dad’s soup bowl, slurping for all he was worth. He had the grace to look sheepish at being caught out, and yes, I know I am anthropomorphizing him, but so what? He was always very gentle with my dad, but he also was sharp enough to know he could get away with more with my dad, too, for it amused him when Cody would surreptitiously snatch a French fry from his plate. Cody gave my dad a lot of pleasure during his last years, and I would love him dearly for that alone.
The dog rejected for police work turned out to be very protective of “his” people. I’d have backed him against the Hell’s Angels. He hated to get wet, would never go into the backyard pool…except once. My nephew and his girlfriend were fooling around and dove to the bottom. When they didn’t come up, Cody became very agitated, circling the pool and barking wildly and finally plunging into the water. Of course he then panicked and my nephew had to “save” him and help shove him back onto dry land, but we were very impressed by his gallant gesture. I’ve never felt so safe as when I had him by my side. But he was very well behaved out in the world, both with people and other dogs. Randy had delusions of grandeur, yearning to be the alpha dog of the Penman pack. She would deliberately step in front of him as they started outside; he’d merely give the canine equivalent of a shrug. About once a year, she’d lapse into temporary insanity and force a fight with this dog who was twice her size. It would always end the same way. I’d hear an ungodly racket, come running to find Cody holding Randy immobilized by the loose skin at her neck, keeping her from biting him while the drama queen shrieked as if she were being murdered. As soon as I arrived on the scene, he would release her, confident that I would keep her from launching another kamikaze attack. She never realized how lucky she was. I did. He was so mellow and laid-back that I called him my surfer-dude dog.
There is no happy ending to this story, though. Last year he developed severe arthritis in his spine and it weakened his hind legs so that he began to have difficulty walking. Thanks to my vet’s chiropractic and laser treatments and pain medication, we were able to give him some more good months. He waged a gallant battle that he was bound to lose, and this past Tuesday came the day I’d been most dreading. He’d suffered a relapse and this time did not respond to the vet’s treatments, not even an emergency laser treatment on Saturday in the midst of that god-awful Nor’easter. His vet and I agreed that it was time, for he was too big to use one of those carts, as tall as a Great Dane and weighing over one hundred pounds, most of it pure heart. I’d always hoped that he would let me know when it was time, and bless him, he did. The prednisone had given him a ravenous appetite, like a shark in a feeding frenzy, but on Tuesday, he stopped eating. His passing was peaceful; he went quietly to sleep. He was about eleven years old, and I’d had him for nine of those years, not nearly long enough.
His name was Cody. He loved to walk in the woods, to race the wind, to have his ears rubbed. He loved beef jerky and liver and ice cream. And me.
March 20. 2010