Garden

The Canine Retiree

, Author

He was almost like a ghost dog at first. Fleeting. 

Neighbor Lindsay made the first post on our community Facebook page on September 29, asking if anyone was missing a dog—tall, mostly white. She had spotted the stray early that morning against the shadows of the tall-pined woodline that edges our senior neighborhood outside of Charleston, South Carolina, but it had disappeared before she could call it. Neighbor Roben’s response said her husband had seen the dog behind their home two days before. 

Months into the pandemic, none of us Del Webb folks had much to do or much news to post. Our activity center was closed to the card games and bingo nights that earlier marked our calendars. Mostly, we stayed active with walks and bike rides around the community, where we had come from many states to call home. 

Most of the posts that did show up on our Facebook page were complaints—about late trash pickup, yards needing more fertilizer and weed killer, or nails in the street from construction underway—or worried notes about local covid numbers. That was before the dog posts began. 

Mary dropped a note that she’d seen the morning dog at 6:30 on October 4—male, white with brown and black spots. Sandra’s post said she had called animal control but wasn’t very hopeful about their ability to catch the stray, which she had decided to call Phantom. By October 6, he had come to Pat’s front door and then trotted away. “I felt bad,” she posted. Mary commiserated that she had gotten a good look at him and he was getting skinny, but he’d run off again before she could get any food for him. On October 10, Roben left two cheese sticks where she had seen him. “He’s a beauty,” her post said. “Heartbreaking, he’s so afraid.” 

Dianne had mixed emotions, her post let us know. She’d left her Lean Cuisine on the patio while she stepped inside for a minute, then found the tray licked clean when she came back out. She had evidence who did it, thanks to a couple of tooth marks on her iPad.

By that time we were all on the lookout for the hound that had come and apparently decided to stay. And why wouldn’t he? Susan saw him at her house on October 12 and took him out some kielbasa they were having for dinner. She got within eighteen inches of him but didn’t have a leash. “Help!” she posted. By the time a neighbor dashed over with a leash, the kielbasa was almost gone. They didn’t have any luck, but Susan put a soft blanket on the patio, since the dog kept looking in the house when she went inside. 

So there all of us animal lovers found ourselves, worried about a lonely, hungry soul. I hadn’t seen him yet. He hadn’t found my street to know what a soft touch I’d be. He didn’t know about the yellow cat I’d brought home from behind a McDonald’s a couple of years before or about Mo, the indulged thirteen-year-old Lhasa at our address. No matter. I decided I’d just take some of Mo’s favorite treats and drop them off in spots where the dog had been seen. 

Dianne was on board by then, too. She left turkey for him on her patio on October 17, “but he was still hungry.” The next day her post revealed, “He just ate 18 mini-meatballs.” 

The elusive visitor had his favorite streets, but still no one could get near. Houdini, Sue wanted to call him, “since he keeps escaping and then reappears on another street.” I just called him Good Dog.

I knew he was worthy of the title right away when I finally saw him on a search one afternoon, eating the Pup-Peroni I threw his way. He was a handsome fella. Not too big. His coat was mostly white with dapples of brown and black. I offered kind words before he turned his soft eyes away and retreated across a vacant lot. He wouldn’t let me think of petting his brown velvet ears. 

Neighbor after neighbor let us all know where they’d seen him, how close they’d managed to get. Photos started to accompany the posts: Good Dog resting in the sunshine of someone’s backyard or sleeping in the shade near someone’s house. We saw a calm, gentle dog who had made himself at home. “He loves to bask in the sun, drink water from the pond,” Cathy posted on October 20. “I talk to him every day. He stops and sits and listens and looks at me, but I can’t get him to come. Are we ever going to be able to capture him and give him a forever home? He needs human love!” 

Victor got very close. First with Good Dog venturing his nose into the open door of the screened porch, then with two paws inside the sliding doors to the den. But he wouldn’t stay, and Victor—himself gentle with his new friend—wouldn’t impose. 

By this time a couple of naysayers—there are always a couple—wanted to weigh in: “Stop feeding him! Keep calling animal control.” Another dear neighbor had a post for them: “Leave that dog alone! He isn’t bothering you!”

But animal control did make the rounds, usually in the afternoon. Posts alerted us to those sightings, too. Then there was the lady in the white hard hat from the construction crew who chased him one afternoon and spooked him into hiding. The posts got longer and more anxious: What about the coyotes that sometimes howled in the woods at night? The speeding lumber trucks coming through? Where will he sleep with the weather getting colder? If we can catch him, who will take him? 

And the naysayers again: What if he has leptospirosis? What about the other dogs in the neighborhood? The newspaper article about rabid raccoons?

A couple of us decided a GoFundMe was in order. I know, a fund for a stray dog. But with the urgency of the cause, it seemed like a good idea, so we posted a link. The Friends of Good Dog must have agreed. After just two days, the account was heading toward $700. We knew we’d have funds for some start-up care. If only we could catch him. 

October turned into November. We didn’t stop feeding him. And animal control didn’t find him. 

Good Dog took to another street—behind the tennis courts where the grass sloped down to the pond and a tall fountain sent ripples out into the sunshine of still-warm afternoons. Donna saw him on her security camera at 7:15, enjoying a kibble breakfast on the patio. Roy let us know he’d managed to feed him from an outstretched hand. Pat and her husband were on a morning walk when he joined them and followed along. “It was the first time I’d seen him when his tail wasn’t between his legs,” she wrote. “He was actually walking right beside us. I told him we’d see him tomorrow.” 

Dianne was still trying, this time with some filet mignon. Still no luck: “He came up to me and sniffed my toes, but when I moved my foot, he ran away.” 

“I feel like a mother,” Cathy posted. “I worry about him if a day goes by and I don’t see him.”

Someone suggested we contact Carolina Coonhound Rescue, and Kate with that group called back and proposed a plan: Feed him in only two spots, she recommended, to increase the chance for capture. She’d set up a vet visit for neutering and tests and shots. We just needed to catch him, she said. Right.

Mark posted a Sunday morning photo of a forlorn dog sitting under a palm tree beside his favorite pond. All of us had seen enough. It was going to be a cold Carolina night. Time to fast-forward the plan.

The next afternoon, armed with plenty of chicken livers, a couple of designated dog-whisperer neighbors set out for the task. They found him and learned he really loved chicken livers, but that smart dog again eluded their best attempts. The next morning’s only sighting was on a security camera just before sunup. Troubled posts made the rounds. 

That afternoon, I walked and called Good Dog in all of his usual spots. Along the woodline where he often lingered, I found newspapers he had collected from driveways—Wall Street Journals and Post and Couriers—and a broken Wiffle ball he had carried there. While I walked, I remembered the last time I’d seen him. He stood in the distance, intently watching a man with a dog in their backyard. I could tell he must have longed for a person like that and a home like that. But none of us could find him, and I went to bed restless.

It was almost midnight when I got the call. Neighbor Ellen had him. What? What! 

A little rescue team of us cheered in disbelief and headed to her house, where he had eaten the hot dog she had left him on the lanai before she nonchalantly closed the outside door. After a little Benadryl in another piece of chicken liver, the anxious dog in the corner yawned. Ellen looped a fast leash around his neck, and he let her wrap him in a blanket before Michelle carried him to the car and back to her garage. 

The next day we got that stray to progress from cowering and quivering in a crate to belly crawling around the grass on a leash to walking on the leash all around the yard like a pro. Kate, the Carolina Coonhound friend, who had been optimistic we could nab him from the start, offered a bath at the nearest Tractor Supply, where she lathered him in conditioning shampoo, and then took him for his vet appointment. Then this Good Dog went right back to the community he chose and loved all along. The friend whose backyard he had sought so often, Victor, with his dear wife, Gloria, opened their hearts and their home.

Charlie from Charleston. That’s the name they chose. 

Their doorbell rang for days as all of Charlie’s friends and neighbors, official now, dropped by with well wishes and treats and brand-new toys. And Charlie has gone door-to-door with thank-you notes, signed “woof woof,” to those who cared and helped him when he was alone. He’s smiling in his Facebook photos now. He won’t have to go prowling for Lean Cuisines. And a whole community is better together, sustained through a raging pandemic by the joy they shared in helping a scared and lonely stray find his way to the best home of all.  


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