This is the winning entry from FidoJournalism’s Unconditional Love Contest in 2012. We received some really excellent stories, but in the end we kept coming back to Diana Kelley’s story of loyalty and devotion to her dogs Kenny and Jenny.
I didn’t want Kenny. I didn’t even like him when I met him at the Boston Animal Shelter. He was an out of control young shepherd mutt who was either chewing on every human or shoe in the vicinity or barking his head off like a mad-dog. Not to mention the fact that he had what I can only describe as “crazy eyes.” While my co-adopter played with Kenny, I listened to what the shelter folks had to say. He’d been found starving on the streets of Boston on a cold December evening. He’d been adopted and returned a few times for chewing, bad behavior and, in case I hadn’t already noticed, persistent, insistent, non-stop barking. I did not want that dog in my gorgeous antique cottage in Brookline. I’d spent over a decade restoring it, it was my dream home and I didn’t want some snarling chewer destroying it.
But co-adopter was not to be deterred, so two days later Kenny was ours. And a couple of months later, Kenny was mine because co-adopter took off and left Kenny behind. Which was fine by me because by that time Kenny and I had established the great love affair that would define the next decade of our lives together. I’d worked patiently with him to redirect chewing to acceptable dog-safe chew toys, helped him understand when it was all right to bark, and through all of this his eyes went from “crazy” to milk chocolate pools of love.
Kenny was a wonderful clown who made me smile every day with his happy attitude and big black ringed shepherd grin.
He became my constant companion. Nuzzling me awake in the morning, sitting at my feet while I worked at my desk, following me like a shadow into the kitchen, and snuggling like a demitasse spoon against me at night. Despite our close bond, I was worried that he might need a dog friend too, so I adopted another shepherd mutt, Jenny, to keep him company.
Jenny is one of the great athletes of the canine world. At the local dog parks there was not a dog she couldn’t beat, snatching the ball in mid-air before some of the others even knew it had been launched. Kenny, on the other hand, was extremely challenged when it came to “fetch.” His eye/mouth coordination was off and he never got to the ball before the other dogs. Kenny’s “fetch fail” didn’t seem to bother him at first. But one day, after a long game of fetch on of the other dogs, a Rottweiler I’ll call “O” went after Kenny and almost killed him. What set “O” off, I can’t say. But the incident changed Kenny.
Suddenly, his failure to catch and Jenny’s extreme success seemed to set him off. We’d be in a park and someone would start chucking a ball and – after a few throws – Kenny started with a high pitched, very unhappy yip. I knew it was an unhappy yip, but I wasn’t prepared for what happened next: he jumped up and tried to grab the arm of the thrower. It wasn’t a bite, but it was enough to scare me.
A few days later I was the one throwing the ball and he launched at me and bit my chest. Not hard enough to draw blood, but I was bruised for days. That incident precipitated a huge shift in our lives. We had already stopped going to the park where “O” hung out — but now we also limited time in the park near our house because to avoid the almost constant fetch game in the morning. I took Kenny and Jenny on 10 mile leashed urban hikes, rented ZipCars to take them outside the city for private fetch, and got up at 4am and 5am to make it to the parks before anyone else was there. I also hired a couple of the best $250/hr canine behaviorists in the area; but no one knew what to do about Kenny’s fetch/bite problem.
One day, I overslept and didn’t get the dogs out to the park until 6:30am. By then the place was packed with dogs and a game of fetch was going on. I kept Kenny on-leash but he was whining and miserable so I let him off. My mistake, I know now. A few minutes later the unhappy, frustrated yip started and he’d sunk his teeth into the arm of the woman with the Chuck-It. Again he didn’t break the skin, but she was bruised for many days.
I knew that I had to do something to keep Kenny out of that situation. But what? Jenny loved fetch — it was her favorite pastime. And Kenny loved being able to run free off-leash. And I had an antique city cottage with almost no back yard. I loved my little house, but I loved Kenny more. After 36 years as an urban dweller, I made the drive across the border to New Hampshire where land was affordable. Once I found what I thought was the right house, on a wooded plot with and acre and a half of land, I drove Kenny and Jenny up and, with the realtor’s approval, let the dogs have a sniff around. In typical dog fashion, Kenny showed his approval by peeing on a couple of trees.
For the next 9 years I smiled every morning as Kenny marked those same trees again, with a smile on his face. Jenny got all the fetch she wanted and when Kenny got too wound up and the yip came out, we’d stop the game or change up the rules to ease his distress. I missed being in the city but I loved seeing Kenny and Jenny happy so much more.
Kenny still required close supervision; he never completely got over being fearful and defensive in some situations. But I made a promise to him that I’d never be the reason he got into trouble for biting. A few weeks ago, it was with the smallest sliver of relief and an overwhelming sense of grief that I knew I’d kept that promise. Kenny died from hemangiosarcoma, a “silent” cancer where the first sign is often collapse and death. To give him a better life, I traded my dream home for Kenny’s (and Jenny’s) dream yard. And I’d do it again. He was a soul that earned and deserved unconditional love.