He served his country at great cost. Depressed and heavily medicated, he was slipping away until a clumsy puppy healed his soul ... and reminded us what a "family pet" really is.
by Barbara J. Andrews - Akitas O'BJ
We get so wrapped up in breeding for the show ring we sometimes forget what a family dog can do for people. Sometimes we forget what dogs once meant to us!
This is a very personal story about a WWII veteran whose mind and will to live was slipping away. He and my mother have since gone to a better place but this story about a family pet has a happy ending which I can now share as a reminder of why we breed dogs.
Many years ago my mother made her standard comment when she was sure that our latest litter was all sold. "Oh dear, I wish we could have had one of those Akita puppies." Well, she'd been saying that for years and it always made me feel guilty even though I knew that she really didn't mean it.
This time her usually impeccable timing was a little bit off. My pick bitch had become decidedly cow-hocked at ten weeks. I hoped it was just a growth phase but when mom launched her predictable lament, I suddenly had the answer. We were planning a trip to Florida so I told her that this time, I just happened to have a very special puppy for her. She protested as I knew she would but I told her we would bring the puppy.
Let me explain about my mother and Roy. Mom's health was not good and my stepfather was mostly bed-ridden. In a dusty corner of his bedroom was a trunk full of reminders of his heroic service to our country. Purple Heart, Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, you name it, he had been awarded just about every honor. The other reminder of his paratrooper days in the famed 82nd Airborne Division of the "Big War" as he called it, was a steel plate, brain damage, a shell of a body, and daily medication to control seizures.
The year before, they had lost Duke, their thirteen year old German Shepherd. We dreaded the inevitable because Roy had begun to link himself to the old dog. He often remarked that with Duke's crippled hips and his own shattered bones, they were just "two old cripples" and it was evident that in some warped and pitiful way, Roy felt his own life to be tied to that of his old friend. He was often overheard talking with the dog and remarks like "yep old buddy, ain't neither of us no good to nobody no more" were frightening to my mother.
When Duke died Roy went even deeper into a life threatening depression. He no longer wanted to face life. He spent twenty out of twenty-four hours lying in never-never land in the back bedroom. His condition was deteriorating and there were days when he could not be forced to the table to eat. When mom could get a neighbor or church member in to help, he was brought into the living room, settled in his favorite chair to watch the wrestling matches he had always loved. There he would dutifully sit...and sleep or stare into space.
For eleven months, Roy had not been outside their home except for trips to the V.A. hospital. Nothing seemed to help. His medication had been increased to dangerous limits and still no improvement. It hurts now to remember those painful months but it's important that you understand how bad it was for Roy - and for my mother, alone and trying to cope.
Key-Too. All thirteen weeks of her. Rambunctious, mischievous, troublesome, inquisitive, demanding of love and attention. Upon our arrival, Roy was assisted into the living room. Stimulated by our visit, he was alert and talkative for about an hour and then his eyelids began to droop and we noted the all-too-familiar vacant expression as he lost interest in the conversation. Lunch was prepared and he fell asleep in the chair midway through his meal. We let him doze while we unloaded the van - and Key-Too.
The klutzy Akita puppy raced excitedly into the strange house. She didn't notice the old man dozing in the chair as she sniffed and snuffed and explored under the sofa, in the corners, and down the hallway. When she had quieted down, mom called softly to Roy.
He opened his eyes and although I hate to be melodramatic, time proved that it really was mutual love at "first sight." He extended a hand and she came to him, hesitant, ever so quietly, wondering and confused in her puppy way about this lump of a human whose only movement was a trembling hand extended to her. Then, as he fondled her ears, she turned and licked his hand and from that moment on, she was his dog. He stared at her for a long moment and she gazed quietly back at him. We thought he had nodded off but then he smiled and remembered we were present. Never taking his eyes from the puppy, he asked her name. We told him Key-Too Success O'BJ and he repeated it as best he could in his drug-slurred speech. Somehow it came out "Tay-Too" and Tay-Too it was.
We resumed conversation, careful not to mention the dog or why we had brought her. He quickly tired and Bill helped him back to bed but before he closed the bedroom door, Roy asked if the puppy could take a nap with him. I pointed out that Key-Too might not sleep and there were all sorts of things she could destroy in Roy's bedroom. Mom just shrugged her shoulders, eyes glistening. Bill softly closed the door on the two of them.
At supper, Tay-Too shared the TV tray Roy asked to have in the living room instead of in bed as was his custom. She stole the slipper off his foot and laid her head on it, looking up, quietly watching him. When mom took his tray away, she wiggled around to the side of his chair where his arm dangled limply. She licked his hand, he tweaked her ear, and they both dozed off.
None of us dared offer a comment even among ourselves. We left them in the living room and retired to the porch.
Later that evening, she shared his bedtime snack, and when mom fussed about crumbs in the living room and spoiling the puppy, he told her to just go back in the kitchen and leave them alone. We smiled. Key-Too slept in his room that night.
She woke everyone bright and early the next morning, anxious to go outside. Nothing in his room had been touched but his slippers were under the bed where she had cuddled up to them. Roy got up with her. Mom said it was the first time in nearly a year that he had gotten himself out of bed.
He had breakfast and took his pills but refused those designed to send him to never-never land. Mom argued, he ignored her and instead asked "Tay-Too" what she thought about being brushed. She watched him intently, cocking her head, trying to understand his every word. I had never seen this usually rambunctious puppy so quiet and attentive. He asked her again and she scooted closer to him.
I asked mom if she had a brush and then laughed when she came back with the only thing she could find. Her own hairbrush. Mom chattered and fussed about dog hair in the house as Roy ignored her and clumsily brushed the puppy.
Amazingly she sat perfectly still for all of two minutes before she grabbed the brush and ran away with it! He laughed at her antics and we exchanged glances. He hadn't laughed in months.
The next day we packed to leave and although Roy was in his chair, he was very quiet. As we carried our suitcases out, he called "Tay-Too" over to say goodbye. We stood quietly by the door, not quite sure how to broach the subject of leaving her with them. We couldn't hear what he said to her as she sat looking up at him but when she eased up into his lap and licked his cheek, we saw his hands tremble and the tears roll unchecked down his whiskery cheeks. We knew it was time to pose the question.
Mom knelt down by Roy’s chair and asked if he'd like to just let her stay. He looked up at me and I nodded. His eyes cleared to the steel blue I remembered from long ago and he pulled himself up straighter in the chair, looked at my mother and told her that they couldn't afford a dog, especially such a fine show dog. Then, crumpling back down in his chair, he mumbled, "We can't take care of ourselves Mother, how can we take care of a dog?" Mom took his hand and said that we were giving Key-Too to them and that it did seem she was a sensible puppy and they could manage her care if he wanted her to stay. "Tay-Too", he corrected then fell silent.
His eyes misted and we knew he was thinking of Duke. We all were. When he finally looked up at me I could only smile and nod past my tears. Tay-Too, confused by the strange silence, snuggled closer against his knee.
We pretended not to notice his tears as his hand trembled on her head and muttering aloud, he asked her if she'd ever be as big or as smart as "old Duke". When we waved goodbye, he was brushing her with mom's hairbrush....
The rest of the story is what breeding is all about. "Tay-Too" never became a champion, never had a litter. She did what every dog is born to do. She brought love and laughter into a home that desperately needed both. She gave them security and protection. She gave two lonely old people a whole new lease on life. Ma Bell loved us over the next few months. Weekly, we heard amazing "progress reports". Not the typical proud stories about what a lovely front the puppy has, how much it weighs, or how well it did at training class. Oh no, Key-Too’s reports meant ever so much more.
Three days after we left her, Roy took his brand new puppy and his brand new pinbrush and the two of them went into the backyard to groom. "Tired of your Mother's fussing about her hairbrush and hair in the house" was Roy's comment on the phone. That was the first time in months he's been willing to talk on the phone.
By the end of the second week, he informed mom that he and Tay-Too were going for a walk and demanded she unpack Duke's leash. Mom protested and rightly so, for he was still feeble and unsteady on his feet and the puppy wasn't leash trained. He ignored her warnings and the two of them proudly walked two blocks that day. Mom called me, babbling. She described how the puppy never fought the leash, how she watched from the window as they slowly made their way down to the corner, Tay-Too walking ever so carefully by Roy's side.
By the end of the next week, the two of them had made it all the way to the 7-11 store five blocks away! They became such regulars that the cashier no longer bothered to call mom to reassure her they had arrived. The manager always had a treat ready for "Tay-Too" and a free cup of coffee for Roy. People stopped in at the little store when they saw "the old vet and his dog" there.
Roy once again chatted with neighbors, proudly telling them she was an Akita, a real show dog, a rare Japanese breed, and who knows what else he told them in his new found pride and enthusiasm. Through the puppy, he made new friends whom he told about "the Big One, WW2." And you know, somehow they never tired of listening. Everyone loved Roy and what he stood for. I'd seen it before, the hero worship grown men showed to the old veteran. Now it had become "Captain Carter and Tay-Too". They were an item.
Oh there were problems. Key-Too dug immense holes in the back yard and Roy fell in them. She left balls and toys scattered about and Roy tripped over them. But within a few months, she learned to guide him around such obstacles and when he did fall, she was instantly at his side, offering her strong back to him to pull himself up by.
Other than booster shots, her only trip to the vet was when mom’s cactus attacked her. It was unexpected expense but they proudly managed. And mom said it was worth it because Roy not only went with them to the vet, he insisted on driving on the way home! It was his first time at the wheel in over two years and although mom was scared to death, they made it safely - and the bottle of pills which had prevented him from driving sat untouched in the medicine chest from then on.
Key-Too’s favorite resting place blocked the narrow hallway but she learned not to move a muscle when Roy carefully stepped over her. She learned how to escape through the sagging back yard fence, but when she realized how terribly it upset her people, she never did it again.
She became more than just an old man’s companion, she became his nurse-therapist and guide dog. She seemed to understand how uncertain his balance was and she watched him carefully at curbs, her powerful shoulders steady under his hand. Somehow she knew from the beginning that she couldn't jump on either of them, even as a puppy. She learned useful little chores like getting the paper, fetching his slippers, taking the mail out to the mailman who would stop his little truck and toot at the Carter residence. She guarded their sleep and protected their home. She greeted the pastor with "reverence" and all their guests with respect. But she barred the door with a deep throaty growl and lips laid back when a stranger knocked.
As Roy's condition improved, my mother's began to worsen. When she went on oxygen, Key-Too suspiciously avoided the tank and hoses but elected to sleep in mom’s bedroom. When mom had the inevitable bad days when she couldn't look after Roy, Key-Too did. When mother fell and couldn't move her legs and Roy was fast asleep and couldn’t hear her cries, Key-Too barked until he awoke and went to help my mother. When mom had to be hospitalized, Key-Too cried for her and paced the floor, and then the bewildered dog would go sit with her head on Roy's knee, putting her own confusion aside to comfort him. When mom came home Key-Too learned to accept what, from a dog's perspective, seemed like threatening actions as the visiting nurse bent over my prone mother. Somehow, with no one to explain in dog language, she knew that when the nurse caused my mother pain, she was not to interfere.
Well, no point in continuing this story except to say that the one thing Tay-Too never understood was why the vet picked her up one day and took her away from her family. She knew the family friend she lived out the rest of her life with, but Tay-Too never understood why....
Key-Too Success O'BJ was never a show dog. She was just a fat, spayed pet. Some might say she didn't live up to her name but I would gladly give up all our Best In Show winners in exchange for just one more pet like "Tay-Too."
The Dog Newspaper 1991 - Canine Chronicle June 1992 - Kennel Review Magazine 1993 - ShowSight Magazine 1997
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