Friday, April 9, 2010

Fate steps in

Max was an easy second dog to add to our family. He moved in seven months after I started walking him and a year-and-a-half after Quincy disappeared. By then Bear had survived sharing her space with another dog and weathered the intrusion of two cats - whittled down from the original six kittens - for well over a year. Max was a piece of cake.

He and Bear had already worked out the logistics of toys, namely, everything was hers unless she said otherwise, and the time they’d spent together walking everyday let them establish their respective roles before they shared a living space; Max took the role of observer while Bear agreed to call the shots. The transition to him living in our house was easier than we thought.

He was so agreeable. For the first week he lived with us we shut him away in our spare room. There were a number of reasons for that, not the least of which was to try and contain the junkyardy smell streaming off his grey, dusty coat, but we wanted to introduce him slowly to a new home full of curious creatures in a tiny space when he was used to his own area with minimal socializing. Mostly, though, we contained him because of the maggot-infested wound on his neck.

It was spring when Morgan and I headed out on a road trip south with Bear. At that point we had already talked at length about adopting Max and agreed we would do it before the following winter. He had spent too many lonely sub-freezing nights outdoors and we couldn’t leave him out there for another season. We figured by that fall we would be ready to bring him into our home. But, while we were away, Max got into a fight with another dog. The dog bit Max on the neck and his wound was left untreated for at least seven days before we returned home.

I didn’t go and see Max right away after our trip, I wanted to wait until I had time to take him for a good walk and not just a quick visit. Morgan headed next door before I did, to see our neighbours, and when he came back he said Max didn’t look very well, though Morgan had only glimpsed him from afar. I ventured over later that day to see him. His chain disappeared into the dark, square opening of his dog house. When I saw that, my heart sank a little and I tried to shrug off the bad feeling that threatened to tackle me then. I had never seen him use his ramshackle dog house before, not even after Morgan and I had repaired it and moved it to higher ground, above the spring flood.

When I called his name, Max poked his head out from the shadows and then stumbled forward into the daylight. He seemed smaller somehow and I believe I saw a great relief in Max’s eyes as he trotted towards me. He didn’t look right, he seemed pale, his fur washed out and dull.

The stench hit me like a wall when Max was still about ten feet away. It was the smell of rotting flesh. I covered my nose and muttered a few “oh my god”s under by breath as I closed the distance between us.

He put his head against the side of my leg like he always does in greeting and I ran my hands along his face and ears, asking him what was wrong. As I leaned over top of him I saw the other side of his neck was soaked. I parted his great fluffy mane in a panic and at the top of his neck just behind his ear I found a hole about two inches in diameter and half an inch deep, that revealed torn, webby membranes of grey, dead flesh.

After our experience with Quincy, I recognized it as an abscess that had burst and spewed its slimy contents all down the side of Max’s neck.

Morgan and I took Max home that day and cleaned up his wound the best we could with leftovers from Quincy’s medicine chest. That’s when we first saw the maggots, tiny ones on a red-raw abrasion on the base of Max’s ear and fatter ones inside the gaping wound. It seemed like Max was in a pretty bad state and when we found out his owners were not going to be able to take him to the vet the next day, we said we would go instead.

Max never went back to his chain after that. His wound looked a lot worse than it actually was, according to the vet - maggots and all. She wasn’t overly concerned about it as long as Max was kept indoors with someone to keep the wound clean and give him antibiotics. We didn’t hesitate to adopt him on the spot.

Max didn’t seem too bothered to be living in a new space so suddenly. He spent chunks of time alone in our spare room, relaxing and healing. His wound closed up quickly and within a couple of weeks we were able to have him professionally scrubbed clean by a woman who came to our house in a big red van that housed her grooming station.

The Max that emerged from the van an hour after he’d entered, was a completely different dog. He smelled like a fresh breeze blowing across a deep blue lake and his coat glistened as the sun’s light picked out every nuance in his fur, from the lightest caramel to the deepest copper. It was as if he shone from the inside out.

Max slipped into life with us as if he’d always been there. Even Bear never complained about him moving in, at least not until Max decided sleeping on the couch looked way better than sleeping on the floor. Every night he hauled himself up beside Bear and settled in so that each of them had their head pushed against opposite armrests. Bear embarked on a quest to scrunch ever smaller onto her half of the couch, making her disgust known with a symphony of grumbles and grunts, while Max stretched out a little more, surprisingly pushy for such a gentle, sweet-natured creature.


  1. I once said that, even for me, you make this big German Shepherd, Max, a lovable dog. Here, again, without over-sentimentalizing his painful struggles,you bring this warm and intelligent and quietly noble dog to life. Thankfully, you do not bluntly tell us how to feel, how to react to his predicament but simply let his narrative unfold. As a result, our emotional response to Max bubbles naturally to the surface of its own accord and crude author manipulation is kept to a minimum. For example, Max and his wound and the maggots, a potentially powerful area for easy sentimentalization, is told simply and yet elegantly, without cliched recourse to tears and shrieks. I like your restraint here, Heather. Not so easy to do. An engaging article.

  2. Max is one lucky dog to have lived next to two people with such big hearts and such compassion!!!! I admire you both for rescuing Max from an obviously less than ideal existence. He deserves a spot on the couch - tell Bear I say so!!!