This story is autobiographical. It may make you weep – but I hope it is also a story of triumph. I grew up with an abusive, narcissistic father and this story is only one of many I could tell. But I have overcome.
Big Boy: Or How I Learned What Love Is
I watched him being born. At first I thought he was still-born, with the membrane covering him from head to toe. But his mother licked him vigorously all over and soon he was wriggling bundle of black and tan fur, eyes tight shut, nosing his way to nurse alongside his brothers and sisters.
At not yet fourteen years old this filled me with wonder and delight. I had never seen a birth of any kind. Sheba was a great mother, attentive, loving and kept seven of those pups clean and fed, hardly leaving the bed we had set up for her in the corner of the spare room. One pup was born dead; another runt was disposed of by my father. Sheba looked for that pup for three days before giving up. It saddened me to see that.
But back to the one I watched being born, second last to emerge. That one stole my heart. There was something special about him. Not only was he the biggest of the litter, earning him the name Big Boy, but he was also the calmest. When I held him he would snuggle in. Once his eyes opened and he became more active he gave me more kisses than the most ardent lover.
By six weeks, he, and most of the litter, were paper trained. And by then my father had his eye on Big Boy as the one he wanted to show, the one who looked to have the best conformation (that means body in show lingo). Big Boy also showed promise of intelligence and a steady temperament. You see, my father bred German Shepherds for show. Big Boy’s mother was a champion.
And so, when Big Boy turned seven weeks, knowing how much I wanted him, my father told me Big Boy was mine if I trained him. I was thrilled.
We lived on a farm along a major highway at the time. The first time I took Big Boy out on the leash we went for a walk along that highway. Or tried. He dug his little tush into the gravel and refused to move. But I had to establish myself as the boss, so for about 100 yards I dragged him along behind me, trying to be gentle and feeling every stone as much as he did – likely more. I couldn’t drag him any farther. Besides, the cars and trucks were slowing down to look and I got some nasty stares from the drivers. I turned back for home. Ha! Big Boy knew we were headed in the right direction. No more dragging. He trotted along beside me like he had always known this was how it ought to be. I quickly rewarded him with a tiny slice of wiener. Oh, yummy.
The next night Big Boy seemed to know that dragging didn’t accomplish what he wanted. He walked beside me happy as could be, enjoying the praise, the pats and, yes, more minute slices of wiener.
Big Boy had come from a Fall litter. Our training started in late October. The weather was often anything but pleasant.
This may be the best spot for a little back story. My father was a volatile, narcissistic, abusive man with a violent temper which seemed to follow no pattern that I could predict. I had grown to expect broken promises and unrealistic expectations. As well, though he thought himself a great dog trainer, I felt he was too harsh and demanding with them as well as with his family. Our dogs feared him more than loved him. We were also dirt poor, living in a rented farmhouse that badly needed work with the bare minimum of furniture. We never went hungry, though.
That year was especially difficult for me: isolated, new to a huge high school where I knew no one and had no friends, expected to make top grades, and working after school for two hours every night carrying and dumping heavy pails of chicken feed. I had daily migraines, likely because I was too anxious to eat. At 5’4” I weighed only 98 pounds. My mother was emotionally absent most of the time due to the abuse my father heaped on her. My sister no longer allowed me to boss her around as I had in the past (she’s younger but had outgrown me that year). I had never felt so utterly alone. I tell you this to put the story into perspective. I’m not after pity.
And so, in spite of the weather, in spite of hating the wet and the cold, I looked forward to taking Big Boy out every evening. The custom in our house was sit in the living room after supper for a cookie and coffee. Then I would take Big Boy out. He knew the routine. If I lingered too long over coffee he would go to the kitchen door, nudge his leash and chain hanging there, then come to me and nudge my arm. “Let’s go. Come on. What are you waiting for?”
These times spent outdoors with Big Boy were my only bits of peace and solace from the maelstrom of my life. Big Boy had become my only friend. He loved me unconditionally. He wanted nothing more than to please me. It took only a couple of weeks until I no longer used the wieners. Just a word or pat was all Big Boy needed or wanted.
Now Big Boy had more than heart. He was also the most intelligent dog I have ever come across. In a mere five weeks, by the time he was twelve weeks old, he could pass both the CD (Companion Dog) and CDX (Companion Dog Extra) requirements. CD means he could heel, do figure eights at heel, sit, stay, come and lie down. CDX meant he could do all those off leash and also obey hand signals for those same things without the spoken word.
He knew the boundaries of our property and never strayed beyond them, whether we were present or not. Once a stray cat wandered into his territory. He chased that cat out to the highway where I spotted a huge transport barreling down. I shouted at Big Boy to go ‘down’ and waved the hand signals in desperation, yelling for all I was worth. Big Boy, for the first time in his life, ignored me, or so I thought. That cat ran onto the road and got flattened by the truck. But Big Boy sat down just inside the edge of his boundary and watched the whole thing as if it was the most ordinary occurrence in the world. Mission accomplished. He then trotted back to me as if nothing had happened.
If, at twelve weeks of age, I told Big Boy to ‘stay’ I could return an hour later and he would be in the exact same spot, lying down or sitting, depending on what I had told him. And he had learned it all with nothing but love. We never missed a night out, no matter the weather. I needed that time alone with him. I have no doubt that Big Boy saved my sanity, if not literally my life. I also have no doubt that my father was jealous of my success.
At thirteen weeks I entered him in an obedience trial. He beat many adult dogs and only came in second because he was distracted for a second and did not hear my command. That was my mistake. I was also the youngest in the trial.
Big Boy also gave me the only bloody nose I ever had. By nine months he had grown to ninety pounds, big even for a Shepherd. By then he had grown into a lanky, uncoordinated teen. It was a warm spring day and I had gone down on hands and knees to play with him. He ran at me and couldn’t stop in time. His chest bone hit me squarely on the nose. While I doubled in pain, bleeding, Big Boy danced around me, anxious, nose in my ear, my face, trying to see what was wrong.
As Big Boy grew he developed a twist in his tail, a trait not acceptable in German Shepherds. Although it was illegal to use surgery to enhance show dogs, my father persuaded his vet to try to operate on the tail to straighten it. Big Boy bore this twice with stoic calm. I watched and I am convinced he was in a good deal of pain. The tail would not straighten and then the hair did not grow back so what my father had done could not be hidden. Big Boy had become an embarrassment.
Old family friends came to visit. Big Boy took a shine to their infant daughter. Her parents took a shine to Big Boy.
“Do you want him? I can’t show him anyway.” My father did not ask me what I thought, did not even glance at me. I did not exist. What I wanted did not exist. Big Boy left with them that night. The embarrassment had been taken care of.
Big Boy saved that baby’s life two years later when he pushed her out of the way of a car and took the blow on his own hip, which never healed properly.
When my father gave Big Boy away without a second thought a part of me died. I could not say anything. That would have brought reprisals I could not face. My role was to agree with everything, not to argue, not to express what I felt or thought. I could not say “But he’s mine. You promised if I trained him he would be mine.” If I had said it in front of our friends they would not have taken him. I knew that, even then. I cannot begin to think what the results of my father’s fury would have been.
Why am I telling you this now? Because I have come to understand that Big Boy taught me what love is. Real love. The kind with no strings attached. I credit him with the fact that I was able to parent without inflicting abuse on my two children and, with my husband, raise them to be loving, caring people that I am proud of. Big Boy showed me that love did not always have to hurt.
All that happened a long, long time ago. I am in my sixties now. After that I never bonded with another dog. Only in the last couple of years have I come to understand why. I know now that I could never have faced another loss like that. I weep every time I remember Big Boy, every time I tell this story. And until I understood what he did for me, and what my father took from me, I was unable to mourn him as I finally can now. It took me fifty years to cry. Now I can’t stop. It’s healing. I welcome those tears. And now I think I could love like that again.