Many people consider their pets to be like their own children. They’re part of the family. Most of the dogs I have owned throughout my life have been very fine animals. They’ve truly been best friends, companions, and protectors. No matter what else was going on, I could always count on their unconditional love. Then there was Sparky.
Sparky was a Jack Russell terrier. I rescued him from a woman I worked with who was moving out of state and could not take him along with her. It was either a new home or the dog pound for this guy. As we were talking about her upcoming move, Sparky trotted into the room. His owner patted him on the head and told me, “He eats pretty much anything you give him. Other than the ear mites, he’s fine, and I have these ear drops you can use on him. He’s just a perfect little dog. ”
I took Sparky home in the plastic dog crate that came as part of his accessory package. He seemed a little anxious, but I figured that was probably normal. Silver, our German Shepherd, followed him around the back yard for a few laps, then rolled him down the slope with her nose. So far, so good.
Back in the house, I discovered that Sparky did indeed eat anything you gave him. He devoured the plate of food that I put in front of him, then proceeded to roughly push Silver aside and devoured her food as well. I thought he looked a little underfed, but figured that going forward it was best to feed the dogs in separate rooms.
After dinner, Sparky retreated for a nice nap. Within minutes, unearthly shrieks began to emerge from the living room. I walked in and saw Sparky biting at his paw, pausing every few seconds to tilt his head at the ceiling and wail like a banshee.
I picked up the phone and called his previous owner. “Is there anything else wrong with Sparky that you might have forgotten to tell me about?” I said.
There was a long silence on her end. It was a welcome counterpoint to the earsplitting wails on my end of the line.
“Did the vet say anything about his paw when you took him in?” I asked her.
Another long silence. “I never took him to the vet. I just bought the ear drops at the pet store.”
“But he’s wearing a rabies tag,” I said.
“That belonged to a dead dog that the guy who owned him before me put on him. I don’t know if he’s ever been to the vet.” Then she hung up on me.
My vet told me that Sparky had a fungal infection in both ears and would need surgery for the extensive calluses on his paws that had built up from the constant chewing. He also needed his anal glands compressed. I made the mistake of staying in the room while she did this. After she finished and removed her rubber gloves, she told me that I could actually do this myself at home. I told her I would make another service appointment with her if the need arose.
I asked her why he was chewing on his paw and shrieking all the time. She told me that I needed Behavior Modification Therapy. Dogs did not have problems. The owners were the problem.
“But I’ve only had him for three days,” I said.
“If you’ve only had him for three days, then where did he get this rabies tag?” she asked me.
“From a dead dog,” I said.
She glared menacingly at me and proceeded to outline a behavior plan that required several hours a day of bonding and enrichment activities, along with lots of yard time, liberally peppered with beef chew treats. I assumed these were for Sparky, but I wasn’t 100% sure.
I set up the appointment for Sparky’s surgery and bought some ear plugs on the way home.
When I picked him up after the surgery, Sparky was wearing a large bandage on his foot and a cone around his head.
“He just won’t leave that paw alone,” said the office assistant. “He’s really obsessed with it. I don’t see how you can live with those sounds.”
Sometimes smiling can make your teeth hurt. I thanked her and took Sparky home.
Back in the house, Sparky began to repeatedly bang the cone on his head against the wall, accompanied by his signature ear piercing shrieks.
After several attempts to reach his previous owner, I realized that she was probably screening her calls.
Once the wound healed and the cone came off, Sparky went right back to his old tricks. I was working out of a home office and it really got tiresome trying to explain to people on the phone exactly what was going on in the background of my house. I was obviously not a successful candidate for Behavior Modification Therapy. Time to try a new vet.
Sparky’s new doctor told me that he had allergies. I needed to replace the plastic dog dish with a metal one and give him doggy antihistamines twice a day. I wondered if I would miss the beef chews very much. Old habits are hard to break.
The antihistamines did their job, and Sparky became much more manageable. We decided to let him sleep in the bedroom and set up a little doggy blanket for him on the floor. I woke up in the middle of the night that first night and found Sparky sitting bolt upright beside the bed, staring at me. After several weeks, it became obvious that he was logging full night shifts like this.
Surveillance footage of Sparky captured midway through his shift
During the day, it became his habit to lurk around the house, waiting for the front door to open. As soon as he heard the hinges start to creak, he would materialize out of nowhere and shoot past my legs, out the door, and disappear down the street. He had a particular fondness for charging out in the middle of severe thunderstorms. It was actually quite stirring to watch him charge off into the distance, ploughing through the streams of rushing water while bolts of lightning cracked around him. Somehow, everyone in the city seemed to know that he was my dog. Regardless of where he wandered, I was guaranteed that absolute strangers would be knocking on my door to return Sparky to me.
My next door neighbor was a music teacher. One day she knocked on my door and asked me to please keep Sparky indoors. He was frightening her students. Apparently he had decided to add some extra hours to his schedule and was passing his time sitting on her sidewalk and staring at her students as they walked into her house. They thought there might be something wrong with him. I definitely knew there was something wrong with him, but you don’t have to share all your secrets with the neighbors.
Over the years, the antihistamines seemed to kick Sparky’s appetite into overdrive. He would eat his own food, force his way into the kitchen and eat Silver’s food, then force his way into the basement to devour the cat’s food. On his jaunts around the neighborhood, he would raid the neighbors’ garbage cans and come home with pieces of raw chicken and other garbage hanging out of his mouth. One day he brought home a pair of deer antlers. He carried home a dead bat and ate it. I soon found myself to be the proud owner of a 35-pound Jack Russell Terrier. When he would nap, he would sprawl out on his back with his stomach bulging into the air and his front legs tucked together, back legs splayed obscenely. He would usually remain immobile in this position for hours. There were many times when I would nudge him with my toe to make sure he was still alive.
One summer, my younger daughter enrolled in a Kids in College science program at Penn State. As part of the lab work, they could bring in snips of their pets’ fur to be analyzed under a microscope. My daughter brought in fur samples from Silver, Sparky and our two cats. Under the microscope, the technicians were able to identify Silver’s fur as canine and the cats’ fur as feline. The instructor said to my daughter, “What is this other kind of animal you have? This doesn’t match anything we have in our database.”
As I said, I knew that there was something very wrong with him.
We were never sure exactly how old Sparky was, but he spent a great many years with us. He was definitely part of the family, even if he was the little brother that nobody really liked that much. I started telling my kids that he might possibly be immortal. After all, the Penn State lab couldn’t even determine what species of animal he was.
We decided that Sparky was a legacy dog and was destined to be passed down for many generations. As the eldest, my daughter Elizabeth would be the recipient of this priceless gift. For some reason, she was less than pleased about this. As with everyone else, the staring shifts creeped her out and she really didn’t appreciate the way he smelled. No matter how many new blankets I placed beside the bed, within a few days they always reeked to high heaven. It might have been his anal glands, but the vet never mentioned anything and I wasn’t about to volunteer.
One night we went out for an after school event with my younger daughter, and when we came back home, Sparky was lying in his usual position underneath the dining room chair. I nudged him with my toe, but this time he didn’t move. The legacy was over. My older daughter was away in New York City. We decided not to break the news to her until she came home.
I was downstairs in my office when my younger daughter screamed, “Mom! You need to get up here right away.”
I ran up the stairs to find my older daughter curled up on the floor, her face buried in Sparky’s foul blanket, wailing, “Why? Why did he have to go?”
“Get your face out of that awful blanket,” I said. Dreams die so hard in the young.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly a decade since he’s been gone. Rest in peace, little buddy.