The first time I saw Harley, I was sure he was dead. The black Cocker Spaniel mix lay motionless on his bed at the shelter. He couldn’t be sleeping, not at 6 in the morning, potty/walk time! Normally all the residents are awake, barking and ready to go even before the potty/walk team enters the kennel. It’s loud. Sleep is impossible; Harley must have passed away in the night, I thought sadly.
Taught to approach all shelter dogs with care, I read Harley’s bio and called his name before opening the kennel door. Nothing — not a twitch, not a quiver. Calling to him again, I opened the door and stepped in. Still no response. I continued calling his name and taking baby steps until I reached his bed. Nothing.
With a sinking heart I reached out and gently stroked him. When he jumped, rearing back to look at me, I was far more startled than he’d been by my touch. I shrieked and fell against the wall, bringing my partner running. Was I bitten? Hurt? What happened? Sitting on the floor catching my breath, Harley stayed on his bed, calmly looking around. So struck by the humor of the situation and how funny we must look, I started to laugh, knowing this would keep me laughing through the day. Looking at me expectantly, Harley rose, yawned, and stretched. I gathered myself, leashed him up, and out we went.
No longer young, Harley seemed fuzzy and slow. My last potty/walk of the morning, I took time, letting him look around and sniff as much as he wanted while I studied him. He’d clearly had some training. He was housebroken and walked nicely on leash, but his training must have ended there. When I gave him a few basic commands — sit, come, stay, and down — he didn’t respond. I moved behind him and clapped and called his name loudly. When he didn’t react, I knew Harley was deaf.
Back inside, I sat on Harley’s bed with him. He’d shown no sign of aggression when I startled him earlier, nor had he been hesitant with me at all. In fact, he’d been friendly, gentle, and sweet-tempered. I lightly massaged his muscles for a while, giving him treats. Holding his face in my hands and looking into his soft brown eyes, I saw a loving, dear old soul. While reluctant to leave, I had to get home to walk my own two boys.
Two days later I was back at the shelter for my usual daytime shift. Starting at one end of the kennel, intending to spend a bit of time with each dog, I’d not gotten far when a staff member rushed in. Pointing at Harley, she said, “Look! Harley’s at his door barking at you! I’ve never heard him bark before — I didn’t think he could!”
Abandoning my routine, I headed for Harley. The closer I got, the more excited he became. Eager with anticipation, he looked like a youngster — barking, jumping, spinning, his entire body wagging. If he was trying to be endearing, it worked. He had me.
Because of his age and deafness, it had been decided Harley would do better in a foster home than the kennel. His quick bonding to me had not gone unnoticed. Even though I’d never before provided foster care, when asked, I jumped at the chance. Given immediate one-on-one training, I became a certified foster mom. Harley would be going home with me.
I just had one problem. My husband, Jack, and I had downsized several years earlier to a home just the right size for us and Sam, our 65 lb. German Shepherd/Rotty/Chow mix. When close friends could no longer keep Sam’s best friend Bozzy, he joined us. Bozzy was a 100 lb. lap dog, a 10-year-old mix of Australian Shepherd and some very large breed. Soon, I found, rescued, and brought home a cat, so compatible with everyone, I named him Buddy. Jack teased that we’d have to add a room to accommodate anyone else. Turning serious, he said, “Please, no more.” He was right, and I agreed. But Harley happened so fast I hadn’t had time to talk to him. I wasn’t worried, though. Not really. Soft-hearted, kind, and patient, Jack loves animals as much as I do. And this just seemed meant-to-be. When he got home, I’d greet him with, “Surprise, honey! It’s a boy!”
Every time I came home, Sam, Bozzy, and Buddy, in that order, lined up just inside the door to greet me. When I was home, all Bozzy wanted was to be close to me. As soon as I opened the door, like he always did, he pushed Sam aside to get to me first.
When Harley arrived I was the one pushed aside. Buddy and I watched the canine ritual of circling and sniffing, sizing each other up. And just like that, there were three, as comfortable as lifelong friends. From there they moved almost as one, Harley getting the grand tour of the house and yard. When Jack got home all three were snoozing in the living room.
Jack wasn’t terribly surprised; he knew Harley had won me over, and could see he’d worked his magic on Sam, Bozzy, and Buddy as well. By bedtime, Jack had joined us under Harley’s spell.
That night as l fluffed Harley’s comforter, wondering where to put it, Sam went to his spot, his comforter on the floor on Jack’s side of the bed. Bozzy’s comforter was on my side, but he didn’t go to it. Following me to the foot of the bed, he waited until I put Harley’s comforter down. With a contented sigh he settled in. Harley went to Bozzy’s longtime spot by me, snuggling against the bed. Beautiful Bozzy had given his bed to Harley.
We knew Harley had found his forever home, forever family. He had adopted us.
We enjoyed watching the dynamics of our trio. Sam and Bozzy knew there was something different about Harley, often sniffing his face, ears, and head. They watched out for him on walks, even guiding at times. Our small home wasn’t crowded. It was cozy, and we were content.
During Harley’s physical exam upon entering the shelter the vet found a small protuberance just below his right jaw she believed to be a foreign object. I dropped him off the morning of surgery and went about my day.
Soon I got a call from the shelter, saying it was urgent, get there now. With Harley under anesthesia, the vet gently opened his mouth to show a tumor so large it covered slightly more than half his throat. I had two options: Let him go now or wake him up and take him home for the days he had left. Days — not weeks or months — days. I held him until the end. The vet and tech shed tears with me.
Shock wore off; grief set in. Jack and I shared our grief, talking about how little time we had with Harley, and how easily he’d fit our family. That joy tempered our grief. It was possible Harley’s last two weeks had been two of the best he’d known. Warm and comfortable, he’d eaten well, and been part of our family. He’d been loved. Knowing we’d been able to give him the gift of those two weeks gave us peace.
Harley gave us more. He changed us. We learned what a tremendous difference we could make in the life of a shelter dog. We’ve continued to foster dogs with medical needs, as well as those who wouldn’t thrive well in a kennel environment, until they’ve found their own forever homes.
Harley honored us with his love. This is how we honor him.
Editor’s Note: Blaine submitted this story with a note saying:
"I don’t know how to say that last sentence. How can I define his impact not only on us, but the friends and family who met him? Harley touched them all."
Her words did it beautifully.
Blaine Holland lives with her husband, Jack Shupe, in Troutdale with 1 dog and four cats. She says at MCAS she found what she was meant to do: join the dedicated people working to save animals, and write about it.