Barking up the right tree

Safe, happy, loved and well fed – Sassy knows the meaning of home

Story and photos by Barbara Aggerholm

My name is Sassy and I’m an Australian cattle dog, a black-and-white, medium-sized dog with a white-tipped tail that wags a lot.

There’s a lot of talk about how we pets are lifesavers. Studies show we help humans reduce their stress, lower their blood pressure and heart rate and help them stay in shape and make friends.

But let me tell you about the humans who were my lifesavers.

I was raised on a puppy mill farm where I was made to have more puppies than I can remember, though I desperately try. Who forgets her children? When I was too old to have more litters, I was lucky enough to be rescued by people who reminded me – no, that’s not right – they taught me that people can be very kind. From them, I learned to open my heart, a heart that was so eager to open.

One day, I was walking on the beach with my first rescuer, Linda, and my friend, a handsome sled dog, when we met two sisters, Joan and Barb, who were walking the other way. Immediately, they gravitated toward me and I responded with as many tail wags as I could. Linda didn’t know them, but she told them my story. They said they were looking for a dog.

I couldn’t believe it when Linda said she’d been looking for a good home for me. I thought I’d already found a good home. But sure enough, we visited Joan and her husband, Randy, at their house, and Linda liked them. I did too, but I was unsure of myself and timid. How many kind people could there be in the world? I didn’t want to leave Linda.

Linda trusted them to love me, but when she delivered me to their door, I didn’t know what to think. It was a new place and there was an anxious cat that clearly wasn’t happy to see me. The cat and I stepped around each other for the longest time, until gradually we accepted that neither of us was going anywhere.

Meanwhile, Joan took me for lots and lots of walks. I’m that kind of dog. She learned that while I have keen herding instincts, she had to keep an eye on me when I walked behind her on a leash. I liked to scoop up whatever juicy morsels – dead fish, sticks, food wrappers – were in my path and I paid the price afterward with clean-up jobs for Joan. But those Lake Huron fish smelled so good.

Joan was patient and spoke to me softly. Soon, I trusted her as I had trusted Linda. And I loved her more than any human being. I would only walk with her or Linda, though others tried to cajole me into heading to the beach with them. I gained a good home, and my humans gained a new, good friend in Linda. In fact, she recently hosted their son’s wedding at her beachfront home.

I knew that when I was with Joan, I was safe, I was happy, I was loved, I was well fed. She gave me a hard-boiled egg every morning; farm-fresh eggs that were delivered by Linda to our door. I slept by her bed, and I rose in the morning, too early for Joan, when the cat, Zoe, decided she’d waited for us long enough.

Joan and Randy gave me the most wonderful rest of my life. I welcomed their relatives and friends, and I even got used to the little granddaughters who were herders in their own right! We walked in the cold, blowing snow of winter and the extreme heat of summer when I would lap up the lake water in between snatches of whatever I could eat from the beach before Joan caught me. When we walked, the world shrank to me and my Joan and I couldn’t have been happier.

Neighbours would listen for my sharp, yippy bark that meant I didn’t want to wait another minute for a treat. They would hasten to get their own bag of treats and I wouldn’t budge from their driveways until I got one, along with lots of pats. Along our route to the beach, friends put a sign in their front window bidding us a safe walk.    

When we returned home, Randy would pat me on the head as I leaned into him, something I do when I feel most safe.   

When I became ill, and the vet said it was cancer, they let me live as I had with them, free of anxiety, loved beyond belief. I had frequent vet checkups to measure if I was in pain and I continued to enjoy my life, though we all knew it would be shortened. But my walks, my snoozes, my hard-boiled eggs, my tummy rubs went on as before. Nothing changed except I walked a little slower (all the better to inspect the rotting delicacies on the beach).  But I knew that someday soon we’d have to say good-bye.

The day came on Aug. 18, 2021. I am grateful for the joyous life I had with Joan and Randy, and I know I will be in their hearts forever.     

There’s a new dog in my place now. Her name is Penny and she’s as black as night. She’s medium-large with a strong, lab body and the bearded face of a schnauzer. Her early life wasn’t so much different from mine. She was forced to have too many litters of puppies until she developed breast cancer. She was picked up as a stray and taken to an animal shelter, frightened, starving and very sick.

Joan and Randy were her last chance. My humans took her home after she’d recovered at a foster home from her surgeries. My friend, Zoe the cat, is teaching her who’s in charge of the house, but she’s a little slower learning the lessons than I was. I think it’s going to take a few more swats on the nose.

She’s bigger and stronger than I was, and she has a lot to learn about walking with a human. She wants to lead while I liked to follow. But it will come.

My humans have staying power. They do not give up, and one day, I know our neighbours will be fetching their treat bags for Penny when they hear her deep, spirited bark.