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Man's Best Friend, and More

He got a dog because he'd always enjoyed having one. He didn't expect to also get a lifesaver. By Chuck Gilkison

November 06, 2005|CHUCK GILKISON | Chuck Gilkison is a writer living in Portland, Ore.

Shortly before I was diagnosed with MS I had decided it was time to get a dog. Growing up I had dogs, and when a girlfriend and I lived in the Napa Valley there were two as part of my family. It just hadn't been the same without one urging me out of bed every morning.

I have never gone out looking for a dog; they always seem to come into my life on their own. It had been a few years though, and it seemed I would have to start looking myself if I was going to have another. I decided to start with the Internet.

I stumbled across a site that asked 40 questions about lifestyle and then spit out a list of dogs that fit my needs. My criteria weren't simple. I wanted a medium-size dog, independent, intelligent, loving, able to run with me. Oh, and he had to match my sofa. The No. 1 dog on the list was a Canaan.

I had never heard of a Canaan, and started doing some research: native to Palestine, domesticated by scientists in Israel, not many of them in the United States. There were no breeders anywhere in the Pacific Northwest, and I was told the wait for one was more than a year. Not easily daunted, I started calling kennels, surfing websites and generally reading everything I could on the breed. Then one spring day the phone rang. A breeder in Iowa had a dog that had been returned to her twice by separate owners. He was a "difficult dog that would be a challenge" if I took him on. Somehow my eager ears missed that part, and I quickly sent him a plane ticket.

The morning I was to pick him up at the airport I got a phone call from the breeder. "I've just shipped him off," she said. "One important thing I forgot to tell you. As soon as you take him out of his shipping kennel, jump on him and push him to the ground. You need to set the tone of your relationship at first contact or you will never be able to control him." I started to wonder what I had gotten myself into.

The Delta baggage claim guy was sure to have discussed the strange man who came and picked up a dog that morning. I did exactly as instructed, pulling Sam out of his kennel and pushing him to the ground, lying across him. After a moment I got up, and he responded by maniacally humping my leg. We went through this routine multiple times before, realizing that he had broken my will, I gave up on getting him back into the kennel and let him sit in the front seat of my car. We had driven half a mile when he vomited on my dashboard and peed on the seat at the same time. Ah, it was good to have a dog in my life again!

We settled in together. His turn-ons were long walks in the park, peanut-butter dog snacks and rawhide bones. Turn-offs included cuddling, chasing balls, any type of toy and any other dog within two miles. In spite of the breeder's assurances otherwise, he shed 24/7. Then there was his tendency to attack those stone garden gnomes that people put in their front yards. One Christmas I had to replace someone's inflatable snowman after Sam decided it was threatening us and savagely attacked it. Not exactly the canine of my fantasies, but I was determined to make the relationship work.

The following fall I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Shortly after that I had my first major relapse, and went blind and became very weak. Being the stubborn idiot that I am, I refused to let anyone help me unless I had absolutely no choice. Instead I spent time listening to music and books on tape and wondering what kind of future I might have. Sam seemed to know instinctively what was going on and suddenly became a different dog.

He had never been trained as a helper, but as we ventured out on short walks he would make sure I stayed on the sidewalk, carefully leading me around obstacles. At every curb he would stop and wait for my OK as I poked along with my cane. Slowly my vision returned and we began venturing farther, though if he decided I was walking too far he would sit down and refuse to move until I rested. Everyone started calling him "Sam the Wonder Dog."

During the next six months I gradually returned to normal. I started working out, running again, and getting ready to go back to work. (Told you I was stubborn. Did I mention stupid?) Then my disease entered a new phase and everything went to hell again.

I was out running errands and started to feel sick, so I turned around and went home. My legs felt weak and shaky. I stumbled up three flights of stairs to my apartment and managed to get through the door. Sam rushed up and started barking. As I reached toward him he grabbed my shirt collar and pulled hard. I thought he was playing and pushed him away. He rushed back and grabbed my shirt again, pulling me to the floor. My knees buckled and the last thing I remember was sprawling in the doorway, the room spinning around me, and Sam lunging toward my chest.

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