Tails of Seattle: A pets blog
Heart dogs: Steve Duno and Lou
Have you ever had one of those special animals in your life that you couldn't have lived without? Who taught you more about living and loving than any other worldly creature? These are heart dogs, once-in-a-lifetime treasures that nest in our hearts and stay forever. In a fitting celebration of them this Valentine's Day week, The Seattle Times pet blog asked seven local dog people to remember and honor their heart dogs in essays and photos.
Veteran pet behaviorist and author Steve Duno has to date authored 19 books and scores of magazine and web articles. Formerly a teacher in New York City and Los Angeles, he now lives in Seattle with his family and an ever-changing assortment of rescued pets. He is pictured above with Lou.
By Steve Duno
Picture if you will, a 34-year-old New Yorker, his only pet to date a parakeet named "Chipper," an ornery bird who'd escape his cage and circle the apartment, drop his ordnance, then return to his cell to savor his tiny victory.
This 34-year-old, with no dog experience save a weekly Lassie homage, should arguably have been the last person on earth to be blessed with the gift of the world's greatest dog. But serendipity is a mocking goddess; she was determined to have her way.
So it was in the winter of 1989, when alongside Highway 101, near the town of Willits, Calif., I stopped my car to check out some stray dogs.
Born the feral offspring of guard dogs on a Mendocino marijuana grow, I saw Lou, a 6-month-old Rottweiler/Shepherd mix, porpoising up a grassy hill, following a pack of strays up to the tree line. As they disappeared into the pines, I whistled, just to see what would happen.
Instead of following his brethren into oblivion, Lou scampered down that hill like a Looney Tunes character and did a perfect soldier sit right in front of me, there on the shoulder of Highway 101.
Gaunt, with an infected neck wound, Lou was littered with ticks. As I petted him, fleas leapt off his head and tickled the palm of my hand like champagne bubbles. But there was something about him -- a charisma -- that called to me.
As cars and trucks whizzed by, he gazed up at me with Garbo eyes, and I questioned what to do with this skeletal flea bag.
I of course carted him back to Los Angeles, to my rented house, which, true to Lou's feral form, was destroyed post haste. Though soft, sweet and ever sentient, Lou was used to raiding garbage cans, chasing down squirrels and living the hobo life; he didn't quite get domesticity.
I'd been a teacher; research and experiment came naturally to me. Gradually, I figured out what made this wild dog tick. I read books, took lessons, tried this and that.
Gradually, Lou and I became partners in an interesting trial. I became his Higgins, and he, my diamond in the rough. I thought I was a natural dog trainer; little did I know, it was Lou, it was ALL Lou.
He flourished. Within a year, he had a vocabulary of over 150 words, plus hand signs to go with each behavior. The leash became an anachronism, rather than a necessity. I took him to work, spent 24/7 with him, pushed him, marveled at his potential.
Then he stepped it up. Though sweet and gentle, Lou had a discerning, righteous side; he could tell good from bad better than other dogs, even better than me.
In 1990, when just a year old, he foiled the armed robbery of a 7-Eleven in Culver City, Calif., saving my life in the process.
Days later, he got kidnapped in Venice Beach, then defended me from the kidnappers when I came to his rescue.
The next year, upon moving to Seattle, Lou literally won me a job at a renowned dog-training facility, upon auditioning his litany of behaviors and tricks for the owner.
He became my training partner. Specializing in saving aggressive dogs slated for euthanasia, I and the other trainers used the strong, savvy, once-feral Lou to socialize, contain and teach the wayward dogs.
Because of him, we helped save hundreds of pets, who would have otherwise been killed.
Two years later, Lou caught a rapist in the University District of Seattle, down the street from my apartment. Laid the monster low, helped get him taken off the street. I'm proud of that, and I think he was, too.
Lou began working as a therapy dog, with pre-school kids and the elderly. He adored kids and elder citizens. Kids rode him like a horse. Alzheimer's patients and WWII vets came out of their shells when he was around, like he was some sort of visiting superstar.
For several years, he helped teach American sign language to toddlers. I'd taught him a hand sign for each of Lou's tricks and behaviors, which then numbered over 150; when the kids saw him respond to commands without me uttering a word, they cheered, and realized that, if a dog could do it, so could they.
-- Made a Washington State lottery commercial
-- Graced the covers of two books
-- Befriended a wolf
-- Won the hearts of L.A. gang members
-- Beat cancer
-- Bested a cat killing coyote
-- Won agility contests
-- Lived to the age of 16
What more can I say about him? That he was my first dog? That he'd saved my life, and the lives of hundreds of dogs? That he knew Sidney Poitier, and played fetch with a pine cone in front of Hemingway's grave? That, on the trip to the vet to euthanize him, "Stairway to Heaven" came on the radio?
Lou changed my life, redirected it, shaped it. He'd gone from the hills of Mendocino, eating garbage and road kill, to becoming a real life Rin Tin Tin. Lou even got his own book -- "Last Dog On The Hill".
How many dog owners get to publish a book about their best friend?
He's seven years gone. I can still hear him, smell him, see him scooting down the grassy hill on that winter's day in 1989, ready and willing to change lives and win hearts. I sure loved him.
More in the series:
Coming Thursday: Former Times desk editor and pet columnist Ranny Green tells us about Abbe, his sweet Katrina rescue.