I met the surrendering owner at the sliding door and gaped in utter astonishment as the gasping, black-masked fawn Boxer anxiously entered the house. I’d been forewarned that Elvis was a “bit overweight.” However, there’s a certain level of beyond-disbelief when over one hundred thirty pounds of morbidly obese Boxer waddles in a vaguely obscene fashion into one’s kitchen. He was so corpulent that he carried ‘saddle bags’ on his hips. His entire body was overwhelmed by flab and upon first glance; I found it impossible to determine his gender. I felt my heart squeeze in compassion for Elvis’s obvious suffering and I struggled to shore up my emotional defenses. I had filled my life with small dogs precisely to avoid the Call I was hearing inside myself from this sad behemoth; how could I guess how much he’d come to mean to me?
I am a Boston terrier person by choice – exhibiting AKC Bostons, plus rescuing and fostering Bostons and other “bully” breeds. Although I had no need of a mega-sized Boxer; something more than concern for the dog’s health yanked my attention back to the wheezing animal time and time again, as I discussed the surrender terms with the overwhelmed owner… While she completed the paperwork, I knelt on the floor before Elvis, squared my shoulders, and met his eyes with a dominant stare. He panted malodorous ‘death breath’ in my face and immediately flicked his eyes away from mine. I whispered nonsense to him and waited for his attention to come around. I stared strongly into his eyes again. He blinked and turned his head away and down, angling his entire body so it became lower, smaller than mine. I was pleased and told him so, “What a sweet, soft boy you are!” and rubbed his silky cheeks.
The owner’s leave-taking was heart-rending to witness. Again, my eyes were drawn to Elvis. For all his bulk, he sat unobtrusively by the door, quivering and panting madly, ears erect and eyes wide within his shadowy mask. Elvis understood that a Big Change was here. He wanted his Person to give him direction – but she only let her guilty eyes skim over him as she squeezed by him out the door. When she stepped off the porch, Elvis’s breath caught harshly in his chest, not panting for the first time since I’d met him, not breathing at all for several moments, and then suddenly gasping out a single stunned bark as he watched his beloved Person climb into her car and drive away. The pain Elvis breathed into that single hoarse bark spoke of six years of devotion, companionship, and his innate drive to stand steadfastly by those in his charge. Deaf to all consolation, Elvis was a Boxer in mourning.
Within days, I knew I was keeping Elvis. His stoic acceptance of his situation broke my heart – and I wanted to earn his. I put him on a weight reduction diet that consisted mainly of green beans, mixed with miserly servings of kibble. We went for meandering strolls in the field behind our barns. At the start, it was so difficult for him to navigate the two porch steps that I worried whether I could ever get him healthy. Halfway ‘round the two acre field and Elvis was spent; drool hanging from his chops, his docked tail hanging limp. Very slowly, the excess pounds vanished. As blubber melted away, Elvis breathed easier and walked lighter; he could sit like a normal dog. It was clear he looked forward to our walks, but though obedient, held himself remote from me. Within weeks, the canine could make the trek around the field three or four times, even trotting partway. I nicknamed him “The Hunk,” because he was becoming such a gorgeous dog.
An amazing thing gradually happened: Aloof Elvis noticed me. I observed that instead of just blandly accompanying me on our walks, he began to walk with me, often choosing to walk so close that he brushed my thigh. If I sat to rest, he paused. As summer waned, Elvis sat closer and closer until one evening I found myself propped in the sun warmed grass with an arm draped companionably around the now athletic Boxer, whispering silliness into one Spock-like cropped ear. It twitched and waggled; tickled. Hunk turned his head and focused his soft, deep gaze on mine. He looked at me.
Two years later…
A flash at the edge of my vision catches my attention and I turn in time to see a large dog streak by my side, galloping flat-out. “There’s my Hunka-Hunka Burnin’ Love!” I call as he thunders past. His eyes are wide, shining; his ears are pinned back hard; his tongue is flagging out the side of his mouth, and I swear – I swear! – I can see a canine grin of utter joy on my dog’s face. He skids and spins to an untidy stop thirty feet before me, plants his paws, locks his docked tail impishly upright, and awaits my next move. I can see his eyes gleaming with anticipation within his inky mask.
“Come on, Hunk!” I holler at him and clap, crouching down into my own play pose. Immediately, Elvis collects himself and launches. I drop to my knees, spread my arms, and urge him on. As my gorgeous golden dog rockets toward me, I see love and joy beaming from his gaze and wide “Pac-Man” grin. I consider the comfort and companionship he has brought to my life and I wonder who really saved whom?
When Elvis reaches me; when this eighty-nine pound Boxer slews ungainly to a stop within the circle of my arms, he sits and pants his gleeful death-breath in my face. I laugh a bit misty-eyed as I press my forehead to his and rub his ears, his shoulders. I cup his velvety cheeks gently in my palms and look softly into his glowing, coffee-rich eyes…
My Hunk looks back at me.