Remembering Rusty - The Stray Who Stole Everyone's Heart

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Rusty was a dynamite dog. He had this great smile. He opened his mouth wide and his whole face became a grin. He loved crowds and kids. Particularly kids. Anyone he met was there to see him. Even the doctor with the needle that ended his wonderful life.

I learned a lot from Rusty. I didn't grow up with pets but my wife did. She always had dogs as a kid. But we lived in New York and she didn't think keeping a dog in an apartment was a good idea. She would get her dog fix at her parents' house, where there was always at least one dog.

Then, 10 years ago, she was walking across Central Park and saw a dog cowering by a fence. He was carried home and adopted. She gave him the name Balto after the statue of the famous sled dog located close to where she had found him.

Once the walks with Balto began, other dogs came into our lives - and our one-bedroom apartment near Riverside Park. Ernie and Joey were found freezing at night in a snowstorm. We had them long enough to get attached to them, but still were able to let them go when we found a good home.

Cisco, a Samoyed, was big, white and gentle. The happy purebred was in high demand and went to someone who lived up the street.

Rusty's Hard Life on the Street

But for Rusty it was different. His time on the street was hard. Suzanne was on her morning walk with Balto in Riverside Park when she saw him climbing out of the sandbox where he had spent the night. He huddled over, afraid of Balto, a sheepdog mix so meek that no dogs saw him as a threat. But that morning, life for the stray in the park was obviously full of threats.

Suzanne brought Balto home and went back to the park, feeling that if she saw him again, it was meant to be. She walked through the park and there he was, cowering, beaten down, hungry, thirsty. When Suzanne put the leash around his neck his head lifted and the smile broke. He looked at the other dogs with pride, as if saying, "Look at me. I belong now."

He had a couple of teeth knocked out and his claws and pads were worn, signs of abuse and a street life. We pretended to look for an owner, but I think we knew from the start that he was a keeper. When he came into the apartment for the first time, he was exhausted. He dropped down to sleep. He was home.

Rusty's New Life

Rusty owed everything to Balto since he owned the house and taught him the ropes. Rusty had a great heart. And he was a real character. He was guileless. We'd only had him a few weeks when we took him on his first visit to my mother-in-law's house in suburban Philadelphia, a house he would come to regard as his country home.

Back then, everything was new. He wandered into the kitchen and picked a pound of bacon off a counter. When Suzanne found him eating it in the dining room he beamed at her, knowing this meant he had been taken into the family. We figured he was about two - adopted strays always are, I think. He hadn't played before and you could tell his Puppy days had been rough. Things like a ball were alien to him.

The one thing he responded to was affection. Summer afternoons on the roof he enjoyed wandering over and sitting down next to a neighbor. We called it "pretending to be so-and-so's dog." And he was. He didn't hustle food the way most dogs do. Even regular meals were something new for him. So he always appreciated everything he got. He'd sort of stand back when treats were being handed out with a look that made you think he was hoping that maybe someone would notice him, but he didn't want to impose. When you held out the treat for him his big ears went back, the head went up and his huge grin came open as he took whatever was offered.

Rusty was that kind of stray with a little shepherd basic to the strain. Then there was a little of this and a bit of that. We figured there might be some corgi in there, which would have given him the reddish tint that had led to the name and the ears that he used so expressively.

Rusty was always a little afraid of other dogs, at least the ones he met on walks. He needed to yell and then to let them know how tough he was. Once, he managed to bite another dog, an incident that led to one of those vet bills you only get when you really don't need the extra expense. But he was great with people. He was starved for attention and made friends easily. Neighbors in the elevator. People in the park. If we had visitors he liked he'd want to sleep with them. But he was especially good with kids.

All the Kids Loved Rusty

Rusty died July 9, 2000, and I'll get to that. But one thing I know that he left behind is a memory in the minds of many children. Rusty was mid-sized, just over 40 pounds. But kids were rarely afraid of him. He'd come close, but not too close. He let children stroke and poke, happy for the attention: "Hey, look at me, I'm popular." A few of those kids have already talked their parents into letting them have their own dogs. Others haven't yet and when they get older might not even be certain why they want one, but Rusty left a devoted following. Friends from around the country mourn his passing.

One of the great Rusty stories is the way he saved Dolly, who became our third dog. Suzanne was taking Balto and Rusty along the Hudson River when he got curious about something. He was on his leash and she figured he smelled a rat and wanted to go dig for it. But he kept pulling to the embankment. Finally she looked over the edge and there on a rock four feet below was this little Beagle puppy. She was pulled from the rising river by Suzanne, but she knew it was Rusty who saved her.

When the pup got back to the apartment that first morning she bounded up on my lap and settled in. She was devoted to Rusty, always knowing that he had saved her life. But to Rusty she was always a threat –"Hey, I just wanted to see her, not keep her." He was afraid that she was his replacement as the puppy, as the cute one. We always hoped he'd get over it, but Dolly knew enough to keep her distance and follow his rules.

Rusty Gets Sick

Two months ago things began to change. Rusty wasn't eating right. He couldn't handle the walks. In early May the vet ran a geriatric blood panel, combining about 40 tests. He was checked for Lyme disease. He started taking Rimadyl, an anti-inflammatory, and things picked up for about five weeks. We tried acupuncture in case arthritis was bothering him. He was so good about it all.

The only thing he couldn't understand was why he had to stay with me those times he couldn't go for a walk with the others. He did what he was supposed to do. He watched the door until they got back. Rusty was like that. We had to be safe. He wouldn't go to bed at night until he was sure that the lights were out and we were going to bed. That was his job. He did it until the end. Until he couldn't walk more than a few steps.

Different drugs would pick him up for a while, but then fade. Then came the discovery of the tumor in his prostate gland. It had been growing quickly. He wouldn't survive surgery. Chemotherapy wouldn't help. There was one other thing to try, Prednisone. This might shrink the swelling around the tumor enough so he could be comfortable.

The tumor was discovered on Monday. My wife called me on Wednesday. We needed to make some decisions. So I went down to her Mom's and Rusty perked up on Friday, the day we thought we would have to take him to the vet. He smiled, walked a little, began eating. We felt good. But it was only his way of saying good-bye.

He just couldn't muster a third day and we were not going to subject him to needless pain. We called the doctor and he told us when to come in. It was strange knowing exactly when you were going to lose a loved one. But it gave you the time to say your good-byes and whatever else you felt you needed to say. Now I'm thankful for a lifetime of memories even if that life was only 9 years long.

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