The two dogs that actually created a family.
I’ve had dogs my entire life — all kinds, all sizes — from Chihuahuas to Beagles to Labrador retrievers. I can’t say I really appreciated what they bring to us until Ace came along. But his story would be incomplete if not for Stella, and our family’s story would be incomplete if not for the both of them.
But before I get to that …
I married Cathi, my dream girl, 36 years ago, and my gift to her was a Dalmatian puppy, named Max. (Advice to those considering something similarly stupid…this is not the way to begin a marriage.)
Cathi was never allowed to have dogs as a kid and she wanted one desperately. I guess I was a bit optimistic in believing we could begin a new marriage, balancing it with the needs of a high-energy puppy and two budding careers in advertising that demanded more than 10 hours a day of our time.
It wasn’t long before we acknowledged that we must be crazy and gave Max to a family who could better care for him. It was absolutely the right thing to do — but Cathi was left crushed.
After our life settled a bit, and the demands of our careers changed, we decided to try the dog owner thing again. This time it was awesome.
We started with a small Shetland Sheepdog (Spencer), then rescued a second (Cory). Both were very good dogs and were with us about 10 years when my wife, now working very close to home, called my office: “Eddie, remember when you said you would be willing to get another dog, if it came down to saving him?” Cathi asked.
Me: “Ahh, no.”
Her: “He’s a beautiful sheltie.”
Me: “Well, I don’t know Cath, we already have two…maybe we can just see if he likes the other guys.”
So she brought Ace home. And that’s the real beginning of this story.
Ace was a dog’s dog.
His soul shackled and kept in a crate; he was never played with, was passed from owner to owner (and returned each time) — until finally he was scheduled to be destroyed. Destroyed. Then, Cathi entered the picture.
Like Buck from Call of the Wild, Ace simply yearned to run free with other dogs, not sit in a cage endlessly. No dog deserves that. So when my wife rescued this “poor little devil,” this “sheltered Sheltie,” and brought him home to me, in an instant I became his John Thornton — the human he was meant to be with. And the only one he wanted or needed.
You could tell from the start that Ace was good-natured. He was a handsome, big-boned, healthy, year-and-a-half-old, tri-colored Sheltie. But he was also clearly traumatized. The first night, Ace stood silently behind the TV and just stared out at me from there. Literally, for hours. I felt like Robert Redford stooping in the field patiently waiting out Pilgrim (the damaged horse from The Horse Whisperer). It worked!
Ace somehow decided he could trust me as he eventually emerged and settled comfortably into into my lap and went to sleep.
He began to find friendship in our two other dogs which helped his angst. But try as he might to get them to play, they were getting older and couldn’t provide the energy he needed. As for interacting with people it was me only. No one could get near or touch Ace, not even Cathi. So as life was coming to an end for Spencer and Cory, we grew concerned for Ace.
Things took a dramatic turn when Stella appeared.
Stella was a people’s dog.
Stella — a smooth Collie — never seemed to be all that interested in other dogs, even as a puppy. Except for Ace. Her soul was bent to being of service, to watching over, and generally bringing pleasure to all humans that graced her presence — whether she knew you or not. Stella had the true, concerned heart of a Collie. And although Cathi wanted a little Papillon, she somehow agreed with me that we needed the soon-to-be-huge Stella. It was destiny.
In an instant Cathi became Stella’s Mrs. John Thornton. (Okay, there wasn’t a Mrs. Thorton, but you get the idea.)
The simple fact that Cathi brought Ace to me, and I brought Stella to Cathi could, on its own, be a great story of the magical gift of dog ownership. But the better story is one of dog friendship and watching it unfold.
It began the instant Stella walked into Ace’s life — and an era had begun. An era of two amazing creatures that would share the next twelve years together as best friends, as therapy dogs, as canine good citizens — and filling the void in a married couple who, despite their desire, could not have children.
We went nowhere without Ace and Stella. From the low country of South Carolina to the top of Acadia’s Cadillac Mountain, they were our constant companions. Stella keeping careful watch over us — and Ace, at last, living the life of a dog.
Once in Maine, we passed another couple (whom we had apparently met days before) who exclaimed, “Hey, there’s Ace and Stella!” Not, “Hey, there’s Ed and Cathi!” But that was okay, we learned quick enough that they were the stars in our “family.” It wasn’t us. They quite honestly made everyone smile.
Over time it was Stella that actually taught Ace how to be comfortable around humans — even embrace them — eventually becoming a working therapy dog. And it was Ace who introduced Stella to the joy of playing with other dogs. Still, if you took both to a dog park, you would find Ace running to exhaustion with other dogs and Stella standing amidst a circle of humans discussing the news of the day.
For the next decade, they both filled our lives — almost completely — with insurmountable joy. But the biggest surprise was yet to come.
A miracle on two legs.
After nineteen years of praying and waiting, Tony joined our odd little family as an adopted child, filling our deepest and long-standing desire to be parents. Amazingly, as we learned during the adoption process, one of the main reasons we were chosen as the adoptive parents was in no small part due to Ace and Stella.
The desire was to place the baby with an established, married couple that had a deep and abiding love for animals, particularly dogs. And as Tony has grown into a teen, quite possibly the only one who loves dogs more than Cathi or myself, is him.
As dogs grow older, it’s very difficult to watch them fail. Tony was only eight-years-old when life began to change visibly for our dogs. And he remained very strong throughout these last years of Ace’s and Stella’s lives, actually helping us, and them, through every phase of their deterioration.
The beginning of the end.
One summer night, Ace was walking in the yard and just fell over. My initial thought was, “silly dog, what are you doing?” But he didn’t get up. This was first of many seizures that would torment him over the last six months or so of his life. They were difficult to watch. Tony would be right with me, holding Ace while I calmly petted him to help him relax.
Ace’s life began with one-and-a-half years of hell in a cage, but ended with 14 years of freedom and friendship — with all of us — and of course, his Stella.
Stella left us just a year later due to age and general failing health and, quite possibly, a broken heart. During that final year, it seemed Stella wandered around looking for Ace — her soul never seeming to settle. She eventually warmed up to, and grew to love Tony’s new dog, Oliver (a miniature Dachshund we rescued after Ace passed), but her void was clear. As is now ours.
Oliver, though very old now, is still with us and has recently been joined by Tino, a great big, full-of-life, red Standard Poodle. He is the friendliest dog ever, everyone’s best friend, and has been my comfort throughout this whole COVID-2020 affair. Together, we have walked more than 700 miles since the lockdowns began. Perhaps he’ll be the character in many future stories to come, happier than this one.
Honestly, I didn’t think any dog could fill the personal dog void left by Ace. But, albeit very differently, one certainly has — Tino. I always thought you only got one true, dog-soul-mate in your life. But I was wrong, or maybe I’m just lucky. It’s no wonder that some years back, Men’s Journal listed the Top 50 things a man should do in his life. At the top of the list was own a dog.
So whether you end up with a dog’s dog or a people’s dog, either will allow you to abandon your concerns and simply love them as they love you. Unlike the rational animals that we humans are, dogs fortunately do not know despair. Even in the toughest of times, they will be there for you — fully.
For us, the era of Ace and Stella — which lasted more than a decade — is now over, but life proves it goes on.
Emotionally, they will always remain for Cathi and I. And so it should be. There can be no replacement for what they have brought to us — the simple joy of their companionship, and the everlasting joy and love of a son.
So today, if there is a doggie heaven, I’m sure Stella and Ace are together again running freely through its golden fields. Ace enjoying the run, and Stella by his side looking for people.
A new era has begun.