The Dog Who Could Open Doors

The Dog who Could Open Doors

His breed blended between golden retriever and Irish setter, with a coat, reddish-gold, long and slightly wavy, his face pure white. The large paws that sported tufts of fur, resembled webbed feet. Rear legs were bowed in at the knees like an ancient grandpa, bent and wobbly. What a handsome guy!

Marley arrived in the back seat of my sister’s flashy red Acura. She had arrived for a weekend with a fanfare of horn tooting to summon us to come and greet her bedraggled passenger.

“I rounded the bend of Salmon Hill Road, and there he was in the middle of the street, just standing there,” she said. “I had to jam on my brakes to avoid hitting him. I got out of the car to approach him, and he just stood there wagging his tail, looking at me forlornly. His eyes begged help me, please.”

She’d inspected his collar that pinched too tightly around the matted fur of his neck - to find no tags, no license. Fortunately, a motorcyclist pulled up from the other direction; he turned off his engine and parked. “Everything okay?” he asked. Marley needed help navigating his climb into the car, and the young man lifted up Marley’s behind, as my sister guided the dog onto the back seat. He curled up as if he knew he’d found just the right place: his wait for someone to come along and rescue him had paid off.

The poor animal was, under closer observation, malnourished and his fur filthy with matts, covered with fleas. He couldn’t be kept in the house for the night. So, I settled him into our outdoor kennel with a blanket, food, and water. He seemed content, more content than I; I hated leaving him outdoors overnight. Yet I think it bothered me more than it bothered him. He probably hadn’t slept indoor in ages, if ever. Anyway, it was August. But I had a restless night, and walked up the hill to the kennel at one AM and again at four, with a flashlight, to check on him.

Next day, I drove him in my station wagon, headed for the animal control kennel to see if anyone responded to notices about a lost dog. I spied Marley from my rearview mirror as he sat on the backseat looking so “hang dog.” His ears were badly infected, and the hair drooped down from them, sooty as charcoal, long matts resembling dreadlocks. That’s when I named him Marley, after the great Jamaican performer, Bob Marley.

“Marley, if they don’t find your owner, I’ll try to keep you,” I whispered as I held tight to the steering wheel. He already knew I would. But I had concerns that my husband Tony wouldn’t go along with the plan.

First, we had to make some stops. I wanted Marley comfortable while he waited at the kennel, after a bath at the groomer which left a dark dead-flea residue in the tub. Next stop, the vet.

“This is probably the worst ear infection I’ve seen,” he said, and he indicated that Marley looked to be about fourteen. “Old for a big dog, but he probably hasn’t been abused, given his friendliness; but he sure has been badly neglected.”

After ten days, and not wanting to feel like a heel, my husband reluctantly agreed to having Marley join our household -- with some caveats: “Margaret, it’s all your sister’s fault, and I expect her to help us pay the vet bill.”

On Marley’s first night indoors, he slept in the kitchen on a thick cushioned dog bed near the louvered doors that hooked shut. When we awoke in the morning, Marley surprised us; we discovered him curled up in the living room on the sofa. I scratched my head, wondering, doubting, hadn’t I hooked those doors?

Those doors from the kitchen to the living room and then to the TV room were always latched with hooks. And yet every morning that first week, both doors would be open, and Marley would be asleep on one of the dog cushions or the sofa. Tony and I blamed each other for forgetting to secure the doors.

And then one day the mystery was solved: I watched as Marley jiggled the louvered doors with his nose and paws to release the hook, stroll through the living room to the door of the TV room, and tap that latch with his chin. Eureka! In he went, and curled up near the fireplace!

We soon discovered that Marley’s talents at exiting and entering prohibited areas encompassed a deeper wanderlust that threatened his life. Our active farmhouse environment entailed in the door/out the door, with my husband, always moving, in between pruning and mowing eight acres of field, our black labs free to roam, trained to avoid the electric fence.

So, Marley had to be consigned to the house. We closed over the screen tightly to keep him safe in the kitchen. We assumed foolishly that an ancient animal like Marley, so grateful to have a forever home and constant care, would never wander off, especially safe in this Eden across from the Housatonic River.

But he contrived his Marley-like magic to figure out how to escape. And granted, there were times we slipped: closing the screen door loosely for a few moments, distracted as we fed the birds, unaware of the escape artist we believed to be safe in the kitchen. Marley seized every opportunity to push through the door and trot down the driveway. What was he hankering after?

“I think we’ve got your dog, here, he’s been hanging out in our yard,” our neighbor Tom had phoned us. This first time Marley ended up at Tom’s barn next door, an easy retrieval. We’d lived near Tom, who bred and raised poodles, for about five years. Tony repeated his mantra to me when we returned home, Marley in tow, “This dog wandered off from his owner, and now we’re stuck with him. It’s all your sister’s fault.”

It wasn’t too long after that incident before we discovered an unexpected facet of Marley’s dynamic nature. Since his manhood was still intact, and one of our female labs had not been spayed, he perked up, a spring in his step,
and followed Polly all over the house, when she came into heat. Were his revved-up hormones propelling him to explore other potentially life-threatening escapades off the property?

One fateful afternoon, we were to find out. Marley pushed his way through the door again, and this time he didn’t come home that night and no one called to report a lost dog. By evening, it was pouring rain. We searched the woods, the riverbank, inched our way down winding country roads, our flashlights beaming past the wildflowers along the street, deep into the forest, but couldn’t catch a glimpse of him. I feared that he had either perished in the river or followed some hikers up the Appalachian Trail, which runs past our house. By nightfall I was distraught. “This is all your sister’s fault.” I knew Tony wanted to pin the blame on someone. I knew that he, too, imagined that poor, bedraggled dog alone in the world again.

Next morning, we approached hikers on the Appalachian Trail, and miraculously, by afternoon, one young hiker said he had just seen a dog that looked like Marley down by the river.

After a heavy rain, the Housatonic is perfect for kayakers who want the excitement of traversing water bounding south in a torrent. I feared Marley would be swept away. We dashed down the trail and across the road to the spot the hiker alluded to, down a steep rocky ledge to the water - and there stood Marley on a wide, flat rock - surrounded by a foot of gushing water. How did he ever navigate this? Tony grappled with both the rush of water and slippery rocks to try to reach the dog; I was terrified I’d lose both of them!

Tony’s sneakers slipped on the slimy algae coating the rocks, and he landed on his knees. “Shit, god dammit” he said as he clenched his teeth. “Be careful! Go slow!” I hollered over the gushing sounds. He stood up semi-drenched, the bottom half of his jeans ballooning in the current; and all the while, Marley stood on the rock, placidly wagging his tail, waiting for yet another rescuer, another family member, to save him.

At last Tony reached the dog, hoisted him in his arms, and pushed his way back through the constant surge; he almost toppled over under Marley’s weight. He struggled toward me over the slippery rocks and finally made it up the muddy embankment, as I pulled him by his jacket, with Marley’s furry legs wrapped around him. “Oh my God,” I cried from relief, hugging Tony with Marley still attached to him, as if I would never let them go.

Early the following day, I called Invisible Fence. I had thought that poor old Marley, hearing impaired as a result of his ear infection, could never learn, never respond. But he took to his training quite well. He needed a little extra time and patience to catch on, but within a month he was no longer wandering off the property. He was free to roam. He was home to stay.

And there were other miracles.

Dear old Marley lived to see seventeen years of life: Three years filled with grandchildren visiting who would hug and kiss him, roll on the floor around him as he simply lay there, gentle soul, accepting the energy and noise, loving the kids’ affection.

In his final year, his back legs began to weaken, and during Polly’s heats, he struggled as he sprang to life to satisfy his passionate interest in her. Can’t keep an ol’ guy down! But when the heats ended, so did Marley’s energy. He grew more infirm, and then he became incontinent. We knew his time had come.

The gloomy ride to the vet was agonizing, but I knew we were making the right choice for Marley. I held him on my lap, and my husband’s gentle hands stroked him as the vet helped him drift away, enveloped in compassion.

“You have meant so much to all of us, Marley,” I said through my tears. Tony didn’t know I noticed him wiping his eyes with his handkerchief.

Marley’s uncanny Houdini abilities probably led to his earlier adventure three years before, when he left his neglected circumstances and lost his way. Then again, maybe he found his path, on that afternoon, when my sister encountered him in the road and chauffeured him into our lives.

Marley, the dog who could open doors, certainly opened my heart, and in time, Tony’s, as well. When we touched his still body in those final moments, we trust that the louvered doors to heaven were already unhooked for him; in fact, those doors might as well have been open wide, because Marley would have unhooked them himself anyway!

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