My Dog Pongo
"If a dog will not come to you after having looked you in the face, you should go home and examine your conscience."- Woodrow Wilson
Picture this. It was Christmas Eve night, in a warm, seasonally lit home nestled in the little town of Harrogate, Tennessee. The live Christmas tree sat in the corner of the living room, with an array of presents festively wrapped beneath. The majority of those gifts were for a seven year old girl, and were mostly comprised of Barbies, various Barbie accessories, Disney toys and movies of all kinds, none of which she would get to open until morning, of course. But Christmas morning would bring an even bigger surprise than she could imagine…
Christmas morning, dressed in my new Christmas "jammas", I woke early, as I usually did on Christmas in the past six years of my existence. I promptly went across the hall to wake up my parents, and then down the hall to that wonderful, beautiful, magical Christmas tree in our living room. I saw the presents stacked high all around the tree and squealed with wonder at the half eaten cookies that I had left for Santa on the piano bench. But most of all I was excited about the carrots and apples that were gone because those I had left for the reindeer. As much as I loved Santa, and was really glad he brought presents, what I loved most where those reindeer. I was particularly fond of Prancer, and of course, Rudolph. I was a die hard animal lover. I wanted to pet, love, and cuddle anything with fur and four legs, although my favorite animals, by far, were dogs. Beagles, Labs, Shih Tzus, Cocker Spaniels, I loved them all, but my passion, my obsession, my "favoritiest", as I would have said, were Dalmatians. The Disney movie 101 Dalmatians had been released early 1992, when I was seven, and I had been taken to the theater to see it. I was hooked. My room was redecorated with a Dalmatian bedspread, wallpaper boarder, and figurines. I wore Dalmatian t-shirts, hair bows, and tennis shoes. That summer my parents had taken me to the Kentucky Horse Park and Churchill Downs, where there was a type of Dalmatian showcase going on, and I had been overwhelmed with all those beautiful dogs. I wanted one bad, really bad, to say the least. So that morning, after all those presents that had been stacked all around were unwrapped, and there were toys opened and unopened strewn across the floor, coffee table, and couch, I got down in the floor check for any gift I might have missed. At the base of the tree, nestled in the tree skirt, sleeping soundly with a big red bow around his neck was a small, spotted Dalmatian puppy.
To this day, I remember that Christmas as one of the most memorable experiences in my life. At the age of seven I never imagined that I would actually get to have a Dalmatian of my very own in my lifetime. He was the cutest, most exciting gift I had ever received and of course I named him Pongo, there was no other name I even considered. My parents were as excited as I was because he had slept so soundly and not given them away the night before and all that morning while we opened the other presents. It was picture perfect.
From then on Pongo and I were inseparable. He slept in the garage at night and was by my side during the day. I was excited to get up in the morning to see him and when school started back, I wished for nothing more than to get back home to him all day long.
Pongo grew fast. As he got larger, my parents decided that he needed to be an outside pet. So I spent my time outside in our backyard with him near the dog house that I helped my dad build for him. While my dad was outside working around the house, I would let Pongo off his run. He would run and pounce and play up a storm in our yard, but he never roamed too far. Once I decided that I was going to walk Pongo, but I wanted to ride my bike too. So I attached his leash to by bike handle, hung a chew bone from it and started peddling. Remember that Pongo had grown fast, and that by this time I was probably only eight or nine, and he was a large dog. If Pongo stood on his hind legs he could put his front paws on my shoulders and his head would be above mine. We didn't even make it out of the driveway before one forceful pull from Pongo sent me tumbling to the pavement. The bike landed on top of Pongo, which scared him, and he began to squirm to get out, but the leash was tangled around me and the bike, and the more he pulled the farther he pulled me along the pavement, scratching and cutting my knees and elbows. I remember screaming and crying and my dad came running to stop the dog and help me up. I was bleeding, crying, and hurting all over, but more concerned about my dog than myself. Luckily Pongo wasn't hurt, and I was quickly taken care of with some peroxide and band-aids. Pongo must have formed a quick hatred of my bike though, because later that day, when I went back outside to put my bike back in to the garage, I found a huge whole eaten in my bike seat! I was so upset thinking Pongo would ruin my bike like that! Then I remembered, I had left that chew bone tied to the handle bar and resting…on the seat.
Pongo was what you might call mischievous. He had chewed up my bike seat, he had slipped his collar, and he hated cats, of which I had two. Thomasina was an adult gray tabby who had been around since Pongo was a puppy and didn't pay him much mind, but knew to stay out of his reach. Patches was a kitten, just a few months old that usually stayed with me while I would play outside, and would run up the dogwood tree when Pongo would come near. On one unfortunate afternoon, for some reason I can't remember, I had put a collar and leash on Patches and attached it to a ladder that was propped up in our yard where my dad had been working the evening before. I went in the front door of the house for a minute; meanwhile my dad went out the back door, and thinking I was outside, unleashed Pongo. Yes I'm sure you can guess that it was a very unfortunate afternoon. My dad spared me from the carnage, but I didn't go free of guilt for what had happened to Patches.
Several years went by and by the time I was in the sixth grade; I had become busier with school and extracurricular activities and did not spend as much time outside with Pongo as I always had before then. Pongo would become restless on his run, because I wasn't playing with him as much, and would sometimes bark through the night. Just to get some rest, my dad would let him off the run and since our yard was not fenced in, Pongo could roam all night. This became the pattern. Pongo was off his run, unmonitored for hours at a time, and he enjoyed that. The frequency of him coming to us in the morning to be put back on his run began to decline, and instead of chasing him around to put him back up, we left for school and work, and Pongo went roaming throughout our neighborhood. I believe it was around spring break of my sixth grade year, when I was home during the day that I realized that not only was Pongo not around to be put back on his run, but he wasn't around much period. It seemed that he only came home long enough to eat and then was off again. It was one afternoon during that week that we got the call. The call from the police department saying that they had been contacted and given our information from Pongo's collar because earlier that day, he had "attacked" an elderly woman that lived a street over from us. I don't remember the details of what happened following the call exactly. I was still relatively young, ten or so, when this happened, but I did know that it was serious. Whatever had happened was bad and Pongo was being blamed, and that was bad for me too. What was worse, I would later learn, was that there were several other dogs involved, but none had owner id, so their owners could not be contacted. I would also later learn that the elderly woman, assuming all the dogs were strays, had been putting food scraps on her back porch and had seen the dogs in the yard that afternoon and headed out with the scraps to feed them. This was probably also one of the reasons that Pongo wasn't at home much anymore, we only fed him dog food.
The account of the story I was told was that Pongo and the other dogs, allowed to roam, had formed somewhat of a pack mentality, operating off of instinct. When the woman stepped out with the scraps the dogs began to fight for the food, and likely being a dominant male dog, Pongo was fighting too. Meanwhile the elderly lady was in the midst of the dogs and therefore got hurt. Pongo's fate was sealed. We were the only identifiable owners and he had been involved. The elderly couple were going to press charges if we didn't cover the medical bills and have Pongo put down because she claimed he was "ferocious".
At the time, I blamed the entire tragedy on the elderly lady. I didn't think it was fair! Why did she single out my precious dog, who I knew was NOT ferocious? He belonged to a child, me, for goodness sake! Plus everybody knows that dogs go crazy for food, she shouldn't have been feeding them in the first place, I thought. But looking back, the worse part was that we had not had Pongo properly vaccinated for rabies, which I now know was probably the primary reason they insisted he be put down. I really don't like to think about that aspect, now working in a veterinary clinic and knowing what happens to those animals. My parents didn't explain to me exactly what they were doing or where they were going the evening they took him away. I don't think that I even knew they had him with them. Now I think that they may have taken him for ten days of quarantine and then euthanized afterwards, because I learned that he was dead at my grandparent's house a few weeks after the incident. I was devastated.
It took years for me to mature and realize that the entire fault did not lie with the elderly woman that got hurt. Was what happened fair? No, absolutely not. But what happened to Pongo is exactly what I would have to do with a dog that came in to the clinic in that situation today. Having Pongo as a pet taught me a lot of things directly and indirectly. I sometimes think about how our irresponsibility of letting him roam and not getting him vaccinated or neutered could probably have prevented what happened. I think about how that if he had been better trained and I hadn't been careless, poor Patches would probably have lived a much longer life. My conscience still weighs a little heavy when I think about how he had to live in the backyard year round and the times that I didn't spend as much time with him as I should have. Those mistakes that I made, made the lessons I learned at Pongo's expense. And that made them very hard lessons to learn. My more recent pets have benefited from those lessons I learned because of Pongo. They have all had better care. They don't go without vaccinations, they are neutered, watched over like children and they get as much attention as I can give them. I know that the exact interpretation of the quote "If a dog will not come to you after having looked you in the face, you should go home and examine your conscience", is somewhat different, but as I examine my conscience I wonder if Pongo would now come to me after looking me in my face. I would like to think that he would know that I was sorry, and would not only come to me, but would forgive me, and then I would forever let him sleep under my Christmas tree.