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Sasha’s Story

Sasha’s story is really the merger of two stories – mine and his. Not much is known of the early part of his story. It really begins in the middle, in a swamp outside of Houston, TX. Sasha is a Russian Wolfhound (breed name: Borzoi – a Russian adjective meaning swift, also the name they use for Greyhounds. When referring to a Russian Wolfhound, they distinguish it by saying Russkaya Borzaya). He is one of 22 Russian Wolfhounds found tied up starving in that swamp in the winter of 2004. Where they were before that is anybody’s guess.

Apparently the owner had abandoned them there to die, and a neighbor who actually gave a damn called the authorities. The SPCA seized them, and they got veterinary care for the first time in who-knows-how-long. They ended up getting turned over to the National Borzoi Rescue Foundation, and were distributed among several foster homes to await adoption by qualified applicants. One of the foster homes belonged to Billie Thibeaux and her husband (nicer people are hard to find), and that’s where Sasha went to stay.

A few decades prior to that, I grew up in Washington State. That is only obliquely relevant, but the pertinent point here is that I grew up loving animals. I actually grew up with a cat, and didn’t get much exposure to dogs until my sister Karen brought home a Dalmatian puppy when I was in high school. Even though I loved that dog and her subsequent puppies, I never thought of myself as a dog person until much later. My best friend and I would argue about the relative merits of dogs and cats, and I was the cat advocate.

A couple decades later, I was serving in the Marine Corps in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and I received orders to Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas, to serve as an instructor at one of the multi-service schools there. This represented the first time in my entire life that I would have a chance to own a home and responsibly own a pet. The intervening years had been taken up with Army Reserves, junior college, a couple of moves, 6 years in the Navy (mostly on a ship), college at a 4-year institution, a year volunteering in Russian schools (plus the year or so waiting to go there), half a year clearing hurdles trying to join the Marine Corps, and about 5 years working up the ranks in the Corps. My entire adult life had been spent in a state of transition, where everything was by definition temporary. This new phase was going to be temporary as well, but it was the first time I had the real possibility of setting down roots of any kind.

Once I knew I would eventually be getting orders and moving, I started reading about dogs. At that time, my favorite breeds were Australian Shepherds and Labradors… but as I read, I found out that Labs are the kind of dog that goes nuts when their owner isn’t around, and Aussies are a herding dog that needs a job, and will find a job for itself when the owner isn’t around (rearranging furniture, pulling up carpet, things like that). As a single guy, I couldn’t take that chance – it wouldn’t be fair to me, to the dog, or to the neighbors. So as much as I liked them, they dropped off the list of my potential pets.

When I got to San Angelo and bought a home, I continued my research. By now, Boxers and Greyhounds topped my list, and I had been swayed by compelling arguments to consider adopting rescues instead of puppies. I actually tried to adopt some Greyhounds in San Antonio, but they turned me down. Part of the reason was that I lived too far away in San Angelo (about a 3 ½ hour drive) for them to check on any dogs they placed with me, but part of the reason also was that I made them nervous. Not having had any pets before (since I grew up, anyway), I’d ask questions like “How would a Greyhound do with a cat? With a Boxer?” Blah blah blah. I thought out loud, revealing a pronounced ignorance, and I think they just didn’t want to risk it.

 When I got the news that they turned me down, I was heartbroken, as I had really gotten my hopes up. Crap. Well, life goes on, sorta.

Back in San Angelo, I was at the biggest bookstore in town, and I saw a dog encyclopedia. I looked up Greyhounds to see what it said about them (not that I didn’t already have several books about Greyhounds by this point, but when you’re in a bookstore, you look at the books). Greyhounds are part of the sight- hound family, and I found the Greyhound on a two-page spread of all the sight-hounds, and for the first time in my life I saw a picture of a Borzoi.

My jaw just about hit the ground. I had never seen an animal so beautiful! I don’t remember if I actually drooled on the book or not, but I wrote down the breed name, and went home to call my sister and ask her about them. Karen, who never left Washington State, went from bringing home a Dalmatian pup to becoming a veterinarian, and is well connected in the animal community, consequently not a bad person to ask about such things. And as it turned out, she knew of a breeder not too far from her, and she gave me that breeder’s info.

Linda was a Borzoi breeder who had gotten out of breeding. She had several of her own dogs, all older, and one dog that was about a year and a half old. This one, Misty, had been adopted by a couple that had split up, and neither one could keep her, so they surrendered her to Linda, who was now looking for a home for her. My out-of-the-blue call to Linda eventually turned into a win-win-win situation, with Misty coming home with me and becoming my first Borzoi.

But that process took about three months. After trying to figure out ways of shipping Misty down to me in Texas, we finally figured it would be a lot easier for everyone if I just drove up to Washington and got her, so I made plans to do that around Christmas. In the mean time, Linda (who was originally from Texas) hooked me up with another Borzoi breeder who was located only a couple of hours from me. By Texas standards, that is close. So I called Susan and asked if I could come over and meet her and her dogs. She said OK and we arranged a time.

I arrived at her house in the afternoon. When I got out of the car, about 20 Borzoi came trotting up to me. It was an epiphanal moment for me. There was very little barking, and these dogs were all very friendly, but more than anything else, they were graceful. They didn’t so much trot as glide. They reminded me of Olympic or professional athletes they way they made moving look so effortless. And gorgeous! They were so beautiful I think I forgot to breathe for a minute.

This cured me of all heartbreak associated with getting turned down by the Greyhound people.

I spent a good couple of hours with Susan. I explained about Misty, and that I wanted to have two dogs so they could keep each other company while I was at work, so she introduced me to a few of her available dogs. Two of those stood out to me, and I eventually brought both of them home. But first, I had to get Misty.

I drove my suburban from Texas to Washington, and the first night there I spent at Linda’s place. That gave me a chance to meet Misty and spend some time with her. After several days with my family, I spent my last night in Washington with Linda and Misty again. This time, Misty left with me. She shivered in the back seat for about 15 minutes, and then fell asleep. From that time on, she adopted me – she was my dog and she knew it. By the time we got to Texas, she was so used to the suburban that it was home to her. We got home, and I showed her the house, and afterward she wanted to get back into the suburban! But she acclimated to the house quickly.

Ten days later, I brought BooBoo home from Susan’s place. Misty and BooBoo have been together with me from the very beginning of my dog days. About seven months later, I did Susan a big favor, and in exchange, she gave me a deal on my next dog, and a couple weeks later, I brought home Io (pronounced like the last half of “Ohio”). This set the stage for my encounter with Sasha.

Walking multiple Borzoi isn’t as tough as it looks, because they are very conciliatory. Once they understand the routine, getting them to all go the same direction isn’t that much of a problem. Of course, there are moments, like when they see a cat or a squirrel or a skunk. Then, holding them can be a challenge, and if I lose my balance, either I fall or it’s Ben Hurr all over again. With Misty and BooBoo, I had grown accustomed to walking two of them. When I was considering taking home Io, I had fears about my ability to handle three dogs. Walking with three of them was a challenge at first, but it soon grew to be second nature. I told myself that three was it, that I wouldn’t get any more, but my success at going from two to three eventually allowed me to consider going from three to four.

About three years passed before I thought about adding to my family. During that time, I would occasionally look on the Greyhound and Borzoi websites, to see what was available, but never thought seriously about it until I saw a Borzoi that looked a lot like BooBoo. Both Misty and BooBoo are beautiful creatures, but BooBoo has an unusual nose that makes her not conform to the breed standard, so she could never be shown; and this dog I saw shared BooBoo’s coloring and her nose. So I inquired about him.

This brought me into contact with Carol Backers and Billie Thibeaux, who ran the National Borzoi Rescue Foundation and the Texas chapter, respectively. As it turned out, the owner of the dog I was looking at had dropped out of sight, and nobody knew anything about the owner or the dog, but my inquiry happened shortly after 22 Borzoi were rescued from the Houston swamp. Needless to say, they were eager to redirect my attention to these 22 dogs. (Their plight was pitiful. Seeing the pictures evoked a visceral rage in me, and had I met the owner at that time, I’d be writing this from prison.)

It didn’t take much for Carol and Billie to convince me to consider adopting one of them. I looked over the pictures, and decided on a brown and white one. I asked Billie about it, and she said she had that one at her place. We arranged to meet in a PetSmart parking lot in Austin. When I got there, they were waiting for me. Well, Billie was, anyway. The dog I thought I picked out was not the dog that was there – it was a different brown and white dog. It turned out that the dog I had selected by the pictures was actually in Dallas. But this was a good chance to get to know Billie, so we talked. As we talked, the dog with her was shy and nervous, but he warmed up to me eventually.

By the end of our visit, I told Billie to forget about the dog in Dallas, that I would be taking Sasha instead. I told her the name I had decided on (Sasha is a Russian name, a diminutive of Alexander/Alexandra), and gave her the T-shirt I was wearing to put in his crate until I came down to get him. (Apologies to the person who named him Lucky in the fundraiser.)

A couple weeks after meeting him, I came down to get him. Billie and her family graciously let me spend the night there, again to spend time with Sasha before loading him up and taking off with him. The less traumatic I can make it for them, the better. This time, Sasha warmed up to me right away. The time was highlighted by Sasha’s possible first ever encounter with a stuffed toy. He locked his jaws down on it and didn’t let go for several minutes, leading us to wonder if he thought it was a real animal. (He has since grown to love his stuffed animals, especially if they squeak.) Another highlight was when I tried to invite him up on the couch – he got his front paws up, but couldn’t quite bring himself to get all the way up. Other than that, he was just a happy dog enjoying walking around the house and getting attention. Billie told me what she knew about his medical situation. He’d had sores on his legs that were mostly cleared up, a bald spot on his butt that was beginning to grow hair back, a thin coarse coat on much of his back, and teeth that had been terribly worn down. And while he was thin, he wasn’t the skeleton he had been a couple months prior. I decided that all of those dogs deserved to be spoiled rotten for the rest of their lives – I couldn’t do it for all 22, but I sure as heck could do it for one of them.

The next day, I took him home. It was a long drive, made longer by regular potty breaks and by a stop at the store to get some treats. Food was still a big issue for him, and Billie had warned me that I had to feed him twice a day, so I didn’t want him feeling any food anxiety in the car.

When we got home, I had been away from my dogs for a little over 24 hours, and they were anxious to see me. Misty poked her head through the curtains to watch me, and when I let Sasha out of the car, her ears went “boing!” After he walked around the lawn for a minute, I opened the door to let the others out, and immediately there was mass nose-and-butt sniffing as the dogs all greeted each other. My dogs were also very excited to see me, enough to hop and dance, which got even more enthusiastic when I got the leashes out. The first order of business was to let them take care of business, so we all took Sasha on his first walk. It was comical, because Sasha didn’t yet know the routine of walking together, so leashes got tangled a lot more than usual, but it didn’t really matter. He had a blast.

My routine with the dogs was always to walk them then feed them. I did it that way because I figured if any of them ever got loose, they would have a reason to want to go home. So we got back from our walk this night, and it was time for dinner. Typical dog meals at my house have a mix of good quality dry dog food, some canned food, and some kind of meat, among other things. On this night, Sasha’s first meal was Nutro and Eukenuba dry, Science Diet canned, and chicken gizzards. I chose the gizzards out of concern for his teeth -- I didn’t want him to have to deal with any bones, at least until I knew he could handle them. Sasha smelled the canned food and the gizzards warming up, and he glued himself to my hip, and absolutely would not leave my side!

Billie had said that Sasha might be food aggressive, but from the way she described it, it sounded like he might be food defensive, not food aggressive. Nevertheless, it was a bit of a concern for me, and I wondered how I was going to handle feeding him and the other dogs at the same time. It was a problem that solved itself. When dinner was ready, I took Sasha’s dish to his spot in the dining room (with him still glued to my hip) and put it down on the floor. Sasha put his nose in it and was instantly oblivious to everything else. That allowed me to feed the other three dogs like I normally would.

It was probably the single best meal of Sasha’s life to that point. He gleefully inhaled the whole thing, then went and peed on my couch. I whapped him on the butt and interrupted his relief, and then took him outside so he could finish the job. (When he did this the second night too, it dawned on me that he needs to pee after eating, and duh, I should be ready to let him out. I never had a problem with him peeing on the furniture again.)

Well, having had a walk, a meal, and a potty break, it was time to settle down for the evening. My other three dogs hopped right up on the couches and chairs. I chose a spot in the middle of a couch, and invited Sasha to come up and join me. He was trepidatious about it, as he was at Billie’s house – but this time, he saw the other dogs on the furniture, and he saw me inviting him, and he got all the way up. He circled several times, and then settled himself in with his head on the armrest, with the biggest doggie grin you can imagine splitting his face. I petted him for a while, then watched a movie, and that grin never left his face. He went to sleep with it! I was seriously wondering if it was going to hurt his face later – he had it on for three solid hours.

That was Sasha’s first evening in his new home. I’d like to think he has never looked back.

The next few weeks were spent getting familiar with the dog door, getting his first visit to my vet, getting familiar with the walking routine, and getting comfortable with being comfortable. I made Sasha a promise that he would never have to worry about hunger pangs ever again, and it’s a promise I have kept. He now has a nice fat borzoi butt.

As a matter of fact, about a year and a half later, Billie and Carol decided I would provide an excellent home for yet another rescue, a senior citizen named Vinny. When I went to meet Vinny, I brought Misty and Sasha. Billie, who’d had Sasha for a couple of months or so before I got him, didn’t recognize him! His sores had all healed, his fur had completely grown back, and of course his ribs didn’t stick out any more. He was happy and gregarious and outgoing and confident. As a matter of fact, after she had gotten over the shock of realizing it was him, told me I might consider putting him on a diet. (!) I have since started feeding him once a day, and he has shown no food anxieties whatsoever. He’s a clown, a big boy with a little arthritis, and a bit of a klutz. The standard three dog turns before lying down doesn’t meet Sasha’s strict requirements, so he usually turns around seven or eight times, or more, before setting himself down – it makes my dad dizzy just watching him. He is vocal about letting us know when he thinks we aren’t paying enough attention to him, and will scootch around on the floor without getting up so he can be closer to his human companion. He loves having the inside of his ears rubbed, and can be very playful with little prompting.

For a long time after I brought him home, he would come up to me and give me a hug. For him, what that meant is coming up to me while I’m kneeling, sticking his chest into mine and putting his head on my shoulder. He doesn’t do that much any more, and I’m not entirely sure why, but it’s certainly not because he feels any less affection for me. He shows me that on a very regular basis, and I always let him know he is loved, and that I’m glad he came to live with me.

Sometimes, when I look at pictures of the other 21 dogs, I wonder how their lives turned out. I hope they and their new owners experience a similar measure of joy. Sasha’s story isn’t finished, but enough of it is written to have a pretty good idea of what the completed story will be like.