The late, great Sparky (Or: Goes the man, goes the dog)

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Rosalie used to bring doggy treats over for Sparky!

By Rosalie Tirella

At the end, he lost a third of his body weight, but in his prime he tipped the scales at 100 pounds – a huge, beautiful, menacing German Shepherd dog that, the Old Injun Fighter used to say with not a little pride, “could kill a man.”

The big boned,  white fanged, wolf of a dog, dead for three days now but seared into the OIF’ s heart forever, had the most innocuous name!: SPARKY!

SPARKY: A name you’d give a cute, feisty little Yorkie! Or a tea cup poodle you could carry around in your pocketbook! Here, Sparky! Jump onto mommy’s/daddy’s lap, Sparky! Beg for a little treatie-poo, Sparky! Let’s give you a bubble bath in the sink, Sparky!

Sparky was none of that, would have none of that.  He was not feisty – he was fierce. He was not cute – he was majestic. He was not tractable – he was indomitable. He never begged for anything in his life. His two front paws could never fit into the bathroom sink, though he did jump through the OIF’s bathroom window! From the second floor. When the window was closed. Through the window pane. Glass icicles rained down on the OIF’s driveway. More shattered window in the bathroom …

This happened during the first week the Old Injun Fighter owned Sparky. He left the dog alone at home while he was at work. Sparky grew WILD WITH ANXIETY. SEPARATION ANXIETY. HE NEEDED OUT. Needed to stop the panic in his body … So all 100 pounds of him leapt through the window and for a few brief, shining seconds he was free as a bird, Sparky the sparrow dog sailing in the air …

The Old Injun Fighter found him a little ways away, at Institute Park, unharmed. Sparky had treed a grown man and was barking wildly at him. The OIF took his new dog home and decided to put Sparky in doggy day care for a few weeks until Sparky settled in some.

The leap through a second floor window pane may have freaked another dog owner out, given the person pause about the dog he/she had just adopted. Not the OIF. It Gorilla-Glued him to his beautiful new dog. He would have Sparky’s back. Forever!

Without saying a word to the woman he was seeing at the time. Without saying a word about the incident to anyone really … the OIF fell in love. With Sparky. The woman has been gone for years. Many women came after her. Including me! They are gone. It was always Sparky!

The Old Injun Fighter did not name Sparky. He got Sparky when he was two years old; the dog had already been named by the little kids in the family he belonged to. The family seemed picture perfect: husband, wife, kids, big house in the country, in a rustic Worcester County town. But they were NOT perfect: They kept Sparky in the cellar.

A lot of times that’s what happens to German Shepherd dogs or other big dogs when they quickly grow out of puppy-dom and people realize they’ve now got a PROBLEM, a LIABLITY: A full-grown, powerful, smart, strong-willed, energetic, HUGE working dog that they never bothered to socialize or train. So down the cellar or in the garage the dog goes. Out of sight, out of mind. They dismiss the problem: It’s only a dog! they tell themselves. In the garage or cellar these intelligent, pack animals suffer – emotionally and physically. Just like their wolf ancestors, dogs are not solitary creatures, born to live alone; they love hanging with their posse! Even if their posse is comprised of just one person! But their negligent owners haven’t a clue. So they lock their dogs up, in the dark or cold, for hours. ALL ALONE, dogs go stir crazy, kennel crazy. They howl for hours. They self-mutilate, chew the fur off the front of their paws. They drag the junk furniture from one end of the cellar to the other or scratch, scratch, scratch the garage wall.  If they’re lucky they’re stuck in a kennel outside, but they are still out of the house, away from everything, away from the family they so want to be close to. They are unstimulated, unsupervised, unexercised, unloved. The damage – bites, demolished stuff – inevitably happens. Then they’re the problem dogs and they’re given away – GIVEN AWAY to practically anyone who’ll take the dog off the family’s hands. Even though they may be purebreds with AKC papers and cost a few thousand dollars. Even though they are breathtakingly beautiful, like Sparky. Because they are now totally fucked up and impossible for your average dog owner to handle. Scary.

Twenty years ago I was looking for my first dog ever and responded to a newspaper ad: Big, White German Shepherd.  Purebred. ( my dream dog! to this day!) Free. In a Worcester County town, right outside Worcester.

I called the family and the mother said: We keep her in the cellar.

Why?! I asked.

She said: I had a baby and we don’t want the big dog near the baby.

I didn’t even drive down to take a look ( I’d have fallen in love with the dog’s good looks). I knew this beautiful White German Shepherd dog was too screwed up for me, a novice at dogs/dog ownership, to handle. She would be way too much dog. She would not make a good first dog for me.

The day after Sparky died, the day the Old Injun Fighter followed the vet tech to the crematory – she was carrying the dog – Sparky weighed only 70 pounds and seemed miles away from his former self. The vet never determined what illness caused his wasting away. The Old Injun Fighter guessed it was just old age. Sparky was ancient, as far as humongous German Shepherds go. Big dogs usually don’t live that long.

But even though his rust markings had faded, even though he walked slowly during his walks and sometimes didn’t bother to eat his dinner the “spark” never left the Spark! The love he had felt for the OIF all these years was still there!

For instance, he would let the OIF mindlessly poke his eye area when they were standing together, and Spark was on lead and the Old Injun Fighter was talking with me, not really paying attention to where his hand was on his dog’s head. Pat, pat, pat! The OIF’s fingers practically in Sparky’s eye socket. Sparky, who during his first year with the OIF, bit the OIF up the arm because he was trying to give Spark a correction after Spark had raised his leg and took a whizz on the OIF’s mahogany stair case, eventually grew so accepting of the OIF that he’d let him poke all over his head! (If I did that to my husky mix Jett, he’d give me a warning nip! ) Not Spark. In his prime, he was as forgiving of the OIF’s foibles as his master had been of his the first year he lived with him.

Truth be told, the OIF never acted like the “master” in the 11 1/2 years he owned Sparky. More like his friend. His equal. No… I’ll go one better than that: More like a little boy with his first dog, the most beautiful dog he had ever seen in his young life! But it was his! Belonged to him and him alone!

The OIF used to sleep with Sparky on the rug, under the dining room table! Lying down, he would put his arm around his beautiful dog’s shoulder and just look at him, just stare at his lupine loveliness.  Sparky never got out of the hug or shook it off and trot to another spot on the floor. Nope. He let the OIF be mesmerized! The OIF, not a tall guy, would fall asleep next to his huge dog and they were about the same length! The OIF would wake up, staring into the pads of Sparky’s paws.

They smell like popcorn! he once told me, smiling.

No! I said, smiling, thinking: he SMELLED the bottom of his dog’s paws! How … intimate. Lots of dogs, especially the strong willed working dogs, are very touchy about their paws. That is they don’t like it when you touch them.

I went home and knelt down before my dog Bailey and tried to smell the pads of his paws. … They smelled like dirty toenails. I was sure Sparky’s smelled the same. But to the Old Injun Fighter, to the little boy enthralled by his gorgeous dog, they smelled like popcorn!

When the OIF first got Sparky and he tried to take away the doggy toy Sparky was chewing on, the Spark would curl his lips and growl. The OIF would calmly, almost discreetly pull his hand back … He didn’t want to get bitten! And Sparky would have bitten! But after a year of low growls, and an ever burgeoning love for the OIF, who fed him top of the line dog food and doggy treats, took him on two long walks during the day, gave him the best veterinary care money could buy, let him sleep on the bed with him, gave him the run of the house and those silly, lopsided head pats, the growling stopped and the OIF could take and “play” with Sparky’s toy. Even when Sparky was playing with it and had it in his huge jaws.

Playtime began in earnest between the man and his dog! The OIF would take a few steps toward Sparky and Sparky would bow down in play mode! A little game of tag would begin, Sparky’s butt wiggling in the air.

Wickedly smart, like all GSDs, when Sparky wanted to go out for a walk, he learned how to tell this to his owner. He would find the OIF’s dog-walking sneakers and lift one up with his pearly white canine teeth and carry it to the OIF. Then he’d drop it in front of him and bark – not madly, just three or four short barks, just enough “talk” to get his point across.

I got Spark a few big red brandy new collars cuz the OIF loves red and Sparky looked gangbusters in red! Once he mail ordered this CANINE PATROL BADGE for Sparky and when it came through the mail put it on one of the red collars I gifted Sparky. The dog looked smashing!  There he was, on lead, the OIF showing him off in his driveway. Zeet! (Sit!) the OIF would command his German Shepherd, in German. Sparky would sit. Plotz! (Lie down!) the OIF would command in German, and Sparky would lie down at his master’s feet. He looked so handsome in his brand new collar and K-9 officer badge. The head of a beautiful German Shepherd dog was embroidered on his badge. The words “K-9 Patrol” was stitched in gold thread. If Sparky weren’t vicious, if he weren’t a biter with pretty much everyone but the OIF, you could picture him trotting along in the desert sands in Iraq, a proud, stoic and heroic military dog in the US Army, going after Saddam Hussein’s bony ass! BIG TIME. But, instead, Sparky patrolled the OIF’s West Side home and snoozed under the dining room table with the OIF! It was his destiny!

Once, as the OIF proudly marched before me with the Spark all decked out and serious on his leash, I yelled out: Halt! Sparky’s under arrest for impersonating a dog officer!

This brought a huge smile to the OIF’s face. The OIF is not a big smiler. He’s serious, like a German Shepherd dog. He’s a hard worker, who, I believe, enjoys physical work. Just like a German Shepherd dog. He was/is a bit of a lady’s man, who never neutered Sparky or any of his previous German Shepherd dogs. Their big balls – German Shepherds have huge testicles – swung free and easy!

And you can’t mess with the OIF on any level because he’ll go after you big time! Attack swiftly and decisively, just like a GSD. He’s not a nipper. He’s a killer! Just like the late Sparky!

Part of the reason, I believe, the OIF never really socializes his German Shepherd dogs – and he’s had about 10 during his life – is because he feels HE NEEDS PROTECTION. Not just his nice West Side home or his new truck or his wallet. He the Old Injun Fighter needs a kind of canine body guard and pistol … a weapon. Because his Lynn childhood was the pits, because he and his late wife lived in a Lynn three decker when they first got married and needed lawyers, guns and money. Because she died when she was only 48 and she was the love of his life, the only woman he had ever known. After his wife died, the OIF had three German Shepherd dogs!

These days he had two – Anna, a 95-pound, long-haired German Shepherd and Sparky. Anna was a late addition to his pack. I pressed him to adopt her because Sparky was starting to look so old and feeble and I could tell it was making the OIF sad.

Whenever I see my old beau, he’s the same: he’s got a new girlfriend, but he’s still, at heart, a loner who mistrusts the world and needs a German Shepherd dog to take the sting outa life. A loner who’s never been completely right since his wife’s premature death.

Jake the retired State Police dog. Desiree his late wife’s personal GS dog. Ditmar and Dagmar and the other German Shepherd dogs with German names. Most came into the OIF’s life as purebred puppies for which he paid thousands of dollars. I have gotten to the OIF with all my animal rights talk, so now he’s willing to rescue and adopt homeless German Shepherd dogs (purebreds only, the elitist!).

Looking back, sometimes I think the OIF dumped me because I wasn’t German Shepherd enough for him! I wasn’t loyal all the time. I never really had his back. And I was never serious enough … didn’t feel life was this pitched battle and I had to be ready for the enemy – basically almost everyone – on high alert at all times.  I didn’t look big and tough, like I could “take someone,” as they used to say in Lynn – or Green Island (I’m sure there’s a different phrase or word for it today). But I had loved the OIF! I know I screwed up, but I had loved him! If I had the relationship to do over again, I might be more GSD … naturally. I feel more Sparky these days, as I grow older and look more closely at the world! But back when we were going out, I was a Jett – my smart, high strung, unpredictable Siberian Husky mix! The Old Injun Fighter had been ravenous for a beautiful Sparky. But I was just … Jett.