41: Shih Tzu Lifeguards

41: Shih Tzu Lifeguards

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: What I Learned from the Dog

Shih Tzu Lifeguards

My goal in life is to be as good of a person my dog already thinks I am.

~Author Unknown

Heroic dog stories usually involve big dogs. Everyone has heard about Labs saving swimmers from drowning, or German Shepherds finding people under rubble after earthquakes. This story, however, is about how two tiny dogs saved my life. Chubby and Munchie, who together don’t weigh twenty pounds, pulled me from the river and kept me from drowning.

I lived alone in a little yellow house in Gladstone, Oregon, near the Clackamas River eight years ago. My furniture, truck, household utensils, and clothes were mostly gifts up to that point in my life. I didn’t own the house or have a cent saved after college and four years of teaching. All my earnings, and about nineteen grand in student loans, went toward alcohol. I dove into the drink at seventeen and slowly drowned out life. I hit rock bottom and almost shot someone. The near death of a fellow human scared me enough to dry out. Now dry, I suddenly had money. I didn’t think to buy a new truck, nice clothes, or fancy TV. I bought Munchie, a black and white Shih Tzu puppy who fit in the palm of my hand.

Now Munchie and I lived in the little yellow house in Gladstone near the Clackamas River. Before long she became more than a handful. Shih Tzus demand a lot of attention. I didn’t notice this growing up with her namesake, Munchie number one, who split her affection among six family members. I decided Munchie II needed to share her abundant love and so I bred her with my sister’s dog, Gizmo. When the puppies were born my sister picked up the biggest one, a virtual copy of Munchie II, and said, “Look at this little chub chub.” Chub Chub, a.k.a. Chubby, became a wonderful outlet for Munchie’s overflowing energy, and the two girls would spend hours every day playing and wrestling together.

Now it was Munchie, Chubby, and me living in the little yellow house in Gladstone near the Clackamas River. Forgetting how scary drowning was, I soon dove back into the mind numbing cold and floundered again. I stopped fighting the current and sank to its depths. Three years flowed by, and I ended up in the hospital. Another near death, this time mine, made me quit drinking. This only lasted two months until I was pulled under again. Three more years washed by in a blur. I drank my way out of the teaching profession and started a landscaping business. I drank my way out of that business, my house, and everything I owned.

It was now Munchie, Chubby, and me living in a little yellow tent in Gladstone on the Clackamas River. I remember sitting in camp with my friend and the kindred spirit I had met on the river. He was homeless, my age, a drunk, and loved my small dogs, because he used to have a little Lhasa Apso, “Have you ever seen dogs fight and wag their tails at the same time?” I asked. We were watching the dogs wrestle and were laughing at their antics. Munchie will wag her tail even when she’s growling at squirrels or strange dogs. She’s happy even when she seems mad.

“They don’t even know they’re homeless,” my friend said as he lovingly petted Munchie.

They gladly entertained us and were good at keeping us out of the law’s eyes. People didn’t think, “There are a couple of vagrants to run out of town,” when they saw us playing with merrily romping Shih Tzus in the park.

Even the people who knew we were living on the river didn’t want to run us out of town. My friend and I talked to over a hundred people who walked through our camp to go to the fishing hole or play in the river. Everyone loved my dogs. They started conversations. “Are these your dogs?” People would ask and laugh as outgoing Munchie wagged her tail so gleefully it spun like a helicopter.

“Yes they’re mine,” I replied as antisocial Chubby hid behind me viciously growling, which people also found amusing, because there is nothing vicious about a seven-pound dog. “I lost my house, so they stayed in my van when I worked, but it got towed. I had to quit. I couldn’t keep them tied to a tree when I worked,” I said.

“How awful,” they’d reply and stay to chat a while. I guarantee they wouldn’t chat or even look directly at the homeless people in Portland. They saw two guys with clean clothes, a clean camp, and purebred well-loved dogs. Since we seemed temporarily down on our luck, no one called the police to report vagrants in the eleven months we were on the river.

The winter of 2007 was cold, and I drank away the chill. I drank away all motivation to do anything. I didn’t want to work. I didn’t socialize since people weren’t visiting the river in the cold. I drank away the sadness of having no Christmas tree and missing my family during the holidays. I got 190 proof moonshine, drank, went under, and didn’t surface until March.

I remember lying bundled up, with Munchie sleeping at my side and Chubby at my feet that cold March morning. I was wondering how I would get some booze that day. “I need money or a job,” I thought. Then, “It would be easier to jump in the river,” popped into my mind. I immediately pictured Munchie frantically running up and down the trail looking for me. I saw Chubby sitting faithfully by the tent waiting for me. The heart-wrenching thought of abandoning them pulled me fully to consciousness. Now the lives of my dogs were at stake. The near loss of someone else’s life and my own near death never before got me to say what I said that day. “God help me,” I said.

Three days later I ran into the wife of my old A.A. sponsor whom I hadn’t seen in years. I told her my situation. “How can I help?” she asked.

“I need someone to watch my dogs so I can get a job,” I said.

“I’ll take care of them,” she said without hesitation.

I was in a clean and sober Oxford House within the month, because two small Shih Tzus kept me from drowning. I had a job the day after I moved into my new home. Today, ten months later, I have more money than I’ve ever had in my adult life. I gladly go to church, and I pray unceasingly. I am building my landscaping business again and will own all the equipment, debt-free, before summer starts, because two tiny dogs rescued me from the river.

I learned that little dogs can be lifesavers like their large breed cousins. These diminutive dogs pulled me from the river and back into society. Seven-pound Chub Chub and twelve-pound Munchie kept me from drowning, just like Labs four times their combined size. As I write this, I mourn my camp partner, who died a week ago. I know he would still be alive today if he had his little Lhasa Apso to save him.

~Jeff Mainard

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