The Promise

The Promise

From Chicken Soup for the Dog Lover's Soul

The Promise

You become responsible forever for what you have tamed.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

For the past twelve and a half years, I have been an animal control officer (ACO) for Polk County, Iowa. In this profession, you learn early on to toughen your skin, otherwise the stress and emotional drain that come with this job will bring you down. There have been a lot of dogs over the years that I would have loved to take home and make a part of my family, but in this line of work, it’s not realistic to believe you can do that with each one—there are just too many dogs in need of good homes. Still, there is always that one that gets through your defenses. For me, that dog was Buddy.

Buddy was the most elusive dog I ever encountered in my years as an animal control officer: I spent an amazing sixteen months trying to catch the big black dog.

I first received a phone call in November 2002 from a lady who said, “There is a dog lying in a field near my home. He has been there for a couple of days, and it is supposed to get really cold tonight. Could you try to catch him?” I told her I would head out there and see what I could do.

As I drove up to the area, I could see that the dog was lying on his side next to a small hillside that served as a sort of break from the cold wind. I got out of my truck with a leash in hand and walked toward him. The dog was asleep and did not hear my coming, so as I got within twenty feet of him, I whistled because I did not want to startle him. He immediately got up and started barking at me. Then he turned and ran away, into the middle of the snow-covered field where he lay down to keep a watchful eye on me. I knew there was going to be no catching him that day, so I left to answer another call that had come in.

That night it did get very cold. I just couldn’t keep my mind off the black dog and wondered how he was doing out in that large, cold field all alone.

The next morning I headed to the Animal Rescue League of Iowa. This is where the county sheriff’s department houses the animals I pick up, and it is the largest animal shelter in the state. I wanted to check the reports to see if anyone had called in saying they had lost their black dog. I hoped that someone was looking for this dog, so I would be able to ask the owners to come out to the field; I figured if it were their dog, the dog would come to them. There were no such lost reports.

On my way home that night, I couldn’t help but drive by the field. There he sat, right in the middle of it. Again, he wouldn’t let me get close to him or come to me when I called.

We played this game for a few weeks. I would get calls from different people reporting that a black dog was sitting in a field. I could not get this dog out of my mind, and even on my days off, I would drive by the field to leave food and see if I could get a look at him. He was always there, usually lying right out in the middle so no one would be able to sneak up behind him. I tried over and over to gain his trust with no luck. I could not get closer than a hundred yards from him—too far to use a tranquilizer dart. If I tried to come any closer, he would get up, bark and move to an adjacent field. I wondered sadly what could have happened to this dog to make him so fearful of people.

Finally, I spoke to Janet, one of the animal-care technicians at the Animal Rescue League. She had a reputation of being able to get close to dogs that would not let anyone near them. I told her about the black dog and asked her if she would try to catch him. She agreed, and she did try—to no avail.

It was now late December and the nights were very cold, dropping to ten or twenty degrees below zero. The woman who had called me originally about the dog continued to call, checking in to see what I was doing to help him. I assured her I had been trying to catch him and that I was leaving food for the dog. At this point I told her I was pondering a way to set a live trap to capture the dog. Privately, I worried how he would live through the nights given the bitter cold temperatures of Iowa winters.

The weeks passed. I checked on him regularly, driving by in the morning on my way to work, cruising by during the day and making my final round on my way home at night. It was odd—just seeing him out there made me smile. I was thankful he had made it through one more night and was still alive.

Janet and I talked constantly about this dog. A live trap hadn’t worked. We simply could not come up with a way to catch this dog. One day we decided that we would take some shelter out to the fields, line it with blankets and put some food beside it; perhaps he would use it. We got an “igloo” type of doghouse and went out to the field to set it up. The dog watched us intently but wouldn’t come near. That was the day that I named the dog Buddy. Looking at him, I made a promise to myself and to him: “Buddy, if I ever catch you, I’m going to adopt you and show you what ‘good people’ are like.”

We went through the rest of the winter like this, as well as the following spring and summer. One day Buddy just seemed to vanish. No more sightings, no more concerned calls about him. I continued to think about him, fearing the worst: that he had been hit by a car and was no longer alive.

That fall, however, I received a call about a black dog standing by the road close to the field where I had first seen Buddy. I couldn’t believe it. It had been seven months since I had last seen him, but I immediately hopped into my truck and drove to the area. There, standing by the road, was my friend Buddy. He looked just as he had the last time I saw him. I stopped my truck and got out. I tried to approach him, but as usual he started backing up and barking at me. This time, however, when I turned to walk away, instead of turning and running, he just sat down. He was letting me get closer.

We started the game all over again. I kept leaving treats for him in the same spot. This went on for months until one day he did something he hadn’t done before—he slept next to the spot where I had been leaving his treats. I decided I would leave a live trap for him on that spot along with some barbecued pork. When I went back first thing the next morning, it looked like he’d tried to get the food out by digging around the trap, but he was nowhere to be seen.

I tried again the next night. This time I put a slice of pizza in the trap, hoping it would do the trick. I couldn’t sleep that night and rose early to go check the cage. It was still dark out, and as I approached I heard Buddy bark. I figured he had heard me and was already retreating, but as I squinted my eyes I could make out the outline of a black dog caught in the cage of the live trap. Overwhelmed with relief and joy, I started to cry. Then I called my wife. “I got Buddy,” I told her. “I got him!”

Buddy growled at me as I loaded the cage into my truck and drove to the Animal Rescue League. As I drove in, Janet was just coming into work. I yelled to her, “You are never going to guess who I’ve got!”

Janet replied, “Buddy?” and started to cry.

Janet and I unloaded the cage and took Buddy to a kennel. I crawled into the kennel with him, keeping my distance. Once I realized he wasn’t going to bite me, I just started petting him and loving him. I spent the next few hours trying to build the bond that I knew would last a lifetime. To everyone’s surprise, after running from us and being alone for sixteen months, he was a very affectionate dog. All Buddy wanted at this point was to be petted, and if you stopped too soon, he’d let you know by gently nuzzling your hand until you started petting him again.

Over the next few days, I spent almost every free moment with Buddy. I would go to the Animal Rescue League before work, during lunch breaks and after work just so I could spend time with him. A few days later I brought my yellow Labrador, Hershey, to the shelter to meet Buddy. From the moment they met, they got along just fine.

Soon I was able to take Buddy home. Buddy fit amazingly well into our family. He had no “accidents” in the house and didn’t destroy anything. Then one day my wife called me and told me that Buddy had gotten into the refrigerator. At first, I didn’t believe her, but I suppose all that time scavenging for food had made him highly resourceful. Because it’s true—I now live with a dog that can open a refrigerator!

We have to use bungee cords to prevent Buddy from opening the refrigerator door. There have been a few occasions when we have forgotten, only to come home to find that he’s emptied the fridge. We’ve nicknamed him “Buddy, the Fridge King.”

It’s been four months now since I adopted him, and he is truly a bright spot in my life. I still can’t believe this dog survived for sixteen months on his own, through two Iowa winters! He is an example of the true spirit and determination of the species we call “dog.”

My long days at work are still challenging, but I am comforted by the thought that I get to go home and lavish Buddy with the love I wish all dogs could have. I kept my promise to Buddy and have shown him that people can be good. It was a happy ending worth waiting for.

Bill King

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