A "leftover dog" becomes my guide dog

Jeffrey is showing his age. He is a bit over 15 and the last survivor of a particular era of our household pets, many of whom I have written about here on the blog or in Best Friends magazine. You may recognize Jeffrey from a famous photo — the one with a kitten on his head. He has a big smile on his face, but Silva never liked the image because the kitten hid his beautiful ears.

He came to live with us following our third super adoption in Los Angeles in July of 2000. It was an unplanned event, but at the time, Dan Knapp, then the general manager of L.A. Animal Services (LAAS), got in some back-peddling hot water when he said that certain members of the city council had leaned on him to do a neighborhood sweep to get homeless dogs off the streets prior to the arrival of Democratic National Convention delegates.

Well, the sweep never happened, but Best Friends hosted an “LAAS-only” super adoption at L.A.’s famous La Brea Tar Pits park, which was intended to make room in the shelter for the expected spike in numbers. (It was a needed event, regardless of circumstances.)

Lisa Edelstein, perennial animal all-star and Best Friends celebrity supporter, was there helping to show shelter dogs, as were Eric McCormack of "Will and Grace," Constance Marie, and a crew of volunteers from many of the local rescue groups.

Many animals were adopted over the course of two days, but at the end, a handful still remained. Jeffrey was one of the “leftovers.” The young volunteer couple in charge of him spent most of the two days playing with him off to the side of the park rather than showing him to potential adopters. In fact, I had noted them on several occasions, and just assumed that he was their dog, out for the day in the park.

At the time, Jeffrey was a sweet but shy dog who had yet to come into his spectacularly handsome looks. He, along with six other dogs, made the trip back to Best Friends in Utah with Silva and me. But he was one of only two who joined our pack, while the others went to live at Dogtown.

He was immediately adopted as a surrogate child by Roxy, our stern female German shepherd, who ruled the pack. Jeffrey didn’t throw his weight around; he happily stood inconspicuously in her shadow. When Roxy passed away a few years back, Jeffrey was devastated and never really figured out his place in the group, other than to stand in Silva’s shadow. Smart boy.

We have been privileged to share our home with dozens of dogs through the years. Watching over their declining years is a bittersweet responsibility — one that matures and seals the relationship with fellow creatures who are also navigating their way through life as best they can. That’s where we are with Jeffrey — cherishing his time with us, trying to keep him entertained and offering him an ever-changing menu of items that make our other dogs salivate, while he decides whether or not he’s interested in food that day.

Jeffrey has always had a big picture view of life, and unlike most of his canine colleagues, he figured out a long time ago that a straight line is not necessarily the quickest or easiest route between him and the object of his desire.

For example, whenever Silva or I would drive up to the house, all of our dogs (at times there were a lot of them) would charge the front gate in happy anticipation of a greeting. Not Jeffrey. Instead, he would go out the back door, over a wall and come to meet us as we stepped out of the car, while the others barked at the gate. Several of our other dogs could have accomplished the same feat, but none ever followed his lead because they never stepped back to consider the problem or the solution.

Likewise, when I would pass out biscuits before bedtime, all of the dogs would cluster around, eagerly waiting their turn. If a biscuit hit the floor by mistake, it was usually our center fielder, border collie mix Jimmy, who would snag the goods with everyone else searching feebly for the stray treat. Again, not Jeffrey. He wanted no part of these doggie-dive scrums. He knew he would get a biscuit, and being the first to get one into his mouth was just not worth the hassle. Rather, Jeffrey would head straight for his bed and wait for me to bring him his nighttime treat.

Like a monastic who chose to pursue a different set of values, Jeffrey seemed to be operating according to a different set of rules than the rest of our dogs. He wasn’t interested in pack politics or the pecking-order hierarchy that guided the others’ lives. He made deliberate choices that avoided conflict and achieved his aims by deferring the pursuit of immediate gratification. Most humans have a hard time with that.

Of all the animals that I have shared my life with, Jeffrey is the only one who seems to be fully aware, in his own way, of the longer journey that we are on together. Once, as we sat enjoying a spectacular summer sunset here at Best Friends, overlooking the white cliffs of the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument, he looked at me, and I imagined him saying, “This time you’re the human and I’m the dog. Please don’t screw it up.”

I’ll try, Jeffrey. I promise.

Francis Battista