SHY, ABUSED AL WAS NO SMART-ALECKY DOG

Sunday, January 20, 2002

Richard Crowson

In 1991, an Eagle classified ad for a wirehaired fox terrier puppy caught
the eye of my wife, Karen. We drove up to what we thought was a sweet little
Tonganoxie lady's home to purchase what we thought was a sweet little
2-month-old puppy. We were right only about the puppy being sweet.

He was nearly 4 months old and the last of his litter. We got the distinct
impression that we were his final hope. He had never been beyond the
confines of a small cage and had no other means of releasing his nervous
energy than by twisting in tight little circles. He showed no particular
waggy-tailed interest in us. Mostly, he seemed to be obsessed with avoiding
the dirty, unclasped galoshes of the man who had roughly brought him to us.

On the drive home, Karen tried to comfort our nervous and panting purchase
with gentle words and strokes. He wasn't buying it. Every hand extended to
him was a threat that made him flinch. Sudden noises would elicit little
wide-eyed jerks. He cowered every time the car went under an overpass. We
had a project on our hands.

We called him Al, not wanting to complicate his world with a two-syllable
name.

In the back yard, I had to teach him how to run. He gradually caught on but
always had a bit of a hop in his gate, as if he was thinking, "I shouldn't
be doing this, but it's kind of fun." He preferred to run in circles
counterclockwise. In a short while, he even learned to wag his tail, if a
bit tentatively.

A terrier in name only, he didn't need obedience school.

In 1992, Al made his first appearance in one of my editorial cartoons, which
is reprinted above. He represented a puppy mill-plagued Kansas. It wasn't a
stretch at all for him. Gradually, he began to show up in the corner of my
cartoons making little smart-alecky comments. That was a stretch. Maybe it
was a cartoonist's perversity, but I enjoyed empowering this shy little dog
with the ability to be a wise guy. Al became my mascot.

With time, we saw a playful side of him come out that delighted us. Around
strangers, he was a low-to-the-ground mass of cringing canine cowardliness.
But privately with his family, he could be a hopping dynamo whose favorite
game was hide-and-seek throughout the house.

Al slept beside the bed of our daughter, Haley, often yipping in his sleep.
We wondered if he still dreamed of the man in the galoshes.

Winning the trust and affection of a reticent creature like Al is one of the
most rewarding experiences in life, and we did not take it for granted. We
knew how hard-won his love was.

After New Year's Day, we noticed him stumbling over the doorstep when he
would go in or out of the house. Within days, he had lost almost all of his
vision. Soon he became extremely lethargic and would shudder at the
slightest noise, like in his puppy days. He spent a night at the vet's on an
IV. He had lost the use of his legs. When I went in to see him, his small
tail thumped against the floor at the sound of my voice.

I cradled his head in my hands as I had done so many hundreds of times
before, stroking him beneath his chin. It had become his favorite way to be
petted, probably because it didn't involve a threatening movement of a hand
down toward his head. The euthanasia serum entered his system, and Al's tail
thumps subsided.

I'm told that the puppy-mill situation in Kansas is better than it was. But
that there are still some glaring omissions in the law, such as the fact
that the greyhound industry is completely exempted, as are all USDA-licensed
breeders. Inspections are woefully underfunded as well, and if you think
that's going to improve in the current budget climate, I've got some
ocean-side property in Tonganoxie I'd like to sell you.

As for Al, I've decided that he will live on in my cartoons. He'll still
make uncharacteristically snide comments about politicians and such, but
he'll mostly stay small, down in the corner as is his diminutive custom. His
tail still has some wagging to do.