Does death always come in threes? The mighty little community on Lake Superior’s south shore that I call home recently lost a handful of members, all unrelated and all unexpectedly. News of death is never easy and getting blind sided by it adds one more layer of emotion to sift through. When you finally hit the bottom of your grief, you’re left grasping onto the undeniable truth of how precious our time here really is.
And so it is that I’ve been muddling my way through a deep look at life—how I give, how I receive, and how I show up. It’s kind of an overwhelming process. One that can almost set me into a panic. Which is not to say I’m unhappy with my life. It’s just revealing to step back and take a good, honest look at it. What time is it anyway? Is this a mid-life crisis lurking in the shadows?
I’m getting off track. This post isn’t about me. It’s about my dog, Earl. And Rita, the liver lady. I live on a peninsula, and as far as I know, there is only one place to train a dog. The Blue Ribbon Training Club. So when Earl came into my life five years ago, I dutifully signed him up for obedience school.
I had been to Blue Ribbon with a former dog, so I knew what to expect. A damp, windowless, uninsulated, low ceilinged shed attached to the local groomers shop. Conveniently situated in a low wetland area (read, swamp). In the winter months the room is either freezing, or sauna-like, thanks to a big old barrel stove chugging away in the corner. There’s very little in between. This awkward space can easily become claustrophobic.
And then there’s Rita, the woman running the show. If you don’t know her, she can seem, well, a little gruff. It doesn’t take long to realize that this well-built woman means business. Rita runs a tight, no nonsense ship. Which is a good thing, as far as your dog’s behavior is concerned. But I always like to warn new people that the whole experience can seem a little surreal at first.
A typical class finds Rita sitting on a perch, barking commands to follow—heeling around in a ring, reversing directions, halting, laying down, leaving your dog and advancing to work with the dog ahead, again and again until you reunite with your pup. And just when everybody is teetering on the edge of exhaustion, she yells out a joyous “Praise them!” If you’re not exuberant enough with your praise, she’ll yell it again. But it gets even better. The liver snaps. Homemade, garlic marinated, dehydrated liver treats that Rita slips to the dogs for good behavior. Earl will stand on his head and spit nickels for one of Rita’s liver snaps. I’ve seen it.
During his tenure at Blue Ribbon, Earl was more or less dubbed class clown. His starring moment came during a testing night. Owners lined up on one side of the room, dogs on the other. One by one we were to call our dog to us and have them preform just one command we asked of them. When Earl’s turn was up, he came to me as instructed and proceeded to fire off everything he had learned in class. Sit, down, finish behind me, sit, down and return. Rita laughed, looked me in the eye, and said “Don’t ever break his spirit.” And then she proceeded to give him a passing grade.
Rita is also the founder of Pet N’ Pals, a group of trained therapy dogs (and two cats) that makes weekly visits to area nursing homes. When Earl finished his obedience training, Rita encouraged us to go through the therapy dog class and testing. She could tell that Earl was made for this work.
Earl has come along way since I adopted him, but he has a mysterious past. A fork dropped at just the wrong time can send him into a panic that lasts for hours. I agreed that he’d make a swell therapy dog, but I was dubious about his jitters. We made it through the classes without incident, and once again on testing night, Earl’s sincerity made Rita cave. One of the testing stations involves the owner sitting in a chair, dog at their side while a stranger lumbers forth with a walker. Earl managed to slink behind my chair and remain virtually unseen. Still, Rita noticed a little swish of his tail and passed him anyway. “He’ll grow into it,” she said. And he did.
As therapy dogs, Earl and his cohorts occasionally get called on to attend a funeral. They go and stage up in the back as an added measure of support. And it’s a really comforting touch. Every funeral should be so blessed. To be respectful, I always don Earl’s bowtie for these occasions.
It was with a breaking heart that I recently had to dig out Earl’s tie and let him know that he’d been tapped again for duty. This time though, it was for our ring leader—the loyal liver lady. Rita died unexpectedly at the end of January, leaving behind packs of dogs who owe their good manners and love of liver to her.
Rita got dogs. If you walked into her funny little training shack and did exactly as instructed, you’d leave with a well-polished canine citizen. Period. And she had plenty of practice. Between classes and therapy outings, she spent more evening with a pack of dogs in her command than not. If that wasn’t dedication enough, she also donated classes, food, and emergency vet services to those who needed it most. Not that anyone would ever know. This was one area where Rita exercised discretion.
Small communities are such caring, tight-knit places to live. Of course the downside is that when people make their exit, they often leave a gaping hole in their wake. Rita is no exception. Her contribution and presence are noticeably absent. I take solace in her living, barking legacy. And I can tell you this. Dog heaven just scored big. Carry on, Rita.
Rita’s Liver Snaps
Slice liver as evenly as possible, somewhere between 1/8 and 1/4-inch thick. Rub garlic powder over meat. Splash with Worcestershire sauce and a bit of water. Marinate 8 hours or overnight. Lay the liver out in an uncrowded fashion on food dehydrator trays and set temperature between 130 and 140º F. Dry until the liver is firm and crisp, with no trace of moisture, 6 to 8 hours, depending on thickness. Break into bite size pieces and store in an air-tight container. (I should also mention that while your dog might find this a delightful smelling process, others in your household may not. Consider running the dehydrator in basement or garage.)
Rita’s service is on March 4 at the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center in Ashland, WI. Her pack of therapy dogs will be in attendance. I’ll try and get a photo of our crew. Check back if you’d like.
And thanks to my friend Bob for taking these photos of Earl.