Fella, the neglected dog, on a lot behind a fence in Oakland. Photo: Leslie Smith
Fella, the neglected dog, on a lot behind a fence in Oakland. Photo: Leslie Smith

This is Part 2 in a three-part series. Read Part 1.

Leslie Smith volunteers at the Berkeley Animal Shelter. One day she stumbles upon a dog who, as she describes it, is filthy, smelly, and appeared to be neglected. Smith takes pity on the sorry-looking dog. She identifies its owner as the barber whose shop is on the lot where Fella, the dog, spends his days. She begins visiting Fella, bringing him toys. But, when she asks if she can walk him occasionally, she is turned down. Read the final part of the story tomorrow. Read more about the shelter in past Berkeleyside coverage.

By Leslie Smith

The barber’s dog has fleas.

This is a recent development and the situation has begun to impact our time together. We used to while away the lunch hour playing a game. (I toss a treat through the fence. He sniffs around earnestly to find it. Repeat.) These days, he’s only good for a few tosses before he goes back to biting at his hind legs. Or wriggling on his back against the gritty cement.

When he’s close enough for me to assist, I reach in and scratch that flea-infested dermis. I doubt a veterinarian would say that’s the healthiest approach for him in the long run, but I’m desperate for the barber’s dog to know some relief. 

Even if it’s just temporary.

I rarely see the people who live above the barber shop, so a few months ago, I left them a note. It was full of exclamation points and happy sounding words to drive home the point that I’m harmless. In no way a crazy person or a bleeding-heart busybody or a mildly peculiar middle-aged woman with nothing better to do. It said, basically:

Thanks for letting me visit your awesome dog each day on my lunch hour! It’s the highlight of my afternoon! If you ever want someone to take him for a walk, why I’d be glad to do it! Here’s my phone number! And my email! I’m a real wiz with a leash!

No one ever got in touch. I should probably just be grateful they don’t order me away from their property or call the police the times they do spot me with my hand through the fence, petting their dog or tossing treats. Instead, they ignore me as I smile and try not to look too ingratiating. It’s awkward.

I read on the internet that for every flea you see on a dog, there are fifty fleas you don’t see. And why would the internet lie? The barber’s dog is crawling with fleas, so even if there is just one flea for every flea I see, that’s a disturbing number of insects having a time of it on the dog’s back. So I leave flea treatment at the barber’s place and opt again to include a merrily punctuated note:

Had a bunch of extras! Feel free to use on Fella!

Maybe I should have just tried to apply the stuff directly on the dog myself. Stick my hand through the chain-links and just go for it. Of course, there are problems with a plan like that. What if the barber’s dog is actually allergic to flea treatment and I make things worse? Or what if I’m caught red-handed interfering with a person’s “private property” and I’m ordered to never come back. It seemed a gamble no matter which way I went.

The other day, when I was sitting with the barber’s dog and his fleas, a kid came by on one of those kick scooters. The barber’s dog jumped to his feet. I figured he’d start barking any second, as that’s what my dogs do when someone rides by on a scooter. (Or stops to say hi. Or stands quietly across the street minding their own business.)

“Oh, uh… I’m not sure how he is with kids,” I say to the kid.

“It’s okay. He knows me.” The kid says.

“He knows you?”

The kid tosses a Milkbone through the fence. “Yeah, Fella knows me. I come by here every day with treats.”

For a minute I thought I might be hallucinating. “Wait. You come by here every day with treats?” I ask the kid.

“Uh huh,” he says.

I really try to keep it low-key and nonchalant, but I’m not fooling anyone. “I come by here every day with treats!” I may or may not have suppressed a squeal. “Wow, that’s so crazy! And great!”

The kid nods politely.

“I’m just so happy Fella’s got another visitor!” I tell him. “Another friend!”

I didn’t think to get the kid’s name or find out where he lived or how long he’d been coming around. But I did ask him, “Can I take your picture?”

The kid lets me take a picture. Then: “I gotta go now.”

He tosses the last of the Milkbones through the fence and finishes with a rawhide. The barber’s dog takes it between his paws and settles in to work on it. I sit down on my side of the fence.

Photo: Leslie Smith
Photo: Leslie Smith

“You didn’t tell me about the kid,” I say to him. “You didn’t tell me you have your own Milkbone delivery service, you little secret-keeper.” The dog slobbers and licks at the rawhide but shoots me a look every so often to let me know he’s listening.

There are days — many — when the sense of unfairness is so paralyzing, I hardly know how to proceed. Not just the situation with the barber’s dog, but all over. On many levels and in increasing degrees of harshness.

On this day, the kid helps me forget some of that. He even imparts a bit of optimism. I feel it.

Even if it’s just temporary.

A few days later

Things are getting complicated with the barber’s dog.

For starters, it’s become clear that he doesn’t actually belong to anyone who works at the barber shop. Or to anyone living there on the property. Or to the man with the key who comes by to feed and water him.

It’s a fine line between quirky-harmless-lady-who-loves-the-smelly-watchdog and nosy-busybody-with-an-agenda-and-judgment, so I glean what details I can and try not to bother the people who live and work in the area. I don’t want to jeopardize my access to the barber’s dog, er … Fella.

Which is why I nearly fell over when the woman from the shop came out one day during my visit and said, “Fella’s owner said you could have him.” I waited for her to laugh and say she was kidding, but she never did.

“He doesn’t want Fella anymore?” I finally asked. “Why? Why now?”

“We’ve been telling him you come visit every day,” she said. “We’ve been advocating for you. Maybe he thinks there’s someone who can take better care of him.”

An immense wave of gratitude and relief washed over me, but the moment was bittersweet. There was no way I could bring another dog into my home without severely disrupting the lives of the three individuals most important to me.

“I … can’t take him myself,” I managed to say. “But I know people who know people. I could try to find him a good home. Do you think the owner would be open to that?”

“I think so,” the woman said.

I already know this will not be easy. The local shelters are full of dogs who, on paper at least, are infinitely more attractive than Fella. And with a fence between us, there’s no real way to find out the kind of stuff that regular people and rescue organizations like to know. Things like how Fella reacts to other dogs once on neutral ground. Or if he’s a “resource guarder” when it comes to tennis balls. Or whether he’s “pully” on leash.

Even trickier, I know nothing about his health, aside from what I can see. I don’t know what shots he’s had or whether he snores when he sleeps or why he limps on his right leg. I don’t know what the raw patch on his tail is about.

What I do know is that he’s lived for years on a cement lot behind a fence, and at one time, another dog lived there with him. I know that he takes treats with a soft, polite mouth, even from children. And I know that on warm days, when the pigeons come to bathe in his water bowl, he doesn’t chase them away.

Photo: Leslie Smith
Photo: Leslie Smith

So I cross my fingers and hope that’s enough to get started. Maybe there’s someone out there who’s between pets and would want to share a home with a dog who’s asked for nothing. Someone who is looking to pay it forward — or backward. Someone with a bleeding heart who might at least sign on to foster this poor goof, knowing there’s no expiration date or any guarantee a permanent family will be found.

I had to think about it when a friend asked me if Fella’s life is really so bad. She pointed out that he has plenty of space to move around, and he has food and water and a dog house. He can check out the cars driving by each day and watch the occasional person walk in or out of the barber shop. It’s not a fate worse than death, I admitted. But I wonder how lonely or uncomfortable or unbearably boring does it have to get before that line is crossed?

I think there will come a time, and I don’t think it’s that awfully far off, when the line will creep dangerously close to where he is now. A time when Fella’s limp will progress to near immobility. The incessant itching will become full-blown distress, and a plastic door-less doghouse will not be enough to protect him from the cold.

And while there’s a chance this old dog is so set in his ways he literally prefers the lot that he has, I’d like for him, in his golden years, to have the option to come indoors if it’s raining. To lie someplace soft, if he chooses. I would rest easier knowing someone is there to be his friend — not just for ten minutes during her lunch hour — but unfailingly throughout the day. A pal, if he wants one. I would hope he could be part of a family. You know, only if he feels like it.

The sun is out today when I arrive and Fella is leaning his head against the tire of the truck. I call to him and he moseys to the fence to greet me. I tell him that “I’m putting the word out” about him and he looks at me with mucus-y eyes.

There is a movement these days, in the adoption arena, away from posting photos of sad, pitiful animals looking forlorn and neglected. No one wants to see that, they tell me. Happy shots of clean dogs against pretty backgrounds are what get dogs homes, I’m told.

Since I can’t get one of those pictures, at least not right now, I think that maybe an image of Fella looking affectionate and kind is the next best thing. So I ask for kisses and he obliges.

I snap an off-center selfie and hope for the best.

Part 3: The barber’s dog: Kindness of strangers ends the tale
Part 1: The barber’s dog, and one woman’s bid to save him

Part 3 of the three-part Barber’s Dog series will be published tomorrow. This story was first published last year on The Dodo, a site about animals for people who love them.

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