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A German shepherd from Russia, with love

Sunday, August 29, 1999

By Marilyn McDevitt Rubin

Moscow winters are cold and the nights long. Temperatures start dropping in August, and there is snow from September to May. The days without snowfall are the coldest. Temperatures go to 20 below zero Fahrenheit. People and animals suffer from the extremes.

It was at the start of a March weekend in 1997 when my daughter, Ani, came home from work with her friend John and found a German shepherd huddled in the lobby of her apartment building. The dog was wet and shivering. They didn't have the heart to turn the animal out. Instead they brought the dog upstairs and fed her a supper of scrambled eggs and canned tuna. Afterward, John gave the dog a bath and cleaned the cuts on her face and neck. Later, when they walked the animal, it stayed right at their heels.

Ani decided to advertise for the dog's owner. A local television station offered free time to publicizing lost pets. There was no response. She posted signs around the neighborhood. No one called. Improvising a leash, she walked the dog in the park, but no one appeared to recognize her. No way could she keep the dog; she knew that. Her days were 14 hours long. She taught school, worked out at the gym, spent time making lesson plans and was busy with friends. A dog needed more care than she could give it. Although there is some effort to establish animal shelters in Russia, there are none at present. Packs of dogs run wild in the streets. They are like roving dog circuses, four, five, six animals of different sizes, colors and breeds racing together to some unknown destination.

What to do? The German shepherd would have to go back where she came from. Ani took her out and abandoned her. Depressed by the whole experience, my daughter went back to her apartment full of guilt. Half an hour later she heard the dog scratching at the door and whining. She had somehow gotten into the building, gotten access to the stairs, climbed the eight flights and located the apartment. Ani opened the door and her life to a dog she chose to call Chaco, after a week she and I had once spent together in Chaco Canyon, N.M.

Ownership of the dog required that Ani behave responsibly. She took her to the vet, who determined that the dog was about 2 years old. Chaco needed to be spayed, and the operation nearly killed her. Desperate for how to stop the bleeding that resulted, and dissatisfied with the vet's solutions, Ani bought a cage, packed Chaco into it and took her to John's parents in Florida. The vet in Daytona repaired the damage, and Chaco spent six weeks recovering on the beach.

Back from Moscow, Ani, and her dog, are living with me. Chaco takes up the whole house and much of our lives. We are always tending to her, walking her, feeding her, playing with her, washing her, brushing her, vacuuming her hair off the rugs, picking her hair out of our food, buying something for her, talking about her.

Our endless dialogue with her goes something like this. "You're the bestest dog." "You're my lollipopski." "Pretty kitty." "Angel." "Cha-a-a-co! NO! Chaco! Good dog" (have a treat). "Sweetest thing." "Goodest girl."

Pretty disgusting, but we just can't help ourselves.

Now Chaco has a trainer, and that has added to our preoccupation. Once a week Chaco and Ani go walking in Frick Park for an hour with Sheri Santucci of Regent Square.

Looking for help with Chaco's aggressiveness toward other dogs, Ani went to the neighborhood vet, who apologized for not knowing any trainer willing to take on a 3-year-old, 85-pound barking dog. It was our mailman, Ken Kazsimer, who came to the rescue. He called the barking "talking." As the owner of three shepherds, he knew how to make Chaco his friend. He also knew someone on his route who used a trainer. He got us the trainer's number. Networking is everything.

Sheri has done a good job of dealing with the woof, woof. In the past, when Chaco saw another dog, she'd go nuts.

"She's defending Ani," Sheri says.

Knowing nothing of the dog's past, we can't be sure of her training, but walking the trails in Frick Park down to Hot Dog Dam, she inevitably starts a ruckus. Last week, still on the leash, she took on two Great Danes who working together might have ripped her head off, if the owner, with arms like a stevedore, hadn't grabbed the biggest dog by the collar and pulled him off. Sometimes I wonder why Ani couldn't have come home with a miniature schnauzer or a Scotty dog, but then I count my blessings that she didn't arrive with a Russian wolfhound or a mastiff.

Things are better and continuing to get better. Sheri introduced a new leash called a Halti, which fits around Chaco's head, not her shoulders. She's so strong that with the old leash she could pull you along when she went off on the chase. Now she can only toss her head. Sheri also has instituted a system of scolds and rewards. Good dog gets a treat. Ani's "no!" has more authority than mine. She means "no." My "no" is more a "please, no." I'm good with the treats, though. With them, I have Chaco-baby eating out of my hand.

She's a fine dog. and there are times when we think she is learning to be a good dog. But whatever, she's our dog now.

Speaking of tuna.

Penne with Tuna, Basil and Lemon

1/2 pound penne pasta
1 garlic clove
1 lemon
1/4 cup packed fresh basil leaves
1 (6-ounce) can tuna in olive oil, not drained

Bring a 4-quart pasta pot three-fourths full with salted water to a boil for penne. Mince garlic. Finely grate enough lemon zest to measure 1 tablespoon and squeeze 1 teaspoon juice. Cut basil into thin strips. In a large bowl toss together garlic, zest, juice, basil and tuna with oil from can.

Boil penne until al dente, and drain in a colander. Add penne to bowl, and toss with salt and pepper to taste. Makes 2 servings.

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