Before we moved to Atlanta in 1996, Andy and I had adopted a lovely chocolate lab while I volunteered at Bergen Animal shelter. Because I was the “boss” at my job in New Jersey, she came to work with me every day. But when we moved to Atlanta and I got a job with IBM, all of a sudden she was home alone…and she did not like it! So we decided she needed a companion and we needed another dog!
Anyone who has been at an animal shelter knows it isn’t really a pleasant experience. The noise level almost bursts your ear drums, and no matter how clean you keep it, there is an offensive smell that hangs in the air. We were going through the labyrinth of cages looking for another lab of similar age to Murphy. Murphy had the easy job – she got loving from the AC staff in the front office while we looked for her brother or sister.
Riley was in a corner cage in a dark portion of the shelter. I walked by him and didn’t even notice him. I had seen a nice young black lab that I thought would be good for Murphy. Andy called me back to his cage and said, “What about him? He seems pretty low-key.”
I looked in the cage and saw a giant lab with one of the biggest jar heads, ever! His face looked so sad and his tail hung down between his back legs. Andy said according to his paperwork, today is his last chance to find a home because he’s on the euthanasia list for tonight. I didn’t really think he was interested in us. He showed no excitement. We motioned for the attendant to take him out of the run and we went into the visitor dog room. It was there that we noticed his tail hung like that because it was broken at the base. The attendant took him off the leash and he ran over to where Andy and I were sitting and laid his giant head on my lap and looked up at me as if he was asking me if I was taking him home. I was immediately smitten but he had to pass the Murphy Test.
We had the OK from the Animal Control staff to try the two dogs together in one of the exercise yards. We took this giant chocolate dog to meet the miniature choco dog and it was like they were in a love story commercial. They ran across the yard to each other and immediately began to play. We knew we had a winning combination. We named him Riley on the spot. For some reason we had taken two cars to the pound so Murphy went home with Andy and I took Riley off to the vet to be checked out. We stopped at McDonalds and I gave him a hamburger. To this day, Andy is bitter because he believes that hamburger is what forged the stronger bond between Riley and I.
At the vet, she confirmed his tail had been broken but it felt healed and should not give him any issues other than not being able to wag it. He was emaciated slightly so we would have to help him gain some weight but even at this weight he was 87 lbs. She estimated he was about 9 months old based on his teeth and that he was probably a pure bred Labrador. We also discovered that he already knew a variety of obedience commands like sit, down, and stay.
The night we adopted him, we had a Halloween party in our apartment. Riley lay in the middle of the festivities like a throw rug. He was so laid back to the party and the strangers coming in and out that people were asking if he was sick! Nope he wasn’t sick – this is what a well-behaved dog acts like! Of course, I couldn’t take any credit for it.
To accommodate for his broken tail, Riley would swing his hips more to cause a wagging motion of the tail. We used to joke and ask him if he’s like some fries with that shake. Every time I think he would open his mouth and respond to me in English. His eyes told me he understood what I said and I truly believed he understood human language unlike any other dog I have ever had.
One night we had a dinner party. We’ve always had boundaries for the dogs when it came to human food and eating and they were not allowed in the dining room during meals. We have a glass top table and there is nothing worse than having a good meal to look down and see a face looking up at you through the glass so we exiled them. After the meal was eaten and the table was cleared, some people went into the living room to continue conversations but some people stayed in the dining room including me. Little by little, Riley inched his way into the room. There was an empty chair at the table and I saw Riley move closer to it. Then I saw one paw on it and then he was sitting in the chair. He made no attempt to nibble at crumbs leftover from whomever was sitting there. He just followed the conversation. The man on the end would say something, Riley would look at him while he was speaking. The woman to my right would reply and Riley would turn his full attention onto her. As the conversation jumped around the table, Riley acted like he was following it and looked at everyone who spoke when they spoke.
Riley was our gentle giant. We lost him to complications from a disorder he had called Mega-esophagus causing him to have chronic pneumonia.