Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan is published by William Morrow. It tells the story of my adventures with Atticus M. Finch, a little dog of some distinction. You can also find our column in the NorthCountry News.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Atticus Is Simply . . . Atticus

Atticus has not been well lately. It’s not been anything earth-shattering and I don’t think anyone else would even notice it. Heck, on Tuesday of last week we hiked Pierce and Eisenhower, two scenic four-thousand footers. Then on the weekend we climbed South and Middle Moat. The original plan was to continue over to North Moat as well and then double back along the trail to our car. But a most unusual thing happened. After we left Middle and were headed for North we were sitting in the woods in the growing warmth and sharing a drink. I fed Atticus a snack and as has always been our custom I asked him, “You want to keep going?”

The question is merely a formality because he always gets up and leads the way, but I ask it because it seems like the right thing to do. As Atticus has always seen it, we go up until there is no more up. 

This time, however, he hesitated – which is unusual in itself, gave me a searching look, got to his feet, and then turned back down the trail the way we’d come. I was surprised by his choice, but pleased nevertheless. You see, from the very beginning I was determined he would not be my dog, I wouldn’t be his owner or his master, and he definitely wouldn’t be my fur baby – my least favorite term of all. In my mind all of those terms take away from who he is and they diminish him (and in my eyes any dog).
I rarely even refer to him as a miniature schnauzer for I’m turned off by the limitations of breed differentiations. It’s just too much classification for my liking and had I thought of him as one we probably wouldn’t have attempted many of the things we have. Besides, as Paige Foster, his breeder, said ten years ago (as well as nearly every other schnauzer expert – real and supposed –has said upon meeting him through the subsequent years), “He doesn’t act like any schnauzer I know.”

There are a few similarities between Atticus and Maxwell Garrison Gillis, his predecessor, also a miniature schnauzer, but he shares even more atypical characteristics with other breeds I’ve lived with as well, most specifically Seamus, a black lab, and Ollie, a Westie.

So if Atticus is not any of those things what is he?

From the first time I held him as an eight week old I was determined that Atticus would simply be Atticus. I wanted him to grow up to be his own dog and I wanted him to be able to make up his own mind as to what he would be and what he would do with his life.

(All of this works with my thought on people as well. I’ve yet to meet an ordinary or typical person. I prefer to think in terms of individuality. Perhaps it’s my love of Emerson who wrote, “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.” Or maybe it’s just respect for life and the ability of all of us to shine in our own way.)

While Atticus’s decision to turn back surprised me, I respected it. It is an admittedly rare occurrence but he has chosen to turn back on hikes before, just never this far into one, and never while on a ridge walk where the views are plentiful and there’s so much to be seen. I chalked it up to what had been a hot week even though it was sunny but comfortable with a cooling breeze when he made his decision. Since we started winter hiking years ago he, like me, is less of a fan of warm weather hikes. Once the temperature reaches 80 we both begin to melt. Heck, he doesn’t even enjoy going for a walk around the village when it gets to be 80 degrees.

There had been other signs something was off as well. Lately, at the end of a couple of our early evening walks he sat on the couch panting a bit more than he has in the past. He’s also been spending more time walking next to me on the trail instead of just in front of me. I made the mistake of listening to too many other people and their experiences when they said, “He is ten, after all,” as if age is a disease.

But I really became concerned when we were on Middle Moat and that’s as far as he wanted to go. That just wasn’t Atticus. At least not the Atticus of old. That night I emailed Christine O’Connell, our vet at North Country Animal Hospital, and told her what had transpired.

Christine ran some tests, one of which was for Lyme disease. The Lyme test was negative but he did test positive for another tick-borne disease called anaplasmosis. It’s symptoms are not unlike Lyme and it would certainly explain what’s been happening with him lately.

Christine started him on a course of medicine as well as a probiotic. He’ll be on both for a month and we’re hoping he will feel better. If not, then we’ll head to the specialists at Angell Animal Medical Center. But so far the blood work results look normal in every other way and we are taking that as a good sign.

I am an unabashed sentimentalist who wears my heart on my sleeve and I’m not foolish enough to think that Atticus will live forever. Those of us who love animals know all too well the pain that comes from their shorter life spans. Confronted with everything that has taken place as of late, however, I can’t but help fear the very thought of that day. But something tells me that it is something we won't have to be concerned with for quite some time. It's way beyond the horizon and we have years to go and mountains to climb.

Meanwhile, I hold Atticus more than I typically would. We sit outside by the Ellis River as it runs by our yard, we watch the chipmunks scurrying around the stone wall near our patio, and feed the geese down the road. Right now he’s just plain tired. As one of the vet tech’s said the other day, “What he’s going through is quite similar to one of us having mono.”

Even now as I write this I think about those words and what it would be like if I had mono. I wouldn’t even want to get out of bed. But here is Atticus, supposedly a senior dog (more limiting classification), suffering from something akin to mono and yet he hiked two four thousand-footers on Tuesday and two more strenuous peaks just a few days later. Such is his love of the mountains.

He is on my writing desk sleeping next to my laptop at this moment and as I look at him I smile and feel his place in my heart and know that Atticus has turned out just as he was supposed to. 

Atticus has turned out to simply be Atticus.

Atticus being Atticus on Mount Garfield, our first 4,000-footer.


AnnO said...

Very well said, Tom. I try to let my dogs just be who they are as well. It's enlightening to see the differences in their personalities and a never-ending joy that they share my life. Our best to Atticus for a complete recovery. He's in good hands

Helenann Mesmer said...

This moved me profoundly. There are beings (human, dogs...what have you) who move us to be better ourselves. Listening to him and respecting his choice t turn back and knowing him-KNOWING something was up-is the definition of love to me. Thank you, Tom, for respecting the life that is Atticus (and Will, for that matter).
I was fortunate to be touched by such a soul, and I still find his lessons and gifts, even 3 years after his leaving this plane and moving onto the next adventure.
May you three rest, heal and breathe peacefully today.
With deep respect and tears, Helenann

Anonymous said...

Tom, as always, your words touch my heart. I, too, dislike labels and find them limiting. Because of you, I do "listen" better to Max than I used to. He lets his wished be made known so clearly. Since we live in the city, and I work, I have tried to find ways for him to have other experiences. He loves daycare, where he gets to be with friends, both four-footed and two-footed, but I don't "make" him go. We go when he says that he wants to go. I so much appreciate your sharing your relationship with Atticus because it has helped me to learn how to let Max be Max. Linda Thacker

Joyce said...

Tom, as usual your love came through in telling of Atti's problem.There isn't much one can say since you said it all. Just know we all love Atti and, like you, want him to get to feeling better.The one thing we all know is he will get the best care available. You truly are "A good person".

Anonymous said...

Thank you Tom and Atticus for bringing such joy and the spirit of adventure into my life. I've read your book twice and am now following your blog and stories about your happy and sometimes intense turns of life. Atticus, Tom and now Will, how lucky you all are to have found each other.
All the best to Atticus, I'm sure he's on the road to getting better, how could he not, he's got many more mountains to climb before he rests.

Anonymous said...

Get well Atticus!!

Paula said...

You have no idea how well timed this blog post is. I'm taking our Ella to the vet today because I'm concerned about how much she's slowed down over the last couple of months. I hadn't even thought of tick born disease! She is 11, but a schnoodle, so she should still be walking further than around the block! Thank you!

Pam Hicks said...

Ah, Tom - I haven't sobbed while reading one of your postings in a while, so I guess I was "due." It's not with sadness, no, but for the profound utter poignancy of you & Atti, & Will, caring for each other. It doesn't get any better than this. As always, thank you for the gift of sharing your experience with us.

Alpine said...

A baby bumble bee landed on my bare foot as I read your latest blog post. My first instinct was to gently brush him away but as I watched him explore this new warm fleshy world, I decided to let him be. We have a lot in common Tom, which is likely why I am drawn to your writing. This week Liberty, my 6 year old black lab swam for 2 solid hours back on Plum Island Sound. Then, something odd happened....she asked to come back on board, dropped her toy and went up to the bow and took a nap. This had never happened before and it worried me so, off to the vet, Lyme tests and other bloodwork all negative. Liberty is like my child. Never having had any of my own, I am very sensitive to every little nuance. We are heading back out after work today and I am willing to bet all will be well. I feel that way about you and Atti ad well.

Alice said...

Here is a thing I love: when we treat our canine companions as themselves, it's much easier for them to tell us what's happening in a way that we will recognize. I think it's because we've got a history of spending more time paying attention to how they communicate than to enforcing our image of how they ought to be. Yes, training is good, basic commands and safety stuff. It's just important to me that this not cross the line into making them objects. I love how successful you are at that. One of my role models, for sure.

drbubby said...

I'm a holistic vet down in Florida and summertime in Chatham, NH. Atticus should do very well on the doxycycline and probiotics. I highly recommend a glucosamine/chondroitin suppliment such as Glycofex 3, or Dasuquin for joint stiffness and a regular dose of salmon oil in his food. And if you can, give him some raw food daily. Raw is simply the best nutrition in the world for dogs. Frozen no grain raw meat, minced bone, organ meats , fruits and veggies. They have several good brands in N. Conway.Good luck,

altar ego said...

Sending wishes for Atti's speedy recovery, as well as a long and healthy life. As you say, there are mountains to climb, and miles to go before any sleep. Many of us are making the journey with you, and our hearts, too, hold a place called Atticus.

elizabeth o'gara said...

when you posted the photo and note that told about him turning back, i commented on Facebook, "i hope he was feeling ok.' !!!!!! Get Well Soon, Atti!
i too dislike labels, especially since my beloved Molly is a "mixed breed" (ie, "mutt") and the first thing "dog-people" always ask is "what breed?" Remembering about "Atticus being Atticus" i always answer "she's an original!"
just like tom and atticus and will! best wishes to all.

Unknown said...

Your words always bring tears to my eyes,I hope Atticus feels better soon!

Anonymous said...

Dear Tom and Atticus,
I so enjoy your blog , as well as the book.
We have a Silky that we adopted that has behavioral issues coming from where, we don't know. Was he abused? Don't know. But after 3 years and some painful bites, we have come to understand each other. Oh yes, there were the behaviorists that said for a certain amount of money and time we can change all of that. We began to wonder what else was going to change under this behavior modification? What kind of a dog was he going to be then? We love him and just like any animal he has good days and not so good days. We have learned to read this and adjust our lives and movements to help him still feel loved.
It is amazing all the new tricks our dog has taught me in the last 3 years.
Thank you again for all the wonderful adventures and insight that you and Atticus have provided to us.
FS Gilbert, Rollinsford, NH

MaryAnn said...

You are both amazing! The relationship you have is beyond comprehension, and Atticus has a spirit that is special, to say the least. And your love of animals, and what you have done for Will, just melts my heart. I had my beloved cat, Foxy, for 18 years, and I remember thinking I would just fall apart if I ever had to say goodbye to her. But, at age 20, after 2 years of watching her fade, it was time. Everyone thinks their pets are "special," but she truly was. I never met a cat like her and probably never will. She picked me (long story) and I'm so glad I listened. We went through so much together (18 years worth of life). God bless you, Atticus and Will. And may you have many more years of "happy trails" together.

Anonymous said...

I think "Atticus" has become a class of dog in the White Mountains transcending breeds, the ideal of a hiking dog, the one everyone wants to see, and to have a dog act like. Come to think of it, he's ruining it for the other small hiking dogs like mine. :-) Get better Atticus and stay forever young. Thanks Tom also for bringing this disease to our attention so we can monitor our dogs for its presence. Scary.


Shannon Zapf said...

So beautiful! He really is just Atticus. Just a he should be. I do hope that he feels better soon. I know that you and Will shall be taking great care of him!

Anonymous said...

Tom and Atticus,
I hope Atticus is doing well. I was very interested to read to advice from the Holistic Vet. from Fla.Tom today is Sunday 7/1 and the NH Union Leader has a piece about your dinner at the Red Jacket in support of the Humane Center in N.Conway. I sure hope it goes well!
You are such a good author and Atticus is soooooo lucky to have picked you to live his life with.
My best to you three!!!

Christine said...

Hello Tom & Atticus!
Greetings from Pawsitively Humane, a new non profit to get to the root of problem of homeless pets- EDUCATION.
Personally your story resonated because my maltese was showing similar signs and after testing for Cushings, the good news is that Ma Cherie doesn't have the nebulous disease. It seems the early heat, and cutting her hair short and putting her on diet have immediately stopped the constant panting. It's so important to have regular contact with our pets to recognize these signs. I lost a cat suddenly (Francois) at five years of age. It was devastating. Watch for the signs...

MAQdragon said...

Tom, I agree that labels are limiting, no matter what type of label it may be. My mother has a collie puppy, who while still a puppy, is quite large. Her other dogs are older but only by a few years and they won't play with him. Gretchen, a mixed breed mid weight dog who lives with my husband and I, plays with him although she is quite a bit older herself. We found her wandering down a busy highway fifteen years ago. Our vet estimated she was probably about a year old at the time but could have been two. Regardless, she is still active and has her own preferences, styles, opinions and we love her very much. I have noticed that she takes longer naps now and does not sprint quite so much on our walks but then, neither do I. We live in Florida so there are no mountains for us to climb but we get out and do the nature trails, beaches and parks. She loves them but sometimes she just wants to go for a drive and look out the window. It is strange how so often people treat animals like they are not capable of forming opinions and having preferences. They may fur and have four legs but they are senient none the less. We follow your blog and love the pictures. I know they do not live as long as we want them to but our animal companions are priceless and I love that you have allowed us to share in Atticus's life. I hope he feels back to his old self very soon.

Marianne said...

I simply cherish this book, every word, every page. I find such joy in looking at Atticus on the cover and of course in his mutlucks!...priceless!!!!!!! Thank you Tom for this gift. Your story is beautifully told. Thank you so much for sharing this.


Roz Katz said...

Thank you Tom and Addie for your wonderful book "Following Atticus". I was so moved by your deep respect and love for both Atticus and Maxwell and for the open way you told your personal story. Also, I would love to know how Paige is doing and if she remained in NH. I was so touched by her decision to send Atti to you because she understood your need for this special little guy.
I send puppy love to Atti from my rescued girl Misty. She is very individual and my little love, all 11 lbs of her.
I congratulate you Tom for the mountains you climb, repeatedly, and for your devotion to Angell Hospital.
This is my first time to your blog; I'll be reading it regularly.
Roz Katz