Finding Dexter: how a stray dog was rescued in Toronto

NOW senior film writer Norman Wilner didn’t choose to get a dog. Dexter showed up at his home eight years ago and never left.

Dexter wasn’t a rescue, at least not technically. He was a stray. A foundling. 

Kate and I were living in Kensington Market. One day in July, our neighbour Sally came home to find a black-and-tan beagle mix sitting under the patio table in her fenced yard. Someone had opened the gate and let him in. She had a dog, so maybe someone thought he was hers. He wasn’t. 

He wasn’t anybody’s, as far as we could tell. Someone had clearly taken care of him – he’d been fixed and he was pretty clean. But that was all we knew for sure. There was a fresh gash on his tail and his hind legs were a little wobbly. Later, a vet would guess that he’d had a run-in with a bike or a motorcycle, nothing too serious. He was about a year and a half, the vet thought, but in retrospect he was probably younger. Maybe a year, maybe not even that.

Sally’s dog wasn’t keen on having him around, so Florence, another neighbour, took him in that weekend while we all tried to find his people. We put up flyers, circulated his information and photo to all the municipal animal services, contacted every vet and pet store we could find and spammed social media. He was a trending topic on Twitter.

Kate and I worked at home, so when Monday came around Florence asked if we could watch him during the day. She brought along an old dog bed that he seemed to like, and mostly he just lay in it, glancing up when a courier came by.

Beagles get lost a lot every owner seems to have a story about their dog wandering off for a couple of days. We just assumed someone would call before too long.

But no one was looking for this dog. The one response we got was from someone on the other end of town looking for a female beagle. 

After the first week, we took over the caregiving full-time and started calling him Dexter. Just for the interim, just until his people came for him. We wondered what his real name was, since he didn’t answer to Dexter.

This was something I didn’t know about beagles: they don’t answer to anything. They’re not untrainable, but they’re very close to it most hounds are entirely self-directed, more interested in following scents than doing whatever their people want them to do. Food helps to focus them, but if there’s other, better food within nose range, you’re screwed.

Dexter is a beagle-coonhound mix, we think, so we’re doubly screwed. He is a nose inside another nose, and unless you have pizza or chips (or seafood, which works on him like catnip) he’s only interested in doing what he wants, which for the first four or five years we had him was smelling everything in the world.

Everything. All the time.

We lived in Kensington, so naturally he would find food garbage wherever he went. He tracked the same half-eaten burrito for an entire winter it wasn’t until he shoved his head into a melted snowbank in March and came up with the still-frozen thing in his mouth that we figured out why he’d been so obsessed with that spot. 

We’d had a Lab before, and she was an eater if ever there was one, but Dexter was a hound and hounds have an entirely different relationship to food. A good scent makes him deaf and blind – he will walk into traffic if he smells a hot dog on the other side of the road.

We’d take him to the Trinity Bellwoods dog bowl for a little socialization, and he’d play for five minutes, stop dead with his snout in the air and run off, chasing some scent. One time he made it all the way to the Queen Street gates before I caught him. We learned not to let him off the leash in anything less than controlled conditions. He was pretty shy, and uncertain around most people and dogs outside of our yard, so that turned out to be a good thing. Our next-door neighbours Deepak and Erinn had a young dog, Otis, with whom Dexter immediately bonded. The one time Dexter jumped our fence, it was to go scratch on their door, presumably to see if Otis could come out and play.

Eventually we started sending him out with Otis’s walker so he could get a little more supervised socialization time, and that helped. (He also came home tired, and as any dog owner will tell you, a tired dog is a more manageable one.)

I said he was self-directed. That’s probably an understatement. He battled with us about everything in that first year. Trying to train him to do anything other than sit on command was an exercise in futility – even now he only sits about two out of every five times. And he chewed his way through the first crate we got for him in under an hour. 

In July we’ll have had him for eight years. He is, as they say, a pain in the ass – a destroyer of yarn, a ruiner of bedding, a distraction on podcast recordings. I had Scott Thompson over for an episode once, and Dexter snuggled up with him and fell asleep on his chest. You can hear him snoring very clearly on the audio.

And before you ask: yes, we love him. He is entirely our dog, Kate’s and mine, and he loves us back. 

As he’s gotten older he’s grown lazier and easier to live with. He’ll sleep until noon if I let him, and when the weather is gloomy he’s content to just lie on the couch and look out the window, waiting for someone to come to the door so he can yell at them. We moved to Little Italy a couple of years ago, not far from Bitondo’s pizzeria. In the summer, when the wind is right, I find him with his head pressed into the corner of our fence, catching the scent and trying to will it closer.

He’s a striking dog, with big dark eyes, so people always stop to say hi and pet him. And he’s still shy, so when he retreats behind me they always say the same thing: “Oh, he’s a rescue, huh? They’re always so grateful.”

I always say the same thing back: “Yes, I’ve heard that.”

Don’t miss the rest of our dog issue:

How millennials turned owning a rescue dog into a social cause | @normanwilner

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