RASCAL, CITIZEN SCIENTIST

Rascal Finnegan Bigham was born at a rescue shelter in Yakima, WA in September 2006.  He was allegedly an English Springer Spaniel/German Shepherd puppy, along with a few other things.  His litter of siblings were all born healthy at the rescue, and were put up for adoption at the end of November.

When I saw Rascal’s picture online I knew immediately.   I didn’t know anything about dogs, mind you – but somehow I knew that baby Rascal belonged with me.  (I was in my late 30s and had never had a dog before, but the universe works in mysterious ways and forces aligned just in time for baby Rascal to be delivered into my life). After submitting an extensive application and making some arrangements I made an appointment to meet Rascal – and some of his brothers, just in case someone had snapped up baby Rascal –  and drove from the Seattle area up to the mountains in Yakima on December 2, 2006 to meet Rascal and to take him home.  His litter had all been given western-themed names – Bandit, Curly, Rascal – we thought Rascal was a suitable name for the impish little pup.

Rascal’s adoption photo.

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Upon meeting Rascal at the shelter I performed the temperament tests which I’d read about on him: Will he let me hold him on his back, does he startle at loud noises but not panic, does he seem to like people, and so on.   To be fair I set him down and tried out a few of the other puppies.   My friend who’d accompanied me was pushing pretty hard for one puppy that resembled his own dogs in coloring.  That pup was darn cute, and my second choice.   My friend pointed a finger at Curly, Rascal’s brother, repeatedly while I continued evaluating.

“No, it’s Rascal.” I said finally as I picked up and cuddled the little ball of fluff to me and held him close. In the adoption photos little Rascal looks confused and suspicious of his new surroundings but it is easy to see that I was already smitten.   We decided he needed middle name (how else would know when he is in trouble?) and settled on Finnegan which is Gaelic for ‘fair one’.  “Rascally fair one” seemed exactly right for the handsome little pup.

Rascal’s first day with me photo.

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In that first year several momentous things happened in little Rascal’s life.   First, he got adopted by a naïve but well-intentioned woman who buckled down and studied up on how to be a responsible dog owner (that would be me)and how to ensure that he would grow up to be a healthy and well-trained dog.  Second we learned through a DNA test through our vet – and also from the vet taking one look at Rascal-the-pup during his new-puppy health check – that he was no English Springer Spaniel mix.

“That’s a Border Collie mix you have there!” said my vet.   What I thought I heard him say:  “That’s no small moon … that’s a battle station!”  Because holy cow, I didn’t know much about dogs but I did know that Border Collies are the smartest most intensely hard working dogs of all the hundreds of dog breeds.  Rascal was going to be smarter than me and most other humans.  Noted. !

SIDEBAR:  The Liverwurst story.

We were working on housetraining soon after Rascal arrived home.    Just when I thought the dog had figured SOME of it out, he snuck off and left me a ‘present’.   He was so fast and sneaky!   Anyway, when he was out of his crate I had to watch him like a hawk.

One day we introduced some liverwurst into his diet and worked on his sit.    Liverwurst because he had to take some medicine and it was easiest to disguise it in the liverwurst, which seems to be the universal dog “crack”.   LIVERWURST.   “Yay!” said Rascal.    He very much wanted some more.    He’d get more the next day, with more medicine.

Much much later that same day we were working on our “sit” in the living room.   Rascal-the-puppy was almost 3 months old and I had him home with me for about ten days.   Also, I was brand new at training puppies at all.   So imagine my delight when he seemed to start getting the concept of “sit” before getting his treat!   W00t!   Then he scampered around and came back for another round of play, eventual sit, then treat.

At one point he scampered off and did not come back.   Ruh roh, I thought, since were still not done with housetraining.   I got up and dashed in the same direction that Rascal had gone and found him.   In the kitchen.   In the corner where he got the liverwurst earlier.

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“IS this this the Liverwurst counter?”

During Rascal’s first Winter we learned that he LOSES HIS MIND when there is snow on the ground.  Rascal has what we like to call ‘Puppy-Snow-Angel-Impulse-Control-Issues’.  He has been known to snow-angel his way across a dog park or whatever other horizontal snowy surface he can find.  This is his first-ever documented snow angel, taken when Rascal was about 4 months old.

Rascal first Snow Angel

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Rascal (and his newbie mom) did several obedience courses that first year, trying out several dog training facilities and trainers nearby.  In trying different places we were trying to find our way to defining our own family dog-training philosophy and commitment to our pack; we take seriously our responsibility to our pack. In between our obedience (and other!) courses we did find time for fun along the way:  when Rascal was about 8 months old he met SHEEP for the first time and we got to see whether he possess the border collie ‘eye’; he DOES.   Rascal took right to the sheep and we learned  that he could indeed take up sheepherding as a hobby if need be.

Rascal and his first SHEEP

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Shortly after that Rascal learned to SWIM for the first time!  He wasn’t too sure until we got in the water too, but then he swam right to us.  He’s so darn tall that he usually ends up wading instead of swimming, but the first-ever RASCAL SWIMS picture is a favorite.

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When Rascal was 10 months old he gave me my first health scare:  he gored himself on a broken tree branch at the dog park and required surgery. The wound was well hidden among his black fur and I didn’t notice right away.  He mainly ignored it except for a bit more licking at the wound which eventually gave it away; ever since then Rascal has gotten used to full-body pat-downs like I am a TSA agent nearly every morning and every night of his life.  His surgery went fine, and he’s a stoic and easy patient.  Which is great because he did nearly the exact same thing a few months later requiring ANOTHER surgery!  It just so happens that we are big fans of pet health insurance.  It’s worked out really well for us, having a sort of action-figure superhero dog.

Rascal post-surgery pic

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What we didn’t know right away was how very TALL and LONG and FAST Rascal would turn out to be.  After he kept growing and growing we finally ordered the blood test for breed identification through our vet and, finally:  Rascal has turned out to be a mostly Border Collie and Borzoi (also known as Russian Wolfhound) mix with a bit of German Shepherd thrown in.

It has helped immensely to know what caused him to get so very big and fast because while his obedience training was going quite well – smart little dog, as soon as he figured out what you were asking for, he’d give it to you in spades – if there was a furry critter in motion around, you’d lose him.  Like he would be chasing said critter at 35-40 MPH and HE COULD NOT HEAR YOU telling him to stay put.  It turns out that Borzoi are in the SIGHTHOUND GROUP.  Which means:  This dog can never be off-leash in public/traffic areas because as soon as a squirrel or opossum or raccoon or cat, even, is in sight then he will be OUT of sight, and before you can blink.  His speed has been truly breathtaking (although rarely seen at full stride)!

We rounded out Rascal’s first year by attending some Dog Yoga (Doga?) classes, having Rascal groomed professionally for the first time, and proudly watching as Rascal passed his AKC Canine Good Citizenship certification just shy of his first birthday in September 2007.   To celebrate, we upgraded our existing little sedan to an SUV Hybrid with a personalized license plate of Rascal’s name. ( Since Rascal had grown so big by then he barely fit in the back seat of my tiny car.  Now he rides in style in the back of the SUV with the back seats folded down and wall to wall dog beds providing ample cushion for him as he elegantly point his nose into the wind.) We also got an official portrait of handsome Rascal (and some shots of us together) with a professional pet photographer.  The images turned out beautifully.

Rascal’s epic portrait

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Within a few months of Rascal’s first birthday – in January 2008 – we both got certified by the Delta Society (now called Pet Partners) as at therapy dog team.   My intention was for us to visit people in hospitals and nursing homes to give people a boost emotionally and to give back to the community.   Unfortunately two things happened then which would change Rascal’s life – and mine – forever.

First, Rascal started going through a secondary fear imprint stage where he was suddenly skittish and afraid of things he’d previously been fine with – wheelchairs, the clatter of a pair of falling crutches, etc.   Borzoi are a notoriously skittish breed and young Rascal had suddenly come into his own, Borzoi-wise.  After consulting with a local behaviorist we decided to take a break from therapy-dog work and training and to focus on the basics for a while.  Basically to continue obedience training to wait out this perfectly normal -albeit frustrating- developmental stage.

Within a few months of that decision I was diagnosed with medical disability myself, and  consequently determined that Rascal’s new path would not be as therapy dog but instead would be:  Service Dog. !  He was already rigorously trained through our myriad of classes, and per federal law I only needed to train him to do any one thing to assist me (in addition to being disabled myself, of course).    I quickly trained Rascal to assist me in navigating crowds and to help propel me along on a shorter leash.  And voila!  The world’s best service dog was created!     Rascal began accompanying me to my job at Microsoft, then later Amazon, until my disability symptoms increased in severity and prevented me from working.   Rascal continues to accompany me around town to errands, medical appointments, and to the dog park when I can manage it.   The local pharmacy and grocery store know Rascal quite well these days.

Rascal – service dog in action at Microsoft

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Now age 9, his working days are fewer as he starts to show signs of fatigue far earlier than he used to.   We recently added a new puppy into our household to keep Rascal company.  He’s always been more of a dog’s dog than a people dog, and he seems happier with a baby sister to boss around.  Our household is re-learning those new-puppy lessons from Rascal’s early days plus learning a few new ones!

Rascal and his new baby sister, Reilly

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Rascal is legendary among our crowd for being both handsome and noble AND the love of my life.    When Rascal originally got to his larger size I feared that his years with me would be shorter than some and I did everything I could think of with diet and exercise to keep him happy and healthy and robust. We were thrilled to learn of the Dog Aging Project and overjoyed to discover that Rascal’s age and size met the criteria for the Phase I study.    We are optimistic about the results from the Rapamycin trial, and either way are happy to be contributing to the greater good as citizen scientists!

Rascal epic snow dog portrait

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