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The Story of Red the Dog

A local artist and dog owner reflects on the love and loss of her dog, and reminds us to #AdoptDon’tShop.

“Trying to love half-way is a strange concept,” said Piedmont artist and fifth-grade art teacher, Suzie Skugstad, describing one of the great loves of her life. “If you think of your heart as that part of yourself that most needs protecting, loving fully, going all in, laying it all out there, is a dangerous, reckless move.”

Sometimes, to love is to be reckless. Holding back and keeping your guard up can be the safest moves. We all know how a broken heart hurts; however, your heart can starve by not loving enough and holding back.

“We all know that feeling,” said Skugstad. “For me, it ain’t pretty — ugly crying and all.”
In 2016, when Skugstad found Red (or maybe the other way around), she was leaving the house to get a haircut, as well as some groceries. A few hours later, she came home with a dog.

“He was 40 pounds overweight and had no ongoing vet care,” Skugstad said. “He was a street dog, and I had every intention of keeping my feelings for him in check.”

Red had spent his life on the streets of Oakland, near Lake Merritt. When Skugstad found him, he could not stand up without help.

“I truly thought he might die on me at any moment,” she said. “He had this look he gave me when I first caught his gaze in the check-out line. I can’t say if there was a plea in that look, but it got to me.”

Skugstad found Red with his former owner, Dennis, a local homeless man standing in the Wells Fargo line at Safeway. Customers were less than sympathetic to Red’s inability to stand on all four. Dennis had been using his foot to encourage Red to stand up. Skugstad mistook that tap for a kick, and parked her grocery cart to check things out. Dennis told Skugstad his name, as well as the name of his dog loyally staying by his side, despite the pain.

Suddenly, Dennis abruptly left the line and rushed for the exit, but passed out by the flowers section of the Safeway. Well-meaning people gathered around to call the paramedics and discuss what should be done with Red. Skugstad got a blanket from her car, rolled Red inside it, and slid the mild-mannered giant outside to the entrance area.

She gave Red two bottles of water. As Red happily slurped it up, sirens blared, and paramedics arrived for Dennis. Skugstad contemplated her next move. Dennis was barely conscious, waving off the paramedics as he demanded to “sleep it off.”

“I asked him if I could take Red to the vet to get him healthy,” said Skugstad. “I could tell it wasn’t an easy decision for him to make, but he knew this was the only way Red could get healthy. This was a man who knew he was losing his best friend — but after a moment, he agreed. He told me to take him. I scribbled my name and number on a piece of paper and thanked him.”

The paramedics drove Skugstad and Red to the vet. After being taken to the hospital, Dennis was never heard from again or seen in the neighborhood.

“It was all so surreal,” said Skugstad. “But being around Red seemed so natural.”

“Red became mine that afternoon to take care of through a lengthy rehabilitation, which takes a different kind of affection,” she said. “It’s a focused attentiveness, but it wasn’t all gushy, since the job we faced was so daunting. Red could be very adoptable, I thought … at least that’s what I would tell my husband who, by the way, did not threaten divorce when this 100-pound cutie showed up in our kitchen.”

Red’s rehab regimen consisted of three light meals a day to keep Red satisfied but calorie restricted; four scheduled walks around the clock that increased into exercise; outdoor time, since he came from the streets and loved all the sights, smells, and sounds of the outdoors; regular vet visits to get his many health issues under control; and focus on lifting his rather portly bottom every time he needed to stand up.

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This intensive rehabilitation was not only hard, but also excruciatingly slow. After a couple weeks of it, Skugstad found herself curling up on Red’s makeshift chunk-of-old-memory-foam dog bed.

“It was so cozy—I loved sinking in with him and could tell he did, too, having likely kept Dennis warm on the street this very way (minus the memory foam). I would spoon him and give head scratches. If there was more room in front of his bed, we would go face to face and he would paw me with instructive pats, usually wanting chest rubs. His arms would end up around me in a bear hug … and he’d sigh. It became a nightly thing, and as he lost weight, I could even make him scoot over with a gentle but firm nudge.”

Red visited Skugstad’s fifth-grade art class after several months of this physical rehabilitation, just before the students left for summer break. The students filed out of the room, chattily making their way to a nearby creek. They took turns holding Red’s leash.

“The kids spread out to do their plein air drawings, and some drew Red among the rocks and trees,” said Skugstad. One of the kids even suggested I write an illustrated book about Red and his life. They were very enthusiastic.”

Red accrued a small fan club in the neighborhood, with well-wishers rooting for his continued improvement in health. He even had Instagram friends. Wherever Red went, there were both smiling faces and hands extended for a nice scratch.

“Red made it easy for me to make new friends,” said Skugstad. “You may not mark the occasion or know exactly when you go from lukewarm love to full on, heart-wrenching, this-one’s-gonna-hurt-like-hell love, but it happens, and you deal with it. You can try to avoid it. Some of my friends won’t get dogs once they’ve lost one — or years after — or ever again. They only imagine the pain of loss. But that’s not me. And I fell hard with Red. At some point I just knew there was no turning back. He was my guy for as long as I could have him. For me, that was exactly two years, 47 pounds of weight loss, and approximately 500 snuggle sessions after our eyes met that day in Safeway.”

At the end of his life, two years ago in July, Red experienced a whole new world. He went on his first ever vacation to Southern California to see Skugstad’s family. He got to spend his final days in the warm, fresh air, smelling all the newness of the critter-packed Pasadena oasis and receiving copious love and affection from Skugstad’s family.

On what would be his last night, Red slept next to Skugstad on the couch, her arm dangling to give his head a scratch every so often. He would sleepily thank her, with heavy, happy sighs.

The end came quickly for Big Red. There was no time to get used to the idea of his parting. At the vet, Red lifted his heavy head one last time to look at his companion with those sweet, grayed eyes that said “goodbye, and thank you.”

“I held him close, gazing back, and told him what he already knew,” said Skugstad. “I loved him so much — ridiculous, heart-breaking, beautiful love … the kind of love Red gave naturally, without any hesitation.”

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Main article photo by: Photos of Big Red and students with artwork courtesy Suzie Skugstad