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An Engineer in the Woods, Installment 31: Pets #11; Dog 8, Fern; Part One

Monday, June 1, 2020

Once again, I am offering a fun story as our nation faces a crisis.  Once again, I offer the advice of Keep Calm and Carry On.    So read on, and smile on – although Part One of this story is less smiley and more thoughtful than Part Two will be next month.

We had lived in our in our home on the pond in Plainfield for nearly 20 years before we moved into our fully remodeled, almost100% new home in the woods. The kids were all in college, so for the final move on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving of 2015 all we brought with us was 30 years of accumulations in two semi-trailers a PODS, two aquariums, two geriatric dogs and two homebody cats. It took Kristen and me a little time to adjust, and none of the animals were happy at first.  The cichlid tank got ich, the cats had to turn the new rugs into old rugs and the dogs seemed lost.  Our older dog, Birch, would just pace around the house all night on the hardwood floors, click-click-click-click-click…  We knew the signs.  We had had elderly dogs before, and her time was coming near.  Olive probably wasn’t far behind.  We lost Birch in January.

Our oldest, Aileen, was deep into her studies toward earning her Doctor of Physical Therapy degree at Creighton in Omaha. She needed a diversion from the 24/7 pressures of studying for an advanced degree.  She was convinced that two old parents with one old dog was a recipe for us becoming senior-citizenized.  We needed some young blood in the house.  EVERY DAY, sometimes several times a day, she would text me with her latest find on PetFinder or Facebook, or one of the many animal rescue sites that she frequented.  Kristen and I humored her, but we were doing quite fine with one dog and two cats.  Our herd was re-house-trained for the new home, and we were on our second set of area rugs.  No additional animals were needed! 

But by Christmas we were beginning to think that maybe she was right, Olive was pretty old and maybe she would like some company during the day while we were at work.    

Kristen and I have always liked big dogs.  I filled-out the multi-volume “Adoption, Pre-Application” forms and applied to a Shepherd Rescue group.  They never replied.

I did the same for a couple other rescue groups with the same non-answer.  We had outlived six dogs and two cats at this point.  Maybe we were considered high risk?  We had just turned 54 years old – maybe the elderly aren’t allowed to adopt pets anymore?  It wasn’t the end of the world, life was comfortable – but I am painfully hard-wired to never accept “no” as an answer to anything.  I started obsessing over the PetFinder website.  So did Kristen.  Aileen continued her daily quest.

The week that all of the kids joined us for Christmas, Kristen called a shelter in Darien, we filed pre-screening paperwork and after several follow-up calls and emails we were afforded the opportunity for a supervised visit with a Great Pyrenes.  We drove-up in two cars hoping that we would be coming home with a new Christmas dog.

We entered en-mass to a brightly colored, clean and spacious building. A happy painted sign with the word “Adoptions” in primary colors guided us to a bank of shiny white Formica counters. Behind one of them was a college-age blonde with a happy ponytail and an infectious smile.  I explained that we were here to see a Great Pyrenes.  “Great!  Just fill-out this pre-adoption paperwork!” she smiled as she dropped a 2” stack of forms on the counter with a pen. 

“Already done, sent in and confirmed online and by phone.  We have an appointment,” I smiled in return.

“Hmmm…what’s the last name?”


“First name?”


“And where do you live?”


“I’ll look you up…” she smiled as she typed on a computer.…, …, …, …, ……… several minutes passed. “What is your first name again?”

“Howard.  Also try Kristen.”

“Hmmmm……..hmmmmm……hmmmmmm………..H A M E L T O N?”

“No. H A M I L T O N, like the musical.” I was still smiling, but it was starting to become a little difficult.  The rest of the family was watching a group training session of puppies.

“Oh.  Ok…” She started typing again. “Hmmmm……..hmmmmm……hmmmmmm………..  There’s nothing here under that name.  Why don’t you fill-out these forms?”  She smiled at the stack of papers that she had plopped down  earlier. I noticed that the countertop was bowing under their weight.

For once I was ready for something, “I brought a copy of what I completed online.”  I set my neatly typed stack next to the blank stack.  I heard the counter begin to crack.

The perky smile briefly turned upside down. “I’ll take this back to my supervisor,” she forced the words out between the clenched teeth of a reestablished strained smile.  She hefted my forms, turned away from the relieved counter, took a few steps, turned, pushed backwards through a swinging door, smiled and disappeared.

I beckoned for Kristen, “Who did you make the appointment with?”

“Carol.  She said to come in Saturday any time after 10:00.”

I looked at my watch.  It was 10:38.  I had spent 17 minutes with the Perkster!

Kristen asked, “What’s taking so long?”

I shrugged in reply.

We chatted about the puppy training for a few minutes until a middle-aged woman with short brown hair and a professional smile emerged through the door without Miss Perky.

“Mr. Hambleton?” 

I inwardly scowled – how hard can this be?  My name is on the ten-dollar bill for crying-out-loud! “Hamilton,” I corrected her. “Are you Carol?”

“No, I’m June.  Carol only works on Wednesdays.  You should come back on Wednesday if you want Carol.”

Kristen joined, “Carol made an appointment for us to see a dog for adoption.  We would like to see the dog, not Carol per se.”

“Really?” Carol replied.  “We don’t have any dogs for adoption.”  She saw me silently counting the dozen or so dogs in crates and behind short fences throughout the building.  “These dogs are already adopted and are waiting to go to their forever homes with their new families.”

“How wonderful!”  Kristen smiled, “We spoke with Carol about a Great Pyrenes.”

“OH!!!  You probably don’t want that dog unless you have a kennel.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“She has been adopted four times, and she can’t be left alone due to separation anxiety.”

“How terrible,” my kind-hearted wife replied.  “What does she do?”

“She eats houses,” June warned.  “Couches twice.  Three armchairs. Kitchen cabinets. A dining room table. Carpet.  She even dug a hole through a wall.  Do you have any other pets?”

“Two cats and an elderly dog,” Kristen answered.

“She’ll eat them first, then the house.  She takes doggie Prozac twice a day.  It costs $200 a month. All Great Pyrenes are crazy, but this one is the worst.  She once sat on a kitchen table for a whole day and attacked anyone who approached as she gnawed on the edges. Not a good family dog.  I won’t even let you see her.  But I’ll be glad to keep your information on file and you’ll be the first one we call when we find a good match.”  They never called.

A few months later and Aileen’s Easter Break was about a week away.  We had read bios and looked at pictures of close to a hundred dogs since Christmas (most from Aileen, Sean had sent a few, Richard thought we were stupid).  It was a cold and rainy Saturday afternoon.  I was in my workshop sanding a chair that I was refinishing, and I was considering excuses to allow me to take a break.   Aileen’s text tone alerted me to look at my cellphone.

She had found a dog named Bonnie at a shelter in Council Bluffs, Iowa.  She was a two-year-old stray Belgian Tervuren from Fort Riley, Kansas. Bonnie had just been adopted and returned with worms and would not be ready for a new home for a couple of days. Our first two dogs, Ely then Echo, were Belgian Groenendaels, essentially jet-black versions of the blonde Tervuren.  They were both great dogs.  We would LOVE another Belgian! I went upstairs to show the text to Kristen, and we decided we would see if Aileen could get this dog for us, although we were concerned that this was a return – we didn’t have the budget for doggie-Prozac, and we had new furniture that we didn’t want to be eaten.  We were divided over which cat we would allow to be snacked upon.  As Kristen and I were discussing, Aileen called on the house phone.

“Hi Aileen,” Kristen and I each picked up a phone and answered in chorus.

“Hi Mom and Dad.  I hope it’s okay, but I called the shelter to meet the dog and I’m going go meet her when they open at noon on Monday!” I don’t think she slowed-down enough to take a breath.

“Sounds good,” Kristen.

“She looks like a good dog,” me.

“She is!  Everyone at the shelter loves her, and everyone that sees her picture wants to adopt her.”

Kristen chimed-in, “If she’s that special why don’t you see if you can adopt her on Monday.”

“I can, I just have to pay the adoption fee. I can use my debit card,” Aileen was bubbling with excitement.

I responded, “Then if she’s a good dog, do it.  Mom will put money in your account.”

“How can I tell if she’s a good dog?”

I’m no Dr. Doolittle, but I’ve been around enough animals that I can usually read them pretty quickly.  “If she will look at you and seem interested, that’s really good.  See if she will give you her paw.  If she does both, sign the papers and get her!  If she paces around or ignores you, Facetime me so I can see, and we can discuss it.”   A smart, loyal, friendly  shepherd (Belgian Sheepdogs are related to German Shepherds) are, in my experience and opinion, one of the best large companion dogs.  However, a nervous or aggressive Shepherd is dangerous.  Our kids have been around animals for their entire lives, I trust their instincts.  “Just listen to your gut.”

We chatted about classes and family, said our “love-you”s and hung up.

12:30 Monday afternoon, Aileen’s name appeared on my cellphone.  I pressed “Answer.” “Hi kid!”

“I got her!!  You were right Dad.  She looked right at me. Put her paw on my thigh and buried her big furry head into my lap.  I know I can’t, but I want to keep her here with me!  She’s beautiful!!!”

Aileen had arrived at the shelter 30 minutes before they opened and was the first one in the door.  In the few days that she had her in Omaha multiple people had approached Aileen as she was walking the dog and asked about her.  Several recognized her from the adoption site and had planned to adopt her.  One was in the parking lot of the shelter when Aileen walked-out with the dog that she was there to adopt as well.  If you have the opportunity to meet her when she is not guarding us, you will understand.  She is very special.

A few days later, on Easter Sunday, Aileen and our new dog came home.   Here’s our first pic, on the walkway to the side deck.  Olive, me, Kristen and the newly named Fern.

The Naming

This is the eleventh animal in this series so by now I’m sure you know that there is a story behind the naming. 
The majority of our pets were named by kids – Pretty, Candy, Lizzy, Dusty. 
One was named before we got her, Olive.
One was named for a season, Ivy.
Two were named for streets- Bentley Drive, Echo Trail.
Three were named for places in Minnesota- Ely, Echo Trail, Birch (lake).

Kristen had named Ivy, so it was my turn to rename Bonnie.  Though each member of our family offered suggestions, I knew that I could make the final decision.

  1. I wanted another Minnesota name.
  2. I wanted a name that evoked an image that was soft and fluffy since she is a big ball of blonde fluff.
  3. I wanted a sweet name, since she is essentially  a sweet dog unless she is protecting us.

Given those parameters, I selected Fernberg; hear me out on this.

  1. The Fernberg Trail is the last paved road leading to our cabin in Ely, Minnesota.  Fernberg is both a road and a Minnesota name.
  2. Our previous Belgians  (Ely then Echo) had Minnesota names.
  3. I think that Fern is a sweet name, and it has many other variations depending upon her mood:
    1. The Ferminator – when she is protecting us
    2. Fernace – when she cuddles with you on a chilly morning
    3. Fernburger – when she is hungry (always)
    4. The Fernster, Fernerella, Fernestra… – there are a lot of silly derivations of Fern that can be used to fit the mood, and we use dozens of them.

But every day she is just Fern.  And we love her.

Nervous Nellie

We don’t know Fern’s backstory but, as is the case with many shelter pets, we suspect that it is not happy.

She licks her lips often which is a sign of dog that is unsure or nervous.  We have had her for 3 ½ years now, showing her only love, but she is still extremely submissive.  Here are a few stories of how we suspect a previous owner may have mistreated her – don’t worry, the story gets much better in Part Two!

The History

Shelter pets seldom have complete stories, and the information that you are given at adoption doesn’t always have a lot of detail.  Here’s what we were told:

  1. She was 2 years old.  We chose the Ides of March; March 15, 2015; as her birthday.
  2. She was a stray at Fort Riley, Kansas.  When we adopted her, she had a Ft. Riley rabies tag and the expiration was February.
  3. About a month after her rabies vaccination she was moved to a shelter in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
  4. A 50-year-old single man adopted her from Council Bluffs.  She was spayed and wormed but was returned 5 days later because she was “high energy” and difficult to house train (after just 5 days!).
  5. Aileen adopted her for us just a few days after she was returned.

What we have learned:

  1. She knows basic commands; sit, stay, come.
  2. She loves kids, but men make her nervous.
  3. She is very nervous around my brother-in-law Chris. Chris works for American Airlines and has short hair.
  4. She is afraid of being left alone and will not allow you to get out of her sight.
  5. She is afraid of being struck and cowers quickly.  I have a long shoehorn called an Omsorg.  It’s about two feet long and black.  The first time she saw it she dropped to the floor, cowered and shivered uncontrollably.
  6. She doesn’t trust the game “fetch.”

What we suspect:

  1. She is not pure-bred.
    1. Her feet are too big
    2. Her hips are too wide
    3. She is just a little too light colored
  2. She was a family pet.
    1. She loves groups of people
    2. She loves cats, and they love her


  1. Fort Riley, Kansas is a large military base.  It is home to:
    1. An assigned population of 42,264 including families, retirees and civilians.
    2. 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team.
    3. 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team.
    4. 1st Infantry Division Artillery (DIVARTY).
    5. 1st Sustainment Brigade.
    6. Division Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion.
    7. 1st  Combat Aviation Brigade.
  2. Fort Riley was the former home to the 26th Infantry Scouting Dog Platoon which included German Shepherds, Belgian Groenendaels, Belgian Malinois and Belgian Tervurens.  You can read more about this in the book “Dog Soldier of ‘Los Cerrillos’”, J.C. Cantle, 2015.

Putting it All Together

This is 100% conjecture.

Fern was a mistake dog.  One of the purebred Tervuren’s at Fort Riley hooked-up with something else.  She is friendly like a Golden Retriever, but Golden mixes seem to result in flopped ears – so that’s probably not it, but the result is a beautiful, smart, obedient, friendly dog. 

A military family adopted her, and the man was part of the 1st Combat Aviation Brigade.  He had a military haircut and smelled like aviation fuel (like my brother-in-law Chris).  He thought that he could train a dog by force.  Belgians respond excellently to praise.  They are too smart to bully.  He was not successful in training.

Fern loved the kids, mother and family cat but,  being a sensitive dog, became nervous and apprehensive around the man.  Therefore, she would not ask to be let out and would have frequent accidents.  The Council Bluffs five-day-adopter (a man) reported this, and we had a similar experience a few times over the first few weeks after crate training. 

Either the man got tired of dog poop in the house, he was reassigned to another base and didn’t want to take the dog with him, or both.  He drove the dog out to the country.  He took a ball or a stick, threw it into the field and yelled FETCH!

Fern ran for the ball, found it, returned, and found that the man was no longer there.

She lived on her own long enough that she became very skinny and caught worms.  Animal control picked her up and contacted no-kill shelters.  Council Bluffs had room, so they took her.

The Hamilton’s had room, so now she is part of our family.  Wait for Part Two in July.

Keep calm, carry on and adopt a pet!

Howard J. Hamilton, PE