This week we said goodbye to our wonderful Tinker. Normally we would keep our personal losses to ourselves, but Tink touched every person who knew him. Tinker’s journey is one of grit, survival, growth, trust, and ultimately triumph. He taught us what gratitude and trust truly mean.
This tribute is to you, Little Tink. I know it will embarrass you, but your story is one I must share.
WE CROSS PATHS
In 2011, Tinker showed up at our Farm in the Simi Valley hills. We had never seen him before, nor had the neighbors. He just showed up. We supposed that he may have been abandoned, but if so, it had to have been years earlier. His coat was matted with an inch-thick barrier of burrs and he was completely wild. We thought he may have been 5-6 years old but it was hard to say because we couldn’t get within 150 feet of him. At the slightest move in his direction, he would bolt into the hills and cower in the brush. He was adorable and not at all vicious or mean, but he was terrified of humans.
It was clear that Tinker was looking for a friend because he was desperately trying to include himself into our dogs’ pack. Our four dogs are easygoing and within a day they allowed him into their fold. Just like that, Tink became the newest member of the Four Oaks Farm crew.
Tinker made his new home under a wispy bush on the steep slope 50 yards above our house. From there he stared down for hours, little ears perked, hoping, just hoping that one of his new friends would come out and join him. When he spotted one of them in the yard, he’d do a little hop-hop in place and give a single grinning chuff. If we humans came outside, he’d slink back into the brush and peek around the corner until we went back inside.
Every morning when we let the dogs out the gate to go explore, Tinker would sprint out of the hills at top speed and greet our pack like he was their long-lost little brother. Assuming the beta role, even with our mild-mannered terrier, he would dip his head to them and furiously wag his tail in greeting. Then after the others gave him a nose bump, his ears shot forward and he hop-hopped and beamed with a grin. Settling in slightly behind, he jauntily trotted along with the others, as though being a part of this group was the proudest moment of his life. His Jaunty stride is how he got the name Tinker. He just kind of… well… Tink, tink, tinked along.
When my wife and the dogs returned from the barn each evening, Tinker followed at a distance. Just before reaching the house he’d dart up the hill and head back to his hillside perch. We started leaving the gate open, hoping he’d eventually come down, but he never did.
After dark, Tinker became our protector. Honestly, we don’t know how he did it, being such a small dog. Every night we’d hear an explosion of his raspy but ferocious barks and then a cacophony of coyote howls in challenge. Somehow, he prevailed against enormous odds night after night.
My wife, Kathleen, was beside herself, and only made worse when it rained. Too many nights we stood watching at the window, heartbroken and feeling helpless. Tinker would curl up in his spot under the bush, always in sight of the house, and brace himself against the pounding rain or brutal Santa Ana winds. Yet the next morning there he was to greet his friends, drenched to the bone, but hop-hopping, smiling, and wagging like it was the Best Day Ever.
HELP TINKER MISSION
Kathleen is the epitome of animal patience and on the first day of his arrival, she began the “Help Tinker” Mission. That mission took three long years. Every day she cooked up a pound of hamburger and carried it in a baggie in her pocket. She left little treats on a rock beside the trail on the way to and from the barn. She left a dish outside the gate after dark, and she left some in the secluded areas in the brush where he liked to hide. Our other dogs soon came to understand that this was Tinker’s special treat, seeming to fully jump on board with the “Help Tinker” Mission.
Tinker was so cute and showed such devotion to his new pack that no one at the barn could resist his charm. They joined the Mission. None of these people had been closer than 100 feet to Tink, yet they brought toys and dog beds, and food. Sadly, none of this he accepted, but that didn’t matter. His pile of gifts grew. Everyone cooed and called up to him on the hill where he sat, ears drooped. This made him nervous. He clearly felt that there were WAY too many humans and horses moving around.
Kathleen was the pack leader of our dogs, so Tinker eventually decided that he liked her. While still not coming close, each morning after greeting the dogs, he’d take a few steps in Kathleen’s direction and give her his now-patented hop-hop and smiling chuff. Then he’d dart off to catch the boys.
One day I heard a whoop-whoop coming from the kitchen. I came around the corner to find Kathleen simultaneously tearing-up and beaming. She pointed out the window. Tinker had slipped through the gate and was inspecting the yard!
Tinker was funny. Once he broke one of his fear barriers, he never backtracked. From that day forward, he would wait until the humans were inside the house and he entered the yard. He didn’t stay long. He just sniffed around a bit before suddenly spinning around and charging back up his hill, preparing himself for coyote patrol. (Yes, by now the hill was called Tinker’s Hill. The bush was Tinker’s bush. It will always be so.)
We tried to convince him that the yard was his home. We let him come and go as he wished, but we laid out a half-dozen dog beds and food dishes. If he found some area in the yard interesting, the next day he’d find a fluffy dog bed in that exact spot. He ignored it. We even lugged one up to his hillside perch one day. He promptly moved his sleeping spot until we relented and removed the bed.
Another winter was approaching, and Kathleen decided to go on offense before another season of SoCal rain arrived. Frightened that we would scare him away, but knowing we had to do….something….Kathleen devised a plan. She assigned me to hide in the bushes far down the barn path. There I was to wait, often for hours, until Tinker entered the yard. Then with old-guy ninja stealth, I would sneak forward and close the gate. The first few times Tinker was restless, unsure where to sleep and what to do with himself. Besides refusing to use the beds, he also didn’t get the concept of sleeping undercover. He needed an open sky. This ninja imitation to get him inside the yard was added to our To-Do list every evening.
During a pounding rainstorm a few months later, Kathleen was roaming from window to window trying to find Tinker. Suddenly she flapped a hand at me to come over while shushing me with her other hand. I looked outside. There was Tinker. He was sitting INSIDE an open doorway of a shed – out of the rain! The look on his face was priceless. His little nose was scrunched, clearly uncomfortable, but his eyes were glassy as though struggling to process the pros and cons of this weird new development. Kathleen and I watched him, both of us grinning ear to ear, as Tink pondered the falling rain. Finally, he laid down and let out a long, consternated sigh, one eye open at all times, but content to stay in this dry spot.
From here, Tinker’s courage increased. You could see his brain doing battle with his body, trying to fight through the trauma of his former life. Kathleen was finally able to pet him, but there was an art to it. She had to deftly angle him into a corner. He didn’t really fight it, in fact, after a few times, he’d beeline toward a fence and stick his head in a corner as if trying to trick himself that he was trapped. He was trying so hard to be courageous.
Once he realized that being touched wasn’t so bad, Kathleen started work on the burrs. Oh boy, what a job. It took months to extract them from his fur. Of course, she could only do a few minutes a day. Finally, just when the job was complete, Tink started losing his beautiful coat. It got patchy and soon he was bald on most of his body. His lush feathery tail transformed into a bald flexible thwacking stick. The saving grace was keeping the fur on his face and head, so while his overall cuteness factor waned a bit, his face told a happy story every time he hop-hop-chuffed.
Some Tinker “firsts” that started at this point:
· The day he entered the barn. (This had been a terrifying no-go land for him. Even the dogs gave him a double-take that said, “Really? Since when do you come in here?”)
· The day he took food from Kathleen’s hand.
· The day he let me touch him.
· The day he let others at the barn touch him. (Yes, at first his face was scrunched up and puckered, his eyes shut tight with his head tilted far to the side, but his courage prevailed.) After all this time being involved in Tinker’s journey, the barn ladies swooned. To be fair, so did the burly farriers and barn hands. We all knew how hard this little guy had been fighting his demons. The trust he was giving us was overwhelming.
THE BIGGEST DAY
I was out of town at a tradeshow when my phone pinged, and there on my screen was a photo of Tinker sleeping on a dog bed – INSIDE THE HOUSE!?
Superhero Kathleen had picked Tinker up (yep, later she confessed that it resulted in a not-so-healthy hand. It was the only time he had ever lashed out, but we will give him that one.) Anyway, she brought Tinker inside and placed him next to Neo, his favorite dog pal. As long as he was touching Neo, Tinker was fine. He eventually fell asleep on the bed.
A switch flipped.
In that blink of an instant, after years of struggle and courage; after years of forcing himself, demanding of himself, to do better; Tinker conquered his fear. He released the trauma of a former damaged life.
From that day forward, Tinker walked into the house right along with everyone else. He reveled in the beds and the food, but mostly the camaraderie of his pack. He seemed astounded every time he awoke to find his friends right beside him. He’d jump up and hop-hop and lick faces as if it had been years, not hours. Pure appreciation, pure gratitude. Pure Joy.
Tinker met the cats and developed an instant crush on Joe, a big over-sized tabby with a funny sense of humor. After being apart for any length of time the two would rush to each other and rub and purr. Despite all his squirrel hunting days from the past, Tinker never once chased a cat, not even the crazy kitten.
The day the switch flipped, Tinker stopped barking. He literally never barked again. Not ever. He didn’t even raise his head when coyotes started their eerie howl each night. He had finally given us his trust, and it was unbreakable. He knew that his pack of dogs, humans, and cats had his back – no matter what. He was home. He was safe. This was his family.
It did break our hearts when we thought back to his days in the hills patrolling for coyotes. Once we got to know how docile and humble Tinker was, we realized that he must have been terrified during those long, cold, and dangerous nights. The “fight” DNA was not in him at all. He offered us what he thought was best for his friends. He offered his protection, trying to give back in the only way he knew how.
For years, Tink had been everyone’s barn favorite, but now… WOW. The instant anyone spotted Tinker, they stopped what they were doing, sat in the dirt, and loved on that quirky little dog. He began to lavish in the attention and was soon leaning into the loving. By now, too, his fur was growing back so he rated a 10+ cuteness factor. Tinker continued to spend many years in the bliss of family, community, pack, comfort… and peace.
Eventually, as the years wandered past, our little Tink began to grow old. His body grew frail and his hop-hop became a shoulder dip with a whisper of its old enthusiasm, but his welcoming chuff, which had generated so many smiles over the years, never changed. That chuff welcomed you into his life. It offered you his trust. Most of all, that chuff and the gleam in his beautiful golden eyes gave you his gratitude.
You were our amazing little Dog, Tinker. We are blessed and proud that you chose us to travel along with you on your journey. Our lives would be less without you.
Thank you, Friend.