Lovely Leo


This week marked a year since Leo walked into my life and took up permanent residence in my heart; I realised I had yet to put his story into words, and wanted to record it to preserve the memory of such a happy event. Here is his story:

It was a sweltering hot day in the middle of July, and I had driven to Argostoli, the main town, with Platon (my beloved roadside rescue dog) to visit the vet and do some shopping. We live for half the year on a Greek island, preferring the quieter area in the north, but inconveniently located almost 2 hours away from the useful amenities in the south (including the vet, the hospital, the telephone company, and the airport). It’s not an easy drive, particularly since the previously used main route has been destroyed in an earthquake, but it is a beautiful journey of winding roads that twist and turn through olive groves and tiny villages, precariously perched on cliffs overlooking the sea, which glimmers glamourously in the sunlight. Simple homes with a commonly reoccurring shape that are easily identifiable as post quake homes, quickly constructed after the big one in the 50’s, are ubiquitous; their only variation being the differently coloured, brightly painted doors and window shutters. These single story boxy buildings are interspersed among what’s left of the elegant, Venetian style, architecture that remained standing, though many are ruins, some house trees growing inside roofless dwellings, with branches escaping through doorways and tendrils of climbing honeysuckle creeping through windows. The road rises higher into the seamless blue skies, becoming littered with the steady, unflustered goats that inhabit the rocky outcrops, and shelter precariously on narrow ledges, high above the greener valley that rolls out below. Some of the goats amble along to the gentle sound of their bells, some chew at the flowers on the roadside, whilst others lie quite contentedly in the middle of the road, causing the traffic to swerve around them as they relax quite unperturbed. The road winds up and down over several mountains, too narrow in places to pass oncoming traffic, and with breathtakingly steep drops that IMO are worth the fantastic views of the neighbouring island and white cliffs of the peninsular of this one in the distance.

Trips to Argostoli always culminate in a supermarket shop, before we hit the road home; the mini markets where we live cater for tourism and are expensive, with limited selection; apart from the fresh fruit and vegetables that gleam appealingly outside them. It makes sense to stock up on dry goods, toilet rolls and laundry liquid in the cheaper supermarkets, and return trips are always heavy with a car full of shopping. On this trip I had been very mindful of not wanting to do this trip again soon, and had bought amongst other things, an extra flea treatment for Platon, and whilst purchasing a collar for a friend’s dog, decided to buy a spare for some unremembered possibility.

Arriving home, Platon watched from the cool tiled floor and shade of the kitchen, as I carried the heavy shopping bags up the external flight of stairs to our apartment. I had left all the balcony doors open, and a merciful breeze welcomed us back. Trips to Argostoli are tiring for several reasons, apart from the journey, and rushing around trying to do a months worth of town visit in one hit, it usually necessitates an early start, to drive in the cooler hours of the morning and to accomplish all of ones chores in the limited hours before everything closes for siesta at 2pm. I wearily sat at the kitchen table, amidst the bags of shopping, and checked my computer whist sipping an ice-cold frappe, for revival. There was a message from Nikki, the real estate agent, with a photo of a timid stray dog that had turned up at her offices, on the hill above the port. We rarely see stray dogs at this end of the island, although there is a regular pack in the main town in the south, which seem well fed by the tavernas and tourists. Here it is quieter, more rural, and stray dogs are a threat to the goats and sheep that graze in the woodlands between the beaches, and amongst the olive groves. I glanced at Platon, by now moved towards the balcony where he watched sailing boats traverse the channel of water between this island and the next, they look like toy boats from our high vantage point, and have a mesmerising tranquility about them. I took another sip of coffee, then deciding, picked up my keys, and knelt to kiss Platon on the head and ask him to refrain from ‘unpacking’ the shopping in my short absence. I got back in my hot car, armed with treats, and not really knowing why, headed over to Nikki’s office. I wasn’t looking for another dog, Platon was still a very lively 18 month old, large puppy (he’s a ridgeback cross, so not exactly hand bag sized), and we had already nursed a sick dog back to health, and a litter of orphaned kittens, so I figured he needed my full attention for a while. Nikki’s daughter Athena was sat in their cool comfortable office, but the stray was long gone; she said it was very nervous, and covered in ticks, a sorry state of a dog, probably quite young. I searched the surrounding area, but finding nothing, returned home to Platon, unpacked the groceries and rested.

I went to bed early, when your puppy gets you up at dawn, demanding love, games, a toilet break and breakfast; it makes sense to get to bed at a reasonable hour. This is very un-Greek; Greek people don’t eat till late 9-10pm, once the sun has set and it’s cooler, and they tend to stay out late with the help of their afternoon siesta. I’m afraid I never manage to sleep in the afternoon, although I have learned to rest in the shade with a book, and a dozing dog for company. We slept with the bedroom balcony doors open, listening to the crickets, and occasional car in the distance. My phone bleeped unexpectedly at almost midnight, with a message from Alexi, a friend in the port, to say there was a dumped dog, a terrified stray, could I help? So I threw on some clothes and drove through the cool darkness to the shimmering lights reflected in the water, and lively nightlife of tavernas and bars of this chic little hub of our end of the island. I met Alexi trying to coax a straggly blonde dog with handfuls of salami, purchased from the nearby deli in the quiet enclave behind the main square. The dog was timidly approaching, but not brave enough to take the food; he skittered about nervously, clearly terrified. He was panting rapidly; possibly anxious, possibly a bit of heat stroke, probably both.

I sat down a few metres away, and observed this timid creature, torn between food and fear. I had the spare collar I had purchased earlier, and a spare lead of Platon’s, and waited for the obvious hunger to win the daring game the dog was playing. I asked Alexi for some salami, and gently coaxed the hungry soul towards me, and when he was close enough, managed to secure the collar on him. He ate the meat greedily, deciding to take a chance me and didn’t seem at all bothered by his new accessory. In fact when I got up, he happily leant into my leg, resting his weight into me, which I took as a sign of trust. I now know it was also because of a painful broken knee, but he was still happy to follow me. He trotted along on the lead, happily glancing up at my face, I suppose hopeful for more salami, and we headed towards the car, stopping to greet some friends outside the bar en route. Once at the car, the nervous dog was surprisingly easy to tempt in to the boot, but he wasn’t happy for me to shut the door, and I was afraid that if I released the lead he would bolt. So I returned to the bar to ask Katia to help, and feeding the lead through the dog guard to back seat, she held him securely whilst I shut the boot door.

I drove back up the hill, reassuring the quiet crying behind me, I promised him I was here to help, not hurt him, and wondered what Platon would think.. “Another one Mum? Seriously!!? When I got home, the scruffy stray jumped out of the car quite cheerfully, and looked expectantly at me for the next thing; which was sadly tying him to the banister at the bottom of the external stairs, whilst Platon who was watching intently from the balcony, could be secured in the bedroom. The little dog cried as I left him, following me up the few steps, as far as the lead would allow, and once I was inside, Platon was not going anywhere except to see the newcomer, without a struggle! He’s 30 Kg of stubborn muscle, but eventually I got him into the bedroom and shut the door so I could show our guest through to the balcony. I will admit, a door did get scratched in this process, but I was more than prepared to pay the landlord handsomely for the repairs.

With Platon safely out the way, I returned to the pitiful puppy on the doorstep, he was adamant I wasn’t leaving him, and shot into our home excitedly, sniffing around after Platon and dancing on the spot. I took him to my quarantine area on the balcony, where I fed him, covered him in cool wet towels for the heat exhaustion and carefully removed the ticks, before taking him inside again for a cool shower, where he was amazingly well behaved, then back on to the balcony for a flea treatment. I made a bed in the baby bath I had once hoped Platon would cool off in (no chance!), and placed a large cardboard box around it to shield him from the morning sun. I kissed him gently, assured him he was safe, and returned inside to try and calm Platon. We eventually got some sleep, until the sun rose steadily over the neighbouring island, to spill her rays into the sea, when Platon was insistent about checking up on our new guest. I kept the two dogs separated, to avoid any transference of fleas and other nasties, but it wasn’t easy. Platon lay at the closed French doors, whining with his wet nose pressed against the glass, whilst the newcomer sniffed timidly around the balcony, and peed against the terracotta pots of lavender. It was a tricky 24 hours, trying to keep both dogs happy, the new boy had attached to me quickly, and cried when I went out of his sight, thankfully my lovely neighbours, the Russian ladies downstairs, were super understanding.

Eventually, the next day, I made a return trip to the vet in Argostoli; this time leaving Platon at home, and placing the little guy into a box in the boot. A few weeks earlier I had taken another dog that had crapped all over the car, and I wasn’t taking any chances with this one. I made him a cosy bed with old towels, and tucked him in. It must have been comfortable, because he quickly settled down and was quiet for the entire journey. On arrival he’d been a bit sick, but luckily our vet has a hose outside, so we rinsed him off and cleaned the car with dettox, a déjà vue of the previous messy trip, and then Amanda took a look at him. She rolled her eyes and her r’s as she gesticulated in her Italian/Greek accent “Another one?? Panagia mou!! What are you doing to do with him Hayley mou? You can’t save them all!! Crazy English dog lady!” She checked Leo over, gave him his injections, pronounced him less than a year old, probably approx 10 months, and figured he’d been on the streets his whole life. She showed me the difference between the old and new scars, and guessed the bruising in his flank was due to multiple kicks of the human variety. She agreed his knee on his rear right leg was broken, and badly set; something we would confirm with x-rays at a later date, and gave me medicine to bathe his wounds. I had already decided to name the scruffy little dog after a warrior, due to his battle-scarred appearance, and initially chose ‘Hector’, after the honourable older brother of Paris, in ‘The Iliad’. But the name seemed harsh, and sounded too hard for the gentle creature I was already in love with, and I think it was on the way home from the vet, that I re-named him Leonidas, after the king of the Spartan army of 300. Like Leonidas, this little guy appeared to have lost in battle and carried the scars, but his face also had a lion like quality, with his coarse, blonde, curly fur and his little beard, so Leonidas which means ‘son of a lion’ suited him better, Leo for short. I did dither between the names for a few days, but Leo felt better than Hector, so that’s who he became.

When we arrived home, in the hot afternoon sun, I went through the rigmarole of putting Platon, complaining loudly, onto the bedroom, and brought Leo in, on his way back out on to the balcony; but Platon is smart as well as strong, and managed to open the door. He came bouncing into the kitchen, and on seeing Leo, presented a deep play bow; Leo hesitated, then jumped around nervously, and the two dogs were soon sniffing and gently wrestling together. Platon was very gentle, despite his size advantage, and Leo transformed into the playful puppy he should have been! I had been worried, Leo’s ‘dumplings’ were still in place, whereas Platon had been neutered, but there was never any suggestion of a struggle for status, Leo deferred to Platon immediately. Platon is loyal, but not jealous, he’s strong but gentle, and they played beautifully. When I tried to feed them, initially putting Leo in the spare room, and Platon in the kitchen, Leo just cried his mournful howling at being separated, and Platon put his chin on the floor and stared at his food, sulking. So I brought them together, and placed the bowls several metres apart; but Leo just headed straight for Platon’s bowl, and Platon waited till Leo had first finished his, then started on his own meal, before getting up to sniff his empty bowl. After that they ate out two bowls, but from the same bowl simultaneously, never a gripe or growl between them. It was only when Leo gained weight healthily, but Platon seemed a tad skinny, that I started insisting they ate from their own bowls.

We went to bed that evening, and I made the dog bed cosy for Leo in the lounge, taking Platon to bed with me, but leaving the door ajar. When I woke in the night to find my faithful companion missing from his usual position snuggled against my legs, I ventured into the lounge to find him asleep on the dog bed, with Leo lying curled up beside him, resting his chin on Platon’s neck. My heart swelled with happiness, and I knew that Platon’s cool, calming presence has helped convert the timid stray into a happy, relaxed, puppy; and that he was undoubtedly part of our family. The two dogs bonded resolutely and immediately, there was never any question of not keeping Leo, it was Platon’s steadfast decision. We had cared for several other dogs previously as house guests and none had elicited this unwavering response of mutual delight in the other. Platon is both joyously playful and fiercely protective of Leo, in fact he started to develop leash reactivity once we found him, as I initially walked them together. The two of them trotted along, side by side, Platon’s strong stance reminding me of John Wayne’s swagger when he got off his horse, and Leo’s knocked knee due to his injury causes him to wiggle a la Monroe, quite a comical pair, but both grinning at each other constantly, as if they are sharing a private joke.

It wasn’t until weeks later, when Leo was strong enough to be neutered that we realised the extent of his injuries. He had a lump on his neck, initially thought to be a tick bite, that didn’t disappear, so when he was neutered, I asked Amanda to remove it, as it was where the collar sits. (I have only ever used a collar for Leo’s ID, he has a harness to protect his neck, as do all my dogs now). I stroked his face as she administered the anaesthetic, kissing him and promising him I was doing my best for him. When Amanda called me later to say he was ready, she said she was shocked at what she had found, and after reassuring me it wasn’t cancer, I quickly drove to the surgery. When I got there, Leo was beside himself to see Platon and I had come to collect him, still weak from the anaesthetic, his tail thumped rapidly, and he ‘sang’ his characteristic little howl. After a hug, and whilst the two boys licked each others faces, Amanda showed me the x-rays of his broken knee, confirming multiple fractures, and badly set, but not warranting the trauma of surgery. Then she showed me a tray with his gonads, as proof of his sterilisation, not pretty!! And then finally, she held out her hand with the surprise, the bullet she had found in the lump in his neck, apparently millimetres away from his carotid artery. Tears filled my eyes, and ran down my cheeks as I realised the terror this poor animal had experienced, no wonder he was so timid when I found him. The sorrow soon morphed into acute anger at whoever could have contemplated such a violent act towards such a gentle, loving creature.

Leo is the most affectionate soul I have ever met, he actively seeks me out, as well as Platon, for cuddles, and likes to snuggle up near my face and kiss me. He never fights for food or toys, and will always concede, even if he cries for me to ensure he gets his share of the treats. He’s a warrior, but a lover, not a fighter. Leo bears the most visible signs of physical abuse, of all my dogs, yet he is the most loving, friendly, trusting, peace seeking of the pack. He’s so enthusiastic about meeting new people, or dogs, or cats, that his squeaky cries of delight can be quite disarming, in comparison Platon is a very cool customer, often aloof with other people, whilst maintaining focus on me. We used to have a stray cat that sunbathed at the bottom of the steps, and whenever we went out, Platon and the cat touched noses. Within a week, Leo was doing the same, once the cat was convinced his excitement was non-threatening. Meanwhile, I still harbour the desire to hold a gun at whoever shot Leo, and tell him to run for his life, and feel the terror he inflicted on my dear, sweet, brave, loving, little dog. In fact I subsequently discovered another bullet, lodged between Leo’s eyes, confirmed by x-ray. An air rifle had been trained on Leo’s face, and we suspect shot at his neck as he fled, probably some sick game of target practice, or culling the stray population. Yet Leo holds no such grudge, his happy little face greets me with such enthusiasm every morning, as he shoves his nose into mine for a kiss, as he play bows, and wags his tail furiously. Each day is a gift that Leo grabs excitedly, and he exudes his sunny delight unfailingly. I’m so grateful that this bundle of love walked into my heart, ands showed me what forgiveness, unwavering trust, and relentless love, really look like. He is more loved and loving than I can put into words, and I feel so very blessed that he chose us as his family.

As I write, Leo is curled up next to me, his chin rests on my lap, and his breathing is calming and rhythmic. He’s been such an enduring loving presence, a great support through a recent difficult period of challenging spinal surgeries, and he has kept me smiling. He is probably the easiest of my dogs in many ways, despite some issues of separation anxiety and a cheeky little streak that can emerge as impatience. He is a gentle soul, a peace-loving little warrior, a funny little character, a cuddle bug, a playful puppy, a brave little soldier, and the loveliest ray of sunshine you could hope to meet! Happy found day Leo xx

Words and photo ~Hayley Darby ©2016