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  • Writer's pictureMichael Gray

Duke: The Awesome Blue Heeler

Capt. Thomas Toler, the author of The Dog That Saved Me, remembers his wonderful dog, Duke.

Growing up, I’d usually had a dog around. They were more for my mother’s happiness than mine. At the ranch, we had dogs. But these were expected to work. So I never had a deep relationship with a dog.

When I married Donna, she loved Welsh Corgis—the red and white Pembrokes. She was crazy about them. We have several Corgis during our marriage. Still, they were her dogs. I enjoyed them but not like she did.

After Donna and I divorced, I moved into another relationship. When that one failed, I found myself alone. And lonely.

It was a cold and rainy morning. I was sitting at my kitchen table, having breakfast, staring out at the gray sky.

I had just taken a sip of coffee when the phone rang. It was Julie, my last failed relationship.

“Tom, I’ve got something I want you to see.”

“What is it?” I asked, certain it was way too early for playing games.

“I’m not going to tell you. You just have to come over and see it.”

With nothing better to do, I drove to her townhome and found her with Carlos, a friend of hers. I had met Carlos before. He drove a wrecker and repossessed cars.

I went inside to escape the rain and sat on her couch, with Julie on a loveseat to my left and Carlos sitting directly across from me in an overstuffed recliner—the man-of-the-house chair, the one I used to occupy. As Carlos bored a hole through me, a brief thought went through my brain. Why the hell am I here?

Julie told Carlos to tell me his story. I leaned back and rolled my eyes, waiting to see how a repo man sleeping with my ex-girlfriend could possibly surprise me.

At two in the morning, Carlos said he’d been hooking up a car at an apartment complex. Worried that someone was coming, he ducked behind a dumpster to see if his cover was blown. As he kicked at the nasty trash spilling out of the dumpster, he heard a yelp. Down at his feet was a puppy, foraging for food. Apparently, the little guy had been left outside in the cold and rain to fend for himself. With the dumpster overflowing, he had kind of made it his home.

Carlos picked up the puppy and put him in his warm cab. When his shift was over, he transferred the dog to his car and drove to Julie’s house. Now she was trying to figure out a way to keep the dog, even though her rental rules prevented it.

Before I arrived, Julie had called her daughter to see if she wanted the dog. The daughter did but had the same rental-rule problems as Julie. That’s where things stood when I walked into her utility room and spotted a five-week-old puppy in the corner, shaking like a leaf.

I bent down, inspected him, and shook my head. “Man, I don’t know about this,” I said. “Let me think about it.”

I left the scared puppy at Julie’s place and called my ex-wife and now good friend Donna. She always had great advice when it came to dogs.

We met for lunch a few hours later at TGI Friday’s and I told her the story. “What do you think about me having a dog?” I asked her.

“Go for it, Tom!” she said.

Unconvinced, I kept asking her questions about food, vets, and anything else I could think of to delay my decision. All she kept saying was, “Just go get the dog. You need something like that in your life.”

I sighed and drove back to Julie’s townhome. “How about I take the dog?” I said.

“I don’t know, Tom,” she replied. “I’m getting attached to him.”

“Listen,” I told her, completely unaware that she was about to make a life-or-death decision affecting both the dog and me “you’d better make sure you’re going to keep him because this is the only offer I’m going to make.”

She hesitated, looked back at the dog, and bit her lip. A minute later, she picked up the puppy and handed him to me. I was now a dog owner.

I drove home and conducted a more detailed inspection of my new house guest. He was obviously underfed. And he was constantly licking his tail. I checked it out.

Embedded in the skin were parts of a rubber band—a poor man’s attempt at docking it. This meant the owners might have wanted to show him. For some reason, they’d let him escape or dumped him off without removing the rubber band. This created a painful throbbing for the poor dog. He had been gnawing at his tail for days, hoping to end the pain. Somehow, he’d snagged enough of it to release the rubber band, leaving behind some evidence for me to find. I carefully removed the extra bits, and soon he felt better.

That afternoon, I took him to a vet for a checkup. She was reasonably certain he was an Australian Cattle Dog, also nicknamed a Red Heeler or Blue Heeler. She explained that this breed averages forty to forty-five pounds and is used for herding cattle and horses. They have a little dingo in them, so they’re agile and wily. She cautioned me that he needed lots of exercise. I figured that would be good for me too.

“What do you want to call him?” the vet asked.

“Duke,” I said. “His name is Duke.”

“That’s nice. How did you come up with that?”

I explained how Jimmy Stewart had told me that John Wayne had had a dog named Duke when he was growing up. His family started calling him Duke, and the nickname stuck throughout his career. Now it would be my dog’s name. If it was good enough for John Wayne, it was good enough for me.

The vet measured Duke’s teeth and figured he was close to six weeks old. We set his birthday on March 14, 2007. I had the vet give him all the proper shots. As she was finishing up, she noticed he was underfed. “Dogs aren’t usually weaned off until seven or eight weeks. Since you don’t have access to the mother, just feed him puppy food. He should start putting on weight.”

This vet was expensive, but Duke left her with a clean bill of health and an approximate date to get him fixed. I was sure he wouldn’t be looking forward to that.

Duke and I bonded instantly. Since my home backed up to a golf course, he spent a lot of early morning time running around on the fairway. Sometimes I’d take him in the golf cart with me. We went everywhere together.

In no time, he’d met all my friends, becoming a topic of conversation. He also adored me, which is a great way to get on my good side.

For the rest of the story, buy the book, The Dog That Saved Me, at this link.

Author Bio: After twenty-eight good years with American Airlines, Captain Tom Toler retired in 2004. In 2006, the U.S. Coast Guard swore him in when he earned his Master of Steam or Motor Vessels of not more than 100 Tons Upon or Near Coastal Waters. He spent the next ten years traveling all over America’s lakes, rivers, and coasts. After fifty years of life in the skies and on the water, Captain Tom came back to land where he spends his time giving speeches and meeting with book clubs and other groups. You can contact Captain Tom at


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