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When I first started following @RustyRodas on Instagram, six-ish years ago, I may have been a bit desperate. My pupological clock was ticking loudly—but I was living out of a van on the road and adopting a dog was not a reasonable option. So Rusty’s traditional Golden good looks and Warby-Parker-meets-Stumptown-Coffee aesthetic was too much to resist. I scrolled, sighed, double-tapped and dreamed of the day when I could finally have my own furry friend. I followed and unfollowed many other dog “influencer” accounts, too, enjoying the dopamine release of gazing at their sweet, big eyes. But over time, the only one I never unfollowed was Rusty. Because Rusty’s image, you could say his brand, went deeper than his adorable face. It was about relentlessly promoting kindness.

You can say whatever you want about influencer accounts in general, and pet influencer accounts specifically. Rusty never asked to be featured, had no agency or choice in the matter … his “mom” was only capitalizing on his good looks and sweet disposition … it’s just another part of the capitalist machine. But within a few weeks of following Rusty, I saw something special that I wanted more of, and it wasn’t the occasional Bark Box he promoted.

Over the years, Kelsey Rodas shaped Rusty’s profile and image to reflect the kindness she saw in him. She shared the story of Rusty’s adoption, how he’d been a malnourished stray, afraid of people, who had to be lured in with food and treats. She explained how several other families had passed on adopting him because he didn’t fit the usual retriever personality, but on the drive home on adoption day he slowly warmed up to her.

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“The first year was difficult,” Kelsey writes on his account. “Rusty wouldn’t walk through a doorway without dropping to his stomach, and crawling through, shaking with fear. He was afraid of loud sounds, new people, garbage cans, paper bags, mail boxes, and most other things too.” But eventually with consistent work and patience, Rusty grew more confident and even started helping other struggling dogs with his calm, comforting presence. His kind spirit became infectious in real life and on social media.

Rusty’s Instagram captions began serving as sort of pro-kindness public service announcements. He urges us to be kind even to people who don’t think the same way we do. He reminds us that kindness is contagious and smiling at people can make their day better. He encourages us to stand up against bullies, especially if it’s our friends doing the bullying, and to think how we can better serve others around us. As the rest of the social media landscape became increasingly fraught over the years, Rusty’s messages remained positive and simple: Essentially, be kind.

Over the course of my own dogless years, I married my longtime boyfriend and when we eventually moved into a place with a small yard, he fenced it in so I could—finally—adopt a dog. But it still took a while. We were looking for an older dog, not a puppy. And with Brendan’s travel schedule it took some time for the stars to align, since I wanted us to go together to meet the dog.

As we signed the adoption papers for a 7-year-old retriever mix, the “foster mom” explained a few quirks of the dog we were taking home. Like, cowering from large men. Rowlf had been plucked—afraid, matted and disinterested in food or toys—from a shelter by a rescue. As we walked out of the foster home, Rowlf looked timidly back at the volunteer “foster mom,” as if asking permission to leave.

“It’s OK, go ahead,” she nodded, as we coaxed him out the door. In that moment, my heart cleaved open and has not been the same since. Rowlf and I quickly became nearly inseparable, for better or worse (he’s quietly snoring with his head underneath my desk chair right now), and he’s a daily source of accountability. He follows me everywhere and reflects my own feelings more clearly than a mirror, calling on me to always be my best, kindest self. Even to myself.

Rowlf, trailside, on a happy romp. Photo: Oliver

Lately our adventures have looked a little different from years past, since Rowlf is recovering from an injury and, despite his enthusiasm, is not a spring chicken. These days we go on more rambling mountain strolls and fewer big alpine runs and climbs, and we’ve learned to pack the three-person tent for backpacking even though Rowlf would be thrilled to cuddle up close with us in the two-person tent. Even off leash, he’s constantly checking back in with us and I see firsthand the kindness that Rusty, or Kelsey, had been talking about all those years. The gentle affection of a loving dog must be one of the great gifts a human can experience in life. That’s why, this week, when I heard of Rusty’s passing, I felt compelled to say a word.

Rusty had recently been diagnosed with lymphoma, and died last week at 11 years old. I never met Rusty or Kelsey in person, but through the years their consistent message of kindness was a moral ballast in a media world often boiling with negativity and bullying. It was a reminder to think of the other person out there, to go easy on them, and to maybe go easy on yourself. Spread a little kindness. Did that message go down a bit more easily because it was shared by a floppy-eared Golden wearing a baseball cap? Certainly. And I’m glad for it.

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We’ve published dog-hiking articles from Jen Sotolongo in years past and now she has a book dedicated to all things you need to know about hiking with your canine friend, The Essential Guide to Hiking with Dogs: Trail-Tested Tips and Expert Advice for Canine Adventures. It comes out in May, but is available for pre-order.


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