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Model Pet contest 2014: Dog winner

Posted 5:27pm on Friday, Aug. 22, 2014

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If Richard Linklater were to write a canine companion piece to his highly acclaimed film Boyhood, might we suggest a protagonist? We give you our Model Dog of DFW for 2014: Sara Lee.

Like Mason, the lead character in Linklater’s movie, the Aussie mix has followed the main adult in her life through many of life’s mileposts — in this case, college, career, moving days, marriage and the birth of a son.

But Sara Lee almost didn’t have a doghood.

During a quiet summer semester at Sam Houston State University (coincidentally, the same Huntsville college that Linklater attended), John Tarrant was looking for canine companionship.

And at the Rita B. Huff Humane Society in Huntsville, he fell in love with a badly matted 3-year-old dog with a beautiful face (one brown eye, one blue eye). But she came with a caveat from the Humane Society.

“When I was talking to them, they were like, ‘She’s a great dog, she’s beautiful and everything, but we just had to get rid of all her puppies,’ ” says Tarrant, who lives in Weatherford. “She actually died on the operating table after that. They brought her back to life, and I rescued her a week after that.”

He initially wanted to rename the dog “Count Chocula” because her fur color reminded him of a bowl of cereal. (“Plus, how cool would it be to refer to my dog as ‘the Count’?” Tarrant wrote in his contest entry.) But he kept the name Sara Lee, following a family snack-food name tradition — his grandmother had a dog called Little Debbie.

When Tarrant adopted Sara, she was in such bad shape — “a big, matted-up mess with fleas and ticks on her,” he says — that his sister-in-law’s first question upon seeing the dog was, “What is that?”

“My brother and my now sister-in-law came over, and they honestly were like, ‘John, that dog’s not gonna live through the week,’ ” Tarrant says.

She wouldn’t eat dog food for a month. Tarrant brought home some food from Long John Silver’s, and she ate a french fry. She shared Tarrant’s college diet, also going for Jack in the Box.

“She would eat the fast food, but we couldn’t get her to eat the dog food,” Tarrant says. “She was in pretty bad health. We couldn’t even get her to get up. She just laid around. But I stuck with her.”

One day, a friend brought over a stuffed lion for Sara to play with. The friend squeaked the toy and threw it, but Tarrant, used to seeing the dog lying around uninterested in much of anything, didn’t expect what happened next.

“It was the first time she ever got up,” Tarrant said. “It was like Frankenstein: ‘Oh, she’s alive!’ She got up and started crying hysterically and went and picked it up, took it over to her blanket and started nursing it. She’d been through all the trauma of losing her puppies. She thought it was a puppy. That wasn’t a fun time.

“Whenever a friend would come over and pick up the lion, I’d go, ‘No, no, no — that’s not a toy. Don’t throw that.’ 

As Sara’s health improved, she developed a cult following at Sam Houston State. One day Tarrant was sitting in class and heard a commotion in the hallway; he looked out and saw his dog just walking down the hallway of the Dan Rather Communications Building at the university.

“A couple of my friends had picked her up, these two girls, and they took her and got her toenails painted — which I don’t really like, even though her name’s Sara Lee — and she was hanging out there with my college professors,” Tarrant says. “She kinda became the unofficial dog of the radio-television department at Sam Houston. She had some good times there.”

When Tarrant moved to San Angelo for a sports-reporter anchor job at KLST-TV, Sara Lee was literally by his side. He’d take her in to the station when he did the 10 p.m. shift — all the executives were gone by then, and she’d just lie with him at the sports desk. She became a favorite among station colleagues.

Tarrant’s next move took him to Mansfield to begin a teaching career, with Sara Lee in tow. In fact, she was the conversation-starter on the blind date with the woman who would become his wife.

The meet-up was organized by mutual friends. “We all went out, and at the end, he was showing me a picture of Sara on his phone, and that’s how he asked me for my number,” Ashley Tarrant says. “It was a good reason to get his phone out.

“I didn’t have [a dog] of my own before John, but I feel like Sara’s one of my own now. She’s been the perfect dog.”

After the couple got married, they moved to Dallas, and then to Weatherford, where they now have a baby boy, Hank. And of course, Sara has been with them through it all.

“She’s been around,” Tarrant says. “All the road trips from Huntsville to Dallas to visit parents, and then to San Angelo, it’s about a four-hour drive. She’s been a good road buddy. She loves going for rides. That’s the one word that will make her absolutely go nuts, ‘R-I-D-E.’ We have to spell it out for her.”

Although Sara Lee is an Aussie mix, it’s not clear what the rest of the mix is. Tarrant says she’s a “Heinz 57” dog: 57 varieties. But she has an Aussie’s coat, and she needs frequent grooming, and that’s when Tarrant hears a lot of guesses from people who meet her.

“Most people look at her and say, ‘That’s an Australian shepherd,’ but with her eyes and ears, some people think she’s a husky,” Tarrant says. “Whenever I get her groomed at PetSmart, people stop and ask me how many months old the puppy is. When I tell ’em she’s 14, they say, ‘Months?’ And I say, ‘No, no, no, this dog is 14 years old.’ 

Tarrant says Sara Lee weighs in at 45 pounds and has a healthy appetite. But one thing hasn’t changed: She still lies around a lot. He’s had Aussies and border collies before, and they fit the breeds’ traits: always wanting to work and herd things around (including their owners, at times). But this is an Aussie mix with a mellow side.

“Probably never in my life will I have a dog that is this loyal and this good-natured,” Tarrant says. “I’ve got a 1-year-old now, and he’s constantly pulling her tail and everything, and she’s absolutely content with it.”

Staff writer Heather Svokos contributed to this report.

Robert Philpot, 817-390-7872 Twitter: @rphilpot

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