If it's true that you can tell a lot about a man by the way he treats his dog, with Russ Lakin there's no guesswork at all about his humanity.
Russ treats everybody's dogs.
It all started when Russ was employed as a salesman at Granite Furniture Co. in Sugar House. On his lunch hour he would drive home and take his dog, a bull terrier named Trouble, for a walk.
The walk with Trouble naturally aroused interest among the neighborhood dogs, which aroused interest in Russ. Why should Trouble get all the love and attention? Why not toss the other dogs a treat as he went by?
So he went to the store, bought some milk bones and chicken strips and started handing them out over fences and onto porches.
That was 24 years ago.
He's been doing it daily except Sunday year-round ever since.
I had the rare privilege of accompanying Russ Lakin on one of his dog walks last week. I wanted to see how it felt to be looked at as a friend to dog's best friend.
We started at Russ's house and did the circuit, down 2500 East to Downington, Laurel Hurst, Redondo and back to where we started. It's about a mile route, counting going up and down alleys and driveways, and takes about an hour.
Russ treats about 30 dogs. If a dog isn't home that day, and several were on vacation the day of our walk, he leaves the treats where they can find them later. He also leaves candy on the doorsteps of houses with little children. Russ is an easy guy to like.
Max sure likes him. Max is the German shepherd who lives next-door to Russ' house, the first dog on the route. He hears Russ coming before he sees him and bounds to the window in the front room. "Oh, you big lug," shouts out Russ, like he's greeting an old Army mate from the days when he flew as a navigator in North Africa in World War II.
As we move past the window to the sideyard, so does Max. The huge police dog exits his house through the dog door and appears at the gate the same time we do. Russ throws him a chicken strip, followed by a large dog bone, and then another.
"You're a big dog," he says. "So you get two."
On like this it goes. Dogs appear as if out of nowhere, anticipating Russ and his magic bag of treats. Some bark, some drool, some wag their tails so fast they could light up Tooele.
"They're spoiled rotten," says Russ.
"But they are so grateful," he adds. "They can't talk, but they tell me how grateful they are. Like Maggie says, 'Woof, woof' like that."
Maggie is a "big ol' hound dog" who moseys from her backyard to a driveway gate along with Winky, a black lab with only one eye. They get two chicken strips and two dog bones each. I think Russ favors them, but when I ask him if he has a favorite he quickly answers like a protective grandpa, "Oh no, I love them all the same."
Between stops, Russ likes to tell jokes.
"Did you hear about the guy who named his dog Herpes 'cuz he wouldn't heel?"
As we turn the corner back onto 2500 East, we can hear one dog barking from a block away.
"Hey, Moose, we're comin'," Russ barks back.
When we get to Moose's house we are greeted by a miniature Dachshund no bigger than a hot dog. But much louder.
"She's got a big mouth, but she's beautiful," says Russ, who tosses Moose a chicken strip and then, while the dog is chomping away, carefully places one a safe distance away for Chief, another miniature Dachshund as timid as Edith Bunker.
We next head for the home of Rake, a hunting dog who gets so excited his owner once told Russ, "Hell, you'd think it was a T-bone steak you're giving him."
But for some reason Rake's not home, so Russ drops the milk bones and heads off down the street.
"I'm known as the bone man," he says. "My bishop says I'm going to be king in dog heaven."
He's got a bum knee, he explains as he limps, and at 87 he doesn't know how long he can keep doing this. But he'll do it as long as he's able. He confesses that he spends $200 a month for the dog treats and candy.
He quickly dismisses the extravagance with a justifying shrug of his shoulders. "It's what I do," he says. "I don't drink, don't smoke, don't carouse, and I go to the temple twice a week."
As we walk he talks about his life. He grew up on a farm in Val Verda, near Bountiful, where he gained his lifelong love of dogs. After serving in World War II he returned to Utah and became a salesman. He built his house in 1954, and he's still living in it. He played guitar in his own dance band, the Esquires. He lost his wife in 1971 when she was just 50. He is a father, grandfather and great-grandfather. "I've had a good life," he says. "I've done a lot."
Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to [email protected] and faxes to 801-237-2527.