Advancing towards the beige house at Four Bittersweet Road in Ewing, I received two warm greetings. The first was from Mike Bottino, brother of TCNJ’s Phi Tau chapter; the second was from the fraternity’s newest and only non-human member, a playful Jack Russell Terrier mix named Shakes. The dog’s story, I have heard, is one of trial and triumph. I was ushered inside with Shakes in tow and, as instructed, “popped a squat” on one of the large, extraordinarily squishy pleather couches in the upstairs living room. Not a bad place to live for a dog, or for anyone else. After a few exchanged pleasantries and some more of Shakes’ own salutations, Mike began telling the fortuitous canine’s tale.
Early one day last March, one of the fraternity brothers returned to Four Bittersweet with a new companion, one who had followed him home – a small, charming dog without any apparent identification. The flea collar he donned, though lacking any tags, made it clear that the pooch had an owner. The brothers resolved to try to reunite him with his rightful guardian before the end of the day.
They turned the pooch loose and followed him in hopes that he would wander back home on his own accord. But it became obvious that the little fellow was either lost, or had no intention of returning from whence he came. Taking note of the dog’s apparent hostility towards other dogs and wariness of high-traffic roads, the brothers decided to take him in for the night, and he was treated to a generous steak dinner.
The next day, the brothers resumed their search for the owners. Mike filed a report with the Ewing police department, and put up “found dog” flyers. But after nearly three weeks, no one had contacted the police or responded to the flyers; so without apprehension, they began making preparations to establish the dog as a permanent member of the house. Mike had him tagged and registered with the police department, and the mutt received all necessary vaccinations from the veterinarian. Finally, the lively terrier was officially theirs!
Having become a licensed resident of the house, the dog was dubbed “Shakes,” on account of some of his “weird tendencies.” According to Mike, the pooch is notably shaky whenever he’s anxious or cold – to cope with the chilly spring nights, the brothers purchased their new friend a fleece sweater.
As the weeks went by, Shakes became a cherished part of the fraternal family. Together, the brothers were “taking really good care of him,” and Shakes was having a blast. However, like the thunderous tornado that Dorothy confronted one idle Kansas afternoon, their world was suddenly turned upside down.
About a month after giving up on the search for Shakes’ owner, and nearly two months after finding him in the first place, two of the housemates took their canine companion for a drive. While stopped at a Lukoil gas station, the brothers were shocked and confounded when two young boys confronted them in the lot. The boys, whose mother was filling up her tank nearby, told them Shakes was their dog – ‘Tator.’ According to the mother, ‘Tator’ had run away while being bathed in the yard—thus explaining his lack of identification.
It wasn’t clear why the family hadn’t contacted the Ewing police department when the dog first went missing. The two fraternity brothers exchanged information with the mother, and asked that she meet with Mike to straighten things out.
The family showed up to the house with pictures and documents not long after. Crestfallen, Mike thought, “What am I going to tell these kids – that they can’t have their dog back?” Shakes was returned to his original owners, and the entire house was heartbroken. A few brothers perused animal shelters in hopes of finding another pet they could love just as much; however, their search was to no avail. No dog could compare to Shakes.
A few lonely months later, in July, a strange car pulled into the driveway. Out stepped two women and, to everyone’s astonishment—Shakes! The women explained that they had found their old friend, apparently lost, and brought him to the police department. They were directed to Four Bittersweet Road, the address to which he was still registered. As it turned out, ‘Tater’s’ family never re-registered or retagged the dog. Shakes looked disheveled, Mike recalled – he was “long-haired” and “mangy as hell, looking as though he had been on the streets for months.” Vexed by his poor condition, the boys eagerly took Shakes in for a second joyous time.
Even though ‘Tater’s’ owners live only a few blocks away, they have never made any attempt to retrieve the hapless pooch. “They have all the necessary information to come get this dog… and it’s been months now,” the boys explained. At this point, “there’s no way we’re giving the dog back to them… [the previous owners] don’t even care.” Everyone who’s heard this strange story, they added, concludes that the family “lost out on a good dog.”
Today, between eight adoring housemates and a dog-friendly shack in the backyard, Shakes is, as one brother declared, “living the dream… It’s like having another friend in the house.”
“He’s always down to chill,” the brothers enthusiastically remarked, and often curls up and cuddles with whoever falls asleep on the couch. Shakes may be the only member of the fraternity whose initiation process didn’t include chugging beers or cleaning bathrooms, but his gregarious ways earned him the easy ride. “He’s a chick magnet,” one brother said. “No – he’s an anybody magnet,” Mike contended.
Though friendly with humans, Shakes still doesn’t get along so well with other dogs; the boys of Four Bittersweet Road are working on “rehabilitating” him through a gradual intra-species socialization process. They are happy to report that Shakes is making good progress.
But unfortunately for Mike and his compatriots, these “dog days” won’t last forever; what will become of Shakes after they graduate this year is a sensitive topic. But wherever he ends up, the brothers are sure, the amiable terrier will never again be banished to the unforgiving Ewing streets.
Additional reporting by Ron M. Seidel