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Thursday, February 14, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sometimes in life, love comes by the pound

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The story of Fred is the tale of a love found, a love lost, and a love reborn exactly one year ago — on Valentine's Day.

It's about a bond between a boy and his dog, and how that dog became the conduit for a father's love.

It's love in its purest form: "With people, your relationships are complicated. You fight. But with a dog, it's this purified form of love. When you lose them, it hits you on a more base level."

That was losing Fred: the worst day of Richard Huffman's life.

He was just a boy when he met Fred. He spotted the tiger-striped pup hunched in a corner of his kennel at PAWS in Lynnwood — in the back row, the ninth cage on the left.

"He was really sad-looking," Huffman recalled. "I thought, 'If there's ever a dog that needs my attention, that's the dog.' "

It turned out the boy needed the dog just as much.

The year was 1981. Thirteen-year-old Richard was one of two boys being raised by a single father, a man of few words and a "sort of tough guy" who made a living working at Sears.

"Just talking him into letting me have a dog was a big deal," said Huffman, now 33.

Fred, a mutt with parts Labrador and shepherd, changed the Huffman family. Richard's father became comfortable using Fred as a mouthpiece:

Dad, can we go to the store?

Well, I don't know what Fred thinks about that.

"Everything became Fred's choice," Huffman said. "Fred didn't realize this, but he became the facilitator of all our conversations."

When Fred developed leg cancer seven years later, his back leg had to be amputated. Eventually, the pressure became too great on Fred's remaining legs. It wasn't just the cancer; Fred's 10-year-old body was giving out.

On a Wednesday morning, before taking Fred on his final trip to the vet, 24-year-old Huffman and his father took pictures of Fred on the porch.

"Then we put on a really brave face and went over there."

When it was over, father and son climbed into their separate cars and pulled out of the parking lot. Only then, behind the safety of two closed car doors, did tears fall for both of them.

"I remember just losing it," Huffman said, "and looking at Dad in his car, and he was just bawling. ... Fred was the greatest dog ever."

For a decade, Huffman was convinced he'd never have another dog. About four years ago, he returned to PAWS to take a job, and every day, he walked by Fred's one-time kennel to see what dogs were there.

When he spotted Ruby last year, it wasn't love at first sight. Ruby was the kind of dog only a mother could love — a pit-bull mix who was "kind of a pill," Huffman said.

No one wanted to adopt Ruby. On Valentine's Day last year, one month after he first saw her, Huffman did.

"It finally occurred to me that there was a reason I came back to work for PAWS," he said, "and there's a reason Ruby came to Fred's kennel."

Pam Sitt can be reached at 206-464-2376 or psitt@seattletimes.com.

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