Culture: Stories & Lit
When I’m asked if I live alone, I reply, “No, I live with Lucy.” Lucy is my 12-year-old Beagle. She’s a stubborn little dog, but especially sweet and loving. My late husband, Don, and I adopted her from the local shelter nine years ago. We had been checking the shelter weekly, and when we drove up one Sunday in early June, the attendant said, “I have just the dog for you.” He led us to a tri-colored hound, unlocked the pen and said, “Her name is Lucy.”
The frisky Beagle charged toward us, running from one to the other. She wiggled all over when we stooped down to pat her. We were hooked immediately by her affection. “Her ears are like velvet,” I said, stroking her and smiling up at Don. He nodded, then asked the attendant, “Where do we sign?”
Within minutes, the paperwork was completed. Don opened the back door of our Buick station wagon and Lucy hopped right in. The trip home took about 10 minutes. She sat looking out the window as though she had ridden with us all her life. When she placed her front right paw on the armrest, we knew she was special; later that night, as we listened to her snore, we agreed she was a perfect fit. I intended for her to be Don’s dog. He had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and I had read that a dog would be helpful. They became buddies at once. Don spent hours in the back yard throwing a tennis ball, which Lucy raced after but never retrieved. She’d sit at the ball and wait until Don traipsed across the yard to pick it up and throw it again. They never tired of that little game. As his illness progressed, his stride became a slow shuffle. Lucy waited patiently for him to reach her. “Go get it,” he said, tossing the ball again.
One afternoon, it became quiet in the back yard. I headed toward the door to check on them, then noticed that they were both asleep on the braided rug in the family room. Don’s arm was around Lucy. When I approached, she opened her eyes without moving an inch, so as not to disturb him. I ran for the camera.
When Don puttered around the yard or went down to the basement, she was at his side. Evenings, after they had their ice cream, he sat in his recliner with Lucy curled up on his lap.
In September, we signed her up for obedience training. I handled her during classes, as Don’s memory was failing; he sat on a bench nearby and watched. The instructor said Beagles are stubborn, but Lucy surprised us. Head and tail held high, she pranced along beside me like a show dog. As a proud mother, I beamed.
When I could no longer provide Don’s care, he became a resident at a nursing facility. Lucy mourned his absence in our home. She waited at the back door with the tennis ball in her mouth. If I opened the freezer door, she dashed into the kitchen, expecting ice cream.
Each afternoon, we visited Don. Lucy was so excited that she dragged me across the parking lot. She stood on her hind legs at his wheelchair, her entire body wagging. Don’s laughter filled the hallway. As his illness progressed and he was no longer able to acknowledge us, Lucy was completely undemanding. She sat quietly at the foot of his wheelchair and grieved.
Evenings at home, when I sat in Don’s recliner, Lucy would jump up on my lap. I welcomed the closeness, but her 36 pounds was too much for me. I’d point to the floor and say, “Down, girl, down. You’re too heavy for me.” Reluctantly, she’d jump down and nestle alongside the chair, looking up. I rubbed her velvet ears, and we were both comforted.
It’s been nearly four years since we lost Don. That sensitive little Beagle has transferred her love to me. Her companionship and loyal devotion fill the void in my life. She is never far away, and I talk to her all day long. Her bed is in a corner of my bedroom. Every night before she settles down, she comes alongside the bed for a little smooch. I pat her head and say, “You’re a good girl. Mommy loves you.” It fills a need for both of us.
I’ve had many dogs in my 83 years, but never one as loving and devoted as my Lucy. She keeps me company, makes me laugh and snuggles up when she senses I’m lonely. She is the perfect housemate. I don’t know what I’d do without her.
Culture: Stories & Lit
There’s a trail along the river near my house where I often jog with my Flat-Coated Retriever mix, Sylvia. I let her run off-leash until I see someone fishing along the bank. Then I lunge for her collar.
Sylvia is usually good about staying close. She’s a classic Retriever that way — laid back, happy-go-lucky, eager to please. But if she hears the thrash of a hooked fish or the whir of a reel, forget it. She’s headfirst in the water, greeting the fish as it’s reeled ashore. Or worse, startling the fish so it breaks the line and swims free.
This wouldn’t be a problem if other anglers felt the way my husband, Scott, and I do. We go fly-fishing about 50 days a year, and Sylvia joins us every time. Unfortunately, ask most fishermen about bringing a dog along and you’ll get this pithy advice: Don’t. A dog, they’ll tell you, will blunder into a promising hole, scattering wary trout. A dog will get tangled in your line. A dog will prevent you from catching as many fish as you would alone.
They’re right, of course.
But the dogless fishermen are, I think, missing the point. I don’t choose a fishing companion — human or canine — because he or she will help me land more fish. I choose to go fishing with someone who makes it fun. By that definition, I can’t imagine a better fishing buddy than Sylvia.
Then again, Sylvia isn’t your typical fishing dog. She doesn’t get bored and wander off. She won’t chase ducks or squirrels. When we’re fishing, Sylvia channels all of her energy into fishing, too. She watches every cast, her eyes glued to my fly as it floats downstream. She knows at what point in the drift a fish is most likely to bite, so she positions herself for a good view of the action. Her entire body quivers with anticipation.
Occasionally, I snag a submerged stick. If I were alone, I’d be disappointed to reel in a piece of wood instead of a fish. But with Sylvia there, it’s not a bad consolation prize. I unhook my fly, then place the branch in Sylvia’s open mouth and watch as she cavorts around in a sort of victory lap.
Once, Scott and his father stood on the bank of a wide river and debated their strategy for fishing it. They saw bugs all over the surface of the water, but no fish were swimming up to eat them. Suddenly, Sylvia splashed into the river, plowing a wake as she paddled to the other side. Scott and his dad squinted. Sure enough, in the shade along the far shore, fish were rising. The humans weren’t paying enough attention to notice, but Sylvia was.
Like any weathered angler, Sylvia has endured fishing-related mishaps. She got her foot caught in a beaver trap. She bit down on a fly and the hook pierced her tongue. She once came home from a day on the river — too early in the season, we thought, to warrant topical pest treatments — with dozens of ticks caught in her coat. Nothing has dulled her enthusiasm.
One winter, Scott went steelhead fishing several weekends in a row. To have a chance at catching these huge, sea-run trout, he had to be on the river by sunrise. His early awakenings set Sylvia’s internal alarm clock, and when the season ended, we couldn’t turn it off. Every morning at exactly 4:30 am, she crept up to Scott’s side of the bed and nudged him awake.
We once spent a Memorial Day weekend flogging three renowned trout streams from sunrise to sunset. But constant rainstorms had swollen and muddied the water, so we never felt a bite. By the end of the third day, casting my line was an exercise in meditation more than function. No matter what fly I tied on, I wasn’t going to catch anything. Why even bother?
Then I’d look down at Sylvia, her brown eyes still focused on my line. Her rain-soaked hair stood in otterlike spikes. Her pink tongue darted from her lips to her nose. Her muscles were tense with unwavering optimism. She was, I realized, more than a good fishing buddy. She was the perfect angler. She embodied the fascination that pulls every fisherman to the river, the singular thought that keeps us drawing back our rods, again and again.
This next cast, she seemed to be thinking, this could be the one.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Their bedraggled faces peered at me from the adoption website Petfinder.com. Lucky Dog, a 3-year-old Bichon Frise, and French Fry, a 2-yearold Bichon/Poodle mix, had been rescued from a puppy mill that kept dogs under appalling conditions and bred them until they died. Lucky looked like a tough guy and the protector of Frenchy, his pitiful sidekick. Together, they called to mind woeful street orphans from a hundredyear- old daguerreotype. They came as a duo — no separate adoptions allowed. I wasn’t a prospective adopter; I was just looking. And looking. I kept going back to the site and staring at those two hurt creatures.
Lucky looked just like Goody, my son’s 12-year-old Bichon, who had died the night before I had surgery to remove a three-and-a-half-pound cancerous tumor from my colon. The tumor weighed exactly what my son, Jesse, had weighed at birth. He had died two years earlier, suddenly, in his sleep at age 17. After the surgery, I was the semi-walking wounded, recovering on my daybed, watching reality shows to see if they bore any relation to my current reality, which seemed more like a particularly disturbing episode of The Twilight Zone.
Goody had been a prince among dogs. He had arrived on my son’s bed Christmas morning, after a spoken request to Santa Claus. The request had carried weight: Jesse was quadriplegic, nonverbal and, at the time, seven years old. Little-boy longing had pushed the word “dog” out of his mouth, and there was no question that heartfelt wish would be granted.
I showed Lucky and Frenchy’s picture to my husband. Chris was noncommittal, but there was no mistaking that softening around his eyes. We became prospective adopters. Three recommendations and a home visit were required. We passed, even though we were convinced nerves made us seem shifty. After signing impressive-looking contracts (how would they enforce them?) and promising to never kennel them, we drove to Connecticut for the pick-up. It was a June day, four months after Goody had died, four months after the surgery, 30 months since our son had died.
On the first day, I took stock: They weren’t housebroken; they didn’t know their names; they shrank from us, so no leash was possible. To interest them in following me to our unfenced yard, I had to summon my inner canine. What if they bolted? I pictured the formidable interview lady checking up on us, only to find we had allowed Lucky and Frenchy to be crushed by a school bus on their first day of freedom.
They ran behind me, tottering like elderly little men on walkers, their legs stiff from a life encaged. I blinked back tears and herded them into our enclosed pool area. Their true dog selves emerged; they began cavorting and chasing each other. Lucky careened around a corner and fell into the pool. Chris heard me scream and stood on the deck above the pool, highly amused, as he watched me haul myself out of the water, hampered by clothes that now weighed a ton. Lucky pranced off, ungrateful for my lifesaving heroics. Chris brought me a towel, still laughing. A lot. Our laughter was creaky from disuse, like Lucky and Frenchy’s legs.
It’s a year later. They’ve commandeered the comfy chair. They’re housebroken, they know their names and they walk on leash (Lucky bites his). Frenchy nudges my leg, asking for caresses. Lucky still runs away if I even glance at him, and he sleeps with one wary eye open. He’s my favorite, because he’s both dauntless and terrified, and he reminds me of me. In bursts of bravery, he’ll stretch himself forward, quickly lick my hand, then bolt. I stalk and capture him to put him in my lap and pet him.
“You heal me, and I’ll heal you,” I whisper.
Culture: Stories & Lit
…but not out in LA
While walking my dog Ilia one morning, I run into our lovely neighbors Bea and Barry and their cadre of five (!) dogs. “Let’s go down to the river!” Bea suggests. Sounds good, I say, and off we go.
Upon arriving, Barry notices a guy tossing stuff into the river and walks down the steep embankment to the water’s edge to inquire as to why said stuff is being tossed. The guy pretends not to speak English and walks away. Barry, Good Samaritan that he is, manages to fish out the tossed bag. Which appears to contain a fully roasted turkey.
He dispatches the unfortunate bird into a nearby waste receptacle.
So, since we’re now near the water’s edge, I enthusiastically (yet stupidly) suggest that we continue our constitutional along the bucolic, cement-encrusted bank.We let the dogs off-lead and Ilia explodes into a glorious burst of speed. What a pleasure to watch him run! Ears a-flappin’, tail aspinnin’. What a sight. Really, really beautiful…until he launches himself (as though wearing a cape) headlong into what we charitably—and delusionally—call the LA “River.”
I call him out and he races obediently toward me full tilt, stops six inches in front of my unshaven knees, careens to starboard and flings himself back into the brackish mire. He then begins to swim downriver, where it is too deep for him to get out.After much frantic calling and waving on my part, he manages to get back to his original port of departure and extract himself. Shaking vigorously and giving everybody a full bacterial misting, he then sprints down the embankment and flings himself back into the drink. I finally manage to coax him out and leash him, whereupon he once again transfers the river’s slimy contents by showering our entire party.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I think that any body of water that has the initials “LA” preceding its name is probably a notch or two below being a paragon of pristine aqueous virtue. My slightly germophobic brain goes into overdrive imagining the disease-causing microorganisms sodden Ilia is now covered with. Before long the list of ailments includes (but is not limited to) beri beri, typhoid, diphtheria, dropsy, Ebola and, quite possibly, rickets.
But, here is what you must know about this dog: he is not a typical pet. This sleek black Lab/Golden Retriever cross is my son’s service dog, bred and trained to serve nobly alongside a wheelchair. For the first 18 months of his life, he was raised by dedicated, loving volunteers who doted on, trained and subsidized him. Then, they made the heartwrenching trip to the main campus to turn him in and say good-bye forever. Highly skilled trainers took over from there, spending the next six months teaching him advanced commands like picking up dropped objects and opening doors so that when he was matched with his human companion, he would give the gift of independence to his disabled partner. Then, they gave us this dog. Free.
Appropriately, this organization maintains ownership of the dog while he is in service so they can closely monitor his care and health. So…how do I call their facility and tell them I’ve allowed their precious gift to become infected with West Nile Virus?
Panicked, I take my charge home and immediately deposit him into the tub, then spend an hour scrubbing him down to the molecular level…desperate to punish anything with a flagellum out of existence. Furious but clean, he searches my hardwood-floored house for a corner of carpet to rub on. Finding none, he finally settles for curling into an impossibly tight ball on the couch, where he remains for several hours, deeply offended that I cut short his aquatic spree.
I am happy to report that he is now warm, dry and delightfully Ebola-free.
I sent the good people at Canine Companions for Independence this tale in the hope that they would be entertained and allow us to keep the dog.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Ah, Summertime! Nothing like it for this teacher. No students to teach, papers to grade or meetings to attend. My family’s at Six Flags, and since I get motion sickness, I wrote myself a note, excusing me from it. The handwriting was pretty good, so it worked. I’m not thinking of vacuuming the rug or emptying the dishwasher or starting that last load of whites. Nope. Just don’t feel like it.
I decided to reread The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Don’t laugh. I’m on a great chapter, “Huck and the Judge— Superstition.” Judge Thatcher beats Huckleberry for cutting school. Now there’s an idea, Mr. Twain.
Jim had a hair-ball as big as your fist, which had been took out of the fourth stomach of an ox, and he used to do magic with it. He said there was a spirit inside of it, and it knowed everything.
This room does need a good once-over. Three Golden Retrievers leave hair everywhere. Jessie stretches out behind my chair,Max on the rug and Angie on the sofa with her head hanging off the end.
On the hardwood floor, a rolling ball of golden fur hypnotizes me. Around and around it goes, clockwise like the ceiling fan, on some invisible track. It glides through the piano legs, under the sofa, out the back, around the floor, through the piano legs and under the sofa again. I place my novel next to my coffee, get up, and grab the rolling fur.Max raises an eyebrow; I raise mine and smile back.
I sit down and put the hair ball in the empty candy dish on the table so I’ll remember to throw it away later. I open my book. Jessie lets out a sleepy sigh.
Another hair ball encircles the floor, brazenly challenging my reading time. I look inside the candy dish (still full). I really should vacuum and get rid of these distractions. Well, maybe just finish chapter four.
Jim got out his hair-ball, and said something over it, and then he held it up and dropped it on the floor. Jim got down on his knees and put his ear against it and listened.
I get up, take the first hair ball and set it free on the floor.Max looks to Jessie for answers, but she’s not helping. In a few seconds, the hair ball begins its orbit again, falling back into the exact track as before: through the piano legs, under the sofa, out the back. Angie watches it, too. The second hair ball fuses with the first, forming one ball the size of my fist.
Here’s what I do—now, don’t laugh. I sit on the floor in the middle of the orbit. And I wait. Jessie tilts her head and questions my behavior with a half-wag. My eyes narrow, fixed on the hair ball: around and through andunder aroundand through aroundunder—until I start to feel dizzy. Too much coffee? Maybe, but it’s something more. The next time it tumbles around, I throw my whole body on it, not feeling the hair ball under me, but knowing it’s trapped.What to do?
Warm, moist air licks the back of my neck. I turn. Three dogs stand above me and bow, staring down, lips drooping away from their teeth, gums exposed. We all pause till I see drool and close my eyes. Angie shakes her head, tags jingling, breaking the spell.
I take the hair ball to the chair for a better look. It consists mostly of long, golden strands of fur, winding on itself; in the center, a red thread knotted in places. Trapped inside, there’s some human hair, I think. Yep, but I won’t tell you what kind. Suddenly, Max starts to bark, then Jessie starts, her fur raised, and even Angie howls. Their racket rings through the empty house.
I take in the room in a kind of panic. Scan windows and doors. You know, robbers and all. But there aren’t robbers. Maybe a sudden storm? Mailman? Earthquake? In Dallas? No. Nothing. And then, just as suddenly, the dogs stop barking and lie down.
So I walk around, turn on some more lights—don’t ask me why. I just do. I sit in the chair, pick up my book, but can’t read. Not now. I look around.
I see dog nose prints on French doors, Legos on the rug, a pile of clothes in a basket, dust on the family photos and another hair ball on the floor. But I try to read.
So the hair-ball talked to Jim, and Jim told it to me. He says: You gwyne to have considable trouble in yo’ life, en considable joy. Sometimes you gwyne to git hurt, en sometimes you gwyne to get sick; but every time you’s gwyne to git well agin.
But you is all right.
They’ll be home soon, hungry and tired, ready to tell me all about Six Flags. Let me get that vacuum. Chapter five can wait. It is, after all, summertime.
Culture: Stories & Lit
I got the call while I was on the Amtrak Acela, headed from New York City back home to Providence: Zuzu, our nine-year-old Bichon, had gotten into a bag of leftover Halloween candy, passing up the Dots and Smarties and eating just the chocolate. She was sick, our babysitter Amanda told me. Shivering and panting.
I knew chocolate could be toxic to dogs. But how much would it take? I Googled dog eating chocolate. An ounce per pound was okay. That meant Zuzu could tolerate nine ounces. Visions of Milky Ways and Kit Kats, Snickers and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups danced through my head. How much chocolate was in that stuff? When I called the vet, she told me to watch for shallow breathing. Was panting the same as shallow breathing? The train paused in New Haven. I texted Amanda for an update. Still shivering. Still panting. Silently, I added, Still alive. Then I started to cry.
For all kinds of reasons, we love our dogs. Unconditional love. Companionship. Their warm bodies and cold noses. The funny things they do. The way they become part of our families. But it wasn’t until that call that I realized how important Zuzu was to me. Or maybe I should say that I admitted how important she was.
Like all kids, my two — Sam and Grace — wanted a dog. They entertained themselves by looking at pictures of Cockadoodles on the computer and playing with puppies in the pet store. Five-year-old Grace, however, really wanted a dog. She told us how she would train it and feed it and comb it. She told us how she would love it. That Valentine’s Day, my husband wanted to surprise her with a puppy. We’d all somehow landed on a Bichon, and we found a breeder in Oklahoma who asked us: “Do you want the one that dances?” Of course we did. Our dancing puppy had to wait for warmer weather to fly across the country to us, so Valentine’s Day came in March that year.
I wanted to name the dog Zelda. But the kids weren’t sold. As we waited for the puppy’s arrival, they spent all of their time discussing names. Then one day, they came to me. “We’ve picked the name,” Sam announced. “Zuzu!” Grace shouted. It was the perfect name. Every year I sat them down at Christmas and forced them to watch It’s a Wonderful Life with me. I didn’t care how corny the movie was or how many times I’d seen it, Christmas wasn’t Christmas if we didn’t watch it together, a bowl of popcorn passed between us and me crying when Jimmy Stewart runs inside his house calling for Donna Reed. “Zuzu it is,” I said.
Three weeks after Zuzu came to us, Grace died suddenly from a virulent form of strep. In the last picture taken of Grace, she wears a lopsided smile as she holds that white ball of fluff, the dog she’d dreamed of. In the terrible months that followed, Zuzu took on a strange role. She was one more living thing who had known Grace. She had licked her face voraciously and slept in her lap. Such a tenuous link, but when you lose a child, those connections take on an importance that is hard to describe. That year, we did not watch It’s a Wonderful Life. Life seemed anything but wonderful.
Over these eight years, my family has realigned itself. We have added another child, Annabelle, and a menagerie of other pets: a bunny, two frogs and a rotating cast of goldfish. Last Christmas, for the first time since Grace died, I put on It’s a Wonderful Life again. Sam, now 17, rolled his eyes and groaned at the idea of watching it. Annabelle slept through the whole movie, and my husband spent more time checking his email than looking at the television. When I got that call from Amanda, I remembered the importance of Zuzu in the movie. She is the daughter who gives her father a flower that he sticks in his pocket. It is those petals that, when he finds them at the end, tell him that he is still alive and send him running back home to Donna Reed. Zuzu’s petals.
Our Zuzu gives us that, too, a reminder that our Grace was once here with us, that the rest of us are still alive and meant to seize our lives, even with her gone. Crying as the train left New Haven, I thought of the beautiful daughter I lost, how she literally jumped for joy the day I showed up at her school with Zuzu on a pink leash. “That’s my dog!” Grace shouted for the class, the world, to hear.
A text popped up on my phone: Zuzu lives!
When I walked in the door, I took Zuzu in my arms. Her brown eyes settled on mine, and I held that white puff close, my face pressed into her neck. She smelled wonderfully of dog. A respite in this grieving for all that has been lost, for at least a while longer, Zuzu lives.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Goldie had been in the shelter for more than two months. Despite her runway looks—short golden coat, long snout, Cleopatra-lined eyes and athletic build—no one had adopted her. “She’s very sensitive and isn’t eating. If you don’t take her, she’s going to die soon,” a shelter volunteer told me.
Culture: Stories & Lit
A dog adopts a family, receives her name and claims her chair
Tarnish entered my life in Eugene, Ore., in 1949. I was nine years old and my parents and I were living in an apartment complex on the outskirts of town. I played frequently in the surrounding fields and woods, and it was there that I was adopted by a bedraggled, homeless Golden Retriever. Initially, she would not let me touch her, but as the days passed and our bond grew, it became clear to me: she would be my dog.
My parents were against it. Our upstairs apartment was very small — there was no way we could have a dog. Finally, however, they succumbed to my pleas. I could have the dog, but she would have to stay in our woodbin, an outside walkin box where we stacked our wood. We discussed names, and my mother suggested Tarnish, which was the name of a lion cub in one of my favorite childhood stories (Tarnish, by Osa Johnson). I thought the name was perfect, and the Golden Retriever was Tarnish from that day forward.
Overjoyed, I prepared a bed in our woodbin and tried to persuade Tarnish to enter. She refused, and that evening, disappeared as she always did. My mother and I knew she slept in a neighbor’s woodbin at night, but I was sure I could get her to move into our woodbin the next day. Then my mother decided to get directly involved. After I had gone to bed, she took a flashlight and some leftover steak and went to our neighbor’s woodbin, where she was greeted with growls. She tossed the steak into the box and returned home.
Early the next morning, the neighborhood was awakened by Tarnish “greeting” the milkman as he attempted to make a delivery. She had left the neighbor’s woodbin in the earlymorning hours and was sleeping outside our door. After the milkman episode, it was decided that Tarnish could sleep in our apartment at night, but she would not be allowed on any of our furniture. That evening, she willingly came into the apartment and went to sleep on the blanket my mother had put in a corner. During the night, my mother got up to check on her and found her curled up on our best chair. My mother quietly went back to bed, and the next morning, moved the blanket from the floor onto the chair. It remained Tarnish’s chair for the rest of her life. Never once did she jump on any other piece of furniture.
We moved to El Paso, Texas, in 1952, and Tarnish’s chair became a fixture in my bedroom. During my high school and college years, we had many happy hunting and fishing expeditions in the Rio Grande Valley. Eventually, when it became difficult for Tarnish to jump into her chair, my father solved the problem by sawing off the chair legs, much to her delight.
After graduating from college in 1962, I was scheduled to leave El Paso in September to attend graduate school in Berkeley, Calif., and the departure day finally arrived. Tarnish was in her chair, and I lay on the floor to tell her goodbye for the last time. Cupping her head in my hands, I put my nose against hers, gazed into her eyes, told her no boy ever had a finer dog, gently stroked her and tearfully left for California.
Two months later, in the chair she had claimed as her own on her first night with us so many years before, Tarnish peacefully went to sleep for the last time. My father buried her under her favorite wisteria bush in the backyard.
Culture: Stories & Lit
A call for improving our etiquette with older dogs.
Like everyone else in a society loudly lamenting a decline in civility, I recognize there are new breaches of etiquette every minute. On any typical day, cell phones alone account for the rudeness factor going off the charts.
But I believe there is one type of impolite behavior among adult humans that goes pretty much unchecked. I’ve been guilty of it myself and slinked away feeling really stupid. It just isn’t something that makes it into the etiquette books and it apparently isn’t even worth Miss Manners’ fleeting consideration.
I am referring to the blunt, utterly uncensored and often just plain mean things people say to us about our dogs (by “us” I mean dog people). My close friend Pam has a 12-yearold German Shepherd who is visibly aging. So are the rest of us, human and canine, but to what person would you ever be so crude as to say the following: “Is that your mother? Wow, she looks awful. She can hardly move!” Yet this is the unsolicited blubbering my friend endures from strangers, all day long, about her old dog. I empathize because I’ve been through this three times, beginning with our family Beagle, Sam, who lived to be nearly 17, mostly out of spite.
“How old is he?” People would ask this unrelentingly about my now-departed Irish Setter, Amos. I didn’t mind telling them that he was 12 or 13. “Wow. They don’t live much longer than that, do they?” How tacky is this?
But it gets worse. When my big, hairy mutt, Louie (we called him our “Bavarian crotch-smeller”) was old and frail, someone once asked me, “Have you thought about putting him down?” First of all, that’s kind of like asking a woman in her 40s (this also happened to me), “Have you ever thought about having children?” “Gee, there’s an idea! Why didn’t I think of that?” When your dog is old and sick, the end is pretty much all you can think about. Your heart is breaking and you’re preparing yourself to come to that decision in a way that spares your dog unnecessary suffering while giving yourself time to feel as peaceful as possible about letting him go.
People assume they can say anything they like about a stranger’s dog. While they’d (I hope) refrain from saying, “Excuse me, but it looks like your husband is losing his hair,” when Louie was suffering from Cushing’s disease, strangers constantly took it upon themselves to point out his hair loss. “Do you know your dog is losing his hair?” And what can you do except mumble, um, yes, this is my dog, he’s part of my family, I’m nearly always with him, I bathe him, I brush him, he sleeps with us, and throughout most, if not all, of these activities, I am looking at him! And it’s always too late when you think of how you could’ve said, “Do you know you have a wart on your chin?”
Pam is at the point where she dreads walking her dog in public because she knows passersby will make insensitive comments she can’t bear to hear. Out in the world she is thoughtful and tender enough not to remind everyone she encounters that they are mortal. Like the rest of us, she can tell when a person’s on his or her last legs, but she keeps herself from saying, “Gee, you sure are slowing down” or asking the person’s daughter, “So how long do people in your family tend to live?” When approaching people like my friend, it helps to remind oneself that she knows her dog is old. She knows it every waking second of every day.
The last years and months we share with our geriatric dogs are among the most bittersweet times in dog lovers’ lives. We know, from the moment we choose these guys as puppies or meet their limpid stares at the animal shelter, that our hearts will be torn apart some day. What makes it so much worse is that the older they get, the sweeter they get, and when they reach absolute critical sweetness—you simply cannot love them any more than you already do—they grow completely exhausted and die. So a person patiently coaxing an old dog on his increasingly shrinking route is someone who could benefit from a little compassionate restraint. Like a simple hello for the owner, or a tender pat on the head for the doggie emeritus.
Culture: Stories & Lit
In the 10 years that my dog Rex and I have been together (and that constitutes nearly the entirety of his life and a quarter of mine), we have moved 10 times. The reasons for this had more to do with indecision than instability, but I admit it wasn’t ideal. We went from a farm in rural Nebraska (Rex’s first place of residence, hence my ongoing guilt that his life has been all downhill from there) to a friend’s house in suburban Nebraska and then to Los Angeles, where we lived in a studio apartment in the Santa Monica Mountains for four months and in a sublet near Venice Beach for three months. Then we went back to Nebraska and lived briefly on another farm before moving to a house in town. After several months, we moved back to California, where we lived in another sublet in the Hollywood Hills and then a rented house in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Silver Lake. Finally, I got serious and bought a house. It was tiny and lacking in many amenities, but it was near the dog park.
Throughout all these moves, Rex never wandered off, had an accident, chewed on anything he shouldn’t have or refused a meal. Docile to the extreme and a nonbarker (at 12 weeks old, he barked nonstop for an entire day and then gave it up completely), he’s more than just a good traveler — he’s a canine Zen master. He can lower your blood pressure simply by leaning against your leg. He can saunter past a yard of frothing, gasping, yapping Chihuahuas and not so much as glance in their direction. Despite some well-meaning advice early on in my moving adventures, I never for one second entertained the thought of not taking him along.
I have, however, occasionally allowed myself to think about how many more housing options would have been available to me sans pet, especially an 85-pound yak-like sheepdog like Rex. As any dog owner who’s ever been in need of a rental knows, it’s not the house that matters, but the area that surrounds it. You need some form of yard — a strip of grass, a cluster of bushes, a patch of dirt. Ideally, this area is fenced. The neighborhood needs to be relatively pedestrian-friendly, since it’s nice to be able to walk the dog without butting up against a freeway or a crack house. Moreover, you need a landlord who isn’t going to look at a shedding, slobbering yak/dog and tell you they’d rent to a high school punk band before letting that beast walk on their newly refinished floors. In other words, you have to rent from other dog people. And dog people tend to have dog properties.
How can you tell a dog property? If you’re more concerned about where your dog goes to the bathroom than where you go to the bathroom, chances are you’ll wind up in such a place. If it’s a stand-alone house, the floors will be scuffed and the grass will be brown. If it’s a multi-unit situation, most of the neighbors will have dogs themselves, and while this may at first seem like an asset — “We all pet-sit for each other when we go out of town!” — the place will inevitably come to feel like a combination of kennel and psychiatric institution. The woman with three small dogs will be crazy in a nervous way. The woman with three large dogs will be crazy in a politically strident way. There will probably be a guy with a parrot.
If you’re in a sublet, as I was too many times, the primary tenant’s dogs will sometimes come with the deal. Such was the case in the Hollywood Hills house, where a Border Collie and an Australian Shepherd ascended and descended the stairs all night as though they were training for a boxing match. During the day, they hurled themselves in and out of the dog door until I had no choice but to close it, which caused them to whine like toddlers. Rex, naturally, just stood there and stared at them blankly, the canine equivalent to shaking your head in pity.
Which I swear is what he did to me when I uprooted him for the 11th time recently. After I got married (to a man who dreams of moving overseas and imagines Rex is up to it), I sold my house and rejoined (temporarily, we hope) the ranks of the renters. And, yes, this is a dog property. There’s no dishwasher but the landlady likes dogs, and that matters more. The yard looks like hell, but all I care is that it’s there. I may still be indecisive about my housing, but I know this much about my home: It’s where the dog is.
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