What can you say about a dog who died? Eric Segal posed that very same question forty-four years ago in his novel, Love Story—except it was about a twenty-five-year-old woman—and made a million dollars from it. But in this case we’re just talking about a dog. Non-dog lovers would shrug their shoulders and say, who cares? It’s just a dog. The world goes on.
But, wait! What if the dog was really important to somebody? What if he was the constant companion of a man who really needed him? What if the man and the dog did everything together: walked together, ate together, swam together, slept together, traveled together? What if they were inseparable, symbiotic? Does the dog’s death then assume greater importance?
This story begins ten years ago when I was not looking for a dog. I was entering a Kmart to pick up a prescription and stopped to look over a collection of rescued animals that a red-haired teenager was selling. They were a motley-looking crew for the most part, in a variety of cages, but in the middle were eight adorable puppies playing in a baby pool.
The girl smiled, displaying prominent steel braces. “Chow Chow mix,” she replied. “I rescued them from the Duplin County Animal Shelter. They only keep animals forty-eight hours there. I understand the mother was Chow and the father was from a nice neighborhood.” She gave me another bracey smile.
I laughed and went inside to get my prescription.
“You two fit together perfectly,” she said approvingly, nodding her head.
“I can’t get a dog right now,” I explained while stroking the dog. “I have a full time job as a psychologist. I’m never home.”
“Make him an office pet,” she suggested. “He’ll fit in.”
“I thought Chows were known to be aggressive.”
“Not Chow mixes,” she corrected me. “They’re different. Chow mixes are more laid back.”
I thought for a minute. I didn’t have time for a dog, but would I find a beauty like this one when I was ready? Not likely! I had been through that scenario before. Besides, I could make him an office pet as she said. It was my office, my business, my practice. I could do as I chose.
“I’ll take him,” I said.
“Visit the vet soon,” she warned. “He probably has worms, and who knows what else right now.”
We became instant soul mates. Yes, I know, the term has been overused, but we became instant soul mates. From the moment I took him home he followed me everywhere—waddling on his little feet, smiling, his Chow tail curled behind him. He toilet trained in four days. He slept quietly in the bathroom all night and then tore wildly about the house, ready to play, every morning when I opened his door. In the car he perched himself on the console next to me and watched the traffic. Fifty pounds later he still tried to sit on the same console when I permitted it, hunched over like a vulture.
Once a lady chased me down the street and insisted that I bring Fred—seven weeks old at the time—into her fancy dress shop for her salesladies to pet. He enjoyed the attention, and generously left a worm on one of their laps.
Chows are not supposed to like water but I took him to the beach regularly. At first he played in the tide pools, but eventually swam in the surf. Thus we were able to take three walks a day regardless of weather— through rain and sleet and gloom of night—like the mailman. Once we frolicked through a category one hurricane. I cleaned out a drainage ditch and he bounded about in the surrounding mayhem: limbs falling, water pounding, wind screeching. Dangerous? Yeah. But who cares? We were a team.
He grew to be a big, beautiful dog.
We did everything together. We took long hikes in the North Carolina mountains and he chased deer when he saw them. Once a deer turned the tables and chased him, and he almost crapped himself running away. Yes, he was a wimp. He sat in the car for hours waiting while I ate dinner with friends and attended concerts. No problem. Better the car than staying at home. We visited the Outer Banks of North Carolina for three days and people stopped their cars in the middle of the street to ask, “What kind of dog is that? It looks like a bear.” One couple invited us on their yacht for a drink and a few liver doggie snacks, which Fred thought was great. I have never felt less alone on a trip than this one. I basked in Fred’s attention.
Observation: if you sit in a park by yourself for an hour and watch children playing, you are suspected of being a pervert. If you do the same thing with a big Chow dog, people think you’re a wonderful person.
We developed all sorts of rituals—as couples are prone to do. At night Fred stood in the doorway and watched as I brushed my teeth and prepared for bed. When I crawled under the covers and turned out the light, he walked to my side, inspected me, and then touched me lightly with his nose. Only then would he retire to his oriental rug at the foot of the bed, twirl around several times, and plop down with a deep grunt of satisfaction. Sleep came almost instantly.
Fred rarely wore a leash—leash laws being one of the scourges of modern society, in my opinion. During our three walks a day—through parks, playgrounds, forests, and anything else that gave us space—he led and I followed. Consequently, when he began lagging a bit during our treks, I became a little concerned. One day he refused to jump into the car altogether and I became even more concerned. Fred, not wanting to jump in the car? Impossible! I took him to a vet.
“It might be the onset of arthritis,” the vet offered, though he made it clear he was not certain what was going on. “I’ll give him some anti-inflammatory medication and a pain killer and we’ll see how he does. Bring him back in a week.”
A week later, however, he was worse. His back left foot was dragging. The vet kept him the entire day and ran a series of tests.
“It may be neurological or it may be cancerous or it may be something else,” he said, shaking his head. “We just don’t know. I’ve consulted everybody in the building.”
My vet was in his sixties and had practiced for forty years. I figured if he didn’t know, no one else in town would either.
“What do I do now?”
“We’ll put him on several medications and see how he does,” he said. “What he really needs is an MRI. You’d have to go to Raleigh for that and it would be quite expensive.”
I strongly suspected the dog was dying, and was more interested in the quality of his life as opposed to simple existence. In the next few days his appetite dwindled, and soon disappeared altogether. He had difficulty standing up, and walked laboriously on three legs, dragging his left hind foot behind him. His pink gums turned white, and he panted constantly despite the temperature. I decided to keep him alive as long as he didn’t suffer, but the vet warned that Chows can be stoic about pain and needed to be watched carefully.
The day arrived quickly when nothing else could be done. He was uncomfortable and probably in pain, having difficulty reclining for any length of time in one place. I drove him to the nearby university which had a playing field area he liked to visit and we sat for a while under a tree, watching the students throw Frisbee. Then I drove him to the veterinarian hospital where an attendant came out and carried Fred through the doors. They put me into a room and I paced back and forth like a caged leopard, waiting. Eventually, the attendant appeared carrying Fred in wrapped in a blanket and placed him gingerly on the floor. We had five minutes together. I stroked him gently while he panted quietly and watched me out of the corner of his eye. I wondered if he could truly see me since his eyes had a strange opaqueness about them. I don’t know. But I supposed it didn’t matter. He knew I was there.
Finally the vet entered. She was a small, thin lady with a consoling smile. She gave Fred a saline shot first, then the anesthetic. He lowered his big head slowly to the floor between his paws and closed his eyes. She gave him the final injection and waited for ten seconds, then checked his vitals.
“Is it over?” I asked. She nodded.
I leaned over and kissed Fred’s nose as I had done a thousand times before, and then put my arms around him and breathed in the splendid odor of his fur. That was all I could do.
It seems to me he died too soon and I feel cheated. He was only ten years old and in excellent health. He was cut down prematurely. But what can you do? I regret that I am not a better writer that I might create a tribute worthy of this magnificent animal. But I cannot. I can only say that he lived a full and interesting life and his death was peaceful. On the whole, that’s not a bad bargain. We should all do so well.