Monday, May 4, 2009
Our culture--and I suspect most others--is rich with dog stories, and for good reason. Our species and theirs have been intertwined since long before written language, since before even the spoken word. All dog stories, though, have one thing in common. From Where The Red Fern Grows to Ole Yeller to Marley And Me to Rescuing Sprite, in the end, all dog stories are sad.
This is a dog story.
The night I picked up my now-wife for our first date, she cracked open her front door to tell me she'd be right there, but she had to take her dog out first, and went back inside to get him. Standing on the doorstep, I did the mental arithmetic: "Single girl, apartment. It'll be a poodle."
Then out bounded Bob, who was decidedly not a poodle. He was a black mostly-Lab, stubby legged and long-haired. Bob was a pound dog, saved first by the shelter employees who named him (and if you ever met him, you'd know it fit: he just was a Bob) and couldn't bring themselves to euthanize him. They kept him around for weeks longer than the usual policy because they knew he'd make a great pet.
When Beth found him at the Atlanta Humane Society, she'd gone in looking for "a brown hound," in her words. She'd promised her then-landlord that her new dog would weigh no more than 30 pounds. When she found Bob in his kennel, aquiver with excitement over meeting a new person, she said, "Roll over!", and he did. She chose him on the spot, despite his rarely weighing less than 50 pounds on his lightest day.
Bob never rolled over on command again for the rest of his life. He was not a show dog or a highly-trained canine genius, but he did have a great sense of timing.
All Labrador Retrievers are inherently nuts. Bob was Lab-plus. Bob was definitely a Lab--he loved everybody, instantly, and the biggest danger he held to a burglar was being licked to death. He was a goofball who loved to dash around with his tail wagging at 90 miles an hour, and for most of his life his idea of heaven was being in the same room with more than one person and a heavy chew toy. When he was particularly happy--say, when the dog food bin was opened--he'd run around in tight circles. When we got up to take our dinner plates to the kitchen after a meal, he'd circle around at least half a dozen times.
But Bob was also weird. He was a Lab who wouldn't swim (he'd just lie down in the shallows, or better yet, a puddle), and who hated to get his paws wet after a rainfall. He once chased Alaskan bears across our television screen, then looked expectantly up the stairwell (after all, those bears just walked past the window--they must be coming inside!). When our vet examined Bob for the first time, he pronounced the dog "perfectly normal." I told him I wanted a second opinion.
A couple of years ago, Bob went counter-surfing and ate a half-pound of coffee grounds. Have you ever seen a 14-year-old Lab with 24 hours of coffee jitters? Take my word for it, it's quite a sight.
Bob lived a long, weird, mostly happy life. He was about two when Beth adopted him, and eleven when we got married and he became my step-dog. He was youthful for most of that life; when I took him over to Alabama for a family visit, my aunt (who is to dog people what Jay Leno is to car collectors) asked how old he was, maybe four? Bob was actually twelve at the time.
My oldest nephew, who was only two himself and barely able to talk when he met Bob, took to him immediately, dubbing him "The Bob." At Christmas, Collier would be outside our door at the crack of dawn, calling, "Boooob!" over and over in his little voice. We were on vacation when we called Collier last year to congratulate him on finishing kindergarten. He immediately asked where Bob was. When I cracked the old family joke about Bob being in "puppy jail" (shorthand for boarding at the vet), Collier and his little brother both started crying. It took a while to convince them that Bob wasn't really in jail.
I don't know how I'm going to tell the little guy that he won't be able to play with Bob again.
Bob lived to be well over sixteen, an extraordinarily old age for any dog, and particularly so for a larger breed. He reached fifteen before his age began to show; it was roughly a year ago when he just collapsed while eating his breakfast. X-rays showed that Bob suffered from the bane of so many breeds, hip dysplasia. Put simply, his hind leg bones just didn't fit properly in their sockets, and years of romping had worn down the joints. Every step hurt, and eventually even standing up was a chore.
Canine painkillers brought him close to normal for many months, but by the end of last summer, he was tumbling down again, and by fall we had to carry him up and down the stairs. Bob went deaf, and started to lumber around aimlessly in the middle of the night. His housetraining went south around Christmas. We adapted, and got to be very practiced with the carpet steamer Beth providentially bought several years back.
Bob's personality changed along with his infirmities. While we were dating, I told Beth that I'd never seen a dog as relentlessly happy as Bob, and I meant it, but in the last years of his life, he stopped being happy, and that might have been the cruelest loss of all. Two years ago, I couldn't have imagined Bob biting anybody, least of all Beth or me, but he became snappy, and drew blood from both of us. We had to warn visitors to watch their hands, and couldn't leave him around children any more.
We lost a little bit of Bob every day, until finally all that was left was a very old, tired, beaten-down hound who had to be held up to eat and to do his other business. He could only walk a few steps before collapsing, and couldn't keep his feet at all on a smooth surface. He was rarely comfortable, and panted incessantly, regardless of the temperature. It must have been his way of expressing the constant pain from arthritis. In his last months his paws started dragging over the wrong way when he stumbled around, leading his vet to believe he had either a brain or spinal tumor. We went from fearing that we'd come home and find him dead to quietly hoping for it.
Today we stopped waiting. Bob was too obviously miserable for us to hang on to him any longer, even in the moments when he was able to rest, and his old sweet nature reasserted itself. We took him to the vet for the last time, and we held him, and we cried, and we went home without him.
We'll have other dogs, and if I know my wife, it'll be sooner rather than later, but there'll never be another Bob.
I take one thing back, though. I do know what I'll tell my nephews: Bob's gone to where the good dogs go.