10 May, 2010

A tale of two dogs.

It seems like this spring has been particularly nerve-wracking for my friends and their dogs. First came Tucker, a goofy and beloved Dobe, diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy. He wouldn’t eat. We pulled for him, we yearned for Tucker to eat. I came home each day and checked his owner’s blog, just to see if today was the day Tucker gave in and chowed down on something, anything, no matter how unhealthy. Any calories at all. And always it was the same: nothing. Maybe a bite or two, but not nearly enough to keep going. Still, a group of us were worrying and fretting and wishing so hard for Tucker and his owner that things would turn around, we kept hoping, kept wishing, as if our hope and wishes alone could pull him through.

Which of course they couldn’t. Tucker didn’t make it through. I cried when I read it, hurting for his owner but not for Tucker, not anymore. He’d gone where good dogs go, it’s just that people are never, ever ready for the gaping hole dogs and cats rip in our hearts when they go on without us.

I never met Tucker, but I cried when he was gone.

Then came Spike, a dog I had met. A small red irritated looking spot on his gum turned out to be a tumor that had invaded his nose. I panicked with his owner, my friend Liz. Thousands of miles away in body, in spirit I was pacing the floors in her flat, waiting to hear the results of one test after another, waiting to hear whether the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes, was it operable? What could be done? Would he get to stay, or would he too go on?

In the end, he got to come home from the hospital, minus his nose. The day he got operated on I wanted so badly to e-mail Liz and ask for news, but I knew I couldn’t while I was at work because if the news was bad, I didn’t want to find it out there. I was giddy with relief when I got home and asked her for news and oh, glorious day, the surgery worked, he would be home on Monday. And on Monday I cried with relief and to see his poor, foreshortened face.

Spike isn’t my dog, but I cried when he came home.

And I think the reason that we get so attached to these animals that don’t belong to us is that we know that if these dogs, these well-beloved, well-cared-for, adored and coddled dogs, if they can get so sick so suddenly, if they can die, then our dogs can too. We root for them to pull through because if they can, then maybe when the day comes for our dogs, our dogs will pull through, too. Our friends’ dogs become talismans, touchstones, we pour our hope for health and longevity into them because to see a dog suffer, get sick, and finally let go is to know that some day we may find ourselves in this position and no one wants to do that.

So we hope and yearn for Tucker to eat, and we cry when he takes his leave, imagining that one day we, too, will be down on the floor with our dogs, begging them to take just one bite, to swallow just one little bit of food, to hang on, to stay with us. To be young and strong and charging around the yard again, to not make us deal with a missing bowl at dinner time, a missing head under our hands, a missing weight on our feet at bedtime, a hairy shadow that isn’t there. If beloved Tucker could leave his person, then our dogs can leave us, too, and will someday.

We cheer when Spike comes home, and cry with relief, because in our hearts we know that someday we’ll be waiting for the lab results, waiting to hear if anything can be done, anything at all, just so that we can bring our dogs home with us, whole in spirit if not in body, just so that we can keep them for a few years longer. We root for his recovery with all our hearts, and cheer each breakthrough, however tiny, however marginal, we cling to the fact that he came home to his person and the missing bowl, the empty collar, have been pushed back and away, no longer an imminent now but once again put off into the misty future.

Rest easy, Tucker. You are a good dog, wherever you have gone.

Good luck, Spike, and all my wishes for a speedy recovery.

24 April, 2010

You think you know somebody….

One of the reasons I cherish my dogs is that just when I think I know how they work, inside and out, and that I can predict their behavior consistently, they serve me up a surprise and it’s a 50/50 chance that it will be a pleasant one.

For instance, Tink. She’s been with me since she was 9 weeks old, I raised her and I train her and live with her and take her walkies and wrestle her for the pillows at night. Around 18 months or two years old, she started having hysterical barking meltdowns if she saw a dog who looked unfamiliar to her. This may have had something to do with her sucky vision, it may have been her hitting maturity, who knows. We worked the “Look at that dog!” game from Control Unleashed religiously, and that got us to the point where her hysterical barking meltdowns were manageable although still embarrassing, but at least I could distract her and get her out of the situation if I my vigilance failed so hard we got into a situation in the first place.

So for the past three, three and a half years, I have been watching for other dogs and fleeing if I saw one, and hopefully I saw it before Tink did. It was just one of those things, you know. Everyone you love has certain quirks that irritate the shit out of you but aren’t going to change, so you just learn to deal with them and view them as an integral part of the person you love, one that maybe you would rather do without but not if it meant doing without that person entirely.

Today, Tink and I went up to Chatham, where the 28th Massachusetts, Company B was having a Camp of Instruction, as was the Fredericksburg battlefield’s Washington Artillery unit. We wandered around some and then I saw two gentlemen with three collies between them, headed our way. I spotted them before Tink did and thought “Oh shit, better move out” so we walked away from the 28MA’s encampment toward the Washington Artillery, which was down a grassy road. Tactical error on my part, because after a few minutes, here came the collies, and this time they were between us and escape. Whoops.

I called to them when they were a ways away and said “She’s going to bark when she sees you, she’s mostly blind and nervous about strange dogs!” and backed us off the road so they could get by. Tink gruffed once when she noticed them, but… I said “Shhhh, it’s OK.” and she believed me and settled down. When they got up to us, one of the gentlemen asked if the dogs could sniff noses, and I said “Sure, if she’s all right with it” and said “Tink, you can say hi” and Tink proceeded forward confidently toward three strange dogs who were radically different from any dogs she has spent time with before, and she sniffed their noses and butts. She said a very polite hello without gruffing or having hysterics or anything, just some maneuvering to keep from being surrounded by the three of them, as dogs will do.

One of the collies, the oldest to judge by the grey on his face, was also mostly blind. She spent the longest time greeting him, the two of them carefully sniffing each other, inch by inch, from nose to tail, all totally relaxed and “hey I do this all the time” which may have been true in the collie’s case. For Tink, though, it was a first and I kept waiting for it to break out into barking, especially when one of the younger collies had a good excited bark at a jogger, but it never did. The dogs said hi to each other, and when they were done they ignored each other.

I almost wanted to cry. Maybe Tink’s life can be much less circumscribed now, if we can go places where there will be other dogs without having a loud and embarassing temper tantrum. I’ll have to try it again sometime to be sure, but things are looking good right now. Today was one of those good surprises, one of those moments when I realize all over again that dogs are not static pieces of furniture, but living, changing, marvelously doggy beings with inner lives of their own.

Good dog, Tink. That’ll do.

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