“Wolf! Wolf!” I shrieked, slamming into the house as fast as my four year old legs could carry me. Knowing my penchant for fantasy, my older and wiser sister calmly went out to investigate. From safely behind her, I could see the “wolf” curled up asleep inside my red wagon was only a half-grown dog, and a sorry-looking one at that. His coat was dull and patchy and covered with burs. A line of fleas trooped across his head and bloated, gluttonous tics were attached to both short, floppy ears. His ribcage was visible and it was clear he’d been on his own for some time. “Pretty mangy,” I thought, until he opened his eyes, brown and luminous and beautiful. A silent plea entered them as he studied us apprehensively. This pup had not known many kindnesses.
By the time my parents arrived home, we had fed him, bathed him and given him the not very inventive name of Pooch. This time, three sets of brown eyes were pleading. Our mother sighed, our father just shook his head. They gave us the standard parental, “You’ll have to be responsible for taking care of him” speech and then resigned themselves to having a dog.
Pooch thrived with his new family and grew into a fine specimen of mutt. His brown and white coat had the markings of a Border Collie while his curled tail and preference for cold weather revealed a Spitz or other Nordic breed in his lineage. The rest was anybody’s guess. Maybe there was some Greyhound in his blood because he never lost a race and couldn’t be caught—unless I faked a fall at which point he would immediately race back to my rescue. Once, somebody left the gate to our yard open and he was gone in a flash. He returned soon enough, proudly displaying the prize clamped in his jaws—a big, juicy T-bone steak he’d snatched off somebody’s grill. We never did learn which neighbor’s barbecue he crashed.
Each day, he was waiting for me when I arrived home from school, mouth wide open in a canine grin, showing the unabashed joy that is the special gift bestowed only by dogs. Pooch was eager to join any game and was a good sport. He patiently endured being dressed up, harnessed to my wagon and being mauled by herds of children. As I grew older, Pooch listened to my teenage tales of trauma and always had time for me even though sometimes, I’m sorry to admit, I didn’t make time for him. After I left for college, my parents moved to a new house on a small farm. Although he was already an old dog at 13, Pooch underwent an amazing transformation. Set free from the confines of suburbia, he was rejuvenated. He bounded across pastures, chased ducks in the pond and trotted happily beside my father everywhere he went. His muzzle was gray but in his heart he was a puppy again.
Pooch was always the first to greet me when I returned for vacations and he was still there when my college days were over, although by that time his smile had become toothless and his gait stiff and slow. The day came when I realized I had to let him go. Arthritis had almost paralyzed his once swift legs and another winter was approaching. I struggled to control my emotions as we drove to the vet so I wouldn’t upset him but he sensed something was amiss. He began to tremble as I carried him inside but he looked at me trustingly through his clouded eyes. The technician on duty took a look at Pooch and blurted out, “My Lord, girl, how old is he?” Unable to speak past the lump in my throat, I just shook my head. “Well, never mind that,” he continued in a kinder tone, “You’re doing the right thing. We’re going to give this fellow a peaceful farewell.”
I didn’t go into the next room with him—I couldn’t make myself do it. I stroked the soft, brown head that I’d loved for so long, gave him a last fierce hug then handed him to the waiting attendant. I fled to my car where I sat awash in tears of grief until I could compose myself enough to drive home without him. Later that day, in an attempt to comfort me, a well-meaning acquaintance said, “You’ll get over it. He was just a dog.” He was wrong.
More than forty years have passed and I still feel ashamed I didn’t have the courage and maturity to walk through those doors and stay with him until his tired old heart was at rest. Instead, I left him to spend his last moments with strangers and didn’t take him home to bury him on the farm that he loved. I failed him. Pooch was so much more than “just a dog.” He was my most loyal companion and in the end, he proved to be a better friend to me than I was to him.
Oh, people who say "He was just a dog" have absolutely NO understanding of the bond that develops between "just a dog" and his human. (Won't say "Master"). We've had a huge Malamute (115 lbs.) for the past 7 years. He looks just like a wolf. We live out in the Ozarks so any time we let him out (he's a house dog)he has to wear an orange "safety" jacket or vest. One of our local cattlemen would shoot him on sight otherwise. The only time I've ever been without a dog in my entire life was 4 years in college and 3 years in the Army. 7 years out of 79. I love them. So does Anne.
I'll bet he's beautiful--you should post a photo of him. People who don't like animals miss a whole dimension of life, don't they?
Your touching story caused me to remember the doggies we have had in our family and the sadness that came with saying goodbye.
I really enjoy your descriptive writing, as you make me feel very much a part of the story.
I do wish you could have been with us last weekend here in Columbus. So sorry I missed connecting with you in LV.
I wish I had been there, too. Sounds like you made great connections, not only with the people you visited but with each other, too.
Well, now that I've wiped the tears off my face, I can see to type. What a wonderful story, Janet. Just a dog??? Let me at 'em!! I had to put down my mostest-bestest-favoritest "Precious Angel Dog" (one of the many names by which I called him) this past January, and it was about the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. Although I did hold him in my arms while the deed was being done, that didn't lessen my grief one whit. He knew you loved him, and that's what counts. Can you post a picture?
Alas, no. I still have some boxes of photos to sort through but I haven't turned up any photos of Pooch. His image is stored only in my memory.