I am not a pet person.
Don’t get me wrong, animals of every kind are great. And I love that other people get so much enjoyment out of their furry (or feathered, or fishy, or whatever) friends. But I’m typically the sort of person who tends to enjoy pets most when they belong to someone else. I’ll gladly come over to your house, scratch your pooch’s ears, and go home happy.
I think it stems from my rural upbringing. When I was small, my family raised rabbits. No, I mean we REALLY raised rabbits. Daddy built a big white barn with rabbit cages suspended from the rafters, cement walkways between rows, the whole shebang. We raised them to sell and to eat. I’m fairly certain I ate enough rabbit before age six to pretty much fill my lifetime quota. But the lesson you learn when you grow up around eatin’ animals is that getting emotionally attached is a bad idea. Couple this with the fact that our house fronted a busy two-lane highway – or as we called it, the Death Road – and you might understand why I unhooked my emotions from pets a long time ago. I remember being around five or six years old and having my latest victim in a string of poor, doomed kittens. This one was smarter than most and survived life near the Death Road for nearly a week. And when the inevitable happened, all I can remember thinking was, “Wow, that one lasted a lot longer than the others.”
So it may surprise you to learn that despite all that, we’ve got an old black Lab that holds a pretty large chunk of my heart. Our chocolate Lab, Chief, went to the great fire hydrant in the sky last fall after never fully recovering from an accident. So now all we have left is our old man. His name is D.O.G. (pronounced Dee-Oh-Gee. Get it?)
About thirteen years ago, the hubs got the itch to duck hunt. For Christmas that year I bought him a set of Carhartts that would probably keep you alive in the Arctic Circle, and we started looking for retriever pups. My best friend and her husband (who loves to hunt) had a pair of hunting Labs expecting puppies, so we arranged to go see them when they were weaned. We drove to their house on a cold January afternoon and went out to the shed to take a look. Inside on the floor was a squirming mass of black and brown fluff that turned out to be the cutest dang bunch of puppies I’d ever seen in my life (until Chief came along in the next litter anyway). Our method for choosing a pet has always been to meet, observe, and then pretty much let the animal choose us, rather than the other way around. We bent down to start scratching silky puppy ears and ended up sitting on the floor with them. Sure enough, after a few moments of sniffs and pats and general adorableness, D.O.G. climbed himself right on up into my husband’s lap and made a nest there. We had a dog.
I confess when we took him home that day, I figured I would follow my normal pattern: play nice but don’t get too attached. In those days we were in the process of selling our home in Tulsa and moving (check out my story, “Claremore, Trainmore: I Call It Home” on moreclaremore.com). It’s good we moved as quickly as we did, because our backyard in T-Town was about the size of a postage stamp and not suitable for a large dog at all. Our neighbors had two chows that were meaner than hell and we didn’t dare leave our adorable new pup in the back yard, because the chows had already proven they were willing to climb the fence to eat our previous pets. So we resorted to crating.
I understand that crating is often necessary. It was in our case because he was a tiny puppy with no housebreaking training and we both had full-time jobs. But I feel it’s needlessly cruel to leave an animal in a crate for longer than absolutely necessary, so for about a month I would go home every day on my lunch break (as I was the one with the geographically closer job) and let D.O.G. out of his crate. He would go outside to pee for me and we would play for about a half hour before I had to go back to work. If I hadn’t had this forced bonding time with him, I’m certain I wouldn’t be so fond of his hairy mug today.
Pets are good training for having kids. If you can’t handle the responsibility of a pet, you have no business having a child. And our dogs were definitely the precursors, the groundbreakers, the beta testers. I remember many an afternoon standing at the back door with the hubs, watching our boys butt-tucking around the backyard, laughing up a storm at their hijinks. I remember the day D.O.G. took a sharp corner around one of the cedar trees in our yard and nearly put his own eye out on a low-hanging branch, and the panic that we felt rushing him to the after-hours emergency vet (because of course it was late on a Sunday evening). I remember the hours we spent housebreaking, training, playing, and guiding. I remember the time D.O.G. got sprayed by a skunk at my in-law’s house and the hubs had to drive him home, both of them green and pukey from the stench. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a black Lab turn green with nausea. We had to scrap the car.
Then came the day that Chief got sick out of the blue and we took him to the vet. I mean the kind of sick where he was fine one day, and literally the next he was skeletal and frail. They couldn’t figure it out and after a day or so finally asked permission to do an exploratory surgery. Extremely long story short, we now suspect he got kicked by a horse or a cow and it caused severe internal damage. His liver was flopped over on itself and tangled in his intestines, cutting off its own blood supply and dying rapidly. They told us he wouldn’t live through the night. We told the kids. They cried. It was bad.
The next day we got a call: Chief had made it through the night against all odds and seemed to be perking up quite a lot. We were elated! The hubs picked him up and brought him home with more staples than Frankenstein and enough prescriptions to fill a nursing home dispensary, but no cone – which I thought was odd in passing but I had an infant daughter warring for my attention so I didn’t press. We made him comfortable and prepared to settle back into our normal lives.
The next morning, when I returned from dropping my son off at school, I couldn’t find Chief anywhere. He wasn’t lying on the back porch where I’d left him and wasn’t responding to my calls. I started getting that weird fluttery feeling in my stomach that you get when your body is trying to decide if you’re going to have a freak-out or not. I walked all over our five acres, calling for him. Great, I thought, his dumb butt is probably roaming the neighbor’s pasture again looking for a horse to finish him off (Chief was never the smart one of the pair). At last, when I’d circled back to our porch and was about to give up, I saw movement under a tree way back in a corner of the yard. There was ol’ Chief, lying under the tree, wagging his tail at me weakly. I started toward him, calling his name. He struggled to stand and I could tell something was wrong. When he finally made it to his feet…his guts fell out. He had chewed out every single staple in his belly and stood there looking at me like, “I did a stupid thing. Sorry bro.”
The hubs made it home so fast I think he was there before I even hung up the phone, scooped up Chief and rushed him back to the vet. Turns out guts die quickly outside the body and if I’d run any errands or delayed in any way checking on him, we would have lost him that day.
This time Chief came home with a cone, and I watched him like a hawk until I felt confident he wouldn’t do anything stupid. Which meant I watched him a lot because he was a super sweet dog, but kind of dumb. Meantime, D.O.G. was pacing around the yard, obviously concerned for his little brother. When Chief came home, D.O.G. stayed by his side almost constantly. They napped together and inspected their territory together, and D.O.G. made sure Chief got his fair share of food and water. It was heartwarming.
We soon realized Chief had bigger problems than we thought. He was having seizures and needed someone to keep an eye on him. After a bit of debate, Chief went to live with my sister-in-law, who has a heart as big as Oklahoma when it comes to pets. He thrived there for the better part of three years, until he just couldn’t go anymore. During that time we took D.O.G. to visit when we could and he adjusted to life at our house without his brother.
As the years have passed, D.O.G.’s muzzle has gone gray, the eye he nearly put out ages ago is blind and he has cataracts. Lately I’ve noticed his hearing isn’t sharp anymore. His hips bother him and he has trouble getting around, but the low-dose aspirin I give him seems to help. He spends a lot of time lying in the shade in our front yard, surveying his kingdom and thinking his canine thoughts. He still gets excited at mealtimes and he can still get up on his own, and until those things change, we are going to let him lie around in the yard for as long as possible. I watch him now, ambling around sniffing the things he can’t see, and my heart feels a peculiar weight. The weight of knowing his time with us is nearly finished, and the weight of gratitude that we were chosen to be his family.
I will likely never be a big pet person. But there will never be another pet that will take the place of this 80-lb black Labrador in my affections. He worked his way into my heart as a puppy and took up residence there forever. Good boy, D.O.G.
Update: If there’s a Heaven, the Pearly Gates have a doggy door. My brain has the words to express my sadness at his passing, but my heart hurts too much to write them. Goodbye, my dear friend. D.O.G. Jones, 12/29/02 – 04/04/16