Category Archives: dogs

The Circle of Life

Back in March, when we made the correct but heart-wrenching decision to have our dog Abbey put down, we swore with Scarlett O’Hara-like determination that we would never own another dog again.  Abbey had been too good a dog, and losing her had been so heartbreaking, we felt quite sure we would never be ready to have another canine presence in the house.  Abbey was, we were convinced, the toughest act for any dog to follow, and we thought it would be unfair to any dog to bring him or her into our house where — again, in our view — the prior dog had set the bar almost impossibly high.  More than anything, we just felt the hole Abbey left in the family could never be filled by another dog — so we weren’t even going to try.

And yet, despite our tough talk, every time we passed anyone walking a dog, each of us would catch the other casting a long, lingering, and slightly jealous look at the dogwalker and his or her fuzzy companion.  Eventually none of us tried to hide it; we would just watch longingly as the dog passed by.  Almost always, one of us would make the Universal ‘Isn’t That Dog Cute?’ Sound: “Awwwwww…” Clearly, we were weakening.

Suddenly, and quite independently of each other, Barb, Madi and I began looking for dogs on websites for animal rescues in the Maryland and surrounding area.  We started passing e-mails back and forth to each other with attachments we’d pulled off the web.  “Isn’t this one GREAT?” Barb would enthuse.  “Awwww, I want THIS one!” Madi would gush.  Me, I wanted them all.  We scrolled through what seemed hundreds of entries, each dog practically begging us to take him or her home.  We made inquiries about a few; encouragingly, most of the dogs had been adopted. We were pleased for the rescued dogs, but that still left us dogless.

One night, it seemed our decision had been made for us.  Barb and I were out for our evening walk, heading down the hill on a new road that’s being constructed near our neighborhood, when a black dog came wiggling out of the woods toward us.  “Well, hello!” Barb said, and the dog came running right to her, then rolled over on its back , tongue lolling, tail wagging.  The dog was in decent shape — a bit thin and covered with spots of what looked like paint or tar — but while it had a collar, it had no tags, just a shock-collar sensor.  We thought perhaps it had escaped from a yard with an invisible fence, likely taking advantage of a drained battery or broken connection somewhere. 

It was dark, so we took the dog home, fed it, and put it in a bath.  That night, it started off sleeping on the floor of our upstairs bedroom — but the next morning, we found it curled up happily on the couch, its head resting on a throw pillow.  I took it to the vet to see if perhaps it had an ID chip by which we might identify it, and to get a bit of an idea of how old it might be.  After some poking and looking, our vet guessed the dog was about five — and while it had no ID chip, she did say it appeared to have been well cared for, as it was spayed and had no signs of illness, apart from a bit of an ear infection.

“Well, we’re sort of on the market for a new dog,” I told her, “but what do you normally do in a situation like this?  I mean, this is a really sweet dog, and we want to be sure that there’s not some eight-year-old girl really missing her.”  Our vet said she would call the other three animal hospitals in the area to see if anyone was looking for a dog, and would also check in with the humane society.  In the meantime, she recommended we put up “DOG FOUND” posters to see if anyone would call to claim her. “If no one claims her,” the vet said, “I don’t see why you couldn’t hang on to her.”  She sent us out the door with ear drops for the dog, and didn’t charge us a thing.  I love our vet.

For the next day or so, we worked at getting used to this new dog, in the event we might be able to keep her.  Madi was thrilled to have a dog in the house again, and purchased the leash and the multi-colored collar the dog now wore around its neck. We couldn’t agree on a name for her — Madi called her Lucy, while Barb was calling her Jenny.  I just called her the generic “Here, girl!” — oddly, I was finding it hard to attach myself to this dog; it felt too much like someone else’s pet, and Barb pointed out that it always seemed to be looking for a way out, as if it were saying, “This has been great, and you’re really nice people — but I’m ready to go home now.”

Ultimately, we decided we owed it to both the dog and its owners to do some due diligence, beyond merely putting up posters.  We put the dog in the back seat of the car and drove to the neighborhood that backed onto the construction area where we had found the dog. We waited to see if the dog would give some kind of sign that something, anything, looked familiar.  Mostly it just looked out the window.

Finally, we turned down into a cul-de-sac with no signs of life except for an older gentleman on a riding mower.  Barb pulled up in front of the house and waved him over.  He steered toward us and killed the mower next to the car. “Excuse me,” Barb said, “but do you know whose dog this is?”

The man hauled himself up off the mower. “Yup,” he said casually. “It’s ours.” 

His wife came out of the house and the dog — whose name, we learned, was Jada — sprinted for her.  She was home.

As we drove away, Barb cried a little.  When she heard the news, the corners of Madi’s mouth turned down. “She was so sweet!” she sighed. We were happy the dog was home, yeah . . . but we were, once again, dogless.

That afternoon, the phone rang.  It was Mutts Matter Rescue calling to see if we still wanted one of the dogs that had been up on their website. This particular dog was part of a large litter in North Carolina, one of those Mistake Litters in which purebred dogs mate outside their breed and create those wondrous mixed mutts that lots of us find irresistible, but which many shady breeders find undesirable.  The owner — so we were told — was simply going to shoot all nine of the mixed puppies — a practice that is legal in many states — until Mutts Matter stepped in.

The next morning, I picked up this so-called Mistake — a German Shepherd mix, 15 weeks old, and full of the business.  (And pee.  Lots and lots of pee.)  We named him Grayson, due to the fact that with his markings he looks like he’s wearing Robin’s mask.  (While technically that might make him Ace the Bat-Hound, Grayson is a much better name).

Grayson, the Boy Wonder.

We’ve had him a little over a week now, and he’s already fully housebroken, uses the dog door, walks beautifully on a leash, chews his toys (not the furniture), and responds to his name.  He’s also in the middle of everything, following everyone close at their heels and laying on the floor where he can overhear every conversation.  He is, as far as we can tell, the perfect dog for us.

And somehow, I’m quite certain Abbey has given the fellow her nuzzle of approval.  The circle of life just keeps going gloriously on.

Sleep, Pretty Darling, Do Not Cry

Back in late January, Barb and I took our dog Abbey to a specialist to see if they could determine what was causing the rapid deterioration of her back legs.  Initially, we thought she had developed hip dysplasia — a bane to large dog owners everywhere — but Abbey seemed to be getting more and more hobbled as the weeks went on.  She went from dragging her left leg last June, to teetering on her feet by Thanksgiving, to barely walking by Christmas.  Clearly, something else was going on.

Back in January, I promised to give you the rest of the story, once we knew what was happening.  Here’s the rest of the story.

Abbey was subjected to several X-rays and MRIs to see if, perhaps, she had a tumor on her spine that was causing paralysis.  Both the X-rays and the MRIs came back clean — no sign of any trouble — and the vet put Abbey on prednisone as a preemptive strike, just to see if the drug might have any effect on whatever was going on in her system.  But there was one other thing he wanted to check out.

Abbey was showing textbook signs of a new but relatively rare genetic disorder, a disease known as degenerative myelopathy (DM), a progressive and always fatal disease of the spinal cord.  In general, a dog can begin showing signs of the disease anywhere from eight to fifteen years old.  That put Abbey on the left end of the bell curve — she’s only barely eight — but her symptoms were shudderingly precise: dragging of the rear legs, lack of balance, and incontinence.  While the disease can only be definitively confirmed by an autopsy, the vet wanted us to submit saliva samples to the University of Missouri, where most of the leading research has been undertaken, to see if she was, indeed, genetically predisposed to the disorder.

While we waited for the results, Abbey continued to grow increasingly worse.  The prednisone had no effect, apart from making her horribly thirsty — which made her drink more and, in her condition, wet herself without realizing it — so we took her off the drug altogether.  Moving became difficult, and she was eventually confined to our living room, where its concrete floor and easy access to the backyard made it easier for us to clean up after her and help her outside.  But soon, she could only walk with the help of a sling under her back end — I would walk her outside the way a parent plays wheelbarrow with a child — holding her back legs slightly off the ground while she pulled herself with her front legs.

Despite her deteriorating physical condition, she was as spirited, social, and loving as ever.  When we sat in the living room to watch television or read, she would drag herself across the floor so she could lay in the middle of things.  When the enormous snowstorm crashed through the area, she would lay for hours in the spot we had cleared in the back yard, eating snow and watching the birds dive at the birdseed we had thrown out.  As the sun melted the snow and warmed the ground, we would look out the kitchen window and see her sleeping contentedly in the sun, sprawled out full length.

Still, she was showing signs of unhappiness.  More and more evenings, after the lights were out, she would continue her habit of softly barking until I came downstairs and slept near her on the living room couch.  She was having accidents with greater frequency, which seemed to embarrass her — she would bark until someone came to clean her up, and then would drag herself away from the mess, ears down with humiliation.

Late last week, she began to eat less and less.  It was clear she was continuing to decay — and sure enough, several days ago, we received the test results from the lab in Missouri confirming what we already knew: she has the genetic defect that causes DM on both genes.  She wasn’t just a carrier, she was doomed from the start.

On Monday night, we took Abbey to our wonderful local veterinarian who helped us lovingly and painlessly send our dog onto her next adventure.  She died peacefully as Barb and I patted and spoke to her softly.  One deep breath and she was gone, still looking as if she were sleeping.

And I cried. Oh, how I cried.

Dear Abbey

abbeyAbbey came to us as a stray puppy back in March of 2001. From what we could tell, she had been running with a pack of stray dogs — which probably included her mother — and after one of those famously impressive Phoenix monsoons that come rolling in on Spring evenings, she had somehow gotten separated from her pack.  A group of neighborhood kids found her and brought her to us, having heard that Barb’s Golden Retriever had died several months before.  At 30 pounds, the dog looked like a puffy German Shepherd, and a neighbor told us he guessed she was about 6 or 7 months old.

Wrong.  We took her to the vet who took one look in her mouth, saw all baby teeth and pronounced her only a little more than three months old.  She was going to be a big dog.  To this day, I tell people that had you asked me if I wanted a dog that was a cross between a Doberman Pincher and German Shepherd and that was going to weigh more than a hundred pounds, I’d have thrown you off the porch.

Yet, she’s turned out the be the best dog I’ve ever had.  You can tell me you’ve got the smartest dog there is, and I’d smile and nod, but you’d be wrong — because I’ve never seen a dog as sharp as Abbey (we named her Abbey not only as a nod to Abigail Adams, but also to the Beatles album Abbey Road).  It’s more than just, “Go get your dolly!” or “Find the leash!”  She really does understand complex sentences.  If you tell her, “Go downstairs and eat your breakfast, then wait in the front parlor for me to come down,” she’ll do exactly that.  I’ve never seen anything like it.

Even though we live along a state highway, Abbey knows enough to stay away from the road.  When I go out to get the newspaper with her, she’ll walk only two-thirds of the way down the driveway and will wait for me to come back from the street with the rolled up paper — at which point I hand it to her so she can sprint back into the house with it.

And she owns the neighborhood.  The four houses in our immediate vicinity are all accustomed to regular visits from her, and most keep dog treats to feed her, even though none of them have dogs of their own. Some mornings I’ll go looking for her, only to find her laying on our next door neighbors’ kitchen floor, swishing her tail happily while they read the paper over coffee.

When I’m writing, she’ll come quietly in and lay down on the rug I keep on the floor of my office (that’s her laying in her spot in the pic above), thunking her tail when I look up at her. Every once in a while she’ll beg for one of the Milk Bones I keep in a ceramic jar on my bookshelf, giving her head one of those irresistible doggy tilts.

Quite simply, she’s the best canine family member, friend, and companion any of us have ever had.  That makes it all the more heartbreaking for us to struggle with the reality that, at eight years old, she’s starting to get old. Like many big dogs, Abbey’s starting to develop problems with her hips, her legs sliding awkwardly out from under her as she tries to climb stairs or climb out of her bed.  The other morning, she took a tumble down the stairs; this morning, we helped her down, then — to her great disappointment — blocked her from coming back up.  As I finished dressing this morning, she laid at the foot of the steps, looking up wistfully, and once or twice giving a low boof! to hurry me up.

It’s not the end of the world, of course — Abbey likely has a number of years left in her — but we’re going to have to change some of the habits we’ve all long grown used to.  It’s also a reminder to continue to enjoy and treasure every moment we’ve been allowed the pleasure of having with this incredibly loving and special dog, who somehow found us all those years ago.

Here’s to you, dear Abbey — every moment we have you in our lives is a special one.