Goodbye, My Old Friend

Today is a day filled with many tears and much heartache: a loved one has passed on.

The call came late in the day. Lucy, our 13 year old chow, had been showing her age, but still seemed in good health, generally happy and active. Over the past few weeks, however, she had had some days of pronounced lethargy, and had been eating very little and losing weight. Nevertheless, she seemed herself most days — until today. She refused to eat, was unable to stand, and was taken to the vet. The news was grim: she had widely metastatic cancer, and was in her last days. The choice was difficult, but we knew it was the best for her, and after saying our goodbyes, she was gently put to sleep in my wife’s arms.

I stayed late at work, doing nothing either urgent or important, but simply passing time, not wanting to go home. My family was together at my wife’s mother’s house, and I knew our home would be empty. I drove up to the house, dreading my destination. No raucus barking proclaiming my arrival. No smiling face at the back door, no gently wagging spitz-curl tail, no pinned back ears joyful at this reunion, no vocal squeals nor licks on legs.

There was only, silence.

I walked around the house, knowing she was gone, but still in some irrational hope thinking I might see her. Her spot by the window, where she spent endless hours watching the neighborhood, stood empty. Her food dish, barely touched, sat where final attempts to give her nourishment had failed. The fire in my heart burned hot, its acrid smoke tightening my throat, and tears flowed freely.

Lucy as puppy

She had been a fine dog, noble, reserved, deeply affectionate with her family, loyal to a fault. She was strong of will, and needed a firm hand at times, but always came around. You could always get her to lie down — even against her will — but you’d better expect some sassy backtalk when she hit the ground. She had her idiosyncrasies, as most pets do: a passionate love for Kleenex, cookie dough, marshmellows–and toilet paper. If you left the bathroom door open, you could always find Lucy: just follow the paper trail, carefully unraveled–and there she’d be at the end, happy as a clam, munching on her paper snack. Her sweet spot sat beneath her curled tail — an area which you simply could not scratch enough. We used to joke that you could go for days without seeing Lucy’s face: she would butt her hind end right up to you like a trucker at a loading dock, demanding that you scratch her back. “No” was not an acceptable answer, as she snapped her head around and sassed you until you complied. Give her a new bone, and she would trot in circles around the house, proudly parading the spoils of her most recent kill, until finally, in sheer exhaustion, she lay down to savor her repast. She was inconsolable when any one of her pack left the house: whimpering, crying, pacing from door to window, desperately hoping to see you. It mattered not one whit that everyone else in the family was still inside with her: she only wanted to be with the one who had just left.

There are some who will not own a pet, because they cannot bear the thought of losing it. The pain of loss can be so great as to overshadow the joy of their companionship. But the years of friendship, humor, affection, — and yes, maddening frustration — cannot be replaced at any price — even at the price of so great a loss. Our animals bring out the best, and sometimes the worst in us, drawing forth our love and affection in almost boundless measure, even while testing our sanity and patience — and always crushing our hearts and breaking our spirits when they leave us.


The death of an animal is the death of its spirit: so say the philosophers and pundits. But they are wrong. Our animals are redeemed by the passion of love which we pour out upon them — a passion which enlivens their spirit throughout eternity, as they live in our hearts, and in our memories, and in the richness they have brought to our lives. I have no doubt that this fine animal is now at peace, and that our spirits will never be separated from her throughout eternity.

UPDATE: Thank each of you from the bottom of my heart for your thoughts and expressions of sympathy. Frank Porretto, of the always-excellent Eternity Road, has also written about his loss earlier this year of Bruno, his Newfie, in prose far more moving and powerful than my simple words. If you have ever lost a beloved pet, read this, for you will understand–and weep.

Puppy Uppers

Lucy and Ben

Yesterday was just one of those days.

It started off with messages about screwed-up payroll deductions, hassles about 401(k) withholds, followed shortly thereafter by surgery delayed by another surgeon, messing up my schedule for most of the morning. In the office, the new scanner didn’t work, the EMR still has bugs that I can’t sort out, and there is the usual extraordinary pile of charts and paperwork that seem to grow faster than my ability to process them. My to-do list, in spite of getting many things done, actually was longer at the end of the day than at the beginning. Sorting all of this out, or as much as was possible, kept me at the office ’till nearly 9 p.m. I was in a decidedly snarky mood from all of this when I arrived home.

Then, in just a few minutes, life was good again. You see, I took a big dose of puppy uppers.

Those of you, like me, who were addicted to the old classic Saturday Night Live episodes, will have some truly memorable ones. My list is long, but “Puppy Uppers and Doggy Downers”, with Gilda Radner and Laraine Newman, is a long-time favorite.

When I walked in the door, I was immediately greeted by two wonderful dogs. They knew nothing about my struggles with running a small-business or keeping ahead of the alligators of health care which routinely take large chunks of my gluteus maximus indiscriminately. They spent most of the day sleeping and eating, with breaks for chewing on rawhide and fighting over old bones. But their faces light up when I walk in the door, and seeing them is a major shot of endorphins. Jumping, licking, barking, pawing–the kind of enthusiasm you find nowhere else, makes everything else really okay.

Life is really pretty darn good.

Meet Gentle Ben

BenThose who have been reading for a while may recall that last June we got a chow puppy. In the process of describing the history of dogs in our household, I mentioned our first dog–a standard poodle named Walter. Walter was, to make a long story short, a demon dog, a black bastard from the depths of sheol, possessed of every bad trait a dog can have. When we gave his dark heart away to another owner, there was dancing in the streets and more gunfire than a Palestinian 9-11 celebration. Life was good again, and we have spent our years in peace and prosperity with many other critters–cats, dogs, rabbits, even a horse or two–always looking back on Walter as the Dark Ages of Dogdom. Stories of Walter graced every family get-together, as we relived the horror of our vindictive vexatious pet peeve. There was one doctrinal creed, one unimpeachable Truth in our house: we would never get another poodle. Ever. Not in this life, nor the next. ‘Till death do us part. Amen.

But life moves on, and God’s a funny guy sometimes…

Mimi, our chow puppy, started off life as one of the calmest, most affectionate puppies we’ve ever had. Her hidden demons did not appear until she was four months old, when she began to aggressively attack our older chow Lucy, nearly three times her size, with a tenaciousness which had to be seen to be believed. Food contention was first, followed by chew toys, followed by territory, then simply random, vicious attacks which often injured our older dog–and some pretty close calls with our cats as well, whose 9 lives assets lost substantial credit worthiness. She remained very affectionate with us–but despite intense socialization with strangers, was increasingly fearful and started to be aggressive with people as well.

By seven months the decision was clear, after much discussion with trainers and animal behavioralists: Mimi was a dangerous dog. We had to put her to sleep.

Anyone who’s had to put a pet down–even a troubled one such as Mimi–knows how gut-wrenching an experience it is. It is something you never want to deal with again. So we decided, after the events of last fall, that we would let our old chow live in peace before risking her well-being with another dog.

But the desire to get another dog–like the call of the roulette wheel to a gambler–proved too strong to resist. We researched breeds, went to countless dog shows and kennels, trying to find the perfect dog–unwilling to take a chance on another potentially aggressive animal, but still wanting to have a dog with some heft and personality. My wife loves long walks with the dog, and was also interested in doing therapy work at a nearby children’s hospital. Each breed got measured against a long list of positive and negative attributes: friendly with children; medium to large size; easily trained and housebroken; not overly destructive when bored; not requiring huge amounts of activity to stay sane in the house; not aggressive with other dogs; minimal shedding and “dog smell” (which bothers my wife far more than I).

One dog kept popping to the top of the list, again and again: a standard poodle. Yeah, right.

Each time it did, my wife and I looked at each other, laughed, shook our heads–and went on to other breeds. Each one had some fatal flaw, some Achilles heel which made them unsuitable. We kept coming back to the standards. Are we crazy??

We found an excellent breeder in Montana, and grilled her time and time again by e-mail and phone. She heard–many times over–our travails with Walter, and repeatedly swore that her dogs were nothing like that.

So, yes–we’re crazy, certifiable. Our new friend Ben arrived by plane last week. It was love at first site. A light mocha color, calm, devoted, loyal and very affectionate, this dog has all the potential to be a wonderful companion–one of the most special animals we’ve ever owned. He is truly the anti-Walter.

As I said, God’s a funny guy…

Now, before I wreck my reputation as a manly man and a true patriot, let me say this: Ben is not a French poodle–he is a Freedom poodle. No cheese-eating surrender dog here, no sirree. Glad I could put that notion to rest.

Poodles–especially the miniature and toy varieties–are often considered to be “sissy” dogs. The standard–actually the original breed, the others having been bred down in size from them–still maintains this image in many people’s minds–in no small part because they get clipped and groomed like this:

white poodle

The original poodle clip was a functional one, however–the fur over the joints helped keep them warm when retrieving water foul. The poodle, it turns out, is a very old breed–dogs resembling them appear on Greek and Roman coins, and they were first described in literature in the 16th century. Although the French consider them their national dog, they were in fact first developed in Germany, with some breeding input from Russia and France–the name “poodle” comes from the German word pudel, meaning to “splash in the water.” For they were developed as water retrievers, especially for duck hunting. They were excellent hunting and gun dogs–fast, agile, and easy to train–a fact still widely recognized among the elite:

poodle kerry gun

They excel in agility work and are exceptional athletes:

ski jump

One little-known fact about poodles is their involvement in the U.S. space program. Poodles have been used to help identify the planet Mars. And recently declassified military documents have revealed–to the surprise of many–a pilot program for training poodles for space flight:

kerry poodle NASA

The pilot program was dropped when the poodles proved too intelligent and nuanced for the job–and their French connections posed a security risk. It was also rumored that they opposed space flight before they supported it.

Well, we’re not sure our Ben will live up to the high standards of his canine predecessors–but we’re sure glad he’s part of our family now.


Goodbye, Lil’ Buddy

SmokeyThis is a sad day in our home–we’ve lost an old friend. Our fourteen-year-old Persian cat, Smokey, had to be put to sleep today.

About one year ago, he began to develop some weakness in his hind legs. He was evaluated and found to have some lesions in his spinal cord, which were originally thought to be a parasitic infection called toxoplasmosis. The diagnosis was never confirmed for certain, and several courses of antibiotics were of no avail.

Nonetheless he remained stable over the past year, and was comfortable, although he sashayed when he walked, and had increasing problems with incontinence. This morning he awoke quite ill, unable to eat and with total incontinence. The vet confirmed that he had a severe bladder infection and a paralyzed bladder. We all knew the time had come, and he was put to sleep at noon today.

Mopey–as we always called him–was a special cat in so many ways. Possessed of the laid-back disposition so common to Persian cats, he spent the better part of his life sleeping on his back, and virtually all of the remaining hours looking for food. His culinary tastes were eclectic, to say the least–he loved vegetables, especially green beans, chickpeas, and broccoli. His few athletic moments were in such pursuit, stretched to full length to get at the butter dish on the top cabinet shelf, or trying to open the cabinet latch to get at his cat food, just out of reach. Unlike many cats who self-regulate their eating, Mopey was positively Bacchanalian in his dining habits–watching him eat was like witnessing a Roman orgy. Thus engorged, he would stagger over the to furnace intake vent, where he would loudly meow, the echo amplifying his voice as he envisioned himself the great hunter on the plains of Serengeti, roaring his satisfaction at the kill to impress the pride. Then he would stagger off to sleep in some bizarre configuration, spine twisted, legs in the air.

His pursuit of food was legendary. There was the morning I left my lunch in a paper bag with cord handles–the type Starbucks uses when you buy coffee beans–as I went to brush my teeth. On return, I found him with his head in the bag–not the easy way, mind you, noooo!–but stuck through a handle. I yelled at him, and he took off–racing through the house, me chasing close behind, dragging the bag along with him, enleashed by its handles. Screaming at him to let go of my lunch as I chased him was to no avail, as his normally-ponderous frame leapt forward at a pace to make a cheetah proud. Only a torn handle saved my repast from his ravenous appetite.

Cats are meticulous in their cleanliness–but personal hygiene was not Mopey’s bag. Too much work. He had a spotless area on his chest–the only area he could reach with his tongue without straining; everywhere else was the domain of the great unwashed. His oddly-misaligned teeth reminded one of a scene from Deliverance–you half-expected the banjo to start pickin’ in the background. And then there was the nightly holler: locked away in the laundry room for the evening, he began howling in a rising crescendo, sounding somewhere between a brain-damaged infant and a demonic Dantean vision. Strangers were startled and typically headed for the doors at the sound, politely excusing themselves with stories of children to bed or an early rising which loomed. It was an unsettling sound, even after hearing it for years.

But we will hear it no more, and the loss brings tears to the eyes and a tightness to the throat. He was a friend, a companion, a member of the family, a source of many laughs and the particular aggravations which domestic animals seem uniquely able to inflict on their keepers. Our animals are our friends, God-given gifts to entertain us and foster our most affectionate and protective impulses. They are a blessing–but a blessing which departs all too quickly, their candles extinguished to remind us of our own mortality and the power of love and loss.

We love you, Mopey, and will miss you greatly. May your feline heaven bring you endless meals and long naps in the sun.

Update: My daughter, who is in vet school, sent this video along to lift our spirits.

Meet Mimi


Meet Mimi.

Ascribing to the philosophy that more is never enough, we have added to our menagerie of animals (currently 4 cats and a dog), a chow-chow puppy.

We have had a number of dogs over our 31 years as a family (we just celebrated our 31st anniversary, incidentally). Our first: a black standard poodle named Walter. Walter convinced me that Satan is not a myth, but manifests himself in various nefarious ways. An addictively-attractive curly ball of black fur, he grew into a living example of why humane societies run at full capacity. A hyper-dominent alpha male, honors graduate from the Naomi Wolfe school, he was everything dog owners dread: disobedient, vengeful, cunning, hyperactive. Poodles are one of the few dogs where the whites of the eyes can be easily seen, allowing you a glimpse at the depravity percolating in his small, rancid mind, as he shifted his eyes back and forth planning evil schemes and plotting revenge. We finally gave him away to another family– poodle-lovers, blind to the genetic wickedness of this dark breed–where he reportedly was trained with Twinkies while terrorizing an entire neighborhood, until Mephistopheles called his black soul home.

Despite several years of intense psychotherapy and counseling, we succumbed a few years later to our addiction, and acquired another dog–this time a German Shepherd. A series of them, actually. A fine breed, this: loyal, obedient, intelligent, handsome. Sheds like a blizzard in Minnesota, year-round, and rather prone to becoming crippled at a young age by hip dysplasia–had to put one dog down due to this disorder–as well as the occasional personality disorder prized by drug lords: their tendency to get vicious with unpredictable provocation (one Shepherd we obtained at nine months of age, without knowing her past history of abuse, liked to lunge at young children at the park–undesirable trait, to be sure. May she rest in peace). Shepards are highly disciplined, and can be trained to avoid even the most irresistible of temptations:


Our current dog is a red Chow-Chow female, Lucy, who has proven to be a wonderful dog in every respect–perfectly suited to the eccentricities and temperament of our family.


Chows are an ancient breed. They are a member of the Spitz family, thought to be one of the original canine breeds (along with mastiffs and sight hounds). They are generally considered to have originated in China, although they may have been brought there from Mongolia as early as 1000 B.C. Their images appear on Chinese pottery and porcelain from the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 22 AD), and there are references in Chinese literature, beginning from several hundred years B.C. Some paleontologists believe that Chows were an evolutionary accident, having a common ancestor in the bear: Chows and some species of bears are the only mammals with black tongues, and both are born with 44 teeth, unlike the 42 seen in canines. Anyone who has seen a red Chow puppy cannot but recognize their uncanny resemblence to bear cubs, with their black short muzzles and ears, stocky bodies and stilted gait.

Chows were prized by Chinese emporers of the T’ang Dynasty (7th Century A.D.), and it is said that one Chinese emperor kept 2,500 Chows to accompany his ten thousand hunters (Of course, there were no scoop laws in place back then). Admired also by Western royalty, used by Chinese peasants for food and clothing (“kicked-puppy stew” was a delicacy among the peasants), and a favorite of Hollywood movie stars in the 1920’s, the Chow-Chow has had a most interesting history. They came to America by way of England in the 1700’s, aboard merchant ships carrying diverse Far East cargo colloquially known to sailors as “chow chow.”

Chows have a distinct personality: aloof, cat-like, reserved in affection, especially for strangers, and somewhat strong-willed. If not carefully socialized early in life, they may become overly wary, protective and aggressive, reverting to their ancient temperament as guard dogs and hunters–a trait which sometimes finds them grouped with pit bulls, rottweilers, and other breeds known for unprovoked attacks. In fact, well-bred and properly-raised Chows never exhibit this behavior, which is an indicator rather of poorly-bred owners.

But Lucy is ageing, her sassy personality and spry humor sapped by arthritis and 13 years of life. A constant companion of my wife on her long walks, she increasingly has trouble making the journey. And so, enter Mimi.

We drove to Sandy, Oregon, a small town near the Columbia River about 30 miles east of Portland, where we had found a breeder who had been raising Chows for over 50 years, breeding them for health, temperament, and an open face, rather than the more-typical deeply-furroughed brow and large mane of the show Chows. Driving up the wooded, overgrown drive to a ramshackle abode over a century old, we fully expected to find Ted Kaczynski’s long-lost mentor, complete with brown-wrapped packages ready for mailing and a faint smell of C4. But the smell was anything but faint: home to over 10 dogs of all ages, the aroma of urine, dog sweat, mold, wet fur, and that indescribable odor of elderly humans rarely bathed bitch-slapped your senses into overdrive.

But the Chows: surprisingly friendly and good-natured for a breed known for its wariness. Mimi sat on my lap, perfectly calm as a 12-week puppy, and rested her soft head against my stomach. The deal was sealed, right then and there. For surprising little money, she set out on her journey North, sleeping and resting peacefully in the back seat of our car for hours.


She is a wonderful dog, very affectionate and social, although beset by the liabilities of her age: chewing, accidents, and a fondness for chasing cats which is teaching her cause and effect. Even Lucy–never enamored of strange dogs–is losing her coolness and playing with her new roomate.

I have heard that dogs–rather than religion–are the opiate of the masses. Far be it from me to dispute this, as the fix I get from a loving dog is about as good as it gets.