You looked at me through the metal linked fence. I looked back, head cocked to one side. My ear hurt.
The woman came with the key and the leash. She gave you instructions. “Hold the leash around your wrist and through your hand. This one’s a runner,” she said.
We all walked outside. Sweet fresh smells! Let’s go, go, GO! I peed on the first upright thing. The ground, in contrast to the cold hard inside, was soft and bumpy. The grass tickled my nose. My paws dampened from the dew. The sun heated my black coat.
The advice the woman gave you was sound. I pulled hard, wagging my tail all the while. The kids squealed and called, “Barney!” The people inside called that word too. Good things happened when I heard that word. Food. Outside. Touches.
Someone from inside watched. You sat down on a picnic bench. You looked at me. The woman said, “He knows some tricks.” Then you said words I understood. “Sit.” I sat. “Shake.” I offered my paw. It was the right thing to do. I received more petting, and this time there was something more. Hugs and something I would later comprehend as love.
I waited patiently while papers shuffled. The excited children patted my head and back, smiling. You asked about my ear. They hadn’t noticed, but you had. A slobbering one-eyed dog looked approvingly at me from the other side of the counter. Barking echoed from inside.
Sitting high on the back seat, as if I had always sat there, the wind whistled through the windows. Someday I would learn how to put my nose out there and snort, but today I sat high and proud and looked out the front. I was on a new adventure, like so many trips in cars had been.
When we arrived, they told me it was home. “What is home?” I wondered. Still on a leash, I was led from room to room. There were oh-so-good smells. Things to eat. Things to chew. Things I tried to remember for later investigation. All at once, there was only you. And me. And this new place.
I was nervous and curious. Where was my cold, hard fence? Where was the rough cement slab? Let’s go, go, GO!
You led me to a bag, rustled with your hand and pulled something out. We went together to sit on the soft warm carpet. You handed me a bone. All at once I understood. “This is home.”
This is a story that needed to wait until I was ready to tell it. But time has passed, and with it, the deep grief I felt. That is not to say I won’t drip some tears in the telling, but it is time for me to tell the story before I forget it. We must all remember that sometimes the right thing to do is the hardest.
Barney had been coughing up phlegm for a couple weeks — congestive heart failure, most likely. Sometimes, he coughed hard enough to lose his kibble, but mostly it was just watery, slimy phlegm. Bubba, who was not his real dad, but his adopted dad, cleaned it up, led him outside, patted his back, and at least once caught it in his hand as if he was his real dad. I know Bubba worried about me, who had loved Barney for twelve of his thirteen years, but he waited patiently for me to decide when the old guy had had enough.
As a pup, he was picked up at a local no-kill animal shelter. He had a previously injured toe, and an ear that stood up more than the other. He could run like the wind, and played hard. While mannerly at mealtime, never begging or asking for attention, abandoned food was his for the taking. He once ate an entire week’s raw meat out of grocery bags while I ran in to get a few copies made at the printer, and was in his seat looking innocent by the time I got back to the car!
It seems like he was with us such a short time, and yet forever. When we knew it was almost time — he was getting skinnier and more lethargic every day — I texted the kids to come see him if they needed to. The girls came and brushed him, the balls of fluff laying in the yard as evidence to their act of love. One son lay on the carpet with him, breathing in his essence and remembering better times, tears streaming from his eyes.
Once I knew they had all seen him that week, there was one more thing to do. We took him out to the dog park one last time. We waited for him to walk our route, stopping for him to catch up, never letting him feel rushed. He waded in the pools and drank from the muddy water. His coat had become dull. He laid down when we stopped. He had become a spectator of the dog-sports he had previously participated in so passionately.
His appetite was almost nonexistent. I boiled a chicken just for him. That night he ate a piece and threw it up. The next day he refused the chicken. I think that’s when I realized there was nothing left for him. During my lunch break, I called the vet and made his last appointment. When I got home from work, we coaxed him to the car and lifted him in.
I chose a different vet this time. The one my daughter had taken the rabbit to when she rescued it. The one who told my daughter she saved a bunny’s life, and told me I should be proud. The one with the old paneled office, and curtains on the windows, and gold linoleum on the floor. We had trouble finding it, and passed the road a few times before we got it right.
It was a quiet ride. Barney didn’t put his head out the window, or bark at the dogs on leashes as we passed.
When we pulled up, a couple holding a dog on a leash motioned us over, but they had the wrong idea. They thought we were looking for the entrance to another building, and quickly redirected us next door. Their young, strong Staffordshire Bull Terrier saw Barney and stood alert. He pulled, and the man holding the leash was rendered off-balance. The dog pulled harder, and the man fell, still holding the leash. The woman commanded their dog to stop, but he didn’t, and the man was in danger of losing the leash.
Barney, in his last act of defiance, pulled at the leash I held. I was surprised by how much strength was still left in him. His ears propped up, and the hair on his back stood erect. The stark difference between the two dogs in stature was alarming. And so, Bubba, not his real dad, but his adopted dad, stood between the dog and Barney. He put his hands on his hips and poised himself authoritatively and stared the dog down. It was a loving act from a man to his dog.
Then I led Barney into the paneled office through the screen door with the homemade sign on it. We were directed to a room with a gold privacy curtain. Barney lay down on his side and watched the feet of people passing under the curtain. There were decisions to make, and we made them all, and signed the papers. Did we want cremation? Yes. Did we want his ashes? Yes. Did we want a clay paw print? Yes. In between each question, I asked Bubba, “Do we?”
Barney was hoisted onto a table. Despite our encouragement, he would not lay down, so they let him stand. A tourniquet was placed on his front leg. I looked him in the eye and told him what a good boy he was. It was the last thing I wanted him to hear. “You’re a good boy, Barney.”
He always hated it when I cried. While some dogs snuggle up to their humans, trying to comfort them, Barney would head downstairs to his den to wait out the tears. It was so important I did’t cry at this time. Breathe. Silent tears felt down my cheeks. “Good boy.”
The needle was pressed and inserted on a bulging vein on his leg. “Good boy, Barney.” His rear legs slowly sank to a sit. “Good, good boy, Barney. You’re a good boy.” Slowly his front legs slid down the stainless steel table, and his head drooped low, finally resting on his paws. “Good boy, Barney.”
The life left his eyes, and the vet listened to his chest. “He is gone now.”
We stayed with him and petted him a few last times. We thanked them. They said they were sorry. And we drove away.
What do you do after you have released one you love from his misery? Bubba drove us to the meat store and we picked out the biggest, juiciest t-bones in honor of Barney, and grilled them up for dinner. We cried a bit, and cried a bit less the next day, and less yet the day after that. We cried again at the dog park, his favorite place on earth. How lucky we are to have had a companion such as Barney . . .
Guardian of the Mailbox, Chaser of Frogs, Best Friend of Man.
Me: You know what is nice about cats? They don’t beg you to throw a ball, or ask to go in and out and in and out. They can sit and stare out the window for hours at a time. Bubba: Yeah, I got a pet rock that will do the same thing. Me: Really? Well, if it picks up its own poop, I might be interested.
So if they aren’t amused staring out the window all day, what DO dogs look at all day?
I’m pretty sure this is all Barney sees while we are out.
Sabbath finds comfort in items around the house while we are at work.
Sometimes it’s more than she can stand.
I wonder what I look like to them as they wait for something to fall off the counter while I’m preparing dinner?
On weekends, they like to go outside early in the morning . . .
The best part of any weekend is the dog park!
At the park, Barney finds frogs in the grass (can you find the frog? Barney can! — click the pic to enlarge)
. . . and chases them into the pond where Sabbath is swimming.
When we get home, Barney is exhausted and collapses in the yard . . .
Just because dogs don’t speak words, doesn’t mean they are any less communicative. There is an imperceptible language that happens between animals of all species. Dogs have it. And humans have it, if we pay attention. It is that something that tells us, “I think I like you.”
Barney can greet other dogs for half an hour at the park, and then take off after one particular pooch, chasing as if he is half his age. It’s that thing. Chemistry? Somehow you are suddenly aware that you want to know more about that person, or play with them in the grass!
We humans love it when our dogs get along. We encourage them and laugh when they bow down to invite another to play. We love it when their tails wag and they give each other positive signs of companionship. But just like humans, canine creatures need negative forms of communication as well. They need to be able to say “Dude, you’re all up in my grill,” and “Don’t sniff me there,” or “Hey, I’m not that kind of girl.”
For the most part people have learned to suppress the urge to growl and bite. We teach our children young to “use your words.” We think of our pets as little humans, and want them to play nice as well. Dogs use the only “words” they can, and sometimes it scares us. However, being the refined creatures they are, they usually walk away from confrontation, and no more than a raised lip or a low growl is needed.
Many humans come to the “rescue” of a dog that doesn’t need rescuing. Imagine if you had someone doing all your talking for you. “Oh, she doesn’t like red. Do you have one in blue?” “He likes paper, not plastic.” Sooner or later, you would probably forget how to talk, look at that person every time someone walked up to you, and hide behind them if someone even looked like they wanted to greet you. You wouldn’t even be able to flip someone off in traffic by yourself!
Barney loves the little dogs, and is especially mild mannered with them. But sometimes his size is a little too intimidating for them. Like most dogs, Barney isn’t interested in hanging around where he isn’t wanted. He will happily find another butt to sniff if the little guy suggests he should.
Yet some humans don’t even give their dog a chance to sniff Barney. They pick up their pup the minute they see big black Barney round the corner. Whether they are afraid their dog will snap at Barney, or that Barney will play rough with him, they are reinforcing messages to their dog that he is unable to “use his words.”
Please know that I do possess a little common sense. I would never recommend humans stand around and encourage dogs to fight. That isn’t civilized for any species. There are also those who bring a dog to the park that does not socialize well with other dogs. It is always important to be aware of your own dog’s triggers and cues. In my experience, moving away from an escalating situation and simply continuing our walk is the antidote.
Very rarely, there are those instances when, by some humanly imperceptible signal, one dog says to another “Are you looking at me?” “You want a pieceof me?” And when push comes to shove, a dog has to stick up for what he believes in. Embarrassed people must step in, break it up, and apologize. Later, I will ask, “Did that dog give you the stink-eye?” After all, I can understand a thing like that.
At the risk of inviting argument, I would suggest that we give the pups a chance to have a word on their own. It may sound gruff or threatening to us, but to dogs it’s the only language they know, and it is actually a quite effective one that usually ends in a mutually peaceful agreement.
Much time and money is spent figuring out what our pets are trying to tell us. My dogs seem to devote just as much effort trying to figure out what I am saying to them. “Go,” “Treat,” “Walk,” “Outside,” “Hungry,” and “Cookie” are very popular words around here. But every now and then I think they know a little more than they let on.
One day, trying to get Barney out of the car, I clicked my tongue and said, “C’mon boy!” No go. He looked at me like I was patronizing him. So I reasoned with him. “You know, if you wouldn’t mind getting out of the car, I can close the door and carry this stuff into the house.” He stood up and stepped out of the car.
Another time Sabbath wanted me to pick up the ball and throw it. I was, to her dismay, too lazy . . er, uh . . . comfortable in my chair to get up and get the ball. I tried exciting her, my voice getting higher with each exclamation. “Go get it! Get the ball! Get the ball!” I tried coaxing her. “Bring mama the ball, baby.” Finally it was the heart to heart that did it. Again I used reasoning. “Tell you what. That ball is not going to throw itself. If you want to chase it, you’re probably going to have to go over there, pick it up and bring it over here.” So she did.
. . . And so I’ve learned not to humiliate them with puppy-talk.
Overheard around our dog/human family:
“Aren’t you done sniffing that bush yet? Honestly, Barney. NOTHING smells THAT good.”
“Please don’t look so sad when I go to work. Someone has to bring home the kibble and I don’t see either of you getting off your butts.” *pointing finger back and forth between them*
“Okay, who pooped right outside the back door? Who DOES that?”
“Do I look like I want to throw a Frisbee right now?”
“Sabbie, you really ought to play a little hard-to-get with Gus next door. You don’t want to give him the wrong impression.”
“You know I can’t resist you when you look at me like that, don’t you?”
“Why did you bark at that dog like that? Did he give you the stink-eye? I bet that’s what it was, wasn’t it? He gave you the stink-eye!”
And to the small terrier trying to hump the Great Dane at the dog park?
The dog park is like Valleyfair for dogs. If you aren’t from Minnesota, replace “Valleyfair” with Legoland, Six Flags, or Disneyland. Basically, you’re looking at an amusement park for dogs. On the way there, they sit on the edge of their seats, look out the front window and whine, “Are we there yet?”
Barney is an old boy. He wasn’t always old. Like myself, Barney once loved to run when he managed to get free. He would glide gracefully over bushes, streak across the occasional golf course, and could stop on a dime for a good sniff in the grass. At the dog park, he now ambles clumsily with a stiff back and old paws. But if you look closely, you can still see the wild in his eyes.
Barney has taken on the role of the official greeter at the park. Whenever we stop at a bench, a field, or the swimmin’ hole, he wanders around waiting for newcomers. Tail wagging, he puts his one ear up and jogs over to say hello, which entails both nose- and butt-sniffing.
When the greeting business is slow, he goes exploring. Off in the high brush, he imagines he is a lone wolf who has been lost from his pack. Sometimes, the only clues we have to his whereabouts are the rustlings in the woods, or the movement of the grasses. Other times, it is a black tail or the one ear flagging his bearings. On one of our recent trips, we saw him bouncing — something I hadn’t seen since he was a pup — through the grass, tail waving wildly, nose pointed downward. There were tiny toads all over the park and Barney was determined to play!
Sabbath is the pup at only a year and half of age. She is also smaller by about 25 pounds, maybe more. She is named after the band, not the day of religious observance. The only time she shows awareness of the other dogs at the park is when she thinks they are after her ball. She lives for the catch.
Sabbath’s favorite part of Valleyfair is the waterpark. Other human park-dwellers have recorded her water maneuvers. Proud, we imagine them showing the video at home for proof of this amazing animal they saw that day. Young children squeal with delight when she cannonballs in the water! While Barney is our steadfast canine companion, Sabbath is clearly our entertainment.
Just like any other trip to Valleyfair, the “kids” will often sleep on the way home. Not a peep — just stinky, happy dogs! At home the parents wearily put all the gear away before crashing on the couch for an hour. Dinner is quiet, the pups are calm and go to bed early.
The next day the parents are wakened to bumps along the side of the bed. It’s the “kids” asking when is everyone getting up and . . . . “Can we go to Valleyfair again?