When I get to thinking I’m old and approaching senility, I try to remember that in dog years I’m barely ten. In many ways, dogs are like milestones along my life’s journey.
A dog’s life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Dogs are over the hill, or under the ground, before they reach 16. When you’re lazy, people accuse you of dogging it. When you dog someone, you’re being a stalker. And if you’re dogmatic, you’re a dictator.
Getting back to those dogs in my life. There’s the first milestone up ahead. I was only five.
Cinder— He was the only dog of my childhood, and I had to give him away. He was pure black like the cinders my grandfather spread on the icy roads during his years working for the state highway department. I hadn’t had him long and he was barely out of puppyhood when a neighbor claimed he had wandered over and jumped up on her. Now Cinder was friendly and playful, but the neighbor wasn’t, and she reported him as a mad dog to a local constable, who happened to be her cousin. The constable, in turn, made ominous threats about shooting the playful Cocker Spaniel on sight.
There wasn’t much time to spare. My father, recognizing the unfairness of the situation but aware of the reputation of the constable, drove Cinder several miles out of town and dropped him in the woods. It was a temporary emergency decision, and relief came from my grandparents who lived in a nearby town and agreed to take him in. The return to the woods the next morning found no Cinder. They searched and called, but Cinder was nowhere to be found. My mother suggested that the dog—my dog— might respond to me. I came to the rescue. Within a few minutes after calling his name and whistling—something I had just learned to do— Cinder was bounding toward us.
My first dog was never in our house again, but Cinder grew old, his black coat streaking in gray, at my grandparents. He lived a good life, and I got to see him a lot.
Kinji— Our first family dog came to us when our kids were small and I was barely paying the bills from my first job as a newspaper reporter. He was named Kinji by his Native American owner, which meant “black crow” in his tribal language. We moved to our current home in Wyalusing not long after that and our gentle Kinji suddenly became very ill. He died, falling off the backseat with a thud, as I hurriedly drove him to a vet. I drove him back home, shed a few tears with my wife, and buried him. We learned too late it was a virus called Parvos. They weren’t giving shots for it then, but they do now.
Brutus—The canine house guest who was with us for the briefest amount of time was a Saint Bernard I met at the animal shelter while doing a story on pet adoption. I couldn’t believe my luck— a purebred, well trained Saint Bernard who seemed the picture of health. His former owners reportedly had to move and couldn’t take him with them.
My massive companion would run beside me on midnight runs after coming home from my job on the night news desk when I was a daily newspaper editor. I always wanted a dog who would do that. Plus he was great with the kids and seemed the ideal protector.
The perfect companion became a horror movie scene one evening two weeks after bringing him home. We were watching TV when he stumbled into the room, toppled over and started violently jerking and kicking. He knocked over a large coffee table and all I could think of was Cujo. He eventually got back on his feet, disoriented and foaming at the mouth, and now I was thinking rabies. I lured him out of the house, but he seemed his old laid-back self after a few minutes.
The diagnosis was epileptic seizures, apparently quite common among the breed, and medication would be needed to quell the seizures. The vet recommended a regional veterinary clinic that specialized in such things. I made an appointment.
Meanwhile, Brutus had another violent seizure and I had to put him in the basement. I was able to get some prescribed medication, but it was too late. He died on the eve of his appointment, exhausted from the seizures and unable to keep the medicine down. He hadn’t even been with us a month and what had seemed too good to be true when I took him home turned out to be just that.
Muttley and Doc— Muttley was a blue merle collie, a bit high strung but a loving pet for the kids. His chief vice was a tendency to run away in an attempt to find female companionship. He subsequently did, failing to make his getaway without being spotted. A pregnancy ensued. The honorable thing for us to do was take one of the puppies, another male, who we named Doc. They looked nothing alike, casting some doubt on the paternity allegations, but we were a two-dog family for a good dozen years as our kids grew up and went on to college and careers. Muttley actually outlived Doc by a year or so.
Doogie— Muttley was still with us, though old and cranky when another dog came into our lives. The little guy was discovered as a shivering stray in our neighborhood one frigid winter’s day. We agreed to hold onto him while they put a missing dog ad in the paper. Weeks passed with no takers, and that’s how we got Doogie. Muttley grudgingly endured Doogie—a mixed breed who was most prominently a short-haired Corgi— until Muttley quietly and peacefully died of old age.
Doogie, who may have been a couple of years old when we got him, was something of an entertainer who would stand up on his two hind legs like a groundhog to get our attention or entertain guests. The first few months, he seemed determined to run off. We had to keep a tight watch on him when we took him outside or he would skedaddle as fast as his little legs would take him. Fortunately, they didn’t convey him very fast, and I would eventually run him down. At some point, he got the message that our place was his and he settled down as a wonderful house pet. He was affectionate and cute, and he was with us about eight years.
Jake—He lived for about thirteen years, and he’s the only dog I ever bought from a breeder. Doogie had interested us in the Corgi breed, and Jake was a Pembroke Welsh Corgi like the Queen’s dogs. He was the biggest of the litter and was almost twice the size of the typical Corgi.
Jake loved people— so much so that he got upset when guests tried to leave, circling them in front of the door and barking loudly. We figure that was the herder in him. He was all body and stumpy legs, so we never had to worry much about him running away. Jake never made the attempt. He knew a good thing when he saw it. He enjoyed (or maybe just tolerated) long drives, and we took him with us on summer vacations to Maine when the house rules for our lakeside rentals allowed pets.
His final year was both sad and endearing. His hind legs became paralyzed by degenerative myelopathy (DM), a disabling disease of the spinal cord. I purchased what was essentially a doggie wheelchair, which held his back legs aloft with propulsion provided by the front legs. But the paralysis was moving up the spine and toward the brain. It wasn’t long before the front legs too became ineffective. His plight was worsened by a brain tumor above one watery eye that made our once happy dog seem sad. I’m sure he was. It was only a matter of time before the end would come. For several weeks, I had to carry him outside to do his business, returning him inside to oft-changed bedding on the floor beside my chair, The friendly little guy with the bright eyes and what I swear was a smile became barely responsive.
The time had come to make the decision all dog owners dread— taking him to the vet to be humanely transported to eternal sleep. Jake decided to take care of that himself. He died with a short release of breath and barely audible squeal the evening before I was to make that appointment.
And that was my seven-dog life, with little chance there will be an eighth. We’re up there in years ourselves. But, then again, my wife and I are only ten in dog years. So you never know.
(Note: Much of this essay on the dogs in my life and was written years ago as a newspaper column when Jake was still with us.)