Thursday, July 14, 2011

All dogs go to heaven

Originally published Feb. 28, 2008

I didn’t want a dog. It was early 1994 and my sister and Dad wanted to get a puppy. Our Siamese cat, Riley, had to be put to sleep the year before because of organ failure brought on by undiagnosed diabetes, and I would have preferred a kitten. I was outvoted. A good friend of my father’s had a Gordon setter, Maggie, with a big litter of puppies. Dad wanted a bird hunting dog
What we got was Katie.
The litter of black and golden-tan puppies were supposed to be purebred Gordons, but as Katie and her siblings grew, it became apparent that some other dog had been a bit too familiar with Maggie. We’re not sure who her father was, but Katie’s tail looked more like it belonged on a German shepherd than a Gordon.
Puppies are a big responsibility. My father had a nearly one-hour commute to his job each way, my mom’s office was 10 minutes away and my sister was in high school. The community college I attended that spring was about a mile from our house. Ironically, the person who least wanted a dog wound up being the one who had to take care of her during the day, driving home on my longer breaks between classes to let her out.
Katie was a scamp, and I’ll admit I didn’t like her much at first. If she wasn’t on a leash when taken outside for potty breaks, she’d try to dash up the hill that separated our house from my grandparents’ farm house. She loved to roam the farm with my dad.
My grandmother dropped off an apple pie late one afternoon, still warm from the oven. My sister and I resisted the urge to dive right in, and virtuously went downstairs to finish our chores first. We came back to the kitchen for our treat, only to find Katie with her paws up on the counter, eating the crust off the top of the pie. Katie repeated that trick to get into take-out pizzas.
Eventually, Katie won me over with her cuteness and her big, soulful brown eyes. I’m convinced that babies, be they animal or human, are adorable for a reason. It’s their secret weapon to make you love and take care of them, and it works.
During her first year, Katie would get over-excited when company came over, greeting them with a puddle on the floor. Though she came from a big litter, she never liked being around other dogs. I’m not sure she knew she was a dog, she was such a people-puppy. She liked to lick, and would often come up and lean against you, laying her head in your lap.
In 1996, my son was born, and we spent his first week at my parents’ house while I recuperated from his arrival. Katie appointed herself his special guardian and would sleep under his crib. If anyone but me approached the crib, she let out a warning growl. She adored children.
My parents moved to Wisconsin later in 1996. When they were preparing to leave on trips back to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, they would ask Katie, “Do you want to go to the farm?” She would not budge from the car door, waiting with her tail whipping in excitement to be let in for the trip north.
Katie loved car rides unless she figured out the destination was the kennel. She listened best to my father, but never quite worked out as a bird hunting dog. A flock of wild turkeys passed through the yard of my parents’ neighbor one brisk afternoon. When the birds were nearly to the safety of the tree line, we opened the front door to let Katie out, asking her “Where are the birds?”
She took off in the opposite direction.
Katie never lost her puppy face, and continued to delight, amuse and confound us with her puppy-like antics. She considered it her mission in life to kill the squeak in any noisy dog toys, her favorite a hedgehog toy. She’d bring one up to you and want to play fetch or tug-of-war.
Until the last year or two, the only hint of Katie’s age was a bit of gray around her muzzle. Then her eyes got cloudy, and she lost most of her hearing. She used to be waiting at the door when anyone ever arrived at the house, but in the last year, we often had to go looking for her, and she could usually be found curled up on her bed in my father’s office.
It became harder for her to lie down and get up, as she began having pain in her hips. The vet gave my parents pain medication for Katie, but in the last few weeks she began having some really bad spells, including one that required her to get an IV to prevent dehydration. We didn’t like to see her in so much pain and knew a hard decision would have to be made.
Last Thursday, I brought my son to my parents’ house so he could say good-bye. Katie was not having a good day. She was barely eating, ignored the treat my son offered her, and kept pacing around, exhausted because it was so hard for her to lie down. Animals may not be able to clearly verbalize their pain, but I could see it in her eyes. Watching her slow, agonizing effort to lie down that night made my heart ache. My son’s last glimpse of Katie came as we were backing out of the driveway when mom let her outside. From a distance, she still looked like a playful puppy.
When a beloved pet ages, you try to ready yourself for the loss and the need to make that hard decision that will end their suffering. While you can try to get ready mentally, there is no preparing your heart.
Last Saturday, I got up early and drove to my parents’ house with the sun rising behind me, and the moon dropping to the horizon ahead of me. There were patches of fog, and the trees were covered in crystal-like frost.
When I arrived, Katie was having a good day. I think it was because she was happy to see my father, who was home from Ohio for the weekend. During the trip to her final veterinary appointment, my parents and I only talked about how lovely it looked outside, and how thick the fog was in patches. I was with Katie in the back seat, where she rested her back end against the seat as she licked the seats, the console and my hands.
We stayed with Katie, stroking her fur as the vet administered first a sedative, and then a final shot. I know that this decision was the right one, having seen the pain in Katie’s eyes lately, but it was so incredibly hard to lose her. Her suffering is over, but we will bear the pain of her absence for a long time. It will ease in time, helped by 14 years worth of memories — the good, the amusing, the frustrating and the sad.
My parents’ house seems so empty without our beloved black mutt wagging her goofy-looking tail, laying her head in our laps, and blatantly begging for treats. You could not have asked for a more loving or loyal dog than Katie. When we get her ashes back, they will be brought to the farm she loved to roam.
For a dog I didn’t want, I failed at trying not to like her. Good pets become members of the family, and Katie will always be in our hearts.

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