Wednesday, June 5, 2013

My dog's dead

This past Saturday, a fourteen-year-old beagle named Artie fell asleep for the last time. The world is just a little worse for his absence.

My family never had a large enough place while i was growing up for any pets bigger than a hamster or parakeet. I had always wanted a dog. I was sixteen years old by the time i finally got one of my greatest childhood wishes. It had to be something small and manageable, as we were still living in a rented apartment. We decided on a beagle, nothing too aggressive but still dog-shaped, not a toy breed. We visited various pet shops and breeders and i finally chose the most inquisitive, playful but good-natured seven-week-old pup i could find.
Nervously cowering in fear in an old t-shirt in my arms, he farted all the way home. It was even odds whether we'd take him back right then and there for fear of asphyxiation.

He got so anxious in his new home that we had to bribe him with scrambled eggs (careful not to burn them, use minimal oil) to get him to start eating. He'd get so scared of sleeping alone before he was completely housebroken that i'd have to shut myself in the room with his cage and cradle him in my arms to get him to calm down enough to get to sleep. We neutered him at six months, too early by my reckoning. When he started teething he tore the house apart. He chewed apart his plastic toys, his bedding, wooden furniture, even the corners of walls. He could riddle tin cans with canine holes.

He was the terror of every rabbit in the neighbourhood, tracking and chasing them until i was out of breath trying to keep up with him. The one time he actually caught a young one, he stopped dead with it in his mouth, unsure of what to do next, then obeyed my commands to 'drop it'; unharmed, 'it' scurried back into its hole. He'd run with me as dogs do, for the sheer joy of movement, rolling along the ground almost as fast as i could sprint, a seemingly unstoppable thirty-pound little pack of muscle. When we tried using plastic fences as psychological barriers to keep him in one room of the house, he proved there was no such thing as a psychological barrier to him. First he jumped over it. The second time, he simply smashed it down with his chest, then trotted toward us victoriously.

He never got along with other dogs. It's not that he was aggressive. On the contrary, whether because of innate hormone levels, lack of canine etiquette or more likely the young age at which he was castrated, he was always a punching bag, the target of aggression for most dogs he met. We gave up on trying to get him socialized at dog runs; he only cowered behind our legs. The most miserable i ever saw him before his age-related illnesses caught up with him during his last month or so of life was when he got sprayed by a skunk, a pitiful look of shame, fear, confusion and disgust.
Wheels were always a threat. Regardless of the type, they were an unnatural, incomprehensible sign of alarm: skateboards, bikes, baby strollers, wheelbarrows... everything but cars, which he never learned to avoid. The first time i took him outside without a leash, he dashed out into the street where a car ran over him... over him, i said. He emerged from beneath the exhaust pipe somewhat confused, but wagging his tail at me as if nothing had happened.

His joy was always in exploration. Every relatively uncrowded park, every forest preserve, were his domain. He'd sniff every blade of grass, tracking every bug, sparrow and chipmunk which had visited the area in the past week until we dragged him back to the car, happily exhausted. Whether through listening to our heartbeats or smelling the change in our exhalations, he always knew when a member of the family was about to wake up, and would show up at the closed door, starting to scratch to be let in just as we opened our eyes. He would gladly track down my parents or me when asked to do so by our names.

He was never the smartest little degenerate wolf, but he was eerily gifted at communicating with us, his pet apes, his pack. Unlike most dogs, he gladly looked any humans straight in the eyes without the slightest trace of aggression. He had absolute faith in our abilities to fix anything and everything: his ailments, closed doors, toys locked in closets, an empty water bottle. He'd just signal what he wanted, then sit back and watch us perform our mystical "opposable thumbs" routine.
We had a devil of a time keeping him out of our food, and during his life he managed to make himself sick eating half a box a brownies on three separate occasions. With implacable canine logic, he cogitated that even though food that's on a table is off-limits and only what we place on the floor is his, anything that should just happen to accidentally fall off a table was also fair game - and would gradually nudge plates and trays with his nose trying to make them fall without actually grabbing them with his mouth.
He'd ask to be picked up whenever thunder or fireworks went off outside and would bury his head into my chest like a toddler. Bellyrubs always turned into lengthy scratching sessions as he would turn his body his way and that, flexing himself and stretching each limb to show us where to apply our gifted primate fingernails. He would occasionally have nightmares and wake up howling plaintively until one of us came over to his bed to comfort him, at which point he'd lie back down, whimpering as he accepted our reassurances. To this day i wonder what animals were chasing him in those nightmares, or if it was only the emotion of fear itself which grew in his sleeping mind?
He never learned many commands, not because he couldn't, but because obedience simply didn't suit him. "Sit" and "lie down" were a fun enough game, but "stay?" Are you kidding me? Just throw the damn tennis ball you overgrown monkey! Despite this, when leaving on a trip, seeing his anxiety grow because he had already learned the meaning of luggage, i sat down with him and explained that i was going away and he would have to be a good boy and "stay home." As i got up, he shambled off and lay down on the other side of the room and watched me leave, dejected but resigned. 

He lived most of his life with the aftermath of a herniated, then partly ossified intervertebral disc, a common affliction of long-bodied dogs. His hind knees would pop out of joint often enough that he had even learned to come to me whining to fix it for him. He developed lipomas during his last years, but didn't seem to suffer any pain from them despite their size. His sense of smell weakened, along with his hearing, and he developed cataracts. During the last couple of years he had become increasingly incontinent, making scrubbing the floor a daily event. It was only during the last six months or so that all his problems began to catch up with him. The incontinence worsened, he began to lose his teeth, the stiffness in his hind legs became severe and he became unable to climb stairs or walk uphill, and he lost more and more muscle mass in his hindquarters, a problem we'd staved off through exercise so far. During the last month he could no longer go for long walks. He couldn't even scratch himself. Worse, there were indications that the lipomas were no longer entirely benign. He would often wake up in pain and trembling with muscle weakness. At one point a couple of months ago he refused to eat, or even take water, and only clung to us, peacefully lying at our feet. Touchingly, he finally accepted a bit of water from my hands, more as a matter of pack social protocol than joie de vivre. He still had faith in his monkeys. We nursed him back to health but it was apparent that this was his final year.

He had passed the point where life was worth living, and he knew it. When a dog can no longer run and chase and explore, you can't tell him to go read a book. We were no longer able to alleviate his pain. He lived a good, happy life. His final moments were peaceful. He was slightly anxious in the confines of a vet's back room, but he had two members of his pack with him, and just as when he was young and terrified to be left alone, i cradled his head as the barbiturates hit him and he dropped off.

So here he is. When we got him he was almost entirely black when seen from above, white paws and belly and only a bit of tan at his muzzle, lower legs and tail. By the end only his back was still dark, and the white had almost completely covered his head. Here he is at around eight or nine years of age, a tad miffed at being woken up while sleeping next to my mother's bed. He never was the most respectful or obedient pooch. He didn't need to be. He was just naturally a nice, pleasant, cooperative fellow.

I'm keeping his collar as a memento. He never saw it as oppressive. His chains never chafed. He loved his pack, even if we were a bunch of crazy monkeys. My parents will be using his ashes to fertilize a tree my father and i planted behind our new family home. Rest in peace, Artie.

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