Thursday, June 25, 2009

Good Dog

Nine years ago, my family fostered puppies in suburban Dallas, finding homes for about twenty-five dogs over the course of six months. It was the policy of the rescue group to spay and neuter even the youngest puppies before adoption, and I sat in the waiting room of a vet’s office while rottweilers Blackberry and Lizzy were readied for the trip home after surgery.

Drama unfolded on the other side of the waiting room. A man and woman discussed with a vet the fate of a small white kitten they’d recently adopted, who was failing to thrive. The vet looked grim, and said that the kitten had been too young for adoption. A four- or five-year-old boy—thin, blond, serious—sat near the conferring adults. When he wandered toward them, his mom harshly told him to go sit down, and he chose to sit down by me. I gave him a bucking-up look. I wanted to hug him. He looked at his parents, he looked at me, and I could see that he was very close to tears. He spoke quietly to me.

“What does it mean…put him to sleep?”

I'd overheard the vet, and I knew that the boy wasn't talking about general anesthesia. Even so, I looked right at him and said, “I don’t know.”

Clearly, he didn’t believe me.

“Does it mean…to kill him? That he’ll die?”

I paused and answered yes.

He looked justifiably horrified, and couldn’t speak, but just sat there with sloped shoulders.

“Then what?” he asked. “What happens to him after he dies?”

“I don’t know,” I said again.

He looked right at me and asked, “Will he go to heaven?”

I had long ago abandoned any hope of heaven, any fear of hell, but I wanted to comfort the child, so I lied.

“Yes,” I said with certainty. “He’ll go to heaven.”

“But who will take care of him in heaven?” he asked.

“My mom will take care of him,” I said promptly and confidently, surprising myself.

“Is she dead?” he asked.


“Does she like cats?” he asked.

“Very much.”

“But…how will she find him?” he asked, near-panic in his voice.

“That’s the magic of heaven,” I assured him. “She’ll find him the instant he arrives in heaven, and she’ll take good care of him always.”

“Always?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Yes.”

I could tell he believed me, and that he felt a little better. His impatient mom (the kind who finds children’s questions annoying) hollered at him to “leave that lady alone,” and he left my side and found another chair. My puppies were ready by then. I collected them, and gave him a final thumbs-up as I headed out the door.

I was in that too-familiar grief state, where sadness meshes with clarity. I felt my senses heighten; I felt self-contained and whole. I had done my best with the little boy. Sometimes, that’s the only comfort available to us: the knowledge that we’ve done our best.


The first time we saw Phil, we were in the parking lot of a pet store, preparing for an adoption event. Phil was coming at us fast, at the business end of a long, taut leash. He seemed to be grinning. His eagerness brought a smile to my face, and I noticed that my husband was also smiling. We bent for a brief snuggle. Phil’s fluffy orange fur begged to be touched, to be tousled. He wiggled under our hands; he licked our wrists. He was a chow/German-shepherd mix, about six months old. He seemed part lion cub, part bear cub.

Phil spent that Saturday in a crate, not wowing anyone with his amiability (he didn’t like the crate, and he didn’t like being poked by children through the crate). My husband and I spent the day tending to the seven puppies we’d been fostering since Christmas (it was now mid-January). Folks love puppies, and by late afternoon we’d found homes for five of them. We took the remaining two home (they’d find homes the following Saturday).

Soon after getting home, I got a call from Ann, the leader of the rescue group. She asked if we’d consider fostering Phil, now that we had so much extra room, and so much extra time. “He really doesn’t want to go back to the shelter,” she said, in a tone meant to conjure up the horrors of The Shelter. Five minutes later, I was back at the pet store, tucking Phil into the Honda CRV. He arrived at our house all wags and smiles, all fluffiness and eagerness.

He settled happily into his new and over-sized toy-filled crate, his chin resting on his front paws, his eyes following us around the room. He was grateful for every kind word, every treat, every backyard visit. Over and over again, he'd run around the pool, exhausting himself. He'd lie down, panting happily, watching us for clues as to how the day was going to unfold. A walk? A peanut-butter Kong? A tennis ball? “He really doesn’t want to go back to the shelter,” my husband would reiterate softly, stroking Phil’s sun-warmed fur. My husband and I would share a meaningful smile…a smile that lasted one beat longer than our typical smiles.

Every Saturday morning, we took Phil (and assorted puppies) to the pet-store adoption. He spent the day in a too-small crate, looking ornery, and occasionally acting ornery. We waited for someone to choose him, but it wasn’t happening. Every Saturday evening, we brought him home. We tried to hide our disappointment from him. We said encouraging things.

One Saturday morning, I took Phil to the pet store, but then returned home to care for some ailing puppies (if I could keep them alive until Monday, they could be treated by a doctor). Mid-afternoon, I got a phone call from the adoption coordinator: Phil had been adopted! A pair of newlyweds fell in love with him, completed the necessary paperwork, and took him home to a wooded lot on the outskirts of the north Dallas suburbs. I was startled to hear the news, and not as happy as I expected to be. But I was assured by the adoption coordinator that all was well, that “they were great.” Even so, I felt that I should have been there…that I should have vetted Phil’s new family.

Late that afternoon, I got another phone call from the adoption coordinator. “Phil’s back,” she said. I didn’t wait for any details. (Later, I would find out that the newlyweds had “forgotten” that dogs weren’t allowed at the home they were renting. Bullshit like that happened all the time.) I grabbed my purse and ran to the car, my heart pounding. I drove into the parking lot, and immediately saw Phil sitting in a metal grocery cart. It was surreal: Serengeti meets Safeway. I don’t know who put him there, or why, but I threw my arms around him, carried him to the car, and called my husband. “I want to adopt Phil,” I said, my voice breaking. “Okay,” he said.


When I spoke at my mom’s funeral in 1982, I listed her likes (men, cheeseburgers, etc.) and dislikes (wives, raisins, etc.). I’ll do the same here, with Phil. (Perhaps there will be some overlap.)

Phil liked sleeping with Mommy and Daddy. After moving back to Utah when Phil was a year old, the dogs spent less time in their crates, and more time roaming free in the house and backyard. (The last few years, Phil was never in his crate.) Right or wrong, we eventually invited him to sleep in our bed, and every night he positioned himself between us, warm and panting and smelling of dog (but good dog). I’ve never felt safer. My lifelong fear—that someone was going to sneak up on me while I slept—vanished. Phil was mighty, and Phil was vigilant.

Phil liked a walk. Most evenings, at sunset, we took the dogs for a walk around the block. After a busy (and sometimes lonely) day, it was a half hour—sometimes longer!—that I spent with my husband, free from distraction. We talked about the day; we watched the changing sky; we held hands. We appreciated our adorable dogs, and their idiosyncrasies. We met the neighbors, their children, and their dogs. We basked in the glow of responsible dog ownership: on hot days, on cold days, when we were tired, when we were missing the first few minutes of “24.”

Phil liked a ride in the car. Once or twice a week, he went to Wendy’s with Mommy, for chicken nuggets. Sometimes, he sat upright in the front seat—next to me—and people smiled and waved. I couldn’t resist reaching over and stroking his silky ears, burying my face in his neck, cooing to him (despite John Steinbeck’s assertion that such behavior shows disrespect for the dog). “Who’s Mommy’s baby? Who’s Mommy’s good dog?” I asked, in seldom-used baby-talk. Sometimes, he lay down in the backseat, or the cargo area, his chin on his paws. He was never nervous or agitated on a drive; he was always mellow. Occasionally, I fantasized about driving forever, about driving cross country, or at least to the next county. I should have. I think he would have enjoyed it.

Phil liked ham. He was cavalier about most food, but he could get excited about ham. To score ham, he was willing to do that most submissive of dog tricks: the sit.

Phil liked peanut-butter Kongs. Every evening, he reverted to puppyhood as I prepared the Kongs in the kitchen. He stood in the living room…waiting, anticipating, seeming to hop up and down on his front paws…his nose in the air, his tail wagging gracefully like a giant feather-duster. I entered with the Kongs, and he sat as instructed, but only briefly. Once the Kong was on the floor, he assumed a play pose, and then slowly lowered his cute butt onto the carpet, finally relaxing with his Kong between his front paws.

Phil liked weather extremes. Despite his long and thick coat (and despite the doggy door that allowed ready access to a comfy house), he enjoyed the baking heat of a Utah summer. He’d find a patch of bare dirt in the backyard (not a daunting task), stretch out, and nap. He also enjoyed a blizzard, and would stay out until he was covered with snow…until he was a large white lump in the middle of the patio. Then, he’d come in and shake off in the middle of the living room. I’d towel him dry, and he’d go back out into the snow or rain, eager to experience the elements.

Phil liked freedom. Specifically, he liked having more freedom than the Other Dog. He enjoyed being preferred. (He might have learned that from me.)

Phil did not like the vet. He did not like any of the vets. He did not like the parking lot, the waiting room, the scale, the receptionist, the techs. I’m surprised he tolerated the presence of my Doctors Foster and Smith catalogs, or the use of the word “vet” to refer to someone who's served in the military. He also disliked any medication that didn’t taste like ham. I realize that I can’t know this about Phil, but it seemed to me that he strongly disliked being vulnerable, or out of control.


It’s been three months now since Phil’s passing. At first, I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was about to show up…that he’d emerge from behind the couch, that he’d appear at the doggy door, that the sound of the UPS truck would rouse him from a deep sleep and he’d head for the front windows, barking ferociously. At first, my husband and I would sit at opposite ends of the couch, looking at each other with wide eyes, knowing that the grim details of this shared experience would bind us to one another, whether we wanted to be bound or not. Mostly, we missed him. The permanence of his absence seemed to me a sickening thing, a foul thing.

Phil presented his share of challenges (that’s me, being kind), and at times it seemed that there was no end to the accommodations we would make for him. To some degree, our day-to-day lives had stopped making sense. So, after Phil’s death, our lives immediately became easier. What was complicated became simple, what was messy became neat, what was costly became affordable, what was dangerous became safe. And with those improvements came immeasurable guilt. I wonder how common that is: to lose a loved one, and then realize (a week later, maybe two weeks) that there’s an advantage…that among the heartbreak and the horror, there’s a boon. With that realization, mourning commenced anew for me, as I began to doubt my devotion and my decency.

Eventually, those doubts faded as I embraced my altered life, and embraced the animals that remain in my care. Today, we talk about the good times, and we make each other laugh with stories of Phil's quirky nature and his strong will. Sometimes, I reach for Phil at night, wanting to bury my hand in his fur, to find him warm, with a beating heart, but it’s not to be. I feel broken, and I lie there, trying to keep the memories fresh, even if that keeps the pain fresh. I imagine my arms around him, I remember my whispered “It’s okay, baby,” and I fall asleep.