December 11, 2015
I stepped into my kitchen and heard the quiet. It echoed with each footstep. I stopped and noticed the hum from a lamp for the first time. My mind flooded with pictures.
Just before Easter nearly fourteen years ago I drove to a farm nearby and watched three children chase puppies around a barn for two hours. My mission was to assess the personality of the adult dogs they would grow into and select the one most suited for my family of four. The description in the newspaper mentioned the pups were Border Collie Lab mixes, three males, three females, available in two colors, cream and black.
Two years before we had to let go of our dog Dillon, another lab mix. He was a ruthless hunter struck with wanderlust. No doubt those traits were nurtured as a puppy growing up in the Adirondacks. We picked Dillon because he was the smallest and cutest puppy on the planet. He didn’t stay small. And he didn’t come with a tag declaring his love for moving vehicles and solitary walks in the woods. He stole our hearts. We loved him back.
This time I would make an informed, objective decision. Without telling children or husband I set off late morning with a personality checklist in hand. At the bottom I scribbled ‘female’- more likely to stay closer to home, and ‘blond coat’- hair won’t show on our floors.
For an hour I methodically observed the interaction of pups with their mother. They ran, tumbled, chewed, and nipped at her heels and each other’s ears. Or at least five of them did. I referred to my list and rated the strengths of each. Cuteness overflowed in that old barn.
I accidentally discovered the sixth pup squeezed between an abandoned wooden gate and a wall. It was stretched out belly up, content while the rest wore themselves out on display to others who had arrived to choose their own from the litter. Concerned this pup was ignored or possibly even rejected by the rest of the family I asked the oldest child in charge if I could meet this loner. The boy of about 8 was happy to oblige. He knelt down, reached behind the gate, slid the sleeping black blob out of the space and plunked it down in the middle of the clamoring crowd. Dazed, the pup immediately tipped to one side. Mom, the black lab, noticed right away and trotted over to check on things. A good sniff of its head may have been reassuring but she didn’t stick around to console. Off she went in pursuit of a moment to herself. The loner black blob followed her heels.
I folded my notes and zipped them in my coat pocket. Watching this twosome I decided this pup was a viable candidate. Not the smallest, not the largest in the litter and this one stuck close to mom. I asked to hold it. The little boy trudged over the carpet of straw wearing black barn boots. He scooped up the fur, set it in my hands and said, “This is Braveheart.” That was it. I arranged to stop by later with my family to escort this tiny, black, male puppy home. So what if I deviated from the list of criteria. This would be the perfect dog for our family.
And he was.
After school activities were over. I finished loading the dishwasher and casually asked if anyone would like to accompany me to retrieve a new dog. Big smiles, running circles, and a few shrieks later we gathered supplies and piled in the car. It was dark when we gently put the newest family member in a cat crate and drove him home.
We decorated a cardboard box, cleared the floor, and created a cozy puppy nook in the downstairs bathroom. It was furnished with nightlight, soft blankets, a ticking clock and a radio providing soothing music. (Ideal for a critter born and weaned in a barn?) Thankfully the puppy had done his bathroom duties outside even with an audience. A night night kiss from son and daughter and the whimpering started. Then the puppy howls.
Our children went to bed with smiles on their faces, my husband snored on schedule, and I slept on the bathroom floor to quiet the crying mass so obviously missing its mother. That sort of comfort was not much to ask, just for one night. Or maybe two, or three, or…
He spent Easter dinner in a house filled with new sets of shins and knees resting under the table atop my feet. This would all work out. After calling him “the puppy” for four days I announced we needed to agree on a name. The usual were put up for a vote, “Creosote, Blackie, Fred.” None seemed just right. We looked around the kitchen floor and someone called out “Adidas, Reebok, Nike,” all names of sports paraphernalia cluttering the floor. Someone piped in “Wilson.” We looked at the pudgy bellied guy and fell quiet. “Wilson it is.”
Two weeks later I learned Border Collie genes passed on by his father were dominant. He hadn’t followed his mother through the barn because he loved her or wanted reassurance. He knew it was his job was to nip at anything that moved. I am a mom, my feet moved a lot. My children’s feet moved a lot too.
One week later, I wondered if I had chosen the wrong dog. Wilson generalized his nipping instinct to hands. Writing on the chalkboard in class one day I was embarrassed to show the bloody scratches left by razor sharp puppy teeth looking like a striped henna.
It came down to me or the dog. My solution of course- Wilson would go to school.
More research followed. I discovered the ideal opportunity to expand our knowledge of the dog-people world. The puppy school was located on a farm, (Wilson would immediately feel comforted there) and the owner was a retired third grade teacher (she would know the importance of a disciplined day). I watched a class and witnessed her dogs obeying commands in the middle of a charging run. They seemed to respond to the most casual comment, “Hey Teddy, hop up here so I can demonstrate nail clipping.” A dog of my dreams!
Wilson and I never missed a class and completed all assignments. I walked him 4 to 6 times a day wearing a fanny pack filled with tiny bits of cheese, meat, and a clicker. I was trained to click and treat with every command. Approaching a street crossing, “Halt,” click, treat. When Wilson looked at me, “Good watch” click, treat. He began staring at my face to know what was likely to come next.
We bought him a rug, quickly identified by the hole he chewed in center and named it affectionately “your spot.” He was asked to go to “your spot” often to give my ankles and hands a break from his mouth. My singular mission- tire him out. I enlisted all family members and their friends to help.
Months later we graduated. The final examination was comprehensive including nonverbal commands and agility tasks. Wilson ranked second in his class to a tiny, rather mean-tempered Shiatsu. He and I mispronounced the breed forever after- a shared competitive streak had been identified. For two more years we went to the farm for continuing education credits.
We all loved him. He never let us forget he was a dog and we were his people.
I wore dress shoes covered in teeth marks and labeled the heels distressed as if a new fashion. We ignored the piece of drywall missing for two years after Wilson plowed through the baby gate to answer the doorbell. There wasn’t an object in the house he hadn’t sniffed and slobbered on. No pair of flip flops he hadn’t chewed. Rubber was a perpetual weakness.
He obeyed commands without hesitation. He knew “off” and “down” but responded only after he was “on” and “up.” I rewarded his obedience. My son claimed I encouraged unwanted behavior with the reward. I attempted to explain operant conditioning- again.
When Wilson turned four we decided putting him to work as a therapy dog might be just the thing. He was patient, obeyed commands, eager for any challenge and loved riding in the car. He earned his certification, a bandana and a vest. I got a matching t-shirt and we were in business. For three years we visited nursing homes, and met wonderful residents and caring staff. I’m amazed his ears remained attached after thousands of affectionate tugs.
Off the clock he monitored the family. And listened to the volume go up as hormones raged. Doors slammed, voices shouted, and he was there. When decibels exceeded his tolerance Wilson walked in front of us and retreated under the nearest desk. Even at the peak of adolescent crises both my children followed and apologized for upsetting him so much he needed to hide. What a gift. For years Wilson was the only family member who didn’t look at me like a clueless alien out to ruin the lives of those to whom I called, “I love you” every night. Sorry hubby, he was my main man. We had a thing.
My children knew of this “thing” long before I did. One winter day my daughter announced, “Mom, if I wore a black furry coat with a black furry hood I wonder if you would love me as much as Wilson.” I had to pause. “Well, we could try that if you want.”
Children and husband accused me of encouraging Wilson’s attachment. They claimed it was not normal. I claimed they didn’t understand the psychology of dogs. Countless Kongs crammed with peanut butter, unstuffed toys, each one named, walks, romps in the snow, car trips to wherever were over.
A compressed spine was diagnosed two years ago. The combination of medicine and laser treatments to help with swelling, pain and nerves changed. Time fills in the rest. His eyes clouded with wisdom, his ears perked with most passing cars, he savored every treat offered, and I could always find his puppy face cupped in my hands. But the rest of him began to leave us.
Walking was painful and finally unsafe. He couldn’t come upstairs with me at night or steal into the basement to inhale the remains of cat food. When he fell on a short walk the discussion of what would come next began. Messages from head to tail simply were not received and he was losing control. His predecessor Dillon passed away 16 years ago. It feels like yesterday. The two dogs in my married life were different, but this knotted feeling in my stomach, the same.
We could have gone another day, maybe another week. I assured my family I didn’t mind staying close to home and cleaning up the messes. After all he gave me, this was no bother. It was after each daily walk I had to question going on. Even with help getting limbered up and help hopping down the step to the garage, he wasn’t able to reach the top of the driveway without one or both back legs slipping to a drag. Wilson the strong, overly energetic, keeper-of-the-neighborhood dog would turn and ask to go back inside. He was tired. The incessant panting followed by cases of the shivers told us he was in pain.
The decision to let go is the right one, anyone you talk to will say the same. They may be right, but at this moment my insides have been carved out and scraped raw. What remains is self-doubt. And the image of his puppy face lying on a rug at the vet’s office with his special blue blanket and Santa Bear toy, forever at rest.
It was dark outside. It was time to leave Wilson with the vet technicians who lovingly cared for all of us. We drove home in an empty car. We walked into an empty house.
All I hear is quiet. And hurt. Wilson is missing.
I don’t know where dogs go when they pass away. I am not sure about rainbow bridges and meeting up with other dogs and cats from the family tree. For now I walk room to room looking for my Wilson. I listen for the jingle of his collar and hope to hear a short bark at a child walking to school. I long to give him one more hug, and hope more than anything he knows I love him forever.