It was November 22, 2000, the night before Thanksgiving, when Don walked in the door from work with a black ball of fluff trailing behind him on a leash.
We were hosting the holiday dinner that year, so I was already busy rolling out pie crusts in a kitchen that was so completely dusted with flour it looked like I’d opened the door and let the snowstorm in.
I turned and gave Don my raise-of-the-eyebrows look.
“It’s only for the weekend,” he said. “Steve is going to Alabama to visit his parents.”
There was a pause and he looked down at DOG (yes, Don’s friend Steve had indeed named this pup DOG — pronounced Dee–ooo—geee).
“He needed a place to stay.”
I sighed. We’d already invited bedlam into our household for the holiday. What was one more?
And DOG turned out to be the easiest of our houseguests. He was quiet, obedient, sweet. By Sunday night, as we were waiting for Steve to pick him up, I was beginning to think I was going to miss the little bugger.
Steve never showed.
He’d probably gotten a late start, I thought to myself before bed that night. He’ll call in the morning.
Monday morning came and went. No Steve at our door. Not even a phone call.
So, I called him.
“Steve?” I said when he answered. “What time do you think you’ll be picking up DOG?”
“Yeah, about that,” he said. And then he began to stammer. “I think…you know, really…I’m a single guy and I can’t give him a good home…I was thinking he’d be better off with you.”
He’d stunned me into silence. And that’s hard to do.
Steve was not planning to pick his dog up. Ever.
DOG was not the kind of dog that would have been easily placed into another home. We already knew he’d gotten off to a rough start in life. Steve had “rescued” him from a puppy mill in Alabama when he was just a few weeks old. DOG had been tied to a bumper, unkempt, hungry, alone to fend for himself in the worst weather conditions.
Then, in the dark of the night, Steve cut the engine and let his pick-up roll to a stop just a few yards from where DOG was chained. He snipped the steel links that bound the pup to the back-end of the rusted-out heap, tossed him into the passenger seat, and floored it out of there. It wasn’t until he crossed the state line that he even dared look in his rearview mirror.
DOG had a sweet temperament, but we could already see that the early neglect and careless breeding had caused socialization as well as health issues. He was wary of most people and already showed signs of a chronic skin condition.
But if anyone was up to the challenge, it was Don and me. DOG would join the pack of four other dogs at our house that we’d rescued. We decided to keep him.
As we’d anticipated, there were lots of issues. I worked with him every day, helping him to regain his trust in humans, a little bit at a time.
His skin issue was even more challenging. He’d have acute flare-ups that would cause him to scratch himself red and raw. Our vet suggested we take DOG to the Michigan State University school of Veterinary Medicine to see if they could offer any insights.
I remember the day I called to make the appointment. I had to go through the basic steps of intake — breed, nature of problem, etc.
“Name?” the woman on the other end of the phone said as she made her way down the list.
“D-O-G,” I said.
She snapped. “I know he’s a dog and I certainly know how to spell it!” she said. “I need his name!”
I had to explain that he was a canine named DOG.
Our visit to MSU proved worthwhile. We learned that DOG was allergic to himself — to the mites that make their home on his skin as part of the normal balance of life. A round of antibiotics during acute flare-ups solved the problem, made him comfortable and added many years to his life.
But what we gave him was nothing compared to what he gave us.
Chows are known to be a loyal breed, and loyal he was. He guarded our house day and night. When we left to go out, he would guard the entryway until our return. After we brought Theo home from the hospital, he wouldn’t let anyone past him to see the baby until I gave him the OK.
More recently, on nights when Don would come home late from work, after Theo and I were asleep, Don always knew which room we’d fallen asleep in. DOG would be lying across the threshold, his backside to us, alert, listening, protecting us — another trait Chows are known for.
When he started showing signs of aging in recent months, it was very hard to accept. I took him to the vet numerous times, picked up medications that would ease his arthritis.
Over the weekend, it became undeniably clear that his body was giving out. Just before sunset Sunday evening, we made the tough decision. It was time. Probably past time. To wait until the next morning and take him to our vet would be unfair.
We drove to the Emergency Vet Clinic in Ypsilanti. DOG let me carry him in without any resistance. So unlike him. He just wanted the pain to end. We had to honor his wish.
One of the most difficult things I’ve had to do in my life is to leave a veterinary clinic carrying only a leash and an empty collar. That’s what we had to do last night.
He may have started out as a house guest, but DOG had become a part of our family, a part of us. What began as a long holiday weekend turned into 10 1/2 years. And we’d have happily done 10 1/2 more if we could have.
Copyright 2011, Amy Rauch Neilson