Tuesday, 5:30 a.m. I awoke with a start and my first thought was “I forgot to let the dog out during the night”. I had gotten in the habit of doing that for our black lab Gus as he was getting older and sometimes did not make it through the night without needing to go out. Being over 50 helped me sympathize. Then I remembered. There was no dog to let out. I remembered that the day before my wife Cheryl and I had taken Gus on one last trip to the vet to put him down.
I had always joked when Gus was younger that if I were to apply for the job of “Dog” I would never qualify because of my inability to go from 7 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. without a bathroom break. But Gus did it for years without complaint or accidents.
We got him from the pound as a pup, maybe six or seven months old. Officially on the record books he was my daughter Mandy’s dog. This occurred because when we went to the pound neither my wife nor I had thought to bring our driver’s license and you need one of those now to get a dog. So he was Mandy’s dog; a fact she never ceased to remind us of. Funny though, she didn’t mention it any time he needed to have those vet bills paid. It didn’t really matter; he belonged to all of us.
In the Sixties, the Beatles told us that you “Can’t buy me love, everybody tells me so”. Maybe at the time they wrote that song, none of them owned a dog. You can buy love. It’s waiting for you at any dog pound in any city. You just plunk down some money, (don’t forget your driver’s license) and you can walk away with a companion that will give you unconditional love for a decade or more.
The first dog I ever owned was Buddy. He was another black lab stray and came into our lives by accident. My wife had been lobbying for a dog for some time and she had had one growing up. I never owned one but in the tradition of husbands everywhere I initially resisted the idea but eventually admitted that she was right, again.
Buddy didn’t like men at all and he didn’t like me either at first. I was a little afraid of a 65 pound animal with big teeth who growled every time I walked by but eventually we became friends after Cheryl suggested I be the one to feed him. With dogs, it’s all about food.
After ten plus years of faithful service we had to put Buddy down and I was amazed at how much it hurt. We lasted 72 hours, then admitted our addiction and went to the pound and brought Gus home.
This time around I was more comfortable with dogs and so Gus and I were friends from the start. Of course I did not need to be smug about it since Gus was everyone’s friend. Oh, he might growl if a stranger came to the house but within five minutes he probably would have jumped in the stranger’s car and gone to Mexico. He was gullible that way and always assumed everyone was good at heart.
Gus slipped into lives with ease and for 12 and a-half years he was part of our family. He went riding on the Jet Ski, traveled in the motor home (and fought with Cheryl over rights to the shotgun seat). He rode on the pontoon boat and played in the snow at the cabin. He laid out on his lounger by the fire and looked up in amazement at the stars with the rest of us.
He wasn’t quite as likely to cuddle with you as Buddy had been. But if you were lying on floor you might move your head back an inch and find that he had laid down just behind you, not touching but close enough to breath on you. Many times I never knew he was there until I moved.
The weekend we decided to let him go started out like any other. We packed up the car and headed to our lake cabin. By now, Gus needed a ramp to get into the car but I had made one for him and he climbed up it and onto his blanket on the back seat.
Friday and Saturday he got around o.k. limping somewhat from his hip dysplasia which he had been living with for about a year. However, on Sunday he just couldn’t get up and we had to carry him outside. He had developed a cough too and we knew the time was near when we would be asked to do something that we did not want to do for the benefit of another. I guess that’s a pretty good description of what love is.
By Sunday night as we got home, it was clear he wasn’t getting any better. We carried him out of the car and laid him on the grass while we emptied the car. He just lay there and went to the bathroom lying down. He had held it for two hours in the car and that was the best he could do.
Cheryl slept downstairs with him Sunday night and decided to stay home for the day with me so we could both take him in together. His cough came and went and again we had to carry him outside and hold him up to do his duty.
Monday morning came and we called the vet and made the appointment for 4:20 p.m.
The day dragged on with Cheryl and I playing the role of priests praying with the condemned man on death row. We knew we could get a pardon from the Governor by just calling the Vet and canceling but our greedy desire for another day was over ridden by the certainty that Gus was suffering and needed us to be strong.
He wasn’t eating his dog food at all. Cheryl cooked him some bacon and he ate that down like lightning. I thought that if St. Peter guards the gates of Heaven for people then a St. Bernard should guard the gates of Heaven for dogs. The St. Bernard would sniff at the breath of every dog and only those with bacon breath would be allowed past the gates.
4:00 p.m. came creeping up on us and then 4:05 and finally 4:10 and Cheryl said, o.k. lets go. She carried him out to the truck and we went over to the vet. I pulled in and there was a stranger outside the door smoking. I did not want anyone around to see us but as he saw that I was carrying Gus he held open the door and I mumbled my thanks.
We carried him into the room and waited for the vet. She came in and talked about what she would do and then gave him the shots that would end his life. We stayed with him to the end, talking and stroking his head. We bent down close to him and inhaled once more the sweet smell of puppy. Kissed his head and then tearfully left him there.
We will get his ashes in few days. We will spread them down at the lake under the pine trees where our other puppy dogs Buddy and Molly rest. Later when the grandchildren ask me where the puppies have gone I can truthfully tell them that they are up in the trees, fertilizing a new generation of life.
We lasted 72 hours the last time and the withdrawal pains are beginning again. Cheryl sits downstairs and hugs his blanket, rich with his smell and tells me in no uncertain terms not to wash it. Later, when she is asleep, I sneak downstairs and hug and smell the blanket myself, still damp with her tears. I add a few of my own, unashamed to admit that I loved him too.
I think that life is like drinking coffee. At first you are enticed by the rich aroma. You drink the first cup and it’s not quite as good as it smells. You continue drinking until the last bitter dregs are consumed. And then you start another pot.
Our life will go on. We will remember Gus as a special dog like no other. Each dog is different. Every dog will have his day. We were privileged to share over 4300 days with Gus.
Thanks old hound. May your dish be always filled with bacon, your water dish brimming with ice-cold water. May the Sun shine on your sleek black coat, and may you find new friends who loved you as much as we do. Just don’t let any strangers take you to Mexico.
Written by Richard Haebig | All Rights Reserved.