Monday, March 12, 2007

A Dog's Life

My dog Maggie died this afternoon. She was my first and only dog -- I'd only had cats and rabbits in the past. Maggie was a mix of Lab, German shepherd and chow, pure black when we got her and looking like a lab puppy. Her full name was Maggie Shannon (we voted on her name when we got her) but we called her everything from Maggie May to Maggity to Maggally to Maggie Bean to Ziplock Maggie.

My son had been pushing us to get a dog for a long time, but it was hard when I was working outside of the house. I remember when we took our cats to the vet once, Jonathan picked up a bunch of brochures. I woke up the next morning with a brochure about dogs laying open over my face, with a note from Jonathan saying he wanted a Bassett hound! When we went to a picnic with my husband's coworkers, Jonathan spent the whole time playing with a puppy someone brought with them.

When we moved to Cincinnati, I started working from home so we talked about getting a dog. I don't remember what finally gave us the push, but one day we all went over to Pet First, a small pet shop by our local Kroger where they brought in pets from the humane society. We used to stop in and look at the puppies, but this time we noticed a cute little lab puppy in a cage with a bunch of tan chow puppies and we knew she was the one.

I don't know how I was elected, but in the car on the way home, she sat in my hand -- and she wasn't much bigger than that. She was 8 weeks old and weighed 9 lbs. We soon discovered an odd thing -- she broke two collars simply by flexing her neck muscles. The stitching just ripped. The pet store said they'd never heard of such a thing. When we took her to the vet, she told us whatever the birth certificate from the pound said, she definitely had chow in her, too, because she had black spots on her tongue. She said the other puppies in the cage with her were probably her siblings!

She never got real big, but after a few months her ears popped up like a German shepherd. We had to get her the type of collar that clicked -- she always managed to break the buckle ones. Her neck was so strong we could put a rope on her collar and she could pull the kids on a sled, even though she only weighed 60 lbs. full grown.

Marty had grown up with dogs but she was my first. I took her to obedience school where she got by -- she would sit on command and she was the only dog in the class who would fetch a toy, but she was more interested in playing with the other dogs and she wouldn't leave her graduation cap on for two seconds for the photograph. And while she was great at fetching, she could not relate to the concept of releasing a toy or a stick once she caught it.

We tied a thick rope to a tree in back and she loved to grab it and yank it around. She never did find frisbees or balls very interesting, but she did love stuffed animals. She loved squeaky toys, but of course her first job would be to rip them open and pull the stuffing and the squeaker out. She had a special fondness for lambswool toys and for toys that had sound chips that made noises like real animals: monkeys, cows, pigs, frogs, etc. She loved toys and had a ton of them. Some of her favorites were ones Jessica sent her from Disney World, especially a lambswool toy shaped like a Mickey Mouse head.

We still have the "skin" of a Fred Flintstone stuffed toy that we got her as a puppy. We would get her new toys for Christmas and her birthday, and add them to the growing pile. Eventually there were bins of toys in different rooms. We got a kick out of watching her dig through them all until she found the one she was looking for. Once we were watching an old Saturday Night Live with the "cheeseboiga" sketch, and she ran upstairs and came down with a squeaky cheeseburger toy.

She was always really well behaved in the house. Apart from chewing some chair legs when she was a puppy and maybe four accidents in her lifetime (one after she ate a catnip mouse the cats had left in her reach), she never did anything to make a mess, except shed, and since she was shorthaired even that wasn't bad (except in my car, but we won't go into that). Recently, we went up to Chicago for a quick visit and arranged for a friend of Jonathan's to take care of the animals. Since we were only gone three days, I didn't bother to check with him.

Turns out, we had a miscommunication and he thought I needed him to watch the animals the following weekend. So when we came home Sunday night, we discovered that the animals had been inside the house for 57 hours. MAGGIE DID NOT HAVE AN ACCIDENT - she HELD it all that time. Now I do realize dogs can be gross, but there were no stains, nothing. Luckily we had left plenty of water and dry food so none of them starved, and the cats had their litter boxes, but MAGGIE HELD IT. Can you beat that?

Not that she was perfect. When we were visiting my parents once we decided to bring Maggie with us. She loved the ride but my parent's house isn't made for dogs. My kids and their cousins were playing in the backyard and Maggie was on the screened in porch, when she got excited and ran right through the screen to join the kids. I don't think she ever even saw it. BUT I don't think she ever came with us on our Chicago trips again.

Anyway, we got her in the fall, and she loved to chase leaves. Once a car full of teenagers drove by and they threw a Taco Bell bag out the window. Before I could grab it, Maggie had eaten the whole damn thing, not a scrap of paper left. That dog would eat anything -- mulch, rocks, you name it. Our vet said that is a lab trait. But she was always picky about food. Makes you wonder how bad it could be, if mulch tasted better to her!

Maggie's best friend was a male golden retriever named Sebastian who lived up the street. Sebastian's owner was a boy about Jessica's age, and for years he was Maggie's babysitter when we traveled -- she loved him almost as much as Sebastian. Brian could come in and yell "Maggie!" and she would run downstairs and leap into his arms. She wasn't a jumper and never did that for anyone else. When Sebastian was 10 he suddenly got sick one Friday. He was riddled with tumors and died three days later. Maggie never understood where he went and it's hard to think about that even now. Eventually Sebastian's family got another golden retriever, a male puppy named Hunter who got big fast, about double Maggie's size. We hoped they'd be buddies but she just bossed him around. She could be cranky and when we'd walk down the street Hunter would drop lower and lower to the ground until he was laying flat and submissive. We called Maggie the "PMS dog" and decided Hunter was waiting to judge her mood before he tried to play with her.

As a puppy Maggie loved nothing more than playing with other dogs. She was fine with our cats, and when we got a tiny kitten named Ginger, the two became best friends. Ginger, all 3 lbs. of her, would march across Maggie's body and whack her in the face when she wanted to play. She'd leap on Maggie's back as Maggie walked past the stairs and they would chase each other all over the house. We tried to keep Ginger indoors but we live by a big cornfield and our other two cats are farm cats, so eventually Ginger pestered us so much we started letting her out. One day we saw her head into the field but she never came back. We think a hawk probably got her. So Maggie lost another friend. As she got older, she was less friendly with other dogs and more territorial. She was always fine with our kids and their friends, but we were nervous of her around small children. She could be hyper, more than bad-tempered.

She did stupid things like start barking insanely when the phone rang, running to the door instead. She would go nuts when raccoons, squirrels, possums and other animals regularly visited our deck. She went even crazier when deer came in our yard. She would drive us nuts by running out in back at night and barking her head off, while she rarely barked during daylight hours.

Her favorite thing in life was going for rides in the car with the windows down. Humans rarely sit in my back seat, no matter how much I clean it, because there are always traces of black dog fur. Maggie was all black as a puppy but as she got older she got more and more white on her face and paws. She developed a heart murmur and bad arthritis in her back legs, but she was in pretty good shape for her age, except that lately she'd been wheezing whenever she exerted herself at all.

She hated being left at home, and the minute I'd grab my purse, car keys, shoes, glasses, coat - anything that might mean I was going someplace -- she'd start bouncing up and down with excitement, and she'd be waiting by the door. My car is going to seem pretty empty now. My kids thought I was nuts because I'd be driving with my back windows down during blizzards so Maggie could stick her head out. She loved the rain, and would lick it off the windows. She was terrified of thunder and sirens, though, and she particularly liked to bark at motorcycles and noisy trucks, as well as pedestrians and other dogs.

We intended for her NOT to sleep in the bedroom. When she was little we put a baby gate by the stairs. During a noisy thunderstorm, she was so scared she managed to jump over it and run up to our room. From that point on, she slept in our bedroom. For years I slept on a tiny wedge of space since she was sprawled across the middle of the bed, pushing me off little by little. When we got a new pillow top mattress a few years ago, arthritis and lack of jumping skill put an end to that. We bought her a dog bed, which she slept on about twice, then we got a little throw rug and put it at the foot of the bed and she would sleep on that. During storms, she would literally squeeze under my knees if I was sitting down but she preferred Marty's protection when she was really scared of anything.

I just remembered one funny thing -- at least it was funny at the time. There is a step down from our kitchen/breakfast room into the family room. When Jonathan was little he came downstairs one time wrapped up in a black blanket and in his bare feet. I guess Maggie didn't hear him coming and the black "cloak" freaked her out -- she suddenly leaped up and skidded backwards away from him, falling on her butt off the step into the family room. We said she thought he was Darth Vader come to get her. Another time, Jessica got a little fuzzy teddy bear she named George, which she put on her bed with all her other cuddly toys. Maggie apparently felt that George should be hers, because she would sneak into Jessica's room and steal George off the bed when Jessica was at school.

As I mentioned many paragraphs ago, Maggie was supposed to be the kid's dog, but it didn't turn out that way. I was the one who was home with her all day, even though I had no clue how to train a dog. Somewhere along the line she became what we called my "constant companion" - my completely co-dependent furry toddler. She followed me everywhere, from room to room, up and downstairs -- even when it became more difficult for her to get up and downstairs because of her arthritis. I would tell her to stay, especially if I was just running up to get something, but she was an inch behind me, every time -- my little black shadow.

My husband travels a lot but he always jokes that Maggie's response would be the same if he was gone 30 seconds or three weeks. And he said my habit of trying to sneak out the door with the words, "I'll be back in just a minute, Maggie", when she couldn't come with me, made her think that minutes were hours, sometimes days long.

One thing I've learned from Maggie -- one of many things, really -- is that there is nothing like a dog to show you the meaning of unconditional love. Maggie might have been better off with an owner who knew more about what dogs need, someone younger who could run with her more. She got fed up when I was stuck at the computer when I was writing my books -- she would clamp her teeth gently on my arm and tug when she'd finally had enough."Break time!," she couldn't have said it any plainer. They ask for so little, and they give you so much -- more than we ask for, and certainly more than we deserve.

My dog Maggie died this afternoon. Our house seems empty and my car will never feel quite the same. I will never forget the panicked look in her eyes as her heart began to fail and she couldn't get her breath. The soft, somewhat coarse feel of her old dog fur, the glazed, scared look in her eyes. The feel of her head as it dropped onto my arm a final time. And as much as I love my husband and my kids and they love me, I don't think anyone else will love me quite as much as Maggie did. But I think I understand better now how much she missed me when I was gone.

Postscript: I've added more pictures of Maggie. The one was taken after she had spent a half hour or so pulling toys out of the bin in one room and bringing them in to the room where I work on my computer. She was very pleased with that effort. Jonathan took the picture of her, all sleek and black and shiny, a few years ago. I took the one of her on the deck last summer. The picture of her in the car was the last picture of her, taken on the way to the vet. Even though she was having a lot of trouble breathing then, you can see she was still enjoying that rush of air on her face from the open car window. I'm so glad she had that moment.