|Good morning! Breakfast?|
My early career was beset by travel and apartments and houses without yards; there was no opportunity for a dog of my own. Riley was my first chance for my own big dog in his own yard.
When you love big dogs, you make a Faustian bargain. Big dogs invariably have an excess in personality that is balanced by a shorter lifespan... the bigger the dog, the shorter the lifespan, in fact. The fire that burns twice as bright burns half as long. Pure Irish Wolfhounds live only about seven years. I was confident that this big mixed-breed mutt would substantially outlast that. Riley came home and his training began.
Big dogs have to be trained early so that you can control them when they become big dogs. But I was astounded at how easy Riley was to train and his command of the language, which rapidly grew to dozens and dozens of commands. "Sit" and "stay" and "down" and "up" and "heel" and "check in!" and "off", of course, but also "upstairs" and "downstairs" and "inside" and "outside" and "on your bed" and even "around" (to get a leash untangled from someone or something) and "stayclose!" (you can go off leash now, but don't get out of the sound of my voice) and dozens of others. But he never lost his joyous enthusiasm for life and his love for toys of all kinds as he grew and grew and grew... eventually to 120# (55kg) of embodied play. Up on his back feet, he could rest his paws on my shoulders, and I am not a small man. And more often than not, in his mouth was the toy of choice and a gentle demand: play with me!
|Big things have small beginnings.|
No toy ever captured his imagination more than a single long thick length of knotted rope. "Ropey toy!" was a particular favorite command and invariably resulted in a 30-minute combination game of tug-of-war, fetch, and chase. But "dog gum!" was nearly as good and sent him digging into his wicker basket of toys for the tennis ball he hadn't managed to squash flat with his strong jaws yet. I eventually succumbed and bought tennis balls by the case.
And always, always, there was outside, the long runs and plays and chases. Easy-going, anything below his eye level -- which was just about everything -- got a gentle snuffle. Dog parks were a common outing and though the small dogs were intimidated by him at first, Riley's infectious manner won them over. He would quickly pick up an entourage of followers desperate for their membership cards in the "big dog club" to the laughter of everyone who saw him in this role of king of the dog park.
But anything too far above his head to be inspected with a lick or a sniff was a rival not to be tolerated. Squirrels were a particular nemesis, and firework shows and thunderstorms were a horror. One of our cats eventually learned this weakness and took savage glee in running back and forth across the wooden floor in the upstairs of our home in Connecticut, producing a drumming downstairs that drove Riley to distraction. Ceiling cat was an angry, capricious god. Cats are evil.
For comfort, Riley always turned to my wife. For me, he was "big tough doggie!", third in command of the house's pack, first in command when my wife and I were out of the house. Around me, though he would always defer in the end, there was always the mock show of defiance of the ropey toy tug-of-war, the confident swagger that he could handle any situation in my absense. He was always quick to show me that he was a worthy leader of the house's animal contingent.
|Car dog(s), Connecticut|
After that, open water was no problem at all.
He ate dog food in bags a third his weight, drank water by the gallon, ate so many dog treats that we eventually bought them in bulk from amazon.com... and for all of that he was cheap entertainment and a full member of the family with his own hobbies and desires. But at the end of the day, he never needed much: just his people, a warm place to sleep, and enough nourishment to get him to the next dog adventure.
|After a walk by the river, Colorado|
Seven years passed, then eight. He started slowing down. He chewed through one rope toy, then a second. Not long after I bought his third, he reluctantly lost interest in them. He just wasn't strong enough for a long game of tug-of-war, content with a token show of resistance to my will followed by a long scratch and rub. Dog gum lasted longer but his rate of popping tennis balls also eventually slowed... then stopped. The easy leap on my bed so he could sleep the afternoon away while I was at work was eventually replaced with a futon at the foot of it so he could make the jump in two easier hops. Arthritis settled into his hips and "dog berry!" became a new command: 2000mg of glucosamine in liquid form per night to slow its advance.
Winter in California this year produced cold overnight temperatures and rain... and with it soft whines and cries. Sleeping on my bed was no longer an option for him. It was simply too far to jump; he reluctantly adjourned to his own bed. It was time for more advanced arthritis treatment... or so I thought. I made a vet appointment for him.
The vet agreed that it was probably time for a daily pain medication and anti-inflammatory but wanted to put him through a range of motion check to see how advanced the arthritis was. Joints were pulled this way and that. Riley endured it with his usual good grace at vet appointments. The vet asked me to turn him over for the last check of his hip on one side. He was reluctant, then gently argued. "Yeah, he's in a lot of a pain here, poor boy," the vet said. We got him turned over... and to my horror there were two or three spots of blood around his genitals. The vet reached down and squeezed, very gently. Another drop of blood came out.
The ones you love never show you their true pain. The ones that love you always want to hide it from you. That was Riley all over, so reluctant to show weakness around me... always the confident second-in-command.
After that, there were motions to go through, and we went through them. Blood test and urinalysis and x-rays... the C-word was brought up. And then confirmed. A mass the size of a jelly dougnnut around his prostate, a second advancing toward his stomach, tiny white nodules lining up for a future attack on his lungs. "Very aggressive," I was told, and "very quick" and "maybe a month" and "lots of pain." The vet didn't even want to talk about options... nor did we. A piece of paper. Signed.
|Beach dog, California|
The vet asked if we wanted to be there at the end. We both said no. But don't take off his collar until he's gone, please. He was always so proud of that collar, always wanted it in sight even when it was off him: it was his badge of honor. He was in the pack. He wasn't going to be abandoned as he had been once before, long ago. Our last picture of him is a chest x-ray. I wasn't at all surprised to see his enormous heart alone was bigger than most dogs.
The fire that burns twice as bright burns half as long. It's the Faustian bargain you make with yourself when you love and are loved by a big dog. But now that the day has come... I'm heart-broken. I'm devastated.
Stayclose, Riley roo, stayclose.
No new posts for a couple of days, guys.