The South |

Loving the Dog

by Stephanie Devine

A few days ago, my husband read an article about a dog’s birthday party. Now he wants to have a party for our dog, who will be ten years old in January, and who, because of the injuries she acquired from her first owner, may not live past twelve. Truth be told, I love the idea, but I treat it with my usual amount of skepticism, asking questions like “What could we do?” and “Wouldn’t people think it’s odd?” More than once, my husband has noticed that I’m always asking these kinds of incredulous questions, even though I usually end up agreeing with him. And I don’t think I do it consciously, though now that he’s pointed it out, I guess I can’t say it’s exactly unconscious either.

Neither of us can see a good reason not to have the birthday party. We’ve had our dog for going on five years, five mostly sweet and satisfying years. Since then, she has done many things to deserve a birthday. For instance, she’s a very happy dog, who runs and skids across the hardwood floors in our apartment when one of us comes home from work. When we are tired, she is more of a lap dog, ready and willing to form a ball on top of us, wherever we are sitting.  And when my husband and I remember to stop what we are doing to kiss or hug each other, she puts her paws up, one on each of our legs and lops her long wet tongue, as if hoping to join in.

Our dog is also protective, though this is slightly less deserving of celebration, since her low growls scare our guests and her persistent barks annoy our neighbors. She is unconditionally loving, just as one would expect from a dog, which is wonderful at all times-- except when she leaves jagged claw marks in the back of the front door, even when we make sure to bend down before we leave, scratch behind her ears and promise we won’t be gone long.

Though my husband and I both agree that any mistakes she’s made are understandable when you consider the five years she lived before we took her home. Based on the paperwork from the shelter, our dog lived there for two years. No one knows what happened before her former owners dropped her off, except that whatever it was severed her tail, shattered her left hind leg, and makes her snap at the ankles of deep-voiced men. The lady who ran the shelter said these injuries had kept our dog from being adopted. She also said that dog’s left hind leg, which wobbles and curls up when she runs, would someday have to be amputated. The other option when arthritis set in, of course, would be to put her down.

When we both agree to plan the party, my husband says we have to consider whether we want a big affair or a more intimate gathering. Our dog does not have many dog friends, because my husband and I go out so rarely, and even less often with other dog owners. Though she does have many relatives and loved ones, who are mostly just our relatives and loved ones who have volunteered over the years to watch the dog for a couple days or a long weekend, so we wouldn’t have to board her. It’s always been important to my husband, and has since become important to me, too, that we keep our dog from having to endure any more nights outside or behind the metal bars of a cage or lying on an inhospitable concrete floor.

My husband and I got the dog one year after we were married, around the time we started to bicker more than we made love. It’s not that we saw significant increases or decreases in either area, but more like bickering nudged out making love to become our top priority. To adopt the dog was my husband’s idea, and I was very skeptical, but truth be told, I had always wanted one, and even more so when I saw our dog flopping around the shelter yard, then bounding out of the pen, her eager nose pointed towards me.

Immediately it was clear to me, and I think my husband, too, that the dog would improve things between us. The day we brought her home she sat with me for a long time in the front seat of the car, not lifting her head to look out the windows, as she would do now, but quiet and ever so slightly shaking. My husband and I tried to soothe her. We told her she was a nice dog and a sweet dog and a pretty dog, and all the while she shook, but I could also feel the wag of her short, nubby tail, tapping against my stomach. Toward the end of the trip back the dog climbed over the center console of the car and into my husband’s lap, which made him smile in a truly genuine way. A smile that he saves only for discrete moments of tenderness, and now mostly for loving the dog.

At home, the dog continued in this way, dividing her time, not favoring one or the other. Though my husband and I did sit before her, that first evening and from time to time after, to see which one of us the dog would come to first. Both of us sat there with her on the living room rug, equidistant from the dog and each other. But after a while we abandoned that practice, when we realized the dog could be depended upon to come to whoever needed her most. For instance, when my husband slams the door of the office, she will bat her paws against it, in a fury, until he opens a crack just large enough to let her in. And when I retreat silently to the bathtub, I can count on hearing her body heave into and rattle the door, a tan paw slipping just under the frame. And in these moments, my husband or I will follow the dog, and pet the dog, and then pet the one she is with, and say something like: “Looks like someone needs taking care of.”

It’s better, we decide, to have a small party, a family party for just us three. Our dog loves many people foods, foods she’s not supposed to have, but that I or my husband give her. We usually don’t give her the same things, as we each have our own sense of what she loves and what is most dangerous for her. My husband favors giving her chips and popcorn and other things he can toss that the dog will attempt to catch. Invariably she will miss, her eyesight being what it is, and then my husband can pout and say poor girl and sweet girl and throw her another. I prefer to give her French fries and bits of chicken, because I like to keep crumbs off the floor. And, in fact, don’t mind when she pulls the food ever so gently from my fingers, her tongue wetting the tips. Of all these things, chicken may be her favorite, and I am glad when my husband agrees it should be on the birthday menu. Although his idea, to buy her a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store and serve it on a silver platter, seems perhaps a bit outlandish, though not as outlandish as his other plan to film the dog eating the chicken and then send the video to our family. Yet, I suppose he’s right that none of it is too ridiculous because, after all, it is her tenth birthday, and she is getting old, and she has been a very sweet dog to each and both of us.

Though we’ve become accustomed to the dog choosing to comfort the one most in need, there are times when that same concept works against us. Such as when my husband claims a headache and the dog doesn’t follow him into the bedroom. Or I, jealous, try to coax the dog from my husband’s lap and she will not come. Or, occasionally, when we raise our voices and she runs to the bedroom and tunnels under the dirty laundry, and will not emerge when we call for her. Those times she just sits, glossy eyed and un-acknowledging as we repeat her name.

My husband’s plan to serve the birthday chicken on a silver platter is actually a good idea, I must admit, because it fits with one of our nicknames for the dog: little princess. “Little princess, come here,” we’ll say before we toss off some food. Or, “Isn’t she just the tiniest, wisest little princess,” when our dog perches, paws together, ears swept back. It’s a pose she takes when she wants attention, and it is awfully cute. Sometimes, though, she gets a bit pushy with it, when you don’t acknowledge her. She’ll just keep walking into your line of sight to pose in front of you. At those moments, we tell her: “Don’t be pushy. Don’t be a push.” And sometimes this is her nickname, too. We might say when the other person walks in the door: “Guess who was being a major push today?” And occasionally we even say it to each other, as in: “Don’t be a push, dear, I’m trying to get this work done.”

In addition to the whole chicken—whose bones we have yet to, but must, make a plan for—my husband and I want to give our dog a birthday gift. Our thought is a dog mattress, made of memory foam, that we found on website for eighty dollars. We’ve both noticed that the dog limps around more than usual this last year. When we call her into the bed at night, sometimes she jumps and thuds back onto the floor, unable to clear the three short feet. Sometimes when she goes to put her paws up on our shins, her bad leg slips and throws her balance and she wiggles and tips backwards away from us. Originally, my husband suggested a small set of stairs that would help her into the bed. But after giving it some thought, we wondered if it wouldn’t be better for all involved if she slept separately. That way she won’t get accidentally kicked or bumped if she starts to take over one side of the bed. 

Our dog is still all smiles and pants, but sometimes, too, she doesn’t seem to have the energy to lift that back leg up when she trots, and it knocks and bumps thoughtlessly on the ground. One day, after a recent walk, my husband discovered a tiny trail of blood, and then a small sliver of glass in her back paw, which he carefully extracted with tweezers.  At the time, it seemed important that I stay in the room to offer my support during this procedure, that my presence was somehow vital. But, in fact, I blocked the light and apparently agitated the dog, who had previously been sitting calmly there on our pillows, unaware of her wounds.

The mattress, we hope, will ease our dog’s pain, but my husband and I know that it’s getting closer to the time when a decision must be made. We’ve researched surgical options, but, though I love our dog, I found them all too expensive. My husband has also spent many hours looking up elaborate braces that would loop around the dog’s back and her strong leg, to relieve and steady the one that’s broken. Still someday we know, though the shelter lady never described it, our dog will whimper more often and less quietly and maybe even cry in pain. And then, we’ve decided, after much debate, we’ll have to let her go.

Like her birthday party, this is a day we’ve also planned for, and have been planning for a long time. For instance, if the dog cannot walk, we will swaddle her like a baby and take her for a long ride in a stroller, belonging to one of the children we’ll surely have by then. If she can eat, we will each feed her some of the foods she likes, and we’ll take turns holding her. Then, we will place her on my husband’s chest or mine, as we do from time to time, and make loud kissing sounds, pecking at each other until her tail wags and she licks at our faces.

After she’s gone, we’ll want to find another dog just like her, the same breed, and also a rescue, and also five years old, or at least three, when we take her. But hopefully, as my husband says, that is a long way off. Hopefully there are more special birthday parties between now and then.

We’ll all be together then, too, the moment the dog dies. And though we never talk about it, I know we’ll both be in the room with her when the vet injects the drugs, each of us looking into her eyes as she drifts away, those eyes gliding like they always do, from one of us to the other and back. It seems sensible to try to prepare for her death, just as I try to imagine and prepare for the deaths of everyone I love. Sometimes, when we’re talking about things like the birthday party, I’ll try to discuss this with my husband. He’ll be holding the dog in his arms and smoothing her fur and I’ll press my hands on top of his and ask something like: “What will we do without her?” And his eyes will water a little and he’ll tell me “Don’t say that,” or “You’re taking it too far.” Then he’ll hug the dog to his chest and kiss her little dome and smile his genuine smile, as I sit there, staying.