Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Power of Positive Puppy

When my beloved and I first got together in early 1997, he was living in Dallas. I lived in Sacramento. He had recently lost his job in a layoff due to a company downsizing. He was single—never married. He lived on a little manmade lake in the suburbs where his only pets were the ducks and other wildlife, except for his next-door neighbor, a Jack Russell Terrier.

It didn’t take more than a couple visits for us both to agree where our relationship was headed—a merger. That’s why I almost died when he called and told me that he missed me so much between visits, he just had to get a puppy.

What was he thinking? I had two cats! How would this ever work?

Even though I was raised with dogs, primarily boxers and one pansy poodle, I had converted to cats in early adulthood and never looked back. It wasn’t that I didn’t like dogs. I just found cats and their independent qualities and easy care fit my lifestyle better than being tied down to a needy dog. Especially as puppies, they were hard work and demanded constant attention.

However, once I saw a picture of that cute little Yellow Lab, I knew I’d just have to work it out. I was sucked right into the puppy vortex. (Look at this picture and tell me, could you have resisted Baby Bear?) Besides, how could I deny Tim companionship when I was over 1700 miles away and could only see him every couple of months. We had agreed to let our relationship develop in its own natural timing. Tim knew I wasn’t interested in an extended long-distance relationship, but I wasn’t pushing to move in together tomorrow, either. Tons of decisions had to precede that, including the toughest one of all: Which one of us would uproot and relocate?

The merger happened much sooner than we expected while sipping a tropical drink at a riverside restaurant in Sacramento. Tim had just come out for my father’s funeral, only three months after we had first gotten together in Dallas.

“I think I’m ready to move out here to be with you,” he said. “I can look for a job here just as easily as there. Besides, I don’t think you’d be happy in the Bible Belt.”

I was stunned. Later, he told me he was as surprised as I was. He had no idea that he felt that way—that he had already decided—until the words came tumbling out of his mouth.

Once that happy bomb was dropped on both of us, our lives were afire with more frequent calls and constant efforts to figure out the logistics of the move. He’d arrange to have a friend watch his house till he was ready to put it on the market. I’d take vacation and fly to Dallas the week before Memorial Day. We’d transport clothes and anything else we could fit into his car besides the puppy, then make our way to Sacramento in 500-600 mile increments—not pushing it—stopping frequently for puppy pit stops, staying overnight at the end of each of the three days it would take for the trek at that pace.

I’d like to say our trip was unremarkable, but we’ll never forget how miserable we were pushed all the way forward in our tight quarters in the front seat of Tim’s sporty Toyota Celica. Bear lounged in the back, seats down, in his huge crate, inverted to resemble a laundry basket and upsized for his ultimate growth. He took up a lot of space, a life-long quality. This scene also spoke volumes about who would be the center of attention in our family.

Bear’s happy, wagtail personality gave us all kinds of laughs along the way, especially his candid customer feedback at the Holiday Inn, where he entered the room, took one look, and pooped in the hallway. I had painstakingly researched dog-friendly accommodations. We’d tie him to a tree or fence near the pool while we’d try to work out our body cramps with a swim. People pushing 50 aren’t made for long drives with or without exuberant puppies. The worst part was eating fast food all day. Since we couldn’t leave Bear in the car alone in the hot weather, the drive-through was a must. The last night we actually got to visit a park and let him run around a little, and we felt comfortable to leave him in our room long enough to duck out for some real food before blimping out into something from Supersize Me.

Once settled in Sac and recovered from freaked-out cats, the real fun began. (Darrin hid for two days, making me question my new life decision seriously.) Bear developed an unholy love for his new mother, barked and got all agitated if Tim and I even so much as embraced. Our poochie pervert was wont to dig my underwear out of the laundry basket. One day he started tossing around a pair of panties then catching them in his mouth. After one of the tosses, the undies landed on his head over one eye. He looked just like a lecherous pirate. We laughed at that sight for years.

Bear redesigned my Birkenstocks with a scalloped edge I did not appreciate. Although it was already broken down and desperately needed replacement, he chewed through the fence and infuriated my landlord. But these were tiny, minor puppy indiscretions. He was wired, a dog that seemed to be bouncing on pogo sticks instead of paws. People with Labs would look at us with pity and announce that they rarely settle down till they’re five or six. We would lock eyes and telegraph a silent scream to each other. We were sure we’d never last that long.

But last we did, through an array of puppy and people problems way too long to list. Tim had health problems that taxed us for years and impacted many areas of our life together until they finally took a turn for the better. Bear had all kinds of challenges—hip dysplasia, which meant rigorous efforts to prevent future arthritis—Vitamin C and more Glucosamine and Chontroitin than we consumed as we approached senior status, then exceeded it. There were the intractable skin rashes and all kinds of salves, shampoos, and daily doses of antihistamines. He’d break out in terrible skin eruptions and his itching drove us all crazy.

He was expensive. (Who knew there was such a thing as a doggy dermatologist?) It was very difficult to find competent pet sitters and go anywhere overnight given his regime. It only got worse when he was diagnosed with Cushing’s disease at age 10. The symptoms were excessive thirst, drinking, and peeing often. His tendency to eat everything in sight worsened.

Cushing’s is a production of excess adrenal hormone. In Bear’s case, it was almost certainly caused by a benign pituitary tumor. The excess cortisol pumped by the adrenals had an upside. It was like giving him steroids for his bad hips. That’s why we decided not to treat him and to let nature take its course. The treatment is drastic—highly monitored doses of a DDT derivative to shrink the tumor. The amount has to be just right and requires five days of watching your dog like a hawk for changes in his appetite that signal he’s had just enough of the “poison” to help and not harm him. The treatment and monitoring cost several thousand of dollars and the maintenance dose of the drug is over $100 per month.

We had just spend nearly $3000 on an operation for Darrin, but I was ready to go for it until Tim reminded me that Bear’s hips were getting worse and the Cushing’s helped alleviate his growing discomfort and difficulty walking to a great extent. He wanted to go for quality, not quantity of life. Because Bear was originally his dog, I felt Tim’s opinion ruled, but it ultimately made sense to me, too. Later, two different vets said they’d probably have done the same thing. One told us she knew people who got all excited that there was a treatment for this disease, primarily of older dogs. They’d put out all that cash and hopefulness, only to have to put down their pooch six months later because of painful arthritis. We had to take into consideration all of Bear’s health issues.

Our boy’s last year was tough on all of us, although he kept his usual good humor nearly to the end. As is often typical in both animals and people, he had a last hurrah. His condition improved so much around his 11th birthday, we wondered if we were being pessimistic about the end being near. Sadly, it was only three days later, and it was not pretty. In a way, that was a blessing, because there was no question about what we had to do and its urgency.

It is difficult to let go of the glue in your family, the dog with a smile, the canine cheerleader whose goofiness brought sunshine to every dark day. He loved when I tucked him into his crate at night. He still slept in it in our bedroom—his one constant, his “blankie” or recreated womb—until his last year or two. Then he finally preferred to sleep near the foot of our bed. He’d run to the bedroom, and wait for his last biscuit (cookie) after his pills, and, of course, a goodnight kiss from Mom. We had this tender ritual we began when he was still a puppy. We borrowed it from the Waltons. We always said, “Nite-nite, Sweet Bear.” Tim and I nite-nite-sweeted each other and all the cats as well. I made up a song that was part of Bear’s routine. I sang it to the tune of Rock-a-bye Baby:

Nite-nite, Sweet Beary
In your soft crate
Mommy will tuck you
She won’t be late.
Gallop to Dreamland
Pills, cookie, kiss.
Isn’t it heaven,
Nite-nite like this?
(Spoken) Nite-nite, Sweet Bear.

I sang his song one last time on January 15, 2008 when the vet on duty sent him to Dreamland and Heaven for good. My heart was breaking to put him down so soon after losing Darrin only two months earlier, but one thing is true. Our four fur sons, including the two we have lost, will always be our family. They are the hub of the home we created together, whether they are with us in body or only in spirit.

No matter how many new four-legged bundles of love join our family in the future, there was only one dog for us in the whole world at a time in our lives riddled with stress and turmoil. His needs brought us out of our self-absorption. Bear was the greatest gift my husband ever gave me—the one I thought I didn’t need.

The power of positive puppy brought us joy every day, no matter what was going on. Just thinking of Bear always will.

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