Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Learning why dogs are called man's best friend

Twelve years ago in December, our family was having active discussions about getting a dog. I had grown up with a dog that had lived 13 years, so I had a good idea of what dog ownership was like. And frankly, I didn't want to do it.

My wife and I had survived a quarter century of marriage without owning furbearing pets. Or, without owning pets at all, if we go with the my children's mantra that "fish are not pets." It boggled my mind that we were discussing getting a dog at that point.

We had recently discovered that our youngest son is on the autism spectrum. He was working with a therapist as he struggled to manage related mental health challenges. The therapist had suggested that pet ownership — specifically, dog ownership — might be healthy for our son.

I had plenty of reasons against getting a dog. For starters, the kids would not feed, care for, cleanup after, or walk the dog nearly as much as they promised. I knew this because I had been a kid who had made ... and broken such promises. And so had my siblings. And every child I ever knew whose family had gotten a dog. Ergo, my wife and I would become the dog's main caretakers.

Dogs are messy. They tear up the house, the furniture, and the yard. They poop wherever they want. They track stuff into the house. They smell. They bark and annoy the neighborhood. And their needs must be considered anytime the family wants to do something. Even an evening out can present a challenge.

And dogs cost money. Food and supplies, bathing/grooming, veterinary visits, licenses, etc.

I also strongly suspected that, despite the promise of the dog living outdoors, it would end up living inside the house.

But the main reason I didn't want a dog was because I knew my own nature. I have a weak spot for the puppy dog face. Dogs seem to know how to manipulate that weakness. They simply look at me in a certain way and I end up indulging them in whatever they want.

We had family meetings where I expressed my concerns. I thought the discussion was ongoing when I came home from work one day and discovered that we had an eight-week-old puppy who was amazingly adorable. (A designer breed called Imo-Inu.) If I had raised a fuss about it, I think I would have been ejected while the puppy stayed.

I wasn't happy about the fact that the puppy peed on the carpet 20 times a day. We went through lots of pet stain cleaner. Family members learned to take the critter outside at regular intervals.

We took to giving the puppy treats and cheering for him every time he relieved himself outside. This worked. But maybe too well. For the rest of his life, he liked to have someone come outside with him when he needed to relieve himself. He didn't get treats after he was house trained, but he wanted company to take a leak.

Of course, we weren't going to make our little white puppy live outside by himself at that tender age. I was promised that he would be moved to the fenced backyard in the spring or summer after he had grown a bit. As you might suspect, that never happened. He became a house dog who spent time outside rather than an outside dog who occasionally came inside the house.

Our oldest son was at that time enamored of an anime show that featured a white wolf named Shiranui, so the children voted to name our dog Shiranui. Only a few people outside our family could ever remember or pronounce his name. He responded to all kinds of wonky things we called him (Poo-butt, Burdtucket, Little Mr. Puppy Pants, Nui-pie, Dog, Borkloaf, etc.) but he responded best to his actual name.

A good (and sometimes bad) characteristic of the Imo-Inu breed is that they self-groom, not unlike cats. Shiranui didn't like to get or stay messy. He cleaned himself by licking his paws and any other body part he could reach.

Unfortunately, the self-grooming could go into overdrive when dealing with a sore or a wound. No ordinary protective pet cone was sufficient to keep him from licking a wound raw. Or from eating bandage wraps (which might be barfed up two days later). We once had to resort to making him wear a massive cone extended by parts of ice cream buckets, which we dubbed Conehenge, to allow his paw to heal. The dog could barely walk with the thing on, but it did achieve its goal.

We researched our puppy's breed and bought a kennel that would fit him as an adult. This Wag! site, for example, says that an adult Imo-Inu will weigh 20-30 lbs. and reach 14-17" in height. But Shiranui kept growing and growing until he outgrew his kennel while he was still a puppy. We had to get something much larger. When he finished growing, he was closer to 25" tall. At one point, he weighed 76 lbs. (Did I mention that I have a problem with indulging dogs?) With diet and exercise, he got down to 61 lbs., but that's still double what we expected for his breed.

As I suspected, our children walked the dog only sporadically. Our daughter liked to take him for a run around the neighborhood, holding his leash while she rode her scooter. Until Shiranui once decided to suddenly veer off the path to pursue something that interested him, causing our daughter to crash.

When Shiranui was about two years old, a job change allowed me to get home from work earlier. I started taking him for walks when I returned from work. We usually walked much farther than the simple round-the-block walks he was used to.

A couple of years later, when I started working from home full time, we added a lunchtime walk each day after I finished eating lunch. These ranged in length. Then about three years ago, we added a morning walk before work. I originally thought this would replace the lunchtime walk, but apparently both of us had become too deeply trained to give up the midday walk. So, most days, Shiranui got three walks.

It wasn't that other family members never walked the dog. But for the past 5-6 years, I have taken Shiranui on at least 80% of his walks. That means that the two of us have been on about 5,000 walks together. I have learned that we were a mainstay in the neighborhood. People became very used to seeing the two of us on walks, and many have kindly expressed their condolences at his passing.

There is a sprawling city park a few blocks from our home. It has expansive grassy slopes in the more developed portion and woodland trails in the less developed part. Shiranui loved going there. Rarely did he miss going there on at least one of his daily walks.

When walking Shiranui, random people would regularly say something like, "Your dog is so beautiful!" And he was. Occasionally someone would say, "She is gorgeous." I rarely corrected the gender confusion.

Shiranui was a cold weather dog. He loved snow. When he was young, he would run around trying to catch the discharge from the snow blower, to the point that he would choke on the snow. He liked to stick his muzzle in fresh snow and toss the snow up in the air. He enjoyed drilling his head under the snow like a snow torpedo. He would sit, roll in, and lay down on the snow.

Heat was Shiranui's nemesis, especially as he grew older. He couldn't walk as far when it was hot outside. Sometimes, especially during the past couple of years, he would walk the three lots to the end of our street and back. And even that took a long time.

Our walking routes grew increasingly shorter over the past two years. Shiranui developed hip pain, which we treated with a prescription strength veterinary anti-inflammatory. Later we added a painkiller. These drugs really helped him with mobility and quality of life. But they cost money.

As our dog became geriatric, his immune system underperformed. This led to his seasonal allergy pills becoming year round, occasional steroid shots, and occasional antibiotic prescriptions. These all helped too, especially with skin rashes that went from rare, to frequent, to constant.

Our family was definitely Shiranui's pack. He loved to be with his peeps. Often when a family member left the house, he would come to my office and look at me to let me know about it. His peeps loved him too. Shiranui became a common bonding point for each of our family members. One of my children noted that we are closer to each other than we would otherwise be because of our common bond with our dog.

Shiranui loved to be petted and doted on. But on his own terms. He had an odd habit of coming and sitting down next to a family member (or even a guest), obviously wanting to be petted, but maddeningly just barely out of reach. Often as he was being petted, he would slide down to the floor and then roll over to get his belly petted. He liked to lean on people who were standing or else sit on their foot. That wouldn't have been a big deal if he hadn't been so much larger than is typical for his breed.

I think Shiranui thought of himself as the defender of the home. He got to where he knew the sounds of the various types of delivery vehicles that commonly visit our neighborhood. As soon as he detected one of these, he would start barking. (Sometimes even when he was apparently asleep.) He reserved special attention for UPS trucks, for whatever reason. Maybe their engines growl in a tone he didn't like.

Shiranui generally loved guests. He would start barking before the doorbell rang. In fact, on the rare occasions when the doorbell rang without him previously detecting it, he would nearly go berserk. He usually sounded pretty vicious but would become extremely friendly as soon as a guest would pet him. Once a guest was in the house, he loved to rub up against them and solicit attention. Most of our guests left with more than a few 'white fibers of love' adorning their clothes, even after using a lint roller.

I was told when Shiranui was a puppy that his breed was double-coated but only shed once per year. Maybe. But shedding season seemed to last twelve months.

Our dog definitely had his own personality. He did his own thing, even when he knew you wanted him to do something different. We trained him to do a number of tricks. But he would only do them when offered sufficient treats as a bribe. He never was into balls, so he didn't respond much to throwing a ball. Ditto with frisbees. He loved tug-o-war until he got old and his gums bled when he played.

Something people don't think about or only distantly think about when they get a puppy is the other end of the animal's life. It has been clear for a couple of years that Shiranui was slowing down and was experiencing a variety of health problems. About half a year ago, he had some scans that revealed a rapidly growing liver tumor with growths on other organs. Surgery didn't make sense, given his age, the distribution of the tumors, and the rate of disease development. So, we mostly worked on making his life as comfortable as possible.

As the vet had warned, the liver tumor grew rapidly, causing the dog's abdominal region to bulk without adding much weight. We increasingly watched for end-of-life symptoms. We thought he was there a couple of weeks ago. But then he rallied after some rough days and seemed pretty much back to his usual self.

Last week, Shiranui came into our bedroom in the middle of the night, obviously in a bit of distress. I got up with him, but he soon became sleepy and lethargic. Over the next day, he vomited several times. He would only drink small amounts of water cupped in our hands and he wouldn't eat. He barely urinated. He mostly just lay around for hours on end. He didn't seem to be in pain. He would get up momentarily, but his rear legs weren't working well, so he would just reposition himself and lay back down. We made an appointment for the vet to see him the following morning.

Shiranui actually seemed to be doing a little better that morning, but he still wasn't good. He did let me walk him to the neighbor's yard and back. His abdomen had gone from being stiff to being saggy and squishy. The vet explained that the liver tumor had ruptured. We could try to sustain him for a few unpleasant days if we wanted to. We opted for euthanization and called family members to come to the clinic.

Shiranui was soon surrounded by his peeps, who were all in a grieving emotional state. All our children are now adults and each had been prepared for this experience. But it's surprising how much it impacted each family member when the moment actually arrived. The folks at the animal clinic were professional and caring. The process was handled well. It didn't take long for our old sick dog to pass from this life as we knelt on the floor around him stroking his fur.

I was frankly surprised by the hole I felt inside. For the first day or so, almost anything that even remotely reminded me of Shiranui brought tears. It's even taking time to adjust to the doorbell ringing with no barking. It has become a little easier to manage the grief with each passing day. Those first few walks without Shiranui were pretty difficult. I appreciate family members joining me on some of those walks.

To be honest, I constantly complained about Shiranui nearly his whole life. Countless times I said, "I never wanted a dog," even as I cared for him, walked him, and picked up after him. (I learned guilt tripping and martyr syndrome from my mom, who was one of the best.) I mostly thought about the duty and inconvenience surrounding pet ownership.

Then as I prayed the evening of the day following Shiranui's passing, I received a distinct impression that it was essential for me to express gratitude for Shiranui each time I felt a wave of grief. That impression has radically changed how I have felt and responded over the succeeding days. There are so many things to be grateful for. Yes, there is grief. But there is joy! Gratitude reveals that joy. Why did it take Shiranui passing away for me to learn gratitude for him?

Regardless of any philosophy or religious doctrine, I sincerely believe that there will be a future beautiful meeting with Shiranui. It just feels right within my soul. Until then, goodbye, my friend.

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