Over the years our family has had a wide variety of pets. Guinea pigs, salamanders, snakes, birds, fish, half a dozen cats, and two dogs have graced our humble abode so far. There is much joy in sharing our lives with pets but with few exceptions most of them have short lifespans compared to our own. This means the love and joy we experience caring for our animals is ultimately balanced with loss when they die. That fact came into focus once again this week when we had to say goodbye to our 16-year-old dog, Xander.
Our first dog’s name was Sparky. He was a great dog and had a good long life, but when the time eventually came to put him to sleep I told everyone I was done… no more dogs. It was just too painful. An extreme reaction, I know, but that was how I felt at the time. A number of months later though, my wife and daughter were visiting the local mall and came across Xander. A local dog and cat rescue/adoption group were having a clinic at Petco. Xander’s small size and sleepiness on that warm day disguised what he would ultimately become, an energetic cattle dog placed to a home with no cattle to herd, only people.
The first thing we discovered after Xander came home, cooled off, and woke up, was that he had plenty of energy. Later, after he grew out of his puppyhood, Xander eventually ended up weighing around 45 pounds. Despite his un-lapdog size, Xander decided that’s just what he was, and since my wife’s chair is best suited for the purpose, that’s where he usually went when he came in for the evening. Maybe it was all that talk about his being small and mild mannered, I don’t know. Fortunately, we have a good sized yard. Xander’s daily routine became barking only when necessary, (that’s what he told me) chasing cats and other small animals out of his domain, and playing with what became his favorite toy, a rubber jack shaped thing which would bounce in random directions when thrown. Over time we probably bought over a dozen of them and he would carry it around all day in the corner of his mouth like it was an unlit cigar.
If no one was available to throw his toy for him, Xander was happy to toss it into the air and chase it himself. He was great entertainment for ourselves and our good friends and neighbors, Mick and Katherine, who have always considered our dogs theirs as well. In addition to the dog biscuits through the fence for Sparky and Xander, M & K always remembered our pets with their own special gifts every Christmas. Years ago, when Sparky was still alive, my wife, Lori was in a serious car accident, and when our family and Mick and Katherine got together to talk about how they could help out while Lori was recuperating, I was told the overwhelming portion of the discussion was concerning how Sparky would be taken care of. No surprise for pet lovers.
Whenever I worked in the yard, Xander would follow me around, trying to get me to throw his toy for him. I’d be focused on doing something, then turn to see his toy lying next to me with Xander crouched a distance away, waiting for me to throw it to him.
Although our cat, Lucy, and Xander have had their tense moments, they’ve mostly tolerated each other. After all, the couch seats three people comfortably, so it should work fine for a dog and cat, right?
When Xander’s health began to decline he started doing something he’d never done before, scratching at the door to come inside. I think he was just generally unsure of himself, and also needing to know where we were at all times. He would lay down in doorways, making us step over him to come in. Whenever I came home from work, he would be in the living room doorway facing the front door. Only when he was sure of where everyone was, could he finally relax.
In the same way that children don’t get to choose their parents, our pets don’t get to choose us, though some would argue they’ve definitely been chosen after visiting a dog/cat adoption site “just to look around.” Pet owners run the gamut from caring and loving to… not. Our treatment of animals generally across various societies is mixed and confused. Just ask a vegetarian or vegan. What I’ve observed is that people who care well for their pets usually care well for people too, although even that point might generate debate.
There is definitely something missing in our home now that Xander is gone. We’re grieving his loss. He enriched our lives with his dopey energy and endless desire to play when he still felt well enough. Even very near the end he would still get excited and try to dance around when one of us would “get it” and feed him or take him outside when he needed it. We say, “Good dog!” Do you suppose dogs ever say, “Good person?” I hope we earned it. I hope too we see him in heaven. It’s certain he was a little heaven on earth for us.