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Requiem for a Good Dog

(Originally published June 27, 2009, on my Facebook page; reposted in honor of yesterday’s National Dog Day.)

I said goodbye to Bedevere tonight.

More than nine years ago, I adopted him from the North Little Rock Animal Shelter because Trudy (to whom I was married at the time) and I decided we needed a dog. Today, nearly 10 years old, he’s lost the use of his back legs and can’t stand the summer heat, among other ailments. He’s been living with Trudy since we separated and she made the toughest call a pet owner ever has to face: It was time for him to go. She let me know so I could come say goodbye.

I still remember the first day I saw Bedevere at the shelter. He was the saddest-looking little thing back then — four months old and not even 20 pounds, the victim of neglect and malnourishment at the hands of his bastard owners; he was so weak, he couldn’t get to his feet by himself. The animal control folks had originally planned to euthanize him when they brought him in, but as he lay there on the table and looked up with those big, deep, dark eyes of his, they couldn’t bring themselves to do it. So a couple of them took turns taking him home and trying to nurse him back to health.

Billy Grace, the shelter director, knew I’d been looking for a dog and wanted a boxer, so he gave me a call. First time I saw the dog they were calling “Rocky” (because he kept fighting to get back up), he still needed to have his back end lifted up so he could stand. But he was very cute, and just as sweet as you could imagine, and he looked like a full-blooded boxer with his fawn coat and black mask and floppy ears and little stump of a tail.

Two weeks later I picked him up and took him home. He was walking by then. Trudy and I proceeded to spoil the stuffing out of that dog — or into him, as the case was. He basically got the green light from the vet to eat all he wanted, and believe me, he wanted! Like many dogs who’ve been starved, he quickly became food defensive — he’d grown at you if you petted him while he was eating or chewing a bone, but he also didn’t stop eating or chewing.

The vet told us he’d likely be a bit of a runt. A big male boxer might reach 75 pounds or so, he said, but as poorly as he’d been fed as a puppy it was likely he’d be stunted. I love and trust my vet, but this one he got totally wrong — within a couple of years Bedevere, as we had named him in the manner of dorky medievalists, tipped the scales at 77 pounds. He was big, energetic and loved, loved, LOVED people. Especially women. Bring two new people home and he’d spend most of his time with the girl. Ladykiller, yes he was.

He had his idiosyncrasies. He never seemed to realize that his back legs had recovered. If you held up a toy or a bone, he’d jump a foot clear of the floor trying to get it. But if you wanted him to get into the car, he’d pop his front legs up and then look at you for a lift on his hind end. And he really never learned to stand up on his back legs and put his paws on you. Sit on the couch, though, and he was on your lap in a flash, crushing you beneath his well-muscled (and well-fed) bulk.

He slobbered like crazy. You didn’t want to be the first person he ran into after a visit to the water bowl. His farts could clear the room, and heaven forfend he started cutting ’em loose while he had you pinned down on the sofa. He had a LOUD bark, and could also pitch a ear-piercing shriek into it. He liked to go outside in the middle of the night and “gossip” with the other dogs. He liked to cuddle in bed, which basically meant a large swath of mattress was off-limits to you because he couldn’t be moved. He loved Kongs stuffed with peanut butter and frozen, but if you accidentally used chunky PB then you’d find a scattering of peanut bits on the floor wherever he’d been eating.

He loved walks, and I am ashamed that I never gave him enough of them. Take the leash out and he went crazy. Take out his car harness and he practically did backflips. He loved any ride in the car, even to the vet (where he was suspiciously well-behaved, almost never excitable). He absolutely loved our cats, though it was largely unrequited (and despite the fact he was — no kidding, we had him tested — slightly allergic to them). And he loved other dogs, straining at the leash every time he saw one, whether it seemed friendly or not. At one point our neighbors asked if he could “dogsit” their Rottweiler puppies until they got a fence built, and for Bedevere it was like it was Christmas every day; even after the fence was built and the Rotties grown, they’d get out every now and then and I’d come home from work to find one or both of them in the back yard with Bedevere.

He had his health problems. He was a little weak in the back legs, despite his recovery, and if he walked or played long enough, you could see him limping a little. He got terrible hotspots in the summer where his fur would fall out and leave itchy bare patches (that led to the allergy test, which told us yeast in his food and cedar chips in his doghouse were the culprits). He got hit by a car once and broke one of his front legs, but he recovered fully. In general, he was hale and healthy and eager to please.

And now he’s going to be put to sleep, because he just wouldn’t make it through another summer. He can’t use his back legs anymore — ironic, since that’s how he started life, but now there’s no hope of regaining that function. He has old dog issues, and there comes a point when you have to ask yourself if it’s time to let him go …

I’m crying now. Hang on.

… if it’s time to let him go in as gentle and humane a way possible. Trudy made that decision this week. By the time we separated three years ago, we had a second dog, Zoe, and she and Bedevere were inseparable. Trudy took the dogs in the divorce; I didn’t want both, but wouldn’t split them because that would be cruel, plus I wouldn’t have room. I took our last cat, Felicity, who still lives with me today. Anyway, I saw Bedevere a few times over the next six months or so, but not since then. I harbored no doubts that he was being well cared for. I also knew that the bigger the dog, the shorter the lifespan, and had always wondered when I’d get the call or e-mail about Bedevere.

So tonight I went out to see him one last time. He almost wasn’t recognizable — as big as he was three years ago, his was even more barrel-chested and bull-necked than I remembered. He was also old, so old — everywhere there had been black on his muzzle, his ears, around his eyes, was almost entirely gray. But he knew me, and he kissed me and let me rub his belly and hug him. He got to meet Kelly and, predictably, he fell immediately in love with her. I took pictures — if you look at the Bedevere album, you’ll see old and new pics of him.

And I said goodbye.

I said it with great sadness, with a crushing weight on my heart, but without regret. For I knew his had been a good life. His rescuers at the animal shelter — as fine and dedicated a group of public servants as I ever knew in my years as a reporter — put him in our hands, and we took care of the rest. We loved that dog. Loved him the way a dog should be loved — constantly, boundlessly and with absolutely no sense of proportion.

And however much we loved him he returned it. Can there truly be any creature more capable of unconditional love than a dog? Impossible! For a well-loved dog will pay you back tenfold — no, a hudredfold! He cares not a whit about your sins, your foibles, your crises petty or grand. He just loves you, and doesn’t stop.

What have we done to deserve this? What had I done? I don’t know that I could ever say, but I know this: My life was better for having had Bedevere in it, even these recent years when I never even saw him, not until the night before he was going to be put to sleep. And on this night, my heart swell night to bursting at the sight of that smushed-up nose, that little stump of a tail, and the unthinking, unstinting, immediate love that he lavished on me.

Crying again.

Good bye, Bedevere. You were the best dog in the world and I loved you. There will never be another dog like you.