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The power of pets

Posted by on September 22, 2010 in Parenting |

I was up early this morning – for some reason Stone decided to wake up at 2 am – so I had a lot of time to read articles online. One headline caught my eye  (With pets as ‘part of the family’ grief hits hard when they pass) and the article tugged at my heartstrings as I read it, as it reminded me of my own experience.

Growing up I was fortunate for the opportunity to have a special dog in my life from the age of 6-21. Snoopy came into our family as a puppy – he was part of a large litter born to a dog we had recently adopted from an animal shelter (Ginger). I don’t remember how long we had Ginger – but I do remember she kept chewing through the bottom of the fence to get out – or literally jumping over the fence. She was part greyhound so she could really run – and at some point it became too much of a problem to keep her so my parents gave her up to a shelter again – but we elected to keep one of her puppies. All of my friends who grew up with me in Walnut Creek knew and remember Snoopy fondly. He was really a great dog and the ultimate friend/companion for a family full of kids. He was definitely the first to make me know and feel what unconditional love meant. We had a strong bond even as he aged and experienced health problems (as old dogs do). While I was having plenty of fun while I off at college at U of O, I still missed Snoopy and would check on him whenever possible. My senior year in college his health was getting worse and we all knew it was a matter of time before he would be gone – but I still wasn’t totally prepared for the phone call I received the week of Spring term finals. My dad called and told me that Snoopy was gone – he had taken him to the vet earlier in the day and said his last good-bye to him. It was just time. Even though I wasn’t at all surprised, I was still upset. But I couldn’t dwell on it much as I had to focus on the upcoming exams. The timing was a bit of a blessing for me in that regard.

Even though I continued to love dogs, I didn’t get another one until just after Renee and I were married in 1997. I knew that I didn’t have the time nor lifestyle when I was in my 20s to properly care for a dog and give it the time/attention it needs and deserves. But I was very excited to bring a dog back into my life again – and for my 32nd birthday, Renee agreed to let me buy a beagle puppy (I fell in love with the breed when I was younger – probably because of the original “Snoopy” and all of the Peanuts comic books I read while growing up).

Renee and I found Frankie at a pet store in Bellevue – he was in a cage with his brother – and you could not find two cuter puppies. Frankie was sleeping and his brother was active in the cage – so we decided to take Frankie because we thought he would be the calmer one (ha ha).

Frankie quickly became our first baby. Some people are offended when you compare raising a puppy with a baby but I think there are lots of parallels. This was our first experience with sleepless nights – we tried to crate-train Frankie and that lasted as long as my first business trip. When I got home I discovered that Renee couldn’t handle the barking during the night so she let Frankie sleep in our bed for “just one night.” Yeah, well you know how that goes. I soon got used to him joining us in the bed and having him burrow under the sheets so he could sleep up against me – as well as waking up to his morning licks on my face.

There is no doubt that it was because we treated Frankie as our baby that he never really considered himself a dog. He truly got along better with people than he did other dogs. We would try to bring him to dog parks to socialize him but he had no interest – he spent his time hanging with other dog owners instead of the dogs. He quickly earned the very appropriate nickname, “King Frankie.”  As everyone who met him can attest, he had an amazing (and funny) personality, and he was one of the first (and only) dogs who I swore could actually smile.

Frankie and I quickly formed a strong bond. He was only 9 months old when I sold my interest in Kaufer Miller Communications and left the agency. While trying to figure out where to go next professionally, I found myself with a lot of free time and an instant best friend with Frankie. We lived not far from the Burke-Gillman trail so every day I would load Frankie in the car and drive down to the trail – and go for a 4-5 mile run together. He would also sit on my lap while I worked on the computer – I’ll never forget the first time he fell asleep cuddled in my arms. It was a feeling of  knowing how totally he trusted me and how secure he felt. It was very powerful.

Frankie with one of his famous smiles

When Frankie was two, we decided to adopt another dog to help keep him company. We felt bad for the time he spent alone while Renee and I both were at work so we went on the hunt for a companion. It took a few weeks and many trips to various animal shelters but we finally found the perfect match at Tony LaRussa’s Animal Rescue Foundation. Rusty was a sweet looking medium-size dog who was calm and inviting as we approached. Renee kneeled down to pet him and say hi and he immediately gave her a kiss and the connection was made. Rusty joined our family that afternoon and Frankie suddenly had a new big brother.

Rusty was just what Frankie needed – not only companionship during the days while we were gone but also an alpha dog who helped keep Frankie in his place (something he clearly was not used to previously). We commonly described Frankie as the “cute and smart” one while Rusty was “sweet and not-quite-as-sharp.” I have way too many stories about the two of them to share here but my favorite is a demonstation of both their relationship and respective IQs. I would sometimes buy them soup bones as a treat and would be careful to make sure each had their own separately. But dogs being dogs, they each wanted the other’s bone (as well as their own). We had a doggy door that led to our backyard and Frankie would go outside and start barking loudly – as if there was a squirrel or critter in the yard. Rusty would dutifully scamper through the doggy door to investigate the commotion. As soon as Frankie saw Rusty outside, he would tear back inside and take Rusty’s bone – and would then take both and hide under our bed. Rusty would come back inside and wonder what happened to his bone. It never ceased to amaze me how Frankie had the ability to think and plot in such a way – and how Rusty always seemed to fall for it. They provided us with a lot of entertainment.

There was one other area in particular where Frankie prepared me for fatherhood later in my life. He started experiencing stomach problems during the night when he was about 3 or 4. He was clearly uncomfortable and couldn’t sleep many nights. He would come to my side of the bed and scratch on the bed panel asking for help. I would get out of bed – often at 2 or 3 in the morning – and sit with him on our couch, rubbing his tummy to make it feel better. I quickly learned how to function sleep-deprived, and this clearly was something I needed to do (and still do on occasion). You may or may not believe in fate – but I do believe there was something about the amount of care-taking I had to do with Frankie and how it prepared me for an even larger role I’ve had to take with the twins – and Stone in particular.

Classic pose for Rusty (left) and Frankie in our old backyard in Pleasanton, California

Frankie and Rusty together were great friends and companions to me as I began to work from home more often – they were perfect officemates. And I also would take them both out for runs nearly daily – often taking them on runs to my Mom’s house (which was about 2 miles away) and then grabbing a lift home (as Frankie and Rusty had no intention of running back). And we also went for daily walks with an old high school classmate who happened to live around the corner – and his two dogs. We were big dog-lovers and a very dog-centric family.

A perfect example of how great Rusty was with the twins during the brief two year they shared our home together.

We were’t sure exactly how the dogs would respond when the twins were born – but we had a pretty good idea. We didn’t think that King Frankie would appreciate having to share the spotlight and attention but we didn’t think that Rusty would care much one way or another. We were right about Frankie – he really couldn’t care less about the twins and had no problem ignoring them. Rusty was another story though. From the moment we arrived with the twins, Rusty quickly took to them and became their guardians. He would make sure he was sitting or laying within eyesight of them – and he was extremely leery and suspicious of unfamiliar visitors who wanted to hold the babies. Rusty was suddenly a clingy Mother Hen and protector – a role we cherished and appreciated.

Even though the dogs were getting a little older, I still looked forward to the opportunity for the twins to spend a few years with Frankie and Rusty and form some level of relationship with them as young boys. Little did I know that opportunity would quickly diminish.

In the fall of 2007, we discovered that Frankie was very sick. Initially we thought it was a minor stomach ailment, but the illness persisted and we ran more tests with our veterinarian, eventually being referred to an ultrasound specialist, who would do a more thorough diagnosis. It was there that I received devastating news. Frankie’s kidney’s were failing, and he didn’t have long to live. I couldn’t believe it. He seemed so healthy and everything seemed normal until just a few weeks before then. I quickly dove into research mode and tried to determine if there was anything we could do to help his health and prolong his life. We were told that one option would be providing daily saline IVs to compensate for the failing kidneys. It really wasn’t an option. I tried special diets but his appetite was simply fading. We knew the end was near and it was a horrible feeling. We decided that we would try to spend one final weekend together, and on Monday bring him into the vet as his health was quickly failing. We didn’t want him to suffer.

On Saturday, December 1st, 2007, it was clear that Frankie was in worst shape than ever. He had no appetite and wouldn’t drink water. He couldn’t find spot to sit or lie down where he was comfortable. The previous night I slept maybe 2-3 hours because I just wanted to spend time with Frankie (even though he was sleeping). I was having  hard time knowing that my best friend and companion of 10 years would soon be gone.

Renee and I quickly decided that we had to take action immediately. We called the vet and told them the news. They said we could bring him in immediately. We asked our Au Pair at the time to watch the boys (who had just turned 2 a few weeks earlier) and we brought Frankie in the car for one final drive together. During the short drive to the vet I couldn’t help but to think about the day we brought Frankie home from the pet store as a puppy. Then, as now, he was on Renee’s lap. We arrived at the vet and were quickly escorted to an exam room. There we waited with tears in our eyes as we held Frankie and told him over and over what a good dog he was. The vet and technician arrived and explained the procedure and what to expect. The procedure went as well as you can expect in that circumstance. Frankie was quickly sedated and the pain was eased. I felt the precise moment when life left his body. The void was instant and immense. Our first baby was gone.

This was our last full family photo taken on December 1st, 2007. Frankie was gone only a few hours later.

Renee and I said one final good-bye to Frankie and left the office bawling. We drove to Sunset Drive in Edmonds, where there was parking and a view of the Puget Sound. We sat and stared out over the water and shared our favorite stories about Frankie before heading home as snow began to fall.

In hindsight, we realize we made one huge mistake with how we dealt with Frankie’s situation – we never allowed Rusty to say good-bye to his brother. We have since learned that it is common (and preferred) to bring the companion dog – so he/she can be there and understand what happened. I’m told they can “smell” the death and better understand it. I so wish we had done this with Rusty, because suddenly he found himself alone, and he had no idea what happened to Frankie.

You often hear about people who die from a broken heart when a long-time companion/mate passes away. Well, this is what happened to Rusty. He was clearly depressed after Frankie was gone. Because of the suddenness of Frankie’s illness, we wanted to make sure Rusty’s health was OK too so we brought him in for a complete check up. He received a clean bill of health and the vet said he expected him to be able to live another few healthy years. That was not the case.

In March, only 3 months after losing Frankie, I returned home from a meeting and could tell immediately that something was wrong with Rusty. I tried to feed him a snack and he had no interest (this was *extremely* rare for him as he was known for nearly taking off fingers when offered hot dogs previously). I rushed him to the vet and while they didn’t know exactly what was wrong with him, they said it was serious and would run a variety of tests. His health went south in a hurry and they advised me to rush him to a near-by emergency vet in Lynnwood. I brought him in there and he was quickly placed on a stretcher and rushed into another examination room. One of the emergency room vets came into the room and told me that Rusty was suffering from a form of acute diabetes. She said they could perform some procedures and try a number of drugs, but the cost would be more than $5,000 – and she had never seen a dog leave the facility who was suffering from similar symptoms. It was obvious what needed to be done. I called Renee and gave her an update and asked if she wanted to come to the hospital for a final goodbye. She said she couldn’t go through that experience again so soon after Frankie – and I completely understood. She had said her goodbye to him earlier the day and that was enough. Rusty knew he was loved and wanted by us – and always showed his appreciation in so many ways.

And so in a span of a little more than 3 months, I found myself in the same situation with my two best friends. As I did with Frankie, I made sure Rusty was laying on my lap when I said my last goodbye to him. He looked up at me one last time and it was if he knew – and was fine with it. Somehow he understood that it was his time, and soon he was at peace.

Driving home and entering the house I felt an even stronger void than before. And even though we were now a family of 4, with a pair of thriving 2 year old twin boys, the house felt strangely empty. Now, there were no excited furry greetings when we entered through the garage. When I worked late at night (which I almost always did and still do) I no longer had one or two dogs by my feet or behind my chair, keeping me company (and accompanying me when I went to bed). When I had to get up in the middle of the night with one of the twins, there was no Frankie and Rusty dutifully escorting me downstairs and lying in the room with me as I fed the boys.

I’m not ashamed to say that I cried many days and nights after losing both Frankie and Rusty. Those who have experienced the deep, loving bond one establishes with an animal will relate to the immense feeling of loss that hits when they are gone. And while I don’t think about them quite as often as I did for the first year or two after they left us, there is still rarely a day or two that passes when I don’t think about and/or miss them for one reason or another.

Even though we love dogs we haven’t yet brought them back into our family again, but we do plan to again in the future (perhaps the next year or so). Both Stone and Ty love dogs and have enjoyed it when we have dog-sat for friends, so I know it will be good for them to have dogs in their lives as I did in mine as a young boy.

1 Comment

  • Dad says:

    David,

    That is a beautiful, heartfelt reflection of your life with our (and your) pets. Please save it to share with your boys when they get older. I wish I would have done that with Snoopy. What a wonderful companion he was with all the family. I went through a similer gut wrenching day when I had to let Snoopy go. I don’t know if you have ever seen me cry but that day I did – all the way to the animal shelter and back home. He was truly a special part of our lives while you were growing up. But I knew I had to do it because he was in such pain. I guess that is part of being a responsible adult – doing what has to be done regardless of how much it hurts at the time.

    I know that I must face the same decision with Muffie some day, and I am afraid that it will be sooner than we want it to be with her hip displacia. But meanwhile we are loving her like our child and enjoying every minute with her as we all do with a pet that we consider part of our family and lives. I hope that you and Renee can get another pet soon so the Boys will experience the fun and excitement of having a loyal friend while they are growing up, too.

    By the way, did you know that I had a wonderful companion while I was growing up on the farm in North Dakota? His name was “Tag” and that is what he did – followed me everywhere. But that is another story.

    With love,

    Dad

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