The Power of a Dog

The Toby Years

© Jan Strnad

toby06Surely one of the most sublime dances of our species is the one we dance with our pets. We seek them out and bring them into our lives and our homes. We cater to them, we train them to entertain us, we meet their needs for food and shelter, we provide medical care and love and adoration.

In return, they exist. They do what they do. Fish swim. Cats lie in sunbeams. Dogs scrounge. My intellectual side tells me that whatever pets give us, they give as a matter of course, out of habit and instinct, oblivious to the significance we assign to their behavior.

It says that, when it comes to dogs, there is not a single canine behavior that can’t be explained in terms of what the dog gets out of it. Usually it’s food. Other rewards include the promise of food, physical attention and verbal praise. But food dominates the top spot and the following eighty-seven spots and everything else counts only when food is not an option.

Anthropologists explain that, to manipulate us into giving them food, dogs depend on a small but effective repertoire of behaviors. Remember that this is the animal family that invented “puppy eyes.” Dogs wield cuteness with the power of Jove zapping helpless humans with bolts of lightning. Even ugly dogs somehow manage to be cute, especially as puppies, the prime time in which they sell themselves to us.

They are also masters at exploiting our tendency to anthropomorphize them. Say, you are depressed. Your dog walks up and lays its (probably dripping wet) muzzle on your leg and looks up at you with puppy eyes. We interpret this maneuver as “sympathy.” It is not, say the experts. It is a behavior that results in your reaching down and scratching behind the ears of the dog.

You could be happy, distracted, in a drugged stupor or recently dead and the dog would do exactly the same thing for exactly the same purpose: to get scratched.

Yet you, the intelligent master, will put your intellect to work interpreting the behavior in the light most favorable to the dog. This is part of their power and part of the magic of owning a dog.

It is a strange and wonderful dance we do inside our heads. The heart does not care what the mind knows. The illusion that Dog gives a fig for Man comforts us. Caring for Dog assures us that we are not alone in the universe, not unloved, not repulsive, not stupid, not ungenerous, not superfluous.
In the final analysis, it doesn’t matter why or what or how. The fact is, dogs make us more caring, more secure, happier, less self-centered…in short, dogs make us better people than we would be without them.

And so my wife Julie and I entered the Toby Years.

We invited Toby into our lives ten years ago. She was a “rescue” dog offered by a family in Beverly Hills. They were Toby’s second owners, the first being someone who was dying of cancer and who was bothered by her barking. The second family’s excuse for excising Toby from their lives was that they were remodeling their house and the yard was no longer fenced. Very thin, but the excuse didn’t matter to us.

“She has beautiful blue eyes,” the lady from Beverly Hills told us. We couldn’t see her eyes because they were matted nearly shut. When we cleaned her eyes and opened them, they were brown.

“She loves her kennel,” said the lady. Toby never once entered her kennel, which was too small for her.

“She’s four years old.” Her medical records told us she was five.

Toby was also infested with fleas and she sported an overbite that, if she lived down south, would have earned her the name “Goober.” But she was friendly, was happy to play and frolic with us in the yard, and our vet said, after his initial examination of her, after prodding and poking her and sticking her with needles, “I couldn’t do anything to get her to bite me.” She was a sweetheart. We took her.

The dance began, and what a dance it was.

Toby was under-socialized. While friendly and open to any approach by anyone, she did not seek out our companionship. She slept away from us, didn’t approach us but waited for us to approach her. We thought at first that she was autistic or maybe just very stupid.

We began to get clues as to her history. She was friendly to everyone who visited, but she barked at anyone engaged in physical labor. She absolutely despised the lawn guy. If you walked into the room carrying a ruler, a spatula, anything remotely stick-like, she would cringe and slip away. Someone had abused her. Someone who worked with his hands. Or cooked.

She would bark at the rake as if it were an ancient enemy. When Julie ran the salad spinner, Toby would run into the kitchen and give it hell. She would not come when her name was called, but she would come to the rattle of the rain stick. If she saw Julie and me hugging, she would stare up at us and shamelessly hunch her loins.

And she watched television. She would stare at the screen for twenty minutes at a time, providing the set was off. A television displaying a program held no interest for her. She ignored mirrors. But she would watch The Toby Show with unswerving attention, occasionally rising to her feet and wagging her tail before sitting back down and continuing to stare at the blank screen.

We used to speculate that she was receiving messages from the home planet.

She did this for a year or two and then abruptly stopped. Maybe her home planet had abandoned her. Maybe she just told them she was quite happy here, thank you, and to stop bothering her. I don’t know.

It took her a full year to realize that Julie and I were her pack. Once she made the connection, she began to make her own overtures to us. I recall as a red letter day the day she walked up to me as I sat on the sofa with my foot on my knee and poked her head through the opening between my legs. She had learned to make herself known.

Still, she was never fawning or obsequious. She was always her own dog, stubborn and unbribable. If she wanted to come, she would. If not, forget it. It ain’t gonna happen. Not even the power of food could lure her into the house if she didn’t want in, and much of the time I believe she did want in but was playing the role of the stubborn teenager.

She had another television quirk. She would lie quite peacefully in the living room with the television blaring away. Helicopters could circle on the screen and the TV speakers could blast out rotor noise and machine guns chattering and buildings exploding, and Toby would not stir. But let a character’s beeper go off and she would instantly leap to her feet and flee.

Why? No clue.

She was terrified of the wind and of the Fourth of July. Our first Independence Day together, I was painting the bathroom and Toby spent most of the day lying on my feet. A howling wind sent her slinking to her spot in the office, as did thunder. If a bird dropped a palm seed on the aluminum awning while Toby was under it, she scurried for the safety of the house.

In her later years she would sleep through Armageddon. Deafness has its advantages.

She remained docile through all her days, patiently enduring the pokes and tugs of young children, quietly accepting that Julie would tie a green bow around her neck on St. Patrick’s Day or stick rabbit ears on her head for Easter.

She was even gently ornery. Julie occasionally makes things with twigs… wreaths and such. Toby, wanting a twig to chew, would quietly sneak up on Julie’s work table and ever so slowly and silently reach up, take a twig in her mouth and slide it surreptitiously away with the stealth of a New York pickpocket. She would do the same thing with socks left on the bed. (She loved to play tug of war with a sock and to wrestle it like a wild beast.)

Toby stole potatoes if left within reach, and lip balm, ink pens, pencils, oranges, tomatoes, you name it. She was a fanatic for bananas. Even in her later years she would wake from the deepest sleep if a banana was peeled anywhere in the house, and she would rush to claim her morsel.

She was not autistic, we decided, just shy. She was also not stupid. One day she was chasing Julie around the house, running in a circle from the living room, around the laundry room and through the kitchen and back to the living room. They made two complete circles and then Toby stopped, turned around and waited for Julie to appear again from the kitchen, which she did moments later.

Since I work at home, Toby took to sleeping in my office, often under my desk. She would run to meet me when she heard the jangle of my car keys and we’d run errands together. She was keenly interested in the sights and smells encountered on any car trip, would gladly endure the attention of strangers and would have hung herself halfway out the window as we drove down the street if I’d let her.

The neighborhood children would come over to visit Toby. Our granddaughter loved her. Our friends loved her or, if not dog-lovers by nature, were at least entertained by her quirks. We loved her dearly, of course.

After a few golden years it became obvious to us that Toby was evolving into a high maintenance pet. First it was the eyes, the lids that curled under and required surgery. She turned out to be prone to bladder infections. Her severe overbite limited the dog food she could eat to pellets of a certain size and texture.

As she aged, osteoporosis set in, a weakening of the bones that required calcium and hormone supplements. A degenerative nerve disease appeared that caused her to lose touch with her extremities. By the age of twelve, she required pills to maintain her bladder control, but her bowels remained unpredictable. A cancerous tumor on one leg had to be removed surgically, followed by three weeks of the dreaded cone to prevent her from opening the wound. (The cone on a dog of Toby’s size, about sixty pounds, is a menace to society. Although it protruded several inches beyond her snout, she never acknowledged the extra length. She would follow behind us at her usual distance, banging our legs with the cone and worrying the backs of our knees black and blue. No object on the coffee table was safe. The walls and doorways took a beating.)

The loss of her bowel control imposed a regimen on us of closely observing her tail whenever she was on her feet. It would cock slightly upwards when a bowel movement was imminent, prompting us to yell, “The dog’s tail is up!” One of us would leap into action to usher Toby out while the other one ran to open the door. If we were lucky, she would make it to the back stoop. If not, whoever was in charge of ushering the dog did so at his own peril as Toby dropped poop like depth charges under his feet.

Toby’s bowel movements became our prime topic of conversation. “Has the dog pooped today?” “There’s poop under the orange tree.” “Is it old poop or new poop?” “I think it’s new poop.” “The dog’s tail is up, the dog’s tail is up!”

We developed a routine of making Toby go outside when we left the house and taking her for a walk before we went to bed. We walked her, if we weren’t too tired, in hopes of making it through the night. If we didn’t, one of us… usually Julie… would wake at the sound of a rattling collar which meant Toby was up and that meant one thing: An accident. Walking through the house in the middle of the night was like picking your way through a mine field.

Julie and I stopped going on trips together. We didn’t want to subject Toby to a kennel (it seemed a cruel thing to do to a dog who had been twice abandoned and had no idea that we were coming back), and we didn’t feel right about imposing on friends to stay with her. She needed medication (pee pills, pain pills, calcium, hormones) twice a day according to a schedule in which doses changed between odd and even days. She sometimes needed antibiotics and eye cream, and her bowel and bladder habits required a keen eye, constant attention and frequent clean-ups.

So things went for about three years. Urinary accidents became commonplace and we tried moving her outdoors. We obtained a handsome and sturdy dog house, bought her an orthopedic, electrically warmed-to-body-temperature fleece-covered dog bed and put her outside on a “permanent” basis.

She would soil her bed in the middle of the night, wake, then situate herself under the neighbors’ bedroom window and bark until one of us climbed out of bed, cleaned up the mess and tucked her in again.

By now (age fifteen) her vision had deteriorated, as had her hearing, so that she was virtually blind and deaf. The osteoporosis and the nerve disease were proceeding apace. Bowel and bladder accidents were the norm. And yet…her major organs were healthy. The cancer had not returned. Her heart had the same slight murmur it had had when we met her, but it was otherwise strong. Her liver and kidneys were fine.

Toby was failing, clearly. And rapidly. She would never get better, only worse. Was she unhappy? Did she long for death? No, of course not. She was a dog. She was cared for, groomed, fed, she was pampered, she could smell. It was enough.

It saddened me to see her this way. I would remember her in better times, how intrigued and enthusiastic she was about everything. How she followed the Easter chicks around the yard relentlessly, drooling. How she ran up and down beside me as I tried to master my inline skates, barking and nipping at the leg of my pants.

One by one her interests faded away. Socks became boring scraps of cloth. Car trips traded one enclosed space for another, but when I lifted her into the truck and set her on the seat, she promptly laid down, not even pointing her nose to the open window. She hadn’t watched The Toby Show in years. She rarely came out of the office to socialize. She stopped barking at the lawn guy.

Even walks were pretty much functional and not a lot of fun. She had interest in what she could smell but was clearly uncomfortable outside very familiar surroundings. Walking hurt her hips, she tired halfway around the block. Often we’d stop and rest a bit before continuing on.

She slept twenty-two hours a day. She had to be forced outdoors, and then she’d retreat to her doghouse and to her fleece-covered orthopedic bed and sleep. She cocooned herself within a silent world of darkness and sleep, rousing only at mealtime.

Meanwhile, she woke us three or four or five times each night. The carpet was pee-stained and disgusting. The medical routine was relentless. The vet and prescription bills outrageous. We felt as if we lived in a stable. We couldn’t travel. Our dog was annoying the neighbors. We couldn’t relax, were always on edge, sleep-deprived. We’d been doing this for three years.

We had friends who had recently lost their cat to mouth cancer. It was a terrible experience, emotionally devastating. Harlan Ellison writes eloquently and movingly in his book Deathbird Stories about losing his dog Ahbhu to cancer. Cancer is a horrible disease and I do not wish it on any pet, certainly not my own, and I do not mean to diminish in any way the horror and the loss and the tragedy of pet owners who lose an animal to this dread affliction.

And yet…

When your pet develops cancer, it’s as if a great wind has swept you up, lifted you off your feet and hurled you toward a fate that is so certain and so merciless that you can only resolve to meet it with strength and dignity and then give yourself up to it, accept the inevitability of it, and hang on, just hang on until it’s over. This is what you must do. It is the only thing you can do. Without the lethal disease, the decision to end your pet’s life is up to you.

How do you decide? When has your pet’s life constricted to such a point that at long, long last, you can’t take it anymore? You can’t stand the pathos and the hopelessness, and you’re just worn down from the intensive care, ragged on every edge, running on fumes.

One of us would bring up putting Toby to sleep now and again. It would be me one day, Julie another. We examined the idea like conspirators feeling one another out, seeing who had the guts to say what he really thought. Whoever brought it up, the other one shot it down. For now. Not yet. Yet ultimately we knew what would be the death of Toby. It would be us.

In the final analysis of the coldest equations, you realize that your pet is not a member of the family after all. It is not your mother or your child. It is a beloved animal, your animal, and it is part of the dance we do with our pets that we love them and care for them and put up with a lot of crap from them and we give them x-many of the best years of their lives, but eventually we say, “Enough.”

How do you decide the “when” of it all? Is it necessary to make your pet suffer such excruciating agony that it longs for death before you decide, “Now?” Or do you go for the informed choice, the weighing of factors, and call an end before the suffering reaches its intolerable crescendo?

Some people take themselves and their pets to the bitter end. They diaper the dog and wheel her around on a little cart when she can’t walk anymore. I’m sorry, but I’m not one of those people. I’ve seen lives, human and animal, that go on too long, or I think I have.

toby03Finally, I made myself a trigger. The day I found her in the kitchen, unable to get up, lying in her own urine, I would arrange to put her down.

Some people would have waited beyond that point. Some wouldn’t have waited as long as we did. The trigger seemed reasonable and, most importantly, distant.

About this time, Julie left me. Not for long, but because I did something really, really stupid she packed a bag and spent a couple of nights at a friend’s house while I cleaned up the mess. The second night she was gone, I heard Toby up in the middle of the night, about 3:30. I got up and found her…

… in the kitchen, sprawled on the floor, unable to get up, whining in pain, lying in a large puddle of urine. I lifted her into my arms and carried her to the bathroom. The fur on her belly and legs was soaked with urine. I put the rubber mat in the tub and washed her clean. She couldn’t stay on her feet through the entire ordeal but had to lie down halfway through. I toweled her off and carried her back to bed. I went back to bed myself around 4:30 with the moment upon me.

It was time to honor the compact I’d made with myself.

The next day I called Julie and told her what I was ready to do. She understood and, though she was still mad at me, we met for lunch and decided on the details. We knew of a vet, someone we’d never met who had never met Toby, who would come to the house to perform the euthanasia. We would do it on Saturday when we could both be there. That was tomorrow.

We notified our friends and on Saturday morning they came by to pay their respects to Toby. One brought her a banana, a whole banana all Toby’s own. The vet was scheduled to arrive at 3:00 p.m.

That morning was grey and drizzly. The vet had told me that, if I intended to bury Toby, the grave needed to be at least five feet deep. I started digging. It began to rain. I felt like a grave robber from a B-picture as I stood nose-deep in the hole and threw dirt over my shoulder and wiped rain from my face. The dirt turned to mud that caked on my shoes and clothes. I dug Toby’s grave as she lay inside the house, just the other side of the wall, sleeping peacefully, unaware that the ones who loved her most were preparing for her execution.

As three o’clock neared we moved Toby into the living room. We laid her on several layers of towels because we knew that when the vet administered the euthanasia she would urinate. We brushed her and talked to her and waited for the vet.

He arrived on schedule, a young man, bearded, with a pleasant face and a kind voice. Toby did not rise to meet him, did not even lift her head. She had lost her interest in strangers. We signed some papers, handed over some money. He gave her a sedative and her bladder emptied. The urine smelled strong and acidic. She had a bladder infection, I realized, another bladder infection.

He administered the killing dose and within moments her body twitched slightly, and then she was gone. The vet packed his gear while we cried and told Toby goodbye. He shook my hand at the door and said, “I’m sorry we had to meet under these circumstances.” He seemed sincere. “Me, too,” I said.

Julie and I wrapped Toby in a sheet and buried her along with her tags and her favorite brush. It was still drizzling. We covered her with a layer of earth and added the cremated remains of our previous dog, Muffy. We filled in the hole and planted a young eucalyptus tree over the grave.

Now as I walk through the house I still expect to see her in one of her spots. I pick up loose pens so she won’t chew them when we aren’t looking, and then I remember that she’s gone and set them down again. When I leave the house, I think, “I’d better put the dog out.” Then I remember, and I simply close the door behind me and walk away feeling as if I’ve left something important undone.

One day I passed by Toby’s doghouse. A spider had spun its web over the entrance. My heart broke anew.

We have ripped out the worst of the pee-dog carpet and will eventually remove it all and refinish the hardwood floor. We’re trying to decide where to go first, now that we can travel together again. We are not getting another dog. Not yet. Maybe not ever. It’s just too hard to let go. We have our memories of Toby and many photographs and now we have this article of remembrance. I’m tearing up again. I can’t write much more. But I want to say this:

Toby, you were weird and stubborn and fun. You were a good dog and you enriched our lives. We love you and miss you very much. Rest in peace.

Toby
12-15-1985 to 2-24-2001

P.S.: There’s a Twilight Zone episode that goes roughly like this:

An old man dies and enters the afterlife with his dog. He walks along a dirt road until he comes to a gate where a man greets him with a smile and says that down this path is Heaven. He welcomes the old man in…but orders him to leave his dog behind. The old man refuses and walks on down the road. Soon he encounters another man, an angel running late to meet him. He tells the angel of his experience with the man at the gate and the angel says, “That was Lucifer, luring you into Hell! You had a very close call!” The old man says to the angel, “No, I knew it wasn’t Heaven. It couldn’t be Heaven without my dog.”

“Heaven is a great big bed where you can sleep with all of your dogs.” Julie Strnad, 2001

© 2001 Jan S. Strnad

Jan Strnad is the author of Risen, a novel of supernatural suspense, written under the pen name of J. Knight.