Life, Love and
by J. Knight
Surely 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.
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.
anthropologist says that, when it comes to dogs,
there is not a single canine behavior that cannot
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.
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
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
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.
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.
years old." Her medical records told us she
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.
And so the dance
began, and what a dance it 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
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
In her later years
she would sleep through Armageddon. Deafness has
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
Even when she was
ornery, she was 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
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.
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
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
(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
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
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
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
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"
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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,
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
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
Finally, I made
myself a trigger. The day I found her in the
kitchen, unable to get up, lying in a puddle of
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.
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
...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, which
we had long planned to return to her home state of
Kansas, but somehow never done. We filled in the
hole and planted a young eucalyptus tree over the
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 I 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
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 pee-dog carpet and refinished 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. 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
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.
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,