I panicked when the two nurses put the muzzle on him. There had never been the need to keep his jaw closed for safety before. He was wrapped in a blue quilt and was being carted off on a rolling metal table.
The distance between us grew as the nurses pushed him quickly through the parking lot. Was this the last time I would see him? Would my last memory be of his red-brown fur wrinkled over the black cloth on his mouth and the weary expression on his face?
Jim leaned against the tailgate of the truck. He pulled his flannel jacket tighter and buttoned it against the cold, late night. His cheeks were bright red and tears streamed over them. He’d ridden, illegally, in the back of the pickup with our ailing dog.
I had ample notice to prepare myself for this moment. During the past year Rieker slowed down and had trouble standing up. He groaned increasingly with aches.
Earlier in the week, the situation escalated. While Rieker generally had issues getting up, once there he walked as expected. Now once up, he frequently fell down.
That night Jim woke me up from a post late-night-show snooze on the couch. It was an abrupt shake.
“Do you want to be there?”
“Huh? Be where?”
Be in my bed yes. I sat up, stood up and stumbled. Jim steadied me and kept his hands on my shoulders.
“It’s time. Do you want to be there?”
I rubbed my eyes. Why wouldn’t he let me go to bed? “Where would I want to be?”
Jim didn’t answer.
Then it hit me. Oh God that. “Right now?” I rubbed my eyes forcing them to clear.
“It’s almost midnight.”
“He’s been down all day. He can’t move. Mom called me. They can’t get him in the truck.”
“Yes, I want to be there.” Of course I wanted to be there. “Let me get my shoes and coat.”
I had ample notice. I knew this day was coming, but it just seemed so fast.
Where did the years go? What happened to my ball chasing, picnic-table-leaping dog that could suck up a plate of freshly barbequed hotdogs before anyone could blink?
Even with the signs and notice, I wasn’t ready.
Love at first wag
Ten years ago I went in search of a dog. We had already had two, but I didn’t connect with them in the way I wanted. What I was looking for was another dog like my childhood German-shepherd mix Nikki.
She was smart, loving and incredibly loyal. She had been spayed at an early age and never had puppies. However, she’d mother every baby — human or animal — she could find.
Once, my mother discovered her in the bedroom closet trying to nurse newborn kittens. She kept the mamma cat away with growls and barks. Each little fuzzy baby head was searching and trying to latch on to her non-functioning nipples.
I was twenty, and about six months pregnant with Jared, when Nikki lay down in the garage and didn’t get back up. Her back legs and muscles had quit functioning. After my parents called with the news, Jim drove me to their house so I could say goodbye.
Five years after Nikki’s passing, I met Rieker at the local animal shelter. He was in a large room that housed about twenty kennels. There were at least fifty dogs available. Their combined barks and the scent of pee-soaked concrete were overwhelming.
I had already looked into most of the kennels and was about to head home single when I spotted him. The other dogs that shared the same space hammed for attention. He didn’t. Instead he lay watching.
I squatted into a crouch, poked my fingers through the fence and wiggled them. He perked his ears and slowly thumped his tail.
“Come here. Come here boy.” I wiggled my fingers more. He tilted his head and thumped his tail harder.
I whistled, or rather, tried to. My attempt was enough. He popped up, bounded over and pressed his fat nose against the fence.
“Wow, you’re big.”
Echoes of Jim’s voice reverberated in my head. “Make sure you bring home a small dog. Remember, above all else, a small dog.”
Well, this dog wasn’t that big. The Great Dane in the other kennel was a big dog. Mastiffs were big dogs. Surely, Jim wouldn’t mind a medium-sized pooch. Besides, this furry guy must already be full-grown.
I reached through the wires with my other hand and, against shelter rules, scratched him behind both of his ears. He made eye contact with me and my heart soared.
As I filled out the adoption paperwork, I asked the receptionist, “Do you know how old he is?”
Oh was right. Rieker was five months old and seventy-five pounds.
Later that night I told Jim I was misinformed by the shelter employees. I assured him that it wasn’t until I took Rieker to the vet for his first checkup that I had any inkling of his true age and weight.
Really, how was I supposed to know? He looked like an adult.
Big dogs have all the fun
Rieker was named, loosely, after Jonathan Frakes character in ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation.’ This oversized tail-thumper fence jumper was going to be my number one.
Over the next few months he grew. He could stand up on his hind legs, put his front paws on my shoulders and take a twirl around the room. Jared had to launch off the park bench in the backyard to try and ride him.
Rieker’s large size and smarts got him into all kinds of mischief. He didn’t like being corralled in the dog run and would walk over to the gate, pop the latch with his nose and walk through. During work, I’d padlock the gate so he couldn’t wander out.
That didn’t suit him. He’d simply climbed the three-foot fence and would be lazing on the patio by the time I got home. It took me a couple of days, but finally I saw him in action and gave him a stern ‘no.’
Rieker listened and then changed tactics. When I got home the next day, he and the other dog were gone.
I drove around the neighborhood, searching. I found our small black dog running merrily through an adjacent neighborhood. He had to run across a major street to get there. It was a miracle he was alive.
After catching him and taking him home, I looked for my big brute. I worried, if the small dog made it out that far how many miles could Rieker go?
I decided to get more help and circled back towards the house. It was during the u-turn that I saw him. He was lazing on a small grass hill in front of a business. Children surrounded him. Two were lying on top, giving him a full body hug. A security guard stood over him, talking.
Where did the kids come from? I parked my car and went to get him.
The security guard asked, “This your dog?”
He looked disappointed. “What a great dog. I was going to keep him if no one showed up.”
Rieker thumped his tail when he saw me. He shrugged off the children, jumped up and ran over. I wrapped my arms around his neck and nuzzled my cheek on his big head. “I love you, you bad dog. Don’t do this again.”
Jim informed me later that Rieker had popped off several pickets on ours and the neighbor’s fence. He did it by leaning against them with his considerable weight.
Rieker went on to have several more excursions. Each time I found him he was embraced by a group of children and, sometimes, an adult. He was such a ‘good dog.’ They always wanted to keep him.
A few years later Jim stopped the field trips by building a new fence. This one had three two-by-fours, instead of the regular two, attached to the posts. The pickets were drilled in with deck screws.
When Rieker first came home, Jim, Jared and I shared a home with my mother-in-law. After a couple of years we became more financially stable, rented a townhouse and moved out.
The townhouse was larger than most apartments, had a good-sized patio and a small side yard. Best of all, they allowed pets.
However, I failed to mention my dog didn’t fit the 25-pounds-and-under requirement. It was unlikely he’d fit a 125-pounds-and-under requirement either. It didn’t matter. The management was lax. Many other tenants had large dogs living with them as well.
Rieker spent most of his time indoors. He never left my side. If I got up from the couch and went to the kitchen five feet away, he’d follow. If I took a shower, he was laying on the floor by the tub.
Most days I ran around the place barefoot. My habit was noticed by Rieker. If I put on socks and shoes, he’d mope, go into a corner and curl up. He knew that meant I was getting ready to leave.
During this time Rieker picked up on what many people didn’t know yet. He knew I was hard of hearing.
My biggest difficulty was knowing if someone was at the door. At first I missed many visitors. Then, one evening, I greeted Jim at the entrance.
“You heard me coming in?”
“Then how did you know I was here.”
“Rieker told me.”
“He told you someone was at the door?”
“He told me you were at the door.”
Jim looked at me puzzled. “Well, what if I were someone else?”
“He’d tell me that too.”
Rieker gave me signals. For Jim it was a multitude of tail thumps on the floor. He wouldn’t change his position but just keep looking at me and back to the door.
For strangers Rieker would be much more formal. After he had my attention, he’d stand by the door on full alert.
His signal with family and friends was much different. He’d jump up, wag his tail like crazy and bound over to the door. If I wasn’t right there with him, he’d come back and get me.
If I wasn’t paying attention, he’d thump me with his nose.
I never missed a timer or microwave beep. Rieker didn’t allow me to sleep past the alarm and two snooze delays in the morning. He let me know if there were noises outside I should be aware of and he tattled on Jared when he was up past bedtime.
There was a hundred ways Rieker let me know what was happening in my world.
I knew I was dependent on his hearing and signals. However, it took a new job, a new town and a new home that didn’t allow pets for me to realize my full dependency on him.
Rieker stayed with my mother-in-law, his first home, until we could find a house to rent that would allow him.
Jim had a two hour commute to his job. Many nights he crashed at his mom’s house. Jared and I were alone a lot and my life was eerily quiet.
Breaking a promise
For the five years we lived in Modesto, we never did find a landlord that would allow Rieker. Many would if he was smaller, but a large dog was out of the question.
It took over a year for me to readjust to life without him. However, I always missed him.
As the years passed, he got older and fatter. I promised him, when Jim and I bought a house, he’d be the first one I brought home.
This past April, we finally bought our first home. Elated, I was finally going to keep my promise.
We lived with my mother-in-law during the transition from Modesto to Fresno and while waited for escrow to close.
One afternoon I went out to the backyard with my camera, I wanted to get some recent snapshots of my big guy. Rieker was resting in the dog house.
When he saw me approach, he growled.
I stopped in my tracks. I knew he hated the camera, but he’d never growled at me before.
I walked closer. The rumble in his chest became louder, more menacing.
“Rieker! It’s me.”
He recognized my voice and changed his attitude. His vision was so bad he didn’t know who I was.
He hid in the dog house until I put the camera away. After that, it took him five tries to stand up and ask for attention.
I felt like I ate a rock.
If we brought Rieker home, I’d have to constantly worry. My rambunctious youngest son could easily hurt him and, for the first time, I worried that Rieker could lose his patience.
Also, how long did we have left? Was it fair to move him so late in life? Sadly, I had to accept reality. I failed to keep my promise. Rieker wasn’t coming home.
The nurses pushed the rolling cart with my dog on it around the corner, to the veterinary hospital’s back entrance. I could no longer see Rieker’s tired, muzzled face.
Were the women pushing him to be the last faces he saw? I stood in the parking lot confused to what I should do next. Jim walked over and wrapped me in his embrace. His cheek was cold and wet with tears. I felt mine, it was the same.
I wanted to be there with Rieker until he passed, but didn’t think they’d let me. With my childhood dog, Nikki, I was told it wasn’t allowed.
My mother-in-law called to us. “Come inside.”
I looked over. She was standing at the front entrance with the door held open.
“Do you want go in?” I asked Jim. Maybe they’d let me see my dog again.
He was freezing. The ride over had chilled him to the bone.
“He perked up after we started moving.”
“He always loved car rides.” I remembered him being happily squashed in the back seat of my 1982 Toyota Corolla when he was younger.
I joined my mother-in-law in the vet’s office. Jim used my car to drive home. He wanted his last memory to be the ride over.
There was some paperwork and the receptionist showed us to a room. The vet came in and explained to us our options.
Of course I knew the options were if we wanted to be there or not when they gave him the shot and how we wanted to handle his body afterwards.
“Genevieve, what do you want?” My mother-in-law looked at me inquiringly.
“I don’t know. I really don’t know.” I wasn’t ready to make this kind of decision.
Everything was moving too fast. How was I supposed to know what to do with my dog’s body? I was still trying to figure out how I was going to brave his death.
“I want him cremated.”
“Do you want him cremated alone and returned in an urn or with cremated with other animals and spread over the pet cemetery?”
The details were horrendous. What did I want? “I want him back.” I didn’t want him dead but I also wasn’t ready to let go, at least not completely. Not yet anyways.
The arrangements were made and the final forms signed. One of the nurses that wheeled him away, wheeled into our room.
“Let me know when you’re ready and I’ll come back.”
I scratched his ears and told him how much I loved him. My mother-in-law petted him and shared similar remarks.
His eyes had no spark. It was like his soul had already left. He didn’t even lift his head.
I knew he was miserable. I couldn’t stand it any longer. I told my mother-in-law, “He’s ready.” I stepped away, opened the door and got the nurse’s attention.
Rieker slightly lifted his head and looked for me. I knew because I heard my mother-in-law say, “It’s okay, she’ll be right back.” It was the last indication he gave that he knew I was there.
The nurse entered the room with equipment. She kindly explained the entire process. Basically the shot would make him relax and then his heart would stop. He would be comfortable and wouldn’t feel any pain.
My mother-in-law and I stayed with him, petting his head, until the end.
The last words he heard were “Good dog. You’re a good dog.”
Posted at 2/11/2008 07:41:00 AM