Winter has sat heavy on New England this year, with record-breaking snowfall. Buddy went in the middle of this. The first morning I knew he was sick, he was standing in the tunnel I had dug for him (30 inches of snow by then, I think). He tossed his favorite squeaker toy into the snow, burying it and hiding it for himself, and then searching for it. But the last time he tossed it deep, and then stood hunched in the tunnel, stiff and in pain, and he didn't go find Squeaker no matter how many times I encouraged him to.
I took him to the vet the next morning, because he could hardly move. I assumed I was taking him to have him put down; he was very sick, and he was an old dog. I'd owned him for ten years, but he had been an adult when I got him. He might have been eleven, but he might have been thirteen, fifteen. The vet gave me prednisone and antibiotics, to treat symptoms of possible causes of the low platetlets he'd found, and sent me home with him. They were calling for another blizzard that evening and into the night. I called my parents to tell them my dog was very sick, and that I didn't know what I would do if he died during the blizzard and I couldn't get out of my house.
But he rallied for a bit, with the prednisone, and played again in the tunnel, and I dug it out again and again as winter flared on. Until one morning he didn't play, couldn't rise, and I had to let him go. Cancer, most likely. Doesn't matter. The greatest kindness we can do our dogs is keeping them from suffering, I think. We are kinder to our pets than we are to our own kind.
I went to the shelter ten years ago looking for a sensible dog. I had read about Border Collies: their energy levels, their need to herd, their drive, their nipping and obsession and insanity. The sensible dog I wanted was not a Border Collie. Just a fearful looking little tricolor mutt hiding in the back of the kennel run. I joined him inside while the better dogs - the labradors who smiled and jumped against the chain link, the little mixes who flirted with visitors - frolicked and played and looked appealing outside. The little tricolor boy - what was he, maybe beagle-sized? - hid under my bended knees as I sat on the kennel floor. I filled out the paperwork, and leashed him, and put him in my car.
Only, when he was free of the noise and chaos of the shelter, he inflated. He was not beagle-sized; he was a third again bigger than I had thought. And thin, so thin I could feel bones I didn't know existed.
He had ridden in a car before. He sat in the back seat and laid his head into the front, on my shoulder. I thought, "Oh, he's so sweet." (Only I learned later that 'head on shoulder' was his way of ordering me to roll down his window, so he could hang his face into the wind.)
I took him to meet my sister; he gave a low and serious growl when her husband reached out to pat him. I took him to meet my father; he came <this close> to biting him when the arm came out over the head. I walked him in the local streets, and he growled and barked and lunged at anyone who came near us, who walked on our side of the street. I got a chronic sick feeling in my gut, and started reading all I could about aggresion.
That was the summer that "Fix You" by Coldplay was on the radio every five minutes. I had a dog I didn't understand, and the entire world of responsibility for his life on my shoulders (you can't rehome a biter) and I'd drive around with the dog in the back seat and Coldplay would sing those words ("I will try... to fix you") and I would cry for the dog's sake.
I meant to have a clever, literary name, but I started saying "Buddy" as a temporary filler, and it stuck. People began to tell me that my dog was a Border Collie. I denied it and denied it, but gave in eventually.
I called a trainer within two weeks. He sat on the deck with me as Buddy was chained in the yard. The dog barked at the man for a good forty-five minutes, tracing an arc at the end of his chain, but never approaching. We put a leash on him and walked him up the street. The trainer said, "I think he's fearful and reactive, not aggressive."
The local college had closed at that point, and the grounds were a sanctuary for dog walkers. I took Buddy there daily - once, twice, three times - and learned that if I walked 20 paces behind other people and dogs, my dog could process the social dynamics without growling or reacting. A psych nurse, Jim - huge and deep-voiced and kind - took his time and his gentleness and allowed us to walk directly behind him and his white standard poodles while he slipped treats out of his pockets. Weeks in - months, maybe - Buddy was able to walk next to Jim, and then later he allowed Jim to look him in the eye, and later still, to meet him face-on, and he wagged his tail.
I took him to the flea market. The noise and commotion and clattering terrified him; he cowered in the grass, shaking, unable to move. But people there are kind, and have donuts, and he came to love it.
I learned to take wide circles around things that scared Buddy. I learned that pushing forward created more fear, but that backing off led to slow gains.
He loved some people: Jim, and my sister and parents. My neighbor Paul, right from the start.
He hated dogs in general. I came to know that a direct approach was, to him, a declaration of war. I learned to simply call out, "He won't be friendly." I paid for two vet bills to keep peace in the neighborhood after Buddy punctured other people's dogs. I missed one hole in his ear after that damned Becky got him at the lake. I spent the evening in the ER after a loose dog charged us and I got a tear in my pinky finger because I was in the middle of the scuffle.
He tolerated some dogs: My sister's Snowy, and then when Snowy died, the two new puppies. (Oh, for six months, we kept them away from him, and then we agreed it was time to let them loose together, and the little one kept a sensible distance, but the bigger one got up in Buddy's business, and he flipped her over and gave her a piece of his mind, and you would have thought he was gutting her she screamed so hard, but there wasn't a hair out of place, and she politely, politely never got up in his business again.)
He loved Joey the husky, and Jack the gorgeous Aussie/collie mix, and Ozzie the Jack Russell, and Dewey the Jack Russell.
His favorite game was "hide the toy," where he would lie in his bed and I would go in the other room and drag his Squeaker or his Bone to leave a scent trail, and then hide the toy elsewhere. He would have played that game twelve hours a day if I had had the stamina. He also loved it when I would wrap his Bone up in his fuzzy blanket and then leave it for him to shake and tumble utnil the Bone appeared again.
There were large boulders in the woods on most of our walks that he knew as "treat rocks." If he jumped up on them and sat, he would get a treat. He would remember them even if we didn't visit those woods for two or three years at a stretch; I'd look up, and he'd be perched there, waiting for me to feed him.
He changed so slowly into a normal, fearless dog that I hardly knew it. And then I would run into someone who had known him in the early days, and they would remind me of how fearful he had been, and I would remember the barking and the terror, and it was hard to believe one dog could have those two lives.
He got old and a little bit too fat, and his hips ached and he couldn't climb the big hills or the big rocks anymore. In his last three or four years, if you had met us, you would have thought he was just a normal dog. But I knew that he had been heroic in his own life, in willing himself to believe that men and dogs and bicycles - those terrible things - could be accepted, and tolerated.
It was a hard winter, and after Buddy was gone, the winter was harder on me: full of fossils of his presence. The trail I dug in the snow lingered for six weeks, and even now it's marked by a yellow line of frost-bitten grass. Squeaker, that most beloved toy tossed into the deep snow on that first day of Buddy's illness, reappeared several weeks ago as the snowcover melted. Soccer balls came up afterwards. The collar is still lying on the basement floor where I tossed it the morning I brought it home.
Spring is here now: the first season without Buddy in it. I took a walk last Sunday in the gorgeous April weather, and felt something turn: it was the first day I could imagine a new dog walking with me. But for a few weeks longer, for spring at least, I'll let the phantom of my old boy sidle along with me, and sleep on his end of the couch, and thump his tail when I come home from work. He was the sweetest and the best.
Good job, Buddy.