Remember that story about the dog who barked and tugged and alerted the whole family to the house fire – and then went back in to save the cat? This isn’t that story.
Or the one where the dog is the unquestioning soulmate of his owner and lives for no higher purpose than to be by her side and gaze up at her with deferential respect? This isn’t that story either.
This is about Shouko. She barked a lot. She was a runner – right up till the end. She was the bane of innocent pedestrians and a bandit ready to snatch any “people food” or paper products inadvertently left between ground level and four feet high.
And yet, somehow, like a 70-pound heartworm, she managed to wrap herself inextricably around our souls.
A whole lot of years ago I loaded the three children I had at the time into the minivan to “run an errand.” We needed to drive up near Brainerd to buy a new manure spreader. It’s a testament to Shouko’s longevity that two of those three (now adult) children were too young to even know what a manure spreader was. That’s okay, Erin got it. I came home with 12 pounds of fuzzy, twitchy, manure-spreading joy and three very excited kids. That was spring of 2002.
There’s a reason puppies are so cute. They’re a tremendous pain in the ass and Shouko was no exception. God figured there had to be some sort of trade-off. But by about six months, my kids’ mom, in righteous fear for their safety, decided that the nipping was too much and the dog had to go.
We’d been down this road a few times before, but this time fate built us an off-ramp. My parents had recently lost their six-pound lap dog, Gus. A six-month-old golden retriever made perfect sense for the household of a substitute teacher and a retiree with M.S. It sounded totally logical if you didn’t listen too closely.
So Shouko stayed in the family. She had a big yard and she went on long, daily walks with my mom and she managed to wrap herself around the hearts of my sister’s four kids.
A few years later, when my marriage came crashing down around me, I showed up at my parents’ door. After an hour or so of confessing and crying and consoling, I took a deep breath and announced confidently, “I want my dog back.”
Return of the queen
Of course I couldn’t get my dog back right away. I had to go live in a shitty basement apartment and get my life figured out. But about a year and a half later, when my parents planned a trip to Oregon and invited me along (rafting on the Rogue – amazing, but a completely different story), Shouko needed a place to stay. My lovely girlfriend, Corinne, offered to take her in. Shouko came for a week and stayed 11 years. And so, three more kids were drawn under her spell.
For a dog that wouldn’t fetch and hated jogging…
The last dog I had for any length of time was Abbey. Abbey was my running buddy. Abbey would play Frisbee with me for hours, leaping, flying, catching…
Shouko wanted none of that crap. She never cared to learn to fetch. And, while she was great walking on a leash, jogging wasn’t her thing – I’d end up dragging her. Miserable.
But, for a dog who hated jogging, she sure loved to run. Any chance she got. We had the invisible fence and she was smart enough to figure out how far to go to get the “beep” but not the “shock”. Then she’d lay down and take a nap while the batteries wore down. Other times she’d just say f*ck it – she knew it would only shock for a little while, so she’d take a few pitter-patter steps and then jump through the shock zone. (And, to her credit, she’d do the same thing to come home when she was done wandering.)
We’re not super-extroverted neighbors (shocking). So we don’t know many people in our neighborhood. But the whole neighborhood knew Shouko. It wasn’t unusual to be out for a walk and have kids I’d never seen shout “Hi, Shouko!” She just liked to roam.
In fact, one of the few things she liked better than roaming was finding something fun to bring home. Dead fish, dirty diapers, gloves, one track shoe, a deer hide and dozens and dozens of dog toys. She wouldn’t fetch, but she did bring her own identity to being a golden retriever.
How soon is too soon? How late is too late?
I’d love to take credit for Shouko’s longevity, but it’s certainly nothing I’ve done. I haven’t paid for extensive therapeutic treatments. I haven’t taken her for regular visits to a pet chiropractor or a masseuse. I haven’t scoured the internet for exotic life-extending experimental medications. For the last few months, she’s gotten a daily dasuquin pill for her joints when I remember to give it to her. (I forgot this morning.) She doesn’t even get “senior” dog food. She’s just a great old dog and she’s just kept going.
So we’ve struggled for a couple of years now wondering how we’d know when the time was right to let her go. I didn’t want one day of her living in unnecessary pain. But I selfishly didn’t want to give up one day that she could be hanging around with us.
In the end, I guess we’ll never know if we got it right. I truly hope we did. I’m pretty confident she wasn’t in chronic pain, and I guess I’d rather err on that side.
Yesterday, Corinne took her for a walk around the block. (She seemed to know she needed to make this one count, so she crapped in two yards and peed in three more.) I fed her a couple of chips in the evening when the other dogs weren’t looking… And I rescued her when she lost her momentum halfway up the stairs and started sliding down backwards. This morning I gave her an extra half scoop of food – and a chunk of steak on top.
All the kids who can have come home to give her some last love. (Quinn even came home from North Dakota.) We’ve done some FaceTiming with the out-of-state kids. We’ll never be ready. But we were as ready as we were ever going to get.
It was too late to call it too soon anymore.