New tricks

Jack is an old dog.

To you and me he’s 16, but according to the Pedigree Dog Calculator, he’s the equivalent of an 80-year-old man.

Jack has outlived his brother, Joe, by about 10 years.

He’s outlived his best friend, my father-in-law, by three months now and counting.

He’s an old dog, but he is showing me every day that life goes on.

Jack, or "Jack Jack" as he is  sometimes affectionately called, is a 16-year-old Pekingese-poodle mix, and an excellent human trainer.
Jack, or “Jack Jack” as he is sometimes affectionately called, is a 16-year-old Pekingese-poodle mix, and an excellent human trainer.

Jack has come to live with us in Lilburn most of the time. From that first weekend after my father-in-law’s accident when Jack suddenly found himself in a semi-familiar place, full of unfamiliar sights and smells – not to mention a pesky, jittery, hyperactive younger Tobey – he has been adjusting.

As I have written in this space before, I am not predisposed to compassion for canine companions. It has been a struggle to tolerate Tobey’s eccentricities, which I’m sure are instinctual habits for dogs of his nature and nurture. Tobey hasn’t evoked sentimental affection, and when I catch him lifting his leg on the corner of the sofa, it is by sheer force of will that I do not drop kick that animal out of my house permanently.

But Jack is different. He is an old dog.

Yes, I have lost my patience a time or two when his veterinarian version of Lasix kicked in and he couldn’t hold it until he got outside. Or when he failed to communicate that it was time to do his business, and the middle of the playroom floor served as his toilet.

When Jack first come to stay with us, he wandered the neighborhood if we let him out unattended. If we took him out on a leash, he refused or didn’t understand that he was supposed to do his business. He was accustomed to roaming many more acres at his house and at the farm. I tried to remedy this by erecting a series of barricades across our driveway and parking pad to keep him in the back yard.

I either finally succeeded at building a better prison, or he lost the will to escape. The backyard was his domain. But when my father-in-law was moved from a hospital in Augusta to one here in Atlanta, Carla came back home and her mother came to stay. We had to be able to get access to the parking pad and back door. The barricades came down and the free-for-all started over.

Carla couldn’t understand why I went to such lengths just so Jack could wander freely around our spacious back yard.

“Just put him on a leash and leave him out there.”

“Jack is used to roaming,” I insisted. “He’s lost everything else that he enjoyed or that is familiar. I feel somehow like this is what I can do to make things easier for him.”

Carla shook her head. She knows I’m not the most affectionate with animals.

Now that Lanny is gone and Jack’s relocation to our house seems to be mostly permanent, my compassion – and respect – for Jack has only increased. He’s messing in the house much less frequently. Even without a fence, he doesn’t leave the backyard. He’s learned not to accost me at the dinner table. At night, he goes to his blanketed crate on his own without protest or barking. All things considered, he’s a really good dog.

In the morning when I open up the dogs’ crates and let them out before their breakfast, Tobey is out, done his business and run 14 laps across the back yard before Jack has even gotten to his feet. His arthritic stretching is painful to watch. His slow and slippery waddle across the wood floor to the back door is simultaneously pitiful and comic.

Jack is an old dog.

A Pekingese-poodle mix, he was bred to be a companion. As a younger dog, he accompanied Lanny everywhere. He was a great farm dog, frolicking with the goats and giving varmints the what-for, keeping danger, as he perceived it, at bay.

Now he’s essentially in assisted living. He has caretakers he’s only half known and usually tried to escape from when they came to visit his house. He’s adjusted to the noise and trampling and bothersome attempts at play.

During family movie night a few weeks ago, for reasons I cannot fully explain, I picked Jack up, held him in my lap and stroked his fur, careful not to irritate the skin lesions or sore joints. I could feel his overly-rapid heartbeat on my legs and watched his labored breathing expand and contract his abdomen.

Maybe Jack isn’t the only one adjusting. Maybe my care of Jack isn’t really about Jack at all but some small attempt to show kindness to Daddy in the only tangible way I can now that he’s gone.

For as long as we have Jack with us, I will hold him, pet him, clean up after him, feed him and give him his medicine, because maybe, just maybe you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Jack appears to be succeeding with me.

Thank you for tolerating more of my journey of grief over the loss of my father-in-law, Lanny Barron. It’s my hope that these essays don’t bring you down but give you hope. Take a minute to leave a comment and offer your insight, and if you are so inclined, share this post with your Facebook friends and Twitter followers. I am grateful for your readership.

Boys and dogs

For the last several years, our boys – particularly our oldest – have been pleading for us to get a dog. My reply has always been, “We have a dog. Her name is Pasha.”

Our new dog, Tobey
Tobey is a poodle-Bichon Frise mix and the perfect dog for us.

This is only partially true. There is a dog named Pasha that lives next door to us. She is friendly and comes to the fence to watch us play and bark her greetings, but she is not our dog. We do not have to feed her, clean up after her or take her to the veterinarian.

In my way of thinking, Pasha is the perfect dog.

When the boys decided having their own dog was preferred to watching and petting the neighbor’s dog, I resorted to a more practical defense.

“We don’t have a fence around our backyard. We couldn’t keep the dog from running off.”

To this the boys simply indicated they didn’t really want a big yard dog anyway. They wanted a little indoor dog like Jack, who belongs to my in-laws, or Leo, who belongs to my parents.

I thwarted this argument on a medical basis.

“You boys and your mother are allergic to pet dander. If we got a dog you’d be sneezing your head off all the time.”

Barron, our oldest, now 11, has been particularly relentless. His research online has produced a list of  breeds that do not shed.

I continued to parry and dodge their pleas with such logic as “They cost money” and “What do we do with them when we travel?” and the coup de gras: “They die after you get attached to them.”

This week, I lost the battle. Two weeks after Barron and Carla met a poddle-Bichon Frise mix (or “poochon” if you prefer) named “Tobey,” at a pet store adoption day, we brought home another bundle of joy.

Tobey, who is somewhere between 5 and 7 years-old, doesn’t shed. He doesn’t bark. He is house broken. He is playful without being rambunctious. He’s little. He’s been fixed. He can ride with us in the car when we go out of town.

Tobey kisses Barron's chin
Barron was the biggest advocate for adding a pooch to our family. He’s reaping the rewards.

Tobey has an answer to my every objection. Well, every objection except one, which may have been my real, deep-seated reason all along. Tobey will die one day after I’ve grown attached to him.

How do I know this? Besides the obvious and unavoidable truth that all living things must die, I have experienced the loss of a pet. Perhaps I’ve never gotten over it.

When I was a toddler, my father worked the night shift for American Airlines at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. Not wanting to leave my mother alone at night, he bought her a German Shepherd. Her name was “Tippi” for the tuft of black fur on the end of her tail.

Tippi was a great dog. Intelligent, protective and loving, Tippi tolerated all manner of my annoying habits, from trying to ride her like a horse to holding her tail and following her up and down the backyard fence line wearing a bucket on my head and singing “I’m in the Lord’s Army.”

Tippi developed tumors, and eventually the canine cancer progressed to the point that my parents had to have her euthanized. By that point I was old enough to have read “Where the Red Fern Grows” and watched “Old Yeller.” Losing Tippi was every bit as painful as vicariously grieving the loss of those fictional pets.

My defense was to shut down my capacity for connecting with animals. I avoided other people’s pets and even shunned my parents’ dogs when we moved into a house my sophomore year of high school that had a large, fenced-in yard. Their two lab mixes were as friendly and loyal as ever two dogs could be, but I resolutely kept myself from getting attached.

No dog could replace Tippi, and I knew that if I let another dog into my life, it would end in heartache.

But here I go again. Maybe Tobey can help me access a side I have shut off for 30 years. Maybe the joy of seeing my boys laugh and play with their dog will soften the pain I have suppressed for decades. Maybe I will be old enough now to understand that the companionship of a dog is so sweet that even the pain of its passing can’t outweigh the time spent building that special bond.

Tobey isn’t a very manly dog, and I know I will look and feel ridiculous walking this little white, curly-haired fellow through the neighborhood. A Southern gentleman should have a sporting dog to help hunt and fetch game. But because I don’t hunt, I think Tobey will suit me just fine. After all, as Kate Campbell sings in her send-up of contemporary Southern culture, “New South:” “Bichon frises are our new hounds.”

I will also take this opportunity to teach the boys responsibility. They will bathe him, feed him, give him water, walk him and clean up his poop.

Aw, who am I kidding. It’ll be me standing out in the backyard in freezing temperatures with a plastic bag on my hand waiting for him to do his business.

And as I stand there shivering and contemplating my sanity, I will bond with Tobey. He’ll be my little friend, too. And maybe, just maybe, I will heal from a little boy’s loss and learn to love again.

Do you remember your first pet? Have you had to recover from the traumatic loss of an animal companion? Share your story by leaving a comment below. You’ll feel better, I promise!