In November, I brought our old girl dog to our veterinarian. She had began losing weight and developed a bad cough. I worried she might have pneumonia.
After listening to her lungs and determining they sounded clear of any fluid, our vet suggested x-rays of Girl Dog's chest. Reluctant to leave my side, she was taken into the back while I sat in the waiting room. A few minutes later, Dr. Lynn called me back into the doctor's area. Her tone was deliberate and hard to read. I half-expected her to tell me that they were unable to take an x-ray because our fussy old dog had refused to let them pick her up.
It was not the case; Dr. Lynn was serious because of what she found on the x-rays. She could see two large tumors within Girl Dog's left lung. One tumor was near her heart. The larger of the two was near her trachea; she was coughing because the tumor was pressing against her windpipe.
Dr. Lynn said that she would post the images in an online forum for other veterinarians to view and offer their opinion. She would also confer with her colleagues. However, given the recent and steady weight loss, our vet diagnosed the tumors as malignant. Due to her age and the nature of the malignancy, the only treatment she advised was steroids to slow the growth of the tumors.
I was shocked. Scrappy and unpedigreed, we had always joked that Girl Dog would live to be 18-years old, at least. When I tried to explain our inside joke to our vet, my voice cracked and I struggled not to cry. A few days later, Dr. Lynn confirmed the diagnosis. She told us that she expected Girl Dog to only live another 6 months.
We adopted Girl Dog in 1998. Most of the dogs available for adoption each had detailed resumes of their history. The only information the shelter had for her was that she was approximately one and a half years old, and had been taken from a ranch 'that had too many dogs'. The placard on Girl Dog's run read that she was a Queensland heeler/Labrador retriever mix, she liked children and was good with other dogs.
I could see the Queensland heeler attributes: she had a mottled, white and brown coloration on her chest and feet which is common to the breed. Aside from being taller than the typical short-statured cattle dog, I couldn't see any Labrador traits in her. After all this time, I only recently learned what at least one breed of her pedigree truly was, courtesy of my longest and dearest childhood friend who was visiting last June. She has worked at a dog shelter for the last 5 years, and out of the hundreds of dogs she's been in contact with, my friend discovered a mild allergy to only one breed of dog: the Shar Pei. So, guess who broke out into a rash while petting Girl Dog this summer? This explained the thick ruff on her chest as well as the soft folds of skin I could feel on her shoulders when I used grooming tools on her coat.
What I noticed right away that day at the shelter was her eyes; one eye was half blue and half brown. Her other eye was brown, although darker in color than her 'special' eye. When we were looking at the rows of dogs available for adoption, her pretty eyes and big smile set her apart. They brought her out to meet us, and she seemed to get along with our daughter and our older dog. We decided to bring her home to be apart of our family.
It quickly became obvious that Girl Dog clearly had some kind of trauma or abuse. In the parking lot of the shelter, I tried to pick her up to put her in the back of our car. She freaked out and jumped away when I brought my hand under her stomach to lift her. The whole time we owned her - even when she struggled to get into the car as she got older, she never once let me pick her up.
We soon coined an expression about her: "You can take the dog out of the ranch, but you can't take the ranch out of the dog." We discovered quickly that Girl Dog had never lived in a house; she stole food off the kitchen counters and the dining room table, and foraged through the trashcan. We also discovered she wasn't housebroken. This was almost a deal breaker. However, Girl Dog was crazy smart. She quickly learned to go 'down and around' by the side of our house, in the designated potty area we call 'Poop Alley'.
I took Girl Dog to obedience classes every week with our young daughter on my back in a Kelty backpack. Eager to please, Girl Dog trained quickly and we began taking agility classes soon after. The classes were a wonderful confidence builder for her. Since Girl Dog was so intelligent and fast, she was a natural at learning the obstacles.
Despite the obedience classes and being exercised regularly, Girl Dog would take advantage of any food-stealing opportunity. Even though she was sick on literally dozens of occasions, she never learned. She would be in agony one day, after ripping into an unattended bag of dog food, gorging herself until she was miserable and her stomach was distended...only to eat the homemade, salt-and-flour Christmas ornaments off the tree the next day. Her trash stealing wasn't simply pulling out a wrapper from the waste basket; it was a full-on, CSI-style forensic extraction of every food item from the can. I would come home to find the kitchen floor covered with hundreds of tiny pieces of shredded cardboard, after she dissected the trash for last morsel of food.
Internet, this dog loved a costume. There was an annual dog parade in our town that we entered every year. I had found an inexpensive dog costume that consisted of a soft pink cape with a tall, matching princess hat. We planned a whole parade entry around her: The Pretty Princess and Her Court. Boy Doll was the knight and Girl Doll was her lady-in-waiting. Wearing our Renaissance finery, my bestie and I were her maids. As we approached the announcer's table, we began to throw rose petals for the Princess to walk on. I am not exaggerating when I tell you: my dog was so proud of all the adoration and attention that she pranced, just like one of those gated ponies. We took home the Judge's Choice award that year.
Girl Dog was constantly underfoot. One day I was going from bedroom to bedroom, putting laundry away. In each room I almost tripped over her while she slept on the floor, and I remember wondering if she often slept in our bedrooms during the day when we were gone. It was only in the last year of her life that it occurred to me; she was always underfoot because she wanted to be where I was. As she got older, I would momentarily lose her during our walks on the beach - only to discover she was conserving her energy and shadowing so closely behind me, that I couldn't see her in my blind spot. She was a pain in the ass - but for almost 15 years, she was my pain in the ass.
After the end of our first dog's life, Girl Dog became our only dog for 3 years. To her horror, we brought home a puppy four years ago. Despite the new pup's adoration for her, she had no interest in him. However, she knew her duty to our family. Even as recent as three months ago, and although she was beginning to struggle during our walks - she broke free from my daughter to attack a dog that was threatening Boy Dog. She might have been old, but she would cut a bitch before she let anyone in her family pack be harmed.
After her diagnosis, I promised I would not to let her suffer; but I did ask her to do me one last duty - to stay with us through for one more holiday. I couldn't bear to lose her over Christmas. She loved her walkies and food, so I used those as indicators that she was still comfortable and without too much pain. Until her final day, the trash had to be put up and she continued to scrounge the kitchen floor for tidbits. I broke my heart to see her deteriorate, until I could see her ribs and every vertebrae in her spine. She kept her promise to me and stayed with us through the holiday.
A few days into the new year, she would barely eat half of a small, cat-sized tin of the expensive, high-calorie dog food I had bought for her. Later the same morning, she didn't raise her head to greet me when I returned from a run. It was my turn to make good on my promise.
Cafe Au Lait, 1998-2013
This photo was taken 6 years ago.
It is my favorite picture of my sweet girl.
On January 5, 2013, I sat on the floor of our vet's office and I said goodbye to my faithful friend and companion of 15 years. My children cannot remember a time she wasn't in their lives, and I will miss her dearly.
Rest in peace, my good girl.