Recently while driving, I listened to someone on National Public Radio (NPR) touting a book she had written about her experience in putting her dog down. She said, “It seemed surreal to make an appointment for my dog’s death.” She voiced exactly what I had felt when we had to put down our white lab-German shepherd mix, Otis. Actually, Otis was an unexpected gift—a dog my twenty-something daughter brought home from California; a dog that I begged her to leave behind. (What could I have been thinking?) Three children had grown up and moved away. For several years, my late husband and I had become accustomed to going out to dinner on a whim and traveling on long weekends. We were comfortable with our orderly house. I could not visualize a dog living with us, leaving dog hair on the carpet and rawhide bones strewn across the living room.
Despite not having a fenced backyard when Suzanne and Otis arrived, we determined to make him an “outside dog.” He ran from door to window leaping and barking. Any time a door opened, Otis nudged inside. We chained him that first night to prevent his wandering, and then worried that his barking disturbed the neighbors.
The second day after their arrival, I started on my morning walk. Otis ran after me, so I snapped a leash on his collar and took him along to the high school track. As I counted laps, Otis romped on the football field with a newfound freedom. (Our small town had no leash law at that time.) Other walkers and some fast runners came on the track. A toddler trailed behind her jogging mother. At the sight of Otis, the tiny girl screamed, piercing the early morning air. I remembered that Otis panicked around children, but his sudden bolt from the field caught me by surprise.
I ran after him, dragging the leash and shouting his name. Like a white streak, he raced toward the street and down a hill out of sight. My heart pounded with visions of a white lump of fur lying in the busy intersection between the track and our home. He’d been with us only two days. He won’t know the way home, I reasoned. I dashed 12 blocks to find him in the driveway, wagging his tail.
Days turned to weeks as our family adjusted from two people and no pets to three adults and Otis. The dog’s personality surfaced when he stood at the patio door, cocking his head as we interpreted his movements with lively narration. My resistance cracked as I recognized the bridge he made for communication. In my school teacher jargon, I announced, “Otis is gifted!” Suzanne rolled her eyes, a reminder that I had wanted to give him away. No dog had ever before nuzzled a black nose straight into my heart. Right then and there, I revoked my daughter’s custody.
Merging an adult child’s lifestyle into the parents’ home tries the patience of even the strongest families. But through difficult days, Otis wagged his bushy tail and licked our faces with impartial love. On mornings when everyone felt too grumpy to speak, we each made our way to his spot on the deck for a greeting. At bedtime, we gathered again, bidding him goodnight.
Each day when Suzanne and her dad left for work, Otis became my companion for brisk walks, always prancing at the end of the leash like a spirited stallion on parade. Neighbors gave me funny looks when they overheard my one-sided conversations with a dog. Day by day, Otis inched into the house. Never mind the patio glass bore a design of nose prints and the back door had to be re-screened because he charged through when neighborhood children blasted firecrackers. I overlooked his toenail scratches on the painted deck as he made flying leaps up the steps to accept my treats. His antics, both delight and dilemma, created a common ground for family communication.
Along with boundless energy and a cunning personality, Otis brought his own quirks and needs. We welcomed his watchdog nature, but when he held standoffs with visitors, new worries arose. The thought we might have to give away the dog I had not wanted pushed us to build a fence around his backyard domain. However, cold winter winds brought frigid weather. On snowy days, Otis joined us inside. Soon I relented to rainy days, and then to windy days. By summertime, I decided the heat was unbearable for a thick-coated dog. So Otis lounged inside whether outside temperatures rose or fell.
Yet, the day came when the territorial nature of Otis became too dangerous. He bit a child, and we determined that we could not risk his aggressiveness, especially with a new grandchild arriving in the family. His hips were suffering from dysplasia, so we made an appointment with our vet to put him down. My husband arranged for a backhoe to dig his grave at a family farm. I felt guilty arranging for the death of this dog who loved us.
After Otis died, my son, Tim, also returned home from California. He brought a pit bull named Carmen. Seemed that my kids kept bringing dogs home to me. Once again, I resisted having a dog on the new white carpet we had installed. Carmen was relegated to a basement playroom—until I took a trip. Then, Tim permitted her to roam upstairs, often enlisting the help of his sisters to complete the vacuuming before I returned home. As if I did not know!
My son came home knowing he had a short time to live. He had raised Carmen from a pup and she was his constant companion. Often in the darkness of the house after we had retired, I overheard him conversing with her as though she was a person. When we planned our annual trip to Idaho for the Life On Wheels Conference that particular summer, we included Tim and Carmen in our travel plans. We had a brand-spanking new motorhome and my husband hesitated at putting a dog with shedding hair into our unblemished rig. Yet, we did. Carmen traveled across the country, the front half of her body draped across my lap so she could look out the windshield and passenger window.
My son lived only about seven weeks after we returned from that trip. By that time, Carmen had free rein of our house. About two weeks before Tim died; I sensed she began shifting her allegiance to me. Tim had talked at length to the dog about his condition. I think she understood that he was leaving us. Her affection switched to me. My husband died one year later, and Carmen and I traveled alone. With her riding “shotgun” in the motorhome, I felt safe. Although she was as gentle as a lamb, no one guessed because of her appearance and her deep grumbly growl.
That following spring, Carmen became lethargic. A trip to the vet revealed she had erhlichiosis, a form of tick fever. Despite repeated trips to the doctor’s office for blood transfusions and medications, we could not pull Carmen through the illness. When she could no longer go outside to eliminate on her own, my daughter and I determined the time had come to make the dreaded appointment again. Our veterinarian came to my home and administered the medication to Carmen. The whole family circled as she slowly closed her eyes in final sleep.
I was 61 years old. A widow. And I’d never had a dog I’d picked out and brought home for myself. After Carmen died, I argued for several months with myself the pros and cons of owning another dog. My daughter told me about a co-worker’s pups, a litter from a stray mother and an unknown father. What would it hurt to look?
The friend trotted out a medium-sized white dog with a brown face and one black spot marking the base of a long, white furry tail that stood straight up. He wore no collar, having romped through the woods around their house for all of his nine months. The owner assured me he was housebroken. His chocolate brown eyes melted my heart.
With my daughter driving, I settled all 50 pounds of white and black spotted fur in my lap, and brought Spot home. From freedom to chase rabbits into the woods and splash daily in the lake, he protested the confinement of a house by peeing on a chair leg and depositing a pile of poop in the living room. He strained against the new concept of a leash for his outdoor excursions.
The first time, I left him alone, I returned to shredded magazines, lamps askew, and chewed decorative fruit. Different from Carmen, who roamed the yard without venturing into the street, Spot lunged through any cracked door and raced over the neighborhood, his tail waving like a white flag. He did not comprehend the command, “Come.”
After the first week, I decided I could not cope with this furry four-footed white tornado. I went to bed, praying, “God, what would You have me do with this dog?” From a drowsy sleep, my mind suddenly leaped alert. I clearly sensed God’s answer: “Keep the dog.” I never again doubted that Spot and I were destined to be together. Spot just turned 13. Like me, he does not know that he’s elderly! His health is good and he remains active and alert. Yet, when I heard the woman’s words on NPR, I was once again reminded that dogs do not live with us forever. The dreaded appointment may come again—but I hope not for several more years.
Traveling in their motorhome several months each year, Arline and her photographer husband, Lee Smith, make their permanent home in Heber Springs, Arkansas. She currently is a presenter for Workamper Rendezvous, sponsored by Workamper News. Arline has dozens of magazine articles published, as well as five books: “Road Work: The Ultimate RVing Adventure” (now available on Kindle); “Road Work II: The RVer’s Ultimate Income Resource Guide”; “Truly Zula; When Heads & Hearts Collide”; and “The Heart of Branson”, a history of the families who started the entertainment town and those who sustain it today. Visit Arline’s personal blog at ArlineChandler.Blogspot.com