Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Death Of A Very Good Dog & An Ode To A Life Well Lived

Our family dog, Gwenavyre, the black lab in the picture above (the two yellows are her pups), died yesterday. She was 15 1/2 years old. Gwenavyre confirmed my long held belief that labrador retrievers are the best possible family dogs. They are smart, very playful, energetic and want nothing more than to please. And Gwenavyre was a fine exemplar of her breed..

Not quite 16 years ago, I took my son, Scotty, to choose a puppy from a litter of labs in Stone Mountain, Georgia. But it happened the other way round. When we got to the litter, a six week old female black lab puppy walked over and lay down on his shoes. He named her Gwenavyre after a literary character. We took her home in a box not much bigger than a shoe box.

Lest I look back upon her with glasses too rose in color, I must admit that she really was an engine of destruction as a puppy - though always quite intelligent and, indeed, one might even say cultured. She had a particular taste for fine literature, at least when she couldn't sink her teeth into leather goods. And she had a sock fetish for the first two years of her life. If she wanted to play, she would run off to find a sock and return with it half out of her mouth, waiting to play tug of war. The sock was later replaced with frisbees.

If I had to describe Gwenavyre up until she turned four years old, it would be an 'unguided missle.' For her, anything worth doing was worth doing at high speed and with all the energy she could muster - which was quite considerable. After four, she settled down a bit, but only in speed. Her basic labbiness, for lack of a better word, stayed with her to the very end.

She was always trainable and wanted more than anything to please - and Scotty showed a real knack for training her. The most unusual thing he trained her to do was to close doors. As I used to say to her, "Gweanvyre, what are you, an animal? Close the door!" She would then saunter behind the door and close it with a strong shove of her paw. It was a cute trick that used to amaze many a visitor.

For Scotty, Gwenavyre proved over the years to have an eminently practical use. If ever he was up too late, the solution was simple, let Gwenavyre up in his bed. Within less than five minutes, both he and his canine were always snoring in unison. My daughter, Sue Jean, enjoyed Gwenavyre's company also, though she never found the need to use her as a sleeping pill.

When Gwenavyre was about four months old, we had a pool party for my son's birthday. She was so frightened of the water - she ran around the outside of the pool, barking at everyone. We finally got her to jump in - she went under water for a moment, surfaced, and decided that she had had quite enough of water. It wasn't until she was a year old and I took her to a lake that she decided maybe swimming was okay after all. And indeed, in her later years, she seemed part dolphin - you couldn't keep her out of the water. The pic at the top is of her owning her puppies in a race in the lake to retrieve a small floating throw piece.

Her bark was very threatening, but I honestly don't know if you could have forced that dog to bite someone. Her bark was only to get attention so that the object of her focus would then pet her. One day, when she was about three, she got out the front door just as a young mother was pushing a baby in a stroller down the street. Gwenavyre took after her, barking threateningly, and while I knew there was no threat at all, I was horrified at what the mother must be feeling. Gwenavyre, being twice my speed, got to the mother and baby a good 30 seconds before I did. By the time I caught up, Gwenavyre's tail was wagging her body as she got a good petting and a chance to sniff the baby. I was deeply apologetic for Gwenavyre's behavior. The woman laughed at me as she scratched Gwenavyre, saying that she had grown up with labs.

All of that said, one of Gwenavyre's favorite past times was chasing after small furry animals that would run from her. For Gwenavyre, the fun was all in the chase. She never caught anything and, indeed, gave up when the furry thing was cornered or didn't run. There were several cats in the neighborhood she would chase after. But the smallest of the cats was a fearless eight pounder who would never run from Gwenavyre - and consequently, she and Gwenavyre became friendly.

And in that vein, one of the funniest things that I ever witnessed was one evening at dusk when I let Gwenavyre out into the back yard. I didn't realize it until Gwenavyre launched herself out of the door that there was something that looked like a 25 lbs badger in the backyard, about 30 yards away. Gwenavyre was going at the badger full speed when it reared up on its hind legs, exposing its teeth and long claws. Honest to God, it was like watching a cartoon. Gwenavyre locked her front legs and sat her rear end on the ground to skid 10 yards, coming to a stop about five yards from the badger. The badger gave Gwenavyre a nasty look, hissed, then dropped to all fours, turned and calmly walked off the property whilst Gwenavyre sat unmoving. I laughed so hard. Gwenavyre was such a lovely and playful thing, but she was not exactly an attack dog.

Gwenavyre also played a role as peacemaker in our house. When voices were raised too long in anger, Gwenavyre would get in the middle. And indeed, her licking a face contorted in anger ended more than a few arguments. It was impossible for any of us to direct anger at such a sweet thing as Gwenavyre, and it was oh so hard to do anything but laugh when she desperately tried to get to your face to lick it.

And then there was the greeting. Everyday when I came home, no matter how bad the day, no matter how low I felt, I knew that the moment I opened the door, I would be greeted with pure, unfiltered, unrestrained anarchy from a dog who was insanely happy to have me back home with her. It always put everything in perspective.

Lots of labs are chow hounds and indeed, Gwenavyre was no exception. When she was young, if you walked about carrying food in your hand and dropped your hand to hip level at any point, there were even odds that a streak of black would pass you by, moments before you realized that a thief had just nicked your sandwich. We trained that out of her eventually, but if she got hungry enough, which did happen when we put her on a diet, all bets were off. I can remember preparing a salad and chopping up a good bit of smoked salmon that I mixed into it. I turned my back to the food for a moment, and when I turned back, there was lettuce flying everywhere as Gwenavyre, her paws on the counter, was desperately trying to get at the salmon.

Three years ago, Gwenavyre was afflicted with diabetes - something for which I blame myself. I allowed her too much human food - a mistake I am not making with her pups. At any rate, she almost died. But the vet saved her and got her on insulin. It gave us three extra years with her, for which I am eternally grateful. About six months ago, she suffered a stroke and lost the use of her back legs. I spent the last six months carrying her about and taking her out several times a day for the bathroom and to enjoy the outdoors. We did all we could for her, and she still seemed to enjoy life, such as it was. Thankfully, when the end came for her yesterday, it came quick. She suffered for two hours or so, then closed her eyes and was gone soon after.

Our family will miss Gwenavyre terribly. I am so glad that I allowed her to have pups. I did so specifically because she was such a good dog, we wanted her line to continue on. She had a litter of 9 pups - and she was a good mother indeed. We had placed the newborn pups in a rather sizeable box with a heating pad and some towels soon after they were born to give Gwenavyre a break. One of them started to whine - I could hear it from the next room. In the 30 seconds it took me to get to the box, Gwenavyre had wholly shredded it to get to her puppies. Gwenavyre spent the next six weeks nursing and training her pups. One of my favorite pictures - one which I can't find now - is of Gwenavyre teaching her four week old pups to play tug of war with a thin rope, she on one side, five of her pups on the other.

We intended to keep a yellow female, but we also ended up keeping a huge yellow male. I see all of Gwenavyre's finest - and most develish - traits reflected in Ulysees and Daisey.

And indeed, just like her mother, Daisey thinks that she is fully human. The picture below is not posed. I took it when Daisey decided that the burgers cooking for lunch smelled so good - and there was an empty chair - that she would just join us waiting to be served. You have to love labrador retrievers.

Lastly, I am convinced that dogs are a special gift to mankind. They have so much to teach us about enjoying life, the importance of loyalty. and in their bittersweet passing so soon from this world, they teach us to truly value the time we have with them - and indeed, with everyone of importance to us. Rest in peace, good Gwenavyre.

To every thing there is a season,
and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to sow, and a time to reap;
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; . . .

- Ecclesiastes 3


Bookworm said...

I'm so sorry. I've lost many beloved dogs over the years and it never gets easier. When my childhood pet had to be put down, the vet sent a lovely sympathy card that said something along these lines: Our pets give us such tremendous joy during their short life spans that we willing accept the pain of their passing for the pleasure of their love and companionship.

Roy Lofquist said...

I don't know how many dogs I have had in my life. Every once in awhile I'll reminisce and try to count but the tears always come before I finish. I prefer big dogs but I've welcomed all sizes and breeds into my life. Every one seems to have a bit of Botswanan Chow Hound in the mix somewhere.

GW said...

Thank you both for your comments. And I concur Roy that dogs of all sizes and breeds are good.