BY HEATHER SIEGEL
We go to the pet store on weekends, the place we know never to get a dog, regardless of their no-puppy mill pledge. But that’s because we are not here for a dog. We are here to entertain our five-year old animal-lover for an hour before our favorite taco spot opens.
And yes, we are idiots for doing this.
One is three months old, a Goldendoodle who looks more like a Golden Retriever with her smooth, butter-colored fur and expressive eyebrows. Only her snout protrudes like a poodle’s, punctuated by a wet black button. Gnawing on a squeaky toy in the interactive puppy enclosure, she captures my husband’s heart, which as much as I don’t want to admit it, I find to be a big deal.
He is a man of reason and not heart pings, and is the son of a veterinarian. He grew up around dogs, and learned how to spot the good ones. Their own black and white mutt, Cookie, they chose from a shelter, turned out to be the stuff of legends. I often made my husband tell stories about her at parties: how she didn’t need a leash; how she did tricks for baked goods only; and how when she was twenty years old, she somehow got trapped at the bottom of a ravine – and managed to convince a nearby dog to bring her food for two weeks until she was found, making her an instant celebrity with the local media.
“There’s something special about this puppy,” my husband says at the pet store. “Come see.”
“I can see from here,” I say, detachedly observing puppies. The thing is, I can also see other things, like a future filled with bathroom accidents, smells, shedding, inconvenience, and even weirdness. Dog crazy people scare me. I know many of them: people who dress their animals in human clothes, who speak to them like children, who have their portraits taken, who live in a niche and marginalized world I’d rather not join. I see, too, looming somewhere far off in that future, the inevitable loss and heartbreak of losing an animal whose lifespan is one seventh of ours. Morbid, yes, but I happen to be the daughter of a funeral director, and my own childhood was dotted with teary pet goodbyes (two poodles, one husky, and four mixed breed cats). More recently I buried two more cats, who died of old age complications. With all this in mind, I’ve reached what I believe is an adult perspective about domestic pets, particularly the more dependent species, dogs, and that is: why are we all doing this to ourselves? Destroying our perfectly simple lives with more responsibility and heartache?
But, of course, I go over, and of course we take her home. The word “puppy” is no accident. Thought to originate from poupée, a French word for doll, it describes an item we illogically adore.
Still, I keep my distance. In the beginning, with so many distractions, this is easy to do. There is fur galore to clean, despite the non-shedding nonsense the clerk gave us about Goldendoodles. I lint-brush the fluff from my clothes, watch balls of it spiral across our hardwood floor, which incidentally is becoming scratched before my eyes. Then there is the dirt she tracks in to keep up with, the drool she covers the couch cushions in, the urine that is somewhere on the carpet – I just need to find the wet patch – the smell of corn chips that waft from her paws, the ticks on the bed and crawling on the bathroom floor. ‘There’s not much you can do,” my husband says, when I freak out. “We live in the woods.” So now I spend ten minutes before bed with my phone flashlight, inspecting surfaces.
Worse, I find myself harkened back to being the mother of a newborn. I can’t leave the house without guilt, worry she will destroy things, or worse, hurt herself. So one day around month five, feeling a bit at my wit’s end, I pull this little golden ball of fur we unoriginally named Goldie aside, and I talk to her, telling her that I need her to be good.
And she does something I kind of can’t believe.
She keeps listening, this crossbreed from two of the most intelligent dogs. Around this time, I learn that dogs know an average of 165 words – poodles possibly 300. Not quite the 1000 plus words a Border Collie once proved he knew (Blackburn). Still it’s impressive to see Goldie raise up the insides of her eyebrows and reach for our meaning. Humans and canines have co-existed for the last 150 to 300 centuries to evolve into this.
When I hold the Barbie Doll to her face, its one leg chewed, and gently say, no, this is not yours, she chooses toys forevermore from her own basket of bones and squeakers. When I open the backdoor and say, “go to the bathroom,” she heads to the grass and goes.
One day, while we are gone from the house for a long stretch, a friend lets Goldie outside for us, and texts: she’s having fun, but won’t pee. So I write back, tell her to ‘go to the bathroom.’ And the friend responds, I can’t believe that worked!
On a leashless walk, I tell Goldie to “come,” and she races to my side. Passing other dogs, I tell her, “Leave them,” and she relaxes her shoulders. “Shower?” I ask one afternoon, snapping my fingers. She walks onto the tiled floor, and sits down (later letting me blow dry and comb her). “Doggie,” I point to the television one night, and she abandons her bone and sits under the screen to observe her four-legged counterpart in an IAMS commercial.
It is around this time she learns to communicate back to us. One night she walks into the den and stares at us.
“What is it?” we ask. She turns her body. I follow her to the back door. When she is ready to come in, she barks once, thereafter establishing this routine, and others– like placing her paw on our legs. “You want affection?” I ask, smushing her sweet face; she drops to the floor and gives over her belly.
Another day, she enters the den and stares with a look I don’t recognize.
“Outside?” we ask. Her head tilts. “Dinner?” “Water?” At this last, her body again turns. My daughter follows her to the kitchen and fills her empty water bowl.
“I’ve never seen a dog listen so well,” a veterinarian tells me around month 8. We are in her home office, and she is reaching into Goldie’s open mouth to pry out a stick stuck between her back teeth. “I could never do this with other dogs her size.”
I begin to wonder. Is nature responsible for her good behavior and willingness to listen and please? She did seem to have come wired this way – though from what I’ve read, she is an outlier among Goldendoodles, who are apparently thought to be more hyper. Or can we as a family take some credit for our nurturing?
I don’t come to any definitive answers, though I do succumb to every last one of her charms as the months progress. I can’t help it. Research suggests I wouldn’t be able to help it even if she weren’t so special. Dogs, they tell us, are good for our health; being around them suppresses the stress hormone cortisol (McMahan). More, continuous eye contact between dogs and owners is thought to trigger oxytocin spikes in both species, a phenomenon that occurs similarly between a human parent and child (Grimm).
We celebrate her first birthday with a candle, peanut butter, and a long walk through a dog park. And it is soon after this that something else happens I kind of can’t believe.
She gets even better.
As she matures into her full 65 pounds, she continues to listen and learn, and to settle into a harmonious routine. Mornings, she sees my daughter to the bus stop. Afternoons, she perches by my husband’s feet as he works from home. Evenings, she lays calmly underfoot in the kitchen watching me cook. Only after dinner, does she ask for a portion by sitting at her bowl. How can I not give in? One day, probably around year four, as I am doling out to her chicken and roasted vegetables, crooning in a high-pitched voice, is that yummy, do you like that? while adjusting one of her many tailored bandanas so that it doesn’t catch in her food, I suddenly not only understand crazy dog people, but realize I have become the full blown version of one.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.
It’s not that I don’t still find flaws with the general program of having a dog. The doggy smells remain a battle, even after those long grooming sessions. Her penchant for chewing sticks is obviously another issue, as we repeatedly visit the vet to pry out more sticks from her teeth. But these are all minor compared her gifts, like lending an ear to my only-child daughter who wants to share her troubles with someone other than her annoying parents; like providing companionship to my husband when we leave him for a girls’ vacation; like protecting me from squirrels on long walks through the neighborhood – all the while reminding us to pay attention and be present.
Her most extraordinary gift, however, is her ability to somehow make us all feel like the favorite.
“Who do you think she likes the most?” my daughter asks one day, and I diplomatically tell her, “You, of course.” But deep down I believe it is me, and my husband that it is him. My friends suffer from the same delusion.
“She always wags her tail for me, don’t you Goldie?” one croons.
“You love it when I come say hi, don’t you?” another sings.
As the three of us we walk with her through towns, parks, and cityscapes, strangers feel it too. They are drawn to her, and stoop down to have their private moment. It is a strange concept, really. I would freak out if someone cupped the face of my human child and whispered nice things. But that is the difference between human children and dog children: dog children can be shared. They should be shared. In some ways, they seem like they’re here to help us connect.
“You know when someone’s a dog lover, don’t you?” somebody’s grandfather says.
“Is she always this friendly?” A new mom wonders.
It is during these encounters with strangers I would otherwise never have stopped to speak with, how silly my notion seems that joining a dog world would shrink my life. With a dog, life can only ever get bigger.
By year seven, Goldie is so ingrained in our lives, so entrenched in our routine, and so interwoven with our hearts, it’s impossible to imagine we ever existed without her.
Equally impossible is the idea why anyone wouldn’t want a dog.
“She just amazes me every day,” my husband says, and I take a deep breath and ask the question I haven’t stopped wondering about since day one.
“Do you think… she’s better than Cookie?”
“Hmmm,” he says, enjoying torturing me. “I’m just kidding. No contest. She’s way better. We are so lucky.”
“We really are,” I say.
And just when we think we can’t be any luckier, I am reminded that Goldie is ever the outlier.
• • •
I feel the lump on her belly one Saturday night as I return home from the movies to lavish her with love. It’s a soft bulge near her groin I don’t remember noticing before. My husband pronounces it nothing. But I pride myself as much a dog expert as he is by now, and worse: my mother’s instinct is tingly. I bring her to the vet. He assures me all is good. “Tumors don’t grow bilaterally,” he says, pointing out that this lump is actually two lumps, symmetrical on both sides of her belly. He diagnoses it as “fat,” and sends us home.
Five days later, a lump emerges on her throat, and I call the vet back. It is near midnight, and I am directed to a 24-hour hotline. Throat swelling could mean anything, they tell me, best to bring her in. My husband takes her, along with my daughter, who is now 12, and has apparently been eavesdropping. By 1:00 am I hear nothing.
How’s it going? I text.
Horrible, he writes back. I’ll call you in a minute.
When he does, he tells me she has Lymphoma. And 4-6 weeks to live.
They send him home with steroids, and the suggestion to see a canine oncologist. Shell-shocked, we can’t wrap our minds around any of it.
“In 40 years I am doing this,” my regular vet tells me, “it never presents itself in the belly first.”
I don’t begrudge him, but I wonder what caused the cancer. Her diet? We gave her grain-free food, filtered water, and table food that was mostly meat and veggies. Was it fertilizing our lawn five years before she moved in? Surprisingly, my vet doesn’t scoff. He is apparently a childhood survivor of Leukemia. As an adult seeking a cause, he once took soil from his childhood home to a research center. The head researcher there told him he needn’t have bothered extracting the sample. That the soil came from Long Island at large, once home to potato farms that were sprayed with carcinogenic pesticides, was enough for them to know it could have been a contributing factor, as could have been the groundwater.
“But it’s also in the breed,” my vet tells me. Golden Retrievers have a high incidence of cancer, and apparently so do Goldendoodles that pick up most of their DNA from Goldens. “Although, I have to be honest, I usually don’t see it this young.”
Her age is difficult to process – and knowing her prognosis: that 4-6 week ticking time bomb. The animals I buried in my lifetime grew old and went suddenly. Heart attack. Stroke. Seizure.
Terminal illness, in human and animal, is perhaps most difficult to accept because it allows for speculation on the scary particulars. My brother, a yogi and musician, once said that the world would be chaotic lunacy if we all knew our expiration dates. Something I viscerally understand as we all skirt around her, anxious, worrying, deeply depressed.
But Goldie? Her talent to live in the present has never served her better. Wagging her tail in happiness, she resumes her routines.
“You wouldn’t even know she’s sick,” my husband says.
“Let’s not tell her,” I suggest.
We see the oncologist, entering the office open-minded to hear options as Goldie sits at our feet, and paws my leg to be pet. A recent article I read reminds me that pets not only sense owners’ stress, they synchronize with it (“Your Dog Can ‘Catch’ Your Emotions”). When the vets have finished their presentation, they leave us to discuss and decide. We try to keep our tones neutral, but there is nothing neutral about the questions we need to mull over:
Can we risk Goldie experiencing side effects, and possible worse health? Can we handle coming here twice a week for seven weeks to subject her to hours of IV drips, while possibly endangering ourselves? The chemo apparently contains carcinogens, and we will need to protect ourselves by keeping our distance from her for 48 hours after treatment, plus by wearing gloves to clean up her excretions that will likely happen spontaneously. And when she suffers, can we handle not being able to explain to her why? Chemo was not a word we ever taught her.
And what about existentially? Is it wrong to give her this treatment when she has no say? Have we taken the canine and human bond into the realm of absurd? And logically: is the upside of maybe getting an additional seven months of life, the quality of which we have no way of predicting, worth the torture for all and the financial expense, only to wind up in this same exact spot? Unlike human chemo, designed to eradicate cancer cells, and hopefully put a human into lifelong remission, canine chemo is delivered in smaller doses, to ward off as many side effects as possible; the downside to this is short-term remission.
We leave to consider everything further, and to research more, circling back to our gut feeling. This doesn’t feel right.
This is the scary moment – the one in which I know I am supposed to try to accept the situation. But I can’t. I am stuck thinking about the future. I am stuck holding onto the past.
Holistic-minded friends offer solutions that seem more preventive than curative, but I try them anyway: Essential Oil and “miracle herbs” from a Chinese herbalist-veterinarian on the eastern end of Long Island. I take time from work, and devote myself to administering the oils on an empty stomach, her steroid pills tucked into pieces of chicken or scrambled eggs. I prepare organic bone broth stews and pour the concoction over freshly pulled rotisserie chickens. Goldie never eats better, and as she laps it all up, still seemingly unaware that the death clock is ticking, my bitterness and anger dissolve into hope, perhaps less so that these remedies will work, and more that our exceptional girl will simply prove everyone and their 4-6 weeks wrong.
By week two, her bones begin to protrude. The lymphatic lumps grow bigger, branching down her throat, and into her shoulders, behind her legs, filling up that belly spot.
“Do you think she knows now?” my daughter asks. We study her eyes, and listen to the intermittent wheeze in her breath.
“I think she just knows she’s uncomfortable,” my husband concludes.
One night, we return from a softball game ready to stay in and cook dinner to be home with her, when we find her surprisingly perky. We decide to seize the moment and take her our favorite outdoor spot.
“Want to go in the car?” We ask. She leaps up, and it suddenly seems like old times as she sticks her head out the window and laps up the air. In town, passersby treasure and adore her. At dinner, she waits patiently under the table for her portion. We don’t yet know this is her end of life rally. In not knowing, we forget everything except being with her and enjoying.
The next day, she begins to pant. This becomes the new normal. As we move into week three, she stops jumping on the beds. My secret hope crushes into tragic acceptance. All that begins to matter is my dog-child’s comfort.
“But she’s going to suffer,” my daughter worries.
I hand her tissues. “I promise, we won’t let her.”
I don’t know how exactly I plan to keep this promise. This moment of “knowing” I keep reading about – to bring her in for humane euthanization – seems impossible. When the bad days outweigh the good, experts tell us. When they stop eating. When they won’t move. But what if we wait too long, and she suffocates? What if we go too early, and she has another end of life rally she won’t be able to enjoy?
One evening, during week four, as we are fluffing back the couch pillows, readying to head upstairs to bed, Goldie stands in the den and stares at me. I try the usual words. But she doesn’t want to go outside, or drink water, or eat dinner.
She wants to let me know something, “I don’t want to hear it,” I tell her. She raises her eyebrows. “Let’s go upstairs,” I insist. “It’s time for bed.”
But she lowers her eyebrows and sits down.
I bring my blankets downstairs, and call her to the couch. She heaves herself up and hobbles to the floor beside me. I stroke her, and tell her things to comfort us both, things I want to believe. That’s it’s going to be okay; that my childhood poodles, and the husky, and the mixed breed cats – they are all waiting for her. I tell her that my mother and father, and my husband’s father, are all there, waiting to care for her. I tell her about Cookie, although, it has occurred to me more than once she might be Cookie reincarnated. “If it is you,” I whisper, “or even if it isn’t, please come back to us.”
In the morning, she continues to tell me what I don’t want to hear. She can’t pinpoint that her organs want to shut down, but she unequivocally does not want her chicken and broth: only to go outside and lay down in the cool grass.
“I hate to say it…” my husband says, reaching us in the grass. He doesn’t finish. There is no need.
We consider going to the school to get our daughter and bring her home, but Goldie offers her last surprise. Still panting, she stretches out in the grass to let us know she wants this moment; she can hold out. Sunshine beams down from the cloudless blue sky, and the loamy scent of earth wafts under her nose.
“Okay then,” I say, hunkering down beside her. The sun warms over us. Birds tweet overhead. Wind swishes through the leaves. Together we listen. To the buzzing sounds of insects. An airplane overhead. A package being delivered somewhere far off. She heaves over, and offers her soft, golden belly and corn chip paws that no longer smell strange to me. I welcome her fur clinging to my face and clothes. I don’t think of ticks. Or the future filled with void and loss. We simply breathe together, in and out, as our canine and human ancestors have done together for centuries. I thank her for her deep love and for being her of all dogs. I thank her for expanding our hearts. I thank her for teaching me, even while facing death, how to live.
Heather Siegel is the author of two award-wining memoirs, OUT FROM THE UNDERWORLD, and THE KING & THE QUIRKY (forthcoming April 2020). She teaches and writes on Long Island, where she lives with her husband, equestrian daughter, and their new Golden Retriever puppy, Bailey, who was born the same day Goldie passed away. More about her can be found at www.heathersiegel.net
- Blackburn, Bradley. “World’s Smartest Dog? Meet a Border Collie Whose Memory Astounds.” ABC News, 9 Feb. 2011, https://abcnews.go.com/Technology/world-smartest-dog-nova-special-shows-border-collie/story?id=12875750
- “Frito Feet”: Why Dog Paws Smell Like Corn Chips.” The Spruce Pets, Jan 2019, https://www.thesprucepets.com/dog-paws-smell-like-corn-chips-3385624
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- McMahan, Dana. “Why Dogs Are Good for Our Health (and Help Us Cope With Life).” NBC News: Better, 8 Sept. 2017, https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/why-dogs-help-us-feel-good-help-us-cope-life-ncna799656
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- “Your Dog Can “Catch” Your Emotions, Proving That You Really Are In Sync.” Curiosity, May 5, 2017, https://curiosity.com/topics/your-dog-can-catch-your-emotions-proving-that-you-really-are-in-sync-curiosity/