Tuesday, February 26, 2013

In praise of dogs, in memory of Maggie

A slightly shorter version of this column first appeared in The Dallas Morning News and on DallasNews.com. You can find more stuff on the Lifestyle/Entertainment section's Whatever blog.
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She’s a dog on a mission. That’s what my wife and I used to say about Maggie, our oddly beautiful Corgi mix, when she tried to pull us down the street on walks.

I don’t think she was going anywhere in particular, but she wanted to get somewhere fast. She would sprint forward, run out of leash and then lunge forward with bunny hops. It was like the sidewalk was a runway and she was auditioning for a spot on Santa’s reindeer team.

It’s amazing how much enthusiasm dogs can have for, well, everything. They chase squirrels with reckless abandon, feverishly bark at passing cars, scarf their food from the dog bowl and squeak the life out of chew toys. They’re like sports cars revving to the red line, trying to get as many miles out of every day as possible.


Granny Maggie. Always ready for a walk.
Maybe it’s because they know their lives are too short.

I was thinking about that last week while taking Maggie for what turned out to be one of our last walks. After more than 14 years together, and thousands of walks, the former bunny-hopping sports car was putt-putting along next to me. We were going so slow that people in the neighborhood might’ve thought I was a burglar casing houses.

Maggie slowed down over the years, but her enthusiasm never waned. Her body broke down, but not her spirit, and she was always a puppy trapped in a granny’s construction. When I would come home from work, she would run up to me and jump at my legs. She still did that in her later years, when her hips got a little wobbly and sometimes went out on her.

She always got right back up, ready for whatever was next. Even as a granny, she liked to play slow-speed fetch and tug at chew toys, and after the kids went to bed every night, she was like a stalker on my heels. She was actually on my heels, or my wife’s heels, most of the time. That was true from the day when we picked her out, or she picked us out, at the shelter.

Maggie was around 1-year-old, perhaps a little older, when we first met. She stood up, put her front paws on the cage, raised those large, satellite-dish ears, and then looked at me with soulful eyes. I was a goner. Well played, Maggie.

Over the next 14 years, she said a lot with those expressive, questioning eyes.
 
Maggie in her younger days. Ready for anything.
You mean you didn’t want me to drag your shoe through the doggie door and into the back yard where it could be soaked by the sprinklers?

Would you like to give me some of that chicken?

As you sit on the couch there, could I just jump on your lap and crumple the newspaper?

So … are you ready for another walk?

Those eyes were always saying something. But two weeks ago, her eyes started to say “Help.”

Maggie began turning her nose up at her specially formulated dog food and would only eat chicken, her favorite thing. I can’t blame her on that one. If I get to the century mark, which is about where Maggie was in dog years, I might call that “bonus time” and demand nothing but ice cream and pancakes.

The news from the veterinarian was tough to take. She said Maggie’s kidneys were failing and her other organs would start to shut down. A couple of days later, Maggie didn’t want chicken, either.

Owning a dog is good for your health, some studies indicate, because dog owners are less prone to depression and tend to be more active. Trying to restrain a high-revving dog is a pretty good core workout, you know.

I’d say dogs are also beneficial to your heart. They fill our hearts with love, of course. And although we are crushed when we have to say goodbye, we emerge from the heartbreak with strengthened, not hardened, hearts. Dogs leave an indelible imprint on our lives, sometimes in the form of muddy paws, sometimes through the purest expression of joy in this world: a wagging tail.

Maggie still greeted me with a gently wagging tail in her final days. But on the last day, she just wanted to rest. I helped her go out to the back yard, and I sat by her as she laid in the warm sun for a while. I didn’t want my 14 years with Maggie to end, but I didn't want to see her suffer, and there was one final way I could love her. My wife and sons said their goodbyes and Maggie and I drove down the street where we had walked so many times.

The vet asked if I wanted to put Maggie on the table or hold her. I said Maggie seemed comfortable in my arms, so the technician brought in some towels and placed them on my lap, allowing me to cuddle Maggie as the medicine ended her pain.

I stroked Maggie’s back and kissed her on the head. She floated away quickly and peacefully, knowing that I was there to take care of her.

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