By John Andersen, DVM
I recently had to put to sleep a dear family dog of one of my favorite clients. The dog was 14 and had lived the perfect dog’s life. The couple adopted him as a puppy when they first got married. He was their baby and lived that way for several years. Then a child came, then one more. He became the family dog, doting on the kids and playing the role perfectly. Then, he aged, slowed down, and eventually succumbed.
This began an introspective look at my own circle of life, lived through the lives of dogs, but centered on the here and now with one of my dogs, Boone, a four-year-old yellow Labrador retriever.
Before Boone, there was Kaya. I have written about her before. She was the baby. Kaya was the dog I got from the pound as a young bachelor, who quickly became my best friend in all the wonderful and clichéd ways we talk about such things.
Most of my fond memories of her were of hiking in the woods. There is a little piece of heaven outside of Blacksburg in the Jefferson National Forest called Pandapas Pond. Kaya and I would hike for miles on these mountain trails along streams, rhododendron tunnels and sheets of mountain laurel.
There was one problem with Kaya: she was not good off-leash. I was pretty much barely in control—as in not really at all. I never lost her, but when we would hike, I would let her off her leash and, sure enough, she eventually found the scent of a deer or bear and took off like a hound. I would sometimes sit down for 30 or 60 minutes before she would come back, exhausted. It drove me nuts, but I knew it brought her joy to run through the woods.
Fast forward 10 years, and now Kaya is meeting the end of her line, battling cancer. I’m married with a child; our lives have changed, and she has played the role perfectly.
Until one day in Crozet when we saw an old friend who said her dog just had 13 puppies and she needed to find homes for them. Sometimes the best time to get a new pet is when you’re not looking.
“No way,” I bartered with my wife. “Kaya is dying and the last thing she needs is a puppy to harass her.”
“But she’s been doing well, and she can teach the puppy to be a good dog like she is,” pleaded my wife.
The argument lasted about four hours before we decided to bring a new member into our family. We called him Boone.
I have to admit that at first I resented Boone. He was a great puppy, but he relentlessly harassed poor Kaya. He would steal her food, bite on her face and neck and pester her like any good young pup.
Looking back, I subconsciously refused to bond with him for those first few months. I felt guilty for bringing him into our home while our dear old girl was dying of cancer. I also felt guilty sharing my attention and affection with something new and shiny while the old gal was fading away.
But as Boone grew, Kaya rallied. She wasn’t going to get better, but she began playing with Boone, sometimes instigating a chase, and decided she had better just keep up rather than feel sorry for herself. She ate well, was the first to the door for walks, and made sure Boone knew who was the leader of the pack.
Boone was fortunate to grow up under a strong matriarch, and Kaya was fortunate to have found a pupil and a friend as she reached the end of her line.
Losing Kaya was hard. Probably the hardest thing I had done at that point in my life.
Boone didn’t know what to do with himself. So, we went on a trail run in the woods.
We headed up into the mountains as I did with Kaya so many years back. I let him off his leash and we ran. Only Boone wouldn’t leave my side. He ran ahead of me steadily and checked back frequently to make sure I was keeping up. If he got too far ahead, he waited until I caught up and then headed off again. This was such a different experience. When I ran and hiked in the woods with Kaya, the reality was that I was giving her the freedom of the woods. But when running with Boone, he made sure in no uncertain terms that I knew it was about me.
In school, I had had freedom and time and not many responsibilities, and I got to the woods a lot to make sure Kaya had time to play. But with work, marriage, a child and a home, running in the woods was a precious moment to cherish. Boone perfectly portrayed that to me each time he stopped and waited for me. We finally really bonded that day in the woods and he’s been “my good boy” ever since.
I write this after putting my 7-year-old son to bed. As we read stories in bed, Boone jumped up and nuzzled down between us, resting his head on my son’s leg. “Aww, Boonie, I love you, you’re the cutest boy ever,” doted my son. Boone nuzzled closer, his tail whumping the covers.