Farewell Good and Faithful Servant - A Tribute to Old Dogs and Their Owners

In December of 2005 I moved back to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, fresh off of four (and a half) years of college and ready to take on the world. The plan was to A.) Find an apartment; B.) Get a job; C.) Wait six months and then get a dog. I found an apartment, got the first in a long line of menial jobs that would come nowhere near to paying off my student loans, and lasted less than six weeks before I started searching for a canine companion. I didn’t have the time to housebreak a puppy and the space wasn’t big enough for a large dog so my search criteria, a small to midsized dog that was housebroken, wasn’t on death’s door, and wouldn’t be embarrassing to walk around the neighborhood with, was fairly limiting. Through a rescue organization I found Ali, a 6 year-old Sheltie who had recently been given up for adoption. I made the drive out to meet the owner of the clinic where Ali was being housed. She informed me that he had been given up numerous times, had probably been abused at some point along the line, and that he was not considered an overly “friendly” dog. Quite the saleswoman, indeed. Before leaving to fetch Ali, she warned me that he wasn’t a cuddly sort of dog so I shouldn’t expect a warm welcome. It came as quite a shock to all of us, then, when Ali, upon entering the room, promptly jumped up in my lap and began licking my face. I took him home a couple of days later and we became fast friends.

The first few weeks weren’t easy. I was accustomed to training a puppy to behave and Ali came with a set of bad habits that normally would have been broken long before. About two weeks after I acquired him, he bit me, deep enough that I probably should have gotten a shot, the first time I had ever been bitten by a dog, which caused me to seriously rethink our arrangement. In searching through his paperwork for a number to call, I discovered the extent of his sad history. In his 6 years of life he had been given up for adoption four times and had spent time in shelters across the country, from Georgia to Michigan to Colorado. At each stop, his paperwork indicated that the previous owner couldn’t handle his bad habits (many of which were prime indicators of abuse at the hands of his first owners) and eventually sent him packing. Honestly, it was a miracle that he hadn’t just been put down. At this point I decided the proverbial buck would stop with me. Ali and I sat down (as ridiculous as this may sound) and reached an understanding: he would not bite me again, I would not turn him over to a shelter, and we would work on everything else. Over the years we worked out every bad habit he had except for his incessant need to bark, a vice which I felt he probably deserved.

I could not and would not, however, break him of his quirks, of which there were MANY. No dog that I have ever been around had as much personality as Ali. He was kind of an old man: he knew what he wanted and when he wanted it and he really wouldn’t stand for insubordination. He had to have his nose in everything and most of the time he preferred to weigh in on anyone and anything that made its way into his domain. He was genuinely opinionated and he expressed these thoughts in no uncertain terms through sneezing, haughty looks, and, if push came to shove, defiant urination right in the middle of the entry way where everyone would have to see it. His favorite things included bacon, riding in the car, and more bacon. And if you left the bacon in the trash so he had to dig through that to get it, even better. He wouldn’t sleep in a dog bed, preferring instead to drag himself on his elbows, commando style, underneath my bed to sleep. When he was really excited and/or angry he would go into a spin, around and around, barking all the time to show you just how excited and/or angry you had made him. And he always had to have the last word. Once when picking him up from the groomer I had to wait in line for a few minutes and in the back, Ali and what I’m assuming was a much bigger dog, were in a standoff. The other dog would deliver five or six resounding barks, which would be followed by a second of silence before Ali would chime in with a quick yap that would send the other dog back into his own bark. He did this over and over, refusing to back down and simultaneously playing the other dog for a fool.

This is the part of the sappy story where the writer says something to the effect of, “I thought I was saving him but really he was saving me.” Of all his many quirks and behaviors, Ali’s greatest strength was his unending love for his owner. He waited patiently and consistently by the door for me to come home and most of the time when I was home he followed me everywhere I went, my constant shadow. He never wanted to be picked up or held but he always wanted to be underfoot, close enough that he could quickly fall in line if I so desired to move to another room or, best of all, take him in the car. This attachment came almost instantly and only became stronger through the years.

This bond was cemented, however, in the second half of 2007 when my ex-wife and I separated and subsequently got divorced. At the time I felt absolutely alone in the world, unable or unwilling to talk to my friends or family about what was going on. And in these moments, Ali served as a confidant and a true comfort. Never before and never since was he a dog who wanted to be held but in those months he suddenly became a lap dog. Time and time again, when things were at their worst, Ali would climb into my lap and sit and look at me patiently while I just talked and prayed. At a time in my life when I felt alone and unloved (boy this is a manly paragraph, isn’t it?), Ali was a constant reminder of God and the good things in life. The night I moved out, I left with two changes of clothes, a laptop, and a dog who sat in my lap for the entirety of our ride to my parent’s house, a comfort I will be eternally thankful for. Things got better, of course; I moved on, made new friends, got a great job, and met the love of my life who, thankfully, put up with the smelly, defiant dog that came along with me.

In his later years, Ali picked up a myriad of medical conditions. He had a heart murmur that also affected his lungs. He had the worst case of gingivitis anyone has ever seen, so bad in fact that I plan to petition the American Dental Association to change the name of the disease to Alivitis. I think that’s only fair. Yet because of his heart issue, he could not be put under and therefore could not have his teeth cleaned. The joke around our house was that his mouth smelled worse than his butt and really it wasn’t as much “joke” as it was “fact.” He was overweight and his fat accumulated in one large lump on his left side. In essence, he had a gigantic beer gut…on his shoulder, a feature he used as a pillow whenever possible. In early 2011 he had a series of seizures, prompting our vet to tell me he wouldn’t make it through the year. He defiantly fought his way through the year and even seemed to get stronger and spryer despite the diagnosis. Earlier this year he was bitten by a spider, a malady I was sure would do him in. And yet, a trip to the vet and a new antibiotic brought him right out of his funk and he returned to his former glory, though with a sad little bald spot on his side. He also seemed genuinely angry when I mentioned the bald spot and would go into a barking frenzy if it was brought up in front of company. If a dog can be self-aware, Ali personified such a trait to his dying day.

Watching a beloved pet age can be one of life’s greater gut punches. As Ali slowed down, I found myself torn between wanting him to hold out as long as he could and secretly hoping he would quietly die in his sleep so I wouldn’t have to put him down. That’s a weird dynamic that I hope I never have to experience with a parent, spouse, or child. Just a few weeks ago he came very close to death’s door before our vet gave him another medicine (his third daily pill which was just a DELITE to force down his throat) that brought about a resurgence. Still, however, Lindsey and I knew the writing was on the wall and I like to think Ali did, too. We spent a lot of time with him over his last few weeks, taking him on numerous car rides and feeding him unhealthy amounts of treats to ensure that his last days were good ones. He thanked us by demonstrating a new quirk wherein he routinely climbed atop the fire place hearth and slept there, posed like the House Gargoyle. It made our new home feel very regal. In the end, though, his issues got the best of him and after a Thanksgiving Day celebration during which he gorged himself on dropped ham and goodness knows what else, Ali stopped eating and exhibited extremely labored breathing. His final days were spent meekly moving between lying in the grass and lying on his bed with a look on his face that suggested his fight was done. The vet told us his kidneys had failed and, after allowing me a few more moments to blubber over him in a manner truly unbefitting of a House Gargoyle of his post, administered the shot that let him slip into that good night.

There have been a lot of tears shed in the Gill household today. It was one of those days where you really realize that you are, in fact, a grown up. I’ve never had to put a dog down before because there was always an adult around to do that stuff in my place. Well, now I’m that adult. And sometimes it sucks to be an adult. Which begs the question, why do we do this to ourselves? I can’t always prevent the potential heartache that will come from being a son, a brother, a husband, or, with baby on the way, a father; that’s just part of what comes along with life. But I have an unconditional choice whether or not I want to put myself through this particular brand of agony, a fate I and every animal lover like me can prevent by simply not owning a pet. Why do we do that to ourselves? Why do we continually take on and invest in a life that will last for, at best, 15 years or so?

I’ve been presented with that question many times in the past by people who don’t own pets and don’t understand the appeal and on a day like today I found myself engaging in that same line of thinking. In a month or two (or maybe six) I’ll most likely find another dog to adopt, knowing that in a few more years I’ll be right back in this same position. But why, a small voice in the back of my mind asks me as I consider the possibility (really, the likelihood) of putting myself through this again. Because I have found that the best things in life cause us to emote, to feel something. Whether sports, movies, music, pets, whatever, the best things elicit a response that truly makes us human. And dogs can most certainly be counted amongst the “best things.”

So today I say farewell to the world’s best-worst dog, Ali. Or, if you prefer his formal title, Alister McCalister. You were a good and faithful servant, a tribute to your breed, and you have most certainly earned your reward. May your Heaven be filled with the scent of bacon and may there never be a car you can’t ride in. Rest in peace, little buddy.