The grace of “that little dog”

We were so nervous, afraid even. Our dogs, bless them, were not. That made all the difference.

My old yellow lab Ollie, and Dee’s Atticus, a handsome Aussie shepherd-collie mix, had never met until five years ago. She and I were moving toward combined lives, though – three years married this March — so bringing together our loyal paw pals as well was a necessity. One small problem. As a rule, those boys abided few other dogs. It was just their nature. It seemed their meeting, whenever it came, would not be good.

So we prepared. We picked a free Sunday afternoon, a neutral site – no “turf” to defend that way – and hired a trainer to supervise the little meet-and-greet. We parked on different sides of the lot, leashed up our dogs and, like gunslingers to the duel, slowly walked toward each other. Feigning calm and confidence, we met the trainer, still with the boys at a safe remove.

But a strange thing happened. Nothing.

Ollie and Atticus barely looked at each other, each content to just be. The trainer suggested we take a walk. And so we did, gently merging our steps to where first Dee and I were side by side, and then so were our dogs.

And that was that. Peace in the kingdom, friends then and friends always. Until Ollie wore out two years ago and left us with the one sweet, sweet boy who reunited with Ollie a week ago today.

It had been a tough year for Attie, who hit 10 years (or so) at healthy speed before a downhill out of nowhere. First came a serious bout with pancreatitis, followed by chronic bronchitis that gave him a hacking cough. Arthritis flared up, a slow-growing tumor appeared, and his lab work showed significant degrees of kidney and liver distress. Various meds were tried, then others. Energy waned, lethargy grew. Recently Attie’s paw pads began to blister so badly – liver disease can do that – that even simple walks in the backyard were out, let alone our usual twice-daily adventures.

Merciful goodbyes are still wrenching goodbyes.

Our solace is the happy place in the world Atticus came to occupy against ridiculous odds. Neglected and abused in his first home – what is wrong with people? – Atticus was salvaged by Deelyn and her kids, who refused to hear it when the vet incorrectly diagnosed terminal cancer at Attie’s first exam! Aside from an, um, often-uncomfortable instinct to protect his house and people, Atticus matured into a perfect pup, a loyal watchman, the most unflagging of friends.

It is a gnawing emptiness. We listen for the shake of Attie’s collar in the morning, my cue to get moving, let’s go, time to eat. We look for him in Dee’s dressing closet, comfy warm and nap-cozy. No one harrumphs at the nettlesome cats anymore. Attie did that job well. You can tell they don’t know what to do, either.

Time will heal, just not yet.

Atticus and Tom Robinson, protagonists of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” linked again, how great is that? Fittingly, Attie came into the room and put his head in my lap the day we let Ollie go. He just knew. “That little dog,” as Dee always called him, gave me one of the most indelible moments of my life.

It’s often said that humans don’t deserve dogs. We’re forever blessed that Atticus – eyes bright, spirit strong – gave us his grace anyway.

A very good boy

It made me happy to see Ollie take a walk in the backyard on his final morning.

It was sunny and warm, at least for a little bit, which was good because the chill didn’t agree with his aching back and arthritis-afflicted legs. Ollie cautiously felt his way down the carpeted ramp we’d installed for him over the back steps almost immediately upon moving in to our new home 13 months ago. And then he was into the yard as in healthier days, sniffing and peeing and snacking on wisps of grass as he liked to do.

I stood with him, talked to him softly, scratched his ears, and after a few minutes he hobbled back toward the ramp, letting me know he was ready to go in. I helped him pad back up the ramp, nudging hind-end muscles reduced lately to little form or function, and we stepped inside to share the last of our time together.

Ollie gave out, is about all I can say. I had him for 9 ½ years, my first dog in my then-51 years of life. He was at least three years older than that, though, the shelter only guesstimated his age at 3 back then. My wife kids me for reporting Ollie’s age as 12 since 2016. It doesn’t really matter, because in any event, his body was failing. He was a yellow lab, a large one, and you know the hip dysplasia and rear-end atrophy and spinal nerve issues are coming for elderly yellow labs, as they came for Ollie.

He was tough, though, God was he tough. Unbelievably so. Inspiringly so.

It hurt me a year ago to see Ollie, poking about outside with me on a windy day, lumber down our long driveway woofing at the mailman. A misstep, or perhaps just the day’s stiff breeze, knocked him over. One morning last July, after a hectic holiday weekend at the house, he awoke on the floor next to my bed a shocking mess of urine and feces. He spent the day in a trance. All hope appeared lost. I called the vet and, through halted breaths and strangled words, made the appointment. But the next morning, Ollie was up and around and aware, ready to eat. It was as if that bad day never happened.

Two months later, on a fairly warm but hardly dangerous fall day, I left him on the roofed porch with water and a fan while I was out for a couple hours. When I returned, I found Ollie stretched out in the yard, comatose, his chest heaving, tongue dangling, eyes empty. I picked him up, placed him in the van and dashed to the vet. They rushed him to the back, took his temperature – 108. 108! The vet said, “You have to make a decision.”

I said please try to save him.

They saved him.

After some hours, we all went home, with orders to let Ollie sleep, keep him comfortable. We set him up on blankets in the laundry room. Ten minutes later, I’m in my office, and there comes the familiar sound of dog nails on the wood floor . . . heading my way . . . Ollie on the move.

We tried meds and water and laser therapy to try to mute Ollie’s pain, maybe to slow his degeneration. It might have worked a little, I don’t know. All I know is Ollie slowly lost bowel control, and that this strong, once-great athlete could not get up on his own if he lay down on any uncarpeted surface. Recently, he’d stand at his food bowl or in the mud hall, and at any second – thud. He’d be down, his legs unable to support him in that moment.

Saying goodbye to Ollie, watching him drift off on his blanket by my bed, was a hard and terrible thing. In that, I know I have the boundless empathy of untold dog – pet – owners. As the kindly vet sent Ollie to the peace and rest he deserved, I played my guitar for him through my tears, a repetitive little melody that felt soothing and right. It was another bond we shared. In our old house, I’d play the piano in the living room, and without fail, wherever Ollie happened to be in the house, he’d make his way to the landing on the stairs, lie down and listen.

Oh, Ollie. My partner. My companion. My friend beyond compare. My sweet, sweet boy.

Thank you.

Dig it? Unfortunately, yes.

We finally got the fence completed in the new, big backyard so the dogs can roam around to their heart’s content. There are trees, flowers, lots of grass and fresh air to sniff. The openness has even put a spring in Ollie’s step. He trots a bit across the expanse now and then, bad hips and all. It’s heartening to see the old boy romp that way again, if only for a few seconds at a time.

The guilty party.

What could be wrong with that picture?

Well, where Ollie seems just happy to be out there, Atticus, the Australian shepherd/collie mix, has a mission in life. And that’s to protect. Protect and chase. Protect, chase and, oh yeah, to dig, dig, dig. To specifically find and dig up the mole that burrowed a tell-tale tunnel in a particular part of the yard.

I open the door to the back and Atticus bolts down the steps and sprints to that area over by the tree bed. Nose to the ground, he bloodhounds and frantically searches for a sign that any mole or vole might be in his reach. The slightest hint provokes the deepest, hardest dig, dirt and grass flying from beneath his paws as if they are threshers.

Unless I am standing there as well, in the role of playground monitor, in a matter of minutes the holes in the mulch and the twisting cavern in the yard, which I’ve repeatedly covered over with a rake, are back, as bad as new.

The unfortunate unintended consequence is that, if and until we come up with another solution, Atticus is reduced to bathroom visits to the yard before repairing to the deck and screened porch, where he can wander but also be confined to the premises.

The moral: Dogs will be dogs, diggers will dig, and what in the sad hell are you gonna do?



Dog. Tired.

I am worried about Ollie.

OlgarageSorry to get all into this, but like a lot of older dogs, he has begun to lose bladder and bowel control in the house. Any house he is in, which has numbered three in the last month. Yes, that situation is as attractive as your imagination suggests it is . . .

It is a significant stress, for him and everyone around him. I admit I haven’t taken this development well. I bark at him sometimes when the situation is unfolding right before my eyes, especially in someone else’s home. That isn’t right. I need to stop. Ollie is a dog. He doesn’t mean it, doesn’t know he’s doing it or can’t help himself. And I take it personally, as if I am the incontinent offender. How ridiculous is that? Like Ollie, I may need an examination, too.

I got rid of every area rug – truthfully, I just didn’t replace the ones he ruined in the kitchen — so the hardwood cleanup is easier. I am obsessed with getting and keeping him outside as much as the weather permits, with utility room access and his water bowl. He cries and whines. Friends say bring him in, he’s crying. Well, I am crying for my buddy.

His cataracts are worsening and typical lab arthritis or dysplasia make navigating the steps to my bedside to sleep each night difficult. The irony is Ollie prances like a pony by the door when he sees me grab the leash or a plastic bag, knowing what is in store. If we go to the field and no other dogs or people are around, he chases down the bouncing lacrosse ball like it’s the most important thing in the world to him. The joy in that is palpable.

Yet those who love him are on constant edge, I am sad to say. Ollie’s world is closing in on him, by necessity. When I am away, and the dog sitter texts an update regarding a mess they walked into and then did their best to clean away, above and beyond the call, well, it breaks my heart.

Ollie has a quirky personality — unknown fears and behaviors were embedded in him before I got him — and has always been a handful, especially these last few years. And yet he has been indispensable throughout. And I know we are not alone in this challenge; the web, as ever, is full of similar anecdotal stories, advice and results. I will keep scouring for guidance. The vet will continue to be consulted. Vigilance is demanded in an effort to ease everyone’s burden.

Aging has its advantages, but also its poignant challenges. Human or canine, it makes no difference, the life changes come and you just have to deal, bottom line.

This is one big change and challenge.

I am sorry, and worried, for my best friend.




Ollie’s Nose


Ollie’s nose is at my bed, each and every morn

Nudging with his nudging head, even if I’m snor’n

Time to wake, to eat, to walk, new grass to adorn

‘I was here,’ that says to all, dogs you are forewarned.

Ollie’s bark is deep and gruff, ‘Hey, you passing mutt

You don’t give me any stuff, walk and keep it shut.’

This is his turf, clear enough, no if, and or but

The rule isn’t all that tough, so no slack he cuts.

Ollie’s faith in me is strong, thanks, my loyal friend

You brought me through and along, days that would not end

This is right where we belong, love to you I send

With each pat and rub and song, please do comprehend.

Ollie’s nose is at my bed, heralding the day

‘Hey there, pal,’ I’ve always said, never with dismay

As I walk this mortal thread, with him all the way

Savor we the joy ahead, more than I can say.

A good boy


It is coming on six years that Ollie and I have been together.

So I guess he really is about 10 now. The pups don’t come with papers from the humane society. They took a guesstimate of about 4. Sounded good enough for me.

We should take more pains to remind people what we think of them. The same applies to pets, of course. So I scratch Ollie’s ears and tell him I don’t know how I’d have gotten through the last six years without him.

I don’t know that he understands. I like to think he does, and that it’s not just all about the cookies.

I realize Ollie, my first dog, has been the one constant in a long period of change — flux? — that continues still. Departures have left the house quiet. Life arcs have altered completely. New relationships have sprung through the fallen leaves like rogue bulbs, promising all can and will be well.

Ollie holds steady. He wants to walk and sniff and chase the ball through the field. He wants to rough-and-tumble in the den. He wants to nudge me awake because it’s time to eat, and let’s go already! He wants to meet me at the front door every night. He wants to curl on the rug and listen to my guitar or warm his 10-year-old bones by the gas fire.

These things I know are true. These things I know are a welcome anchor. These things I could not do without. These things I thank him for every day, because it’s what you do when you call roll of the blessings in your life.

A dog’s tale.


Ollie got a clean bill of health today from the vet, although he ate a cotton ball and also snapped at the poor doc when he was messing too long with his mouth or eyes or something. No teeth-baring, just like, snap, get off! The doc pulled his hand away fine, but I hate when that happens. That sounds like an old sarcastic joke, but truly, I hate it. It embarrasses me. Remember, there are no bad dogs, just bad owners . . .

I don’t think I’m a bad owner. Nor do I think Ollie, an 85-pound yellow lab who’s about 10 give or take a couple years (based on the initial Humane Society guess five years back) is a bad dog. Quirky, yeah. Feisty around (most) other dogs, hell yeah, sigh. One with arthritic ankles, and whose sight is starting to cloud from cataracts enough so that people on bikes suddenly freak him out when they never used to, because I guess he isn’t sure if they’re fish or fowl or friend, why yes, heavier sigh.

We got Ollie pretty much on a whim, about as spontaneously as I’d ever allowed my uptight self to be since, well, ever. (That’s pitiful, but it’s also another story.) About a year after we met the awful chore of putting down an awesome cat-dog named Socks, one of those felines that defy cathood and behave all friendly and doggie-like, the kids were itching and itching for an actual dog-dog. That I listened, and then entertained, the idea, was an upset of the century in a way. I’d never owned a dog. My dad the mailman wouldn’t allow it when I was a kid, for obvious he-despised-dogs reasons. But I finally realized I had used that long-expired ban as an excuse far into adulthood, so far in it was ridiculous:

“Oh, you weren’t allowed to have a dog as a kid? Big damn deal. You’ve been an adult now forever. Or haven’t you noticed?”

“Yeah, but I don’t really like dogs. They’re messy. They poop all over and throw up and shed. You gotta walk ’em in rainstorms and stuff. They chase and bite people. I’m scared of dogs anyway. They smell my fear, you know. No dog would want me blahblah whinewhine shutthehellup . . . ”

We got a dog. What happened was, a reporter sent a newsroom-wide email alerting potential dog-owners to an ADORABLE yellow lab crated within the Portsmouth Humane Society that anybody looking just HAD TO MEET. So we went. It was hair-raising. Among scads of bellowing pit bulls and beagles and street-mutts sat this big yellow lab serenely in a cage, seemingly oblivious to the din. The Humane Society people had temporarily named him Heathcliff, for God’s sake, but that was fine. Nobody there could really say where he came from, what his back story was. He just kind of showed up or was turned in a few days earlier and that was that.

We asked to meet the dog, take him for a little leash-spin in the yard. The boy took the lead on that; he’d been dog-agitating the most as he entered sophomore year of high school as his sister departed for college. We left, discussed it all that night, went back the next day — maybe the day after that, I’m fuzzy. And when we left the dingy animal barracks this time, a large, yellow lab newly named Ollie — a skateboard trick, but also just a cool name the boy liked — sat in the back seat of the van, slobbering, as it motored him toward a home that would never be the same.

Just like that. No looking back. No regret. Consternation for sure over the copious blond wisps and tufts of hair that suddenly appeared in piles on the floor, the furniture, the pant legs. Budgetary consideration to the monthly demands of food and medicine and supplies, you bet. Special food when his stomach proved finicky. Special attention on walks when it became obvious — to our horror when he would chase down a fellow dog in the field to sniff and then, almost always, to start a scrap — that he didn’t play well with others. Go to the dog park? Um, nope.

But never a regret, especially as time and life morphed “his” home from four to three to two to one permanent human resident.

Oh, like any insufferable dog owner, I could go on and on and on. I’ll suffice to say what older first-time parents always say: they cannot believe they nearly missed out. What they thought of as way too much mess and expense and imposition melts away in the instant they hold the baby. To a lesser extent, but still a remarkable one, it’s like that with a first dog when its eyes lock onto yours — dogs are among the few mammals to do that, right? — and we humanize them into non-speaking humanoids who feel our emotions and think our thoughts.

I don’t know for sure about all of that, but I do know Ollie teaches me things, every day. It’s on me to absorb the lesson. But it’s there. I grab for the leash, any time of day or night, and it’s as if the dog is a Kentucky thoroughbred sprung from the starting gate. Pavlov, I ain’t, but Ollie on cue leaps and harrumphs and sneezes and shakes and spins as if the walk he knows is about to occur will be OHMYGODTHEBESTWALKEVEREVEREVER!! …. The clip locks on, the door opens . . . and he is off to the smells, tastes, snuffles, wonders and threats for the very first time instead of whatever the endless count is up to, pulling along his bad owner, pacing in circles, canine-crazy for the exact same turf he has padded and marked for days and years.

That is pure gratitude, people. That is the honest act of taking nothing for granted, not ever. That is rising to meet each opportunity with freshness, with the joy — if not the actual processed thought — that this moment among so many will be unlike any other, past or future. The best moment. Today. Right now!

A sloppy, frenetic lab tries to tell me this every day. I haven’t always been good at paying attention. My bill of listening health, as it were, has blemishes and sour attitudes. That is to say, I’m not always the good boy, not at all.

But in that, I swear I am behaving better — so help one best friend that has never had one bad day.