Up front: November 2011

A dog’s life

He came with certified pedigree bearing the seal of the American Kennel Club. It listed his name as Kirk’s Sonata Andante, which didn’t fit a hunting dog, especially such an outsized one sired, his papers said, by Midwest Cornhusker Moose. He was whelped Dec. 6, 1998, which would have made him a year old when we got him from the rescue shelter for German shorthaired pointers in Cabarrus County and nearly 13 when I had him put down. That’s old for a dog, awfully old for one his size.

From what we heard, Dante’s original owner had given him up because his wife, a petite woman, couldn’t handle him on a leash. Donnie, as his name devolved when he became part of our household (where he was also known as The Donster, Don-Don or just Don), never did learn to heed the leash, among many skills his new master failed to teach him. Golden days we should have shared in forest or field, I spent at the office, chasing stories and money, as he prowled the backyard, pointing squirrels that chittered at him from the sanctuary of fence posts or fat frogs he sniffed out on the perimeter of the goldfish pond.

They say dogs come to resemble their owners, or maybe it’s vice versa. As Donnie, in dog years, caught up with, then passed me, he grew just as lazy, lolling away the day in the warmth of the sun. The stiffness in his hips mirrored that in my knees and back. His meds cost more than mine. I would eye his supply of Rimadyl, wondering if it would do me as much good as it seemed, for so long, to do him. But there was a difference between us. He never whined or snapped at people. Big he was but gentle. He was a good dog.

I kept telling him that: Donnie’s a good dog, fighting tears that rolled down wrinkles in my cheeks like rain in a culvert as we waited in a back room at the clinic. Soon, they’d come with the needle to send him into slumber, then, a few minutes later, the one with the drug that’d tell his brain not to bother about breathing.

It was time. Past time. Over Fourth of July weekend, at our place in the mountains where he once chased deer and sent flocks of wild turkey fluttering to treetops, he struggled to stand but couldn’t rise until we lifted his hips to get his withered hind legs beneath him. Once back home, he could be coaxed to his feet, then go stand at the back door, ready to resume his patrol. But when he stumbled, he’d just sigh and lie there, head on paws, oblivious even to the taunts of squirrels.

As summer turned to fall, we waited. The vet had told us the signs to look for, but I balked. What I really wanted was for him to go the way my wife’s 92-year-old grandmother did: Take a nap, never wake up. I’ve lost family: grandparents, mom and dad, my father-in-law, most of their siblings, cousins, even a 10-year-old brother killed by a car while crossing the street in front of our house. But I had no say in their passing, which granted me the solace of grief or rage. This was my responsibility. As the owner of a business, I’ve had to let people go, end relationships, put down publications I sired. But I had the comfort of knowing I tried to do what’s best, if not for me, for that business. I had to do what was best for Donnie.

In early October, he stopped eating. A few nights later, he soiled himself in his sleep. That Saturday morning, on the way to the vet’s, I let him lie in the front seat of the car next to me. He put one of his giant, gnarled paws on my forearm and rested his chin on it. I figured the gesture had more to do with fatigue than affection. Then, as we cruised down a major thoroughfare, he shoved the gearshift into neutral. Later, when I finally left him, the memory made me smile. Donnie was a good dog. Go on, big boy, I whispered. Run.

David Kinney