We live in dog heaven. Seventy acres of land, mixed fields and woods, half a mile of riverbank. Our dogs are trained to stay out of the fields along the lightly-traveled road and, in fact, for the last few years our rugged guard doggies don't go outside except in the company of a human. Whereupon they're totally happy to walk along the river, sniff out the ground hogs and chase the birds, eat the peonies, etc.--it's all benign and civilized.
It wasn't always like this. When we first moved here, the farm had been abandoned for twenty years and it was teeming with wildlife. Raccoons, groundhogs, beavers, foxes, geese, eagles and hawks, bear and deer. Snakes. Lots of snakes, most of them beneficial, although I have to admit our guests are sometimes flipped out to meet the four- and five-foot long pet blacksnakes that live around the outbuildings. They're the reasons we don't have a serious rodent problem.
But we also have rabies. It's pretty much systemic in our part of the country, and in summer it's not unusual to see a raccoon or a fox out in the daylight, which is never a good sign. We keep our dogs and cats well-vaccinated and do most of the vet work ourselves, except for the obvious spaying and neutering duties. It works for us, and vet bills have skyrocketed over the past decade. We simply can't afford vets for anything except dire emergencies.
One of the first things we decided back in 1997 when we moved to our farm was that we needed a guard dog to establish boundaries and keep the wildlife away from the house and garden. Our first weekend here, before we had electricity in the bathroom or windows that weren't missing panes of glass or any way to lock the house except from the outside, we started looking for a good dog.
My husband Andy found an ad in the paper: free mixed breed dogs to good homes. So he called. A woman he later described good ol' girl (let me know if you need a definition) told him that she had fifteen puppies, "fourteen black ones and one that looks like a little ol' groundhog."
Andy covered the receiver with his hand and whispered to me, "I have got to see this."
He got directions--go to the other side of the county to a certain remote crossroad and "look for the blue bus in the yard. That's the place." He told me later it was "just like the Waltons, only updated."
So he loaded up our son, who was five, and off they went, while I stayed home to vacuum the efflourescence off the walls with a shop-vac (the house was in rough shape). A few hours later, they came back with two eight-week old puppies. Jack had picked a nice black one and Andy took the little ol' groundhog. They let them out of the car and the puppies promptly dove underneath. There they stayed for three days while we talked sweetly to them and shoved water and puppy food under the frame, until they felt secure enough to come out.
That was how Molly and Shadow came to live with us.
I named them. Molly, the "groundhog" was sensitive and sweet-natured, while Shadow (named not for his color but because he was always underfoot)--well, Shadow was, as we say, a mess. Solid black except for a white ruff and a touch of white on each paw, as if he'd dipped them in white paint, brown eyes that would stare fixedly at you, and a tremendous hunger for affection. Always the first in line for pets and scratches, he never met a person who wasn't a friend. He also chewed everything in sight. That first year we spent a small fortune on outdoor extension cords for the Christmas lights, and he chewed up every single one of them, along with anything else that he happened to find lying around. Bonus points if it belonged to a family member.
The plan was to bring the dogs in during the evenings when we came home from work. They had evening hours with us and then, at bedtime, they would go outside, where they had a doghouse to sleep in and a job to do.
As they grew up they got very good at it, and we had no trouble with critters. In fact, they did a great job of keeping them wild animals away that I can recall only one fatality. Late one night in the summer, just as we were getting ready for bed, Andy and I heard a noise outside, a cross between a yelp and a growl. Grabbing a flashlight, I went out to investigate, and Andy came behind with a shotgun (when you live in the country and it's rabies season, a gun is a necessary precaution). My light had a nice strong beam, and I ran it back and forth, scanning the ground, while Andy stood ready to put down any wounded or crazed animal.
Just behind the house, stretched out as if asleep, there lay a magnificent fully-grown red fox, a male. Its neck had been broken. It was still warm. Shadow was nowhere to be seen, so I called him and eventually he came, sheepish, his head hanging down, afraid he had done something wrong. There wasn't a scratch on him.
After that, we'd rarely find evidence that a fox had been around--none so close to the house as that again. But it seems that Shadow, the dominant of the two dogs, had decided deterrence was better than battle, and he kept all wildlife away throughout his tenure as guard dog.
All through his childhood, wherever Jack was, the dogs were, too. Andy dug a bunker in the side yard for Jack to play soldier, and Molly and Shadow were always there with him. They were his "guardie doggies," along with our old dog, Bert, a German Shepherd/Collie mix who at ten loved the farm because it was the first place we ever lived that was big enough for him to be really comfortable. When we walked through the woods along the river, Bert plodded along behind us, but Molly and Shadow would leap joyously ahead and then double back to make sure we were coming, then take off again. They'd run up and down the bank and chase the scents of beavers and deer, jump into the water and come back in order to shake all over us. They'd cover the trail five or six times for every one time we did.
And when we took out the canoe and floated down the river, they'd follow along the bank, worried because we were out of their reach. Despite my sternest commands to go home, they'd follow, often covertly (so they thought) and stand on the bank at the edge of the property, watching until we were out of sight. Then they would return to the house and wait. I never worried about Molly doing anything stupid, but I also never put it past Shadow to jump into the water and swim after us.
There's an island in the river just behind the house, a washover island attached to our farm, but is really just wasteland. Except it's an extra seven acres of brush, flood debris, twisted trees and rocks where the dogs often roam in summer, swimming across the still water between. Molly and Shadow, and then, after Bert died of old age, lying in the sun with his head in my lap, Dobbers came along to join the pack and push the limits.
Dobbers, a gray snow dog mix, is our hunter and she quickly became the ringleader. She was also the reason we brought the dogs inside at night, since her nighttime foraging started to take her off the property and into the neighbors' fields.
Despite that they were littermates, despite that they were never apart--they ran together, ate together, slept together--Molly and Shadow could not have been more different. Molly was shy; if a dog could ever be described as self-effacing, that was her. Despite that, she had a beautiful face and big brown melty eyes. Her favorite place in the world was on someone's lap. Especially when I was recovering from chemotherapy I would sit on a porch swing in our picnic shelter overlooking the river, with Molly asleep beside me, her head on my knee, and Shadow underfoot. We spent hours like that, watching the water and the birds, looking for the occasional hawk or eagle to fly by. Shadow would push a rival aside and shove his head under your arm or hand. When he pawed he left bruises and long scratches, and could never figure out why we would yell when all he wanted was undivided attention and the return of his own unconditional love. Molly would sit back and wait, tragically heartbroken if she was overlooked, blissful if she was invited up for a lap-sit.
Shadow topped out at around 80-85 pounds, full-grown. Sleek and rollicking, with feathery hind-quarters and tail, and a big enthusiastic bark. At around 50 pounds, Molly got the short end of the genetic stick--a barrel chest, skinny legs, and an impenetrably thick winter coat that wouldn't shed--it would only mat. For relief from the heat, she'd go lie in the river. That first summer I worried that she might get moldy because she was always damp. Brushing her out was of no use--her coat wouldn't let go until the new winter coat was growing in. She suffered from the heat; it ruined her appetite and kept her listless, dragging herself from one patch of shade to another. One evening, feeling so terribly sorry for her, I pulled her up on to the picnic table, took a pair of shears, and cut off her coat. I sheared her down almost to skin, but stopped short to keep her from getting sunburned.
Most dogs, when they're clipped, are embarrassed. They slink away and hide until the newness wears off. Molly was not one of those dogs. Whether it was because we took pains to praise her and tell her how pretty she was and what a good girl she was, or from the sheer relief of losing the fur coat in a 90-plus degree summer, she thought she was something else. She pranced around and wiggled with joy; she'd jump into the garden and steal tomatoes--in short, she was a happy dog after her haircut. And by cold weather, her winter coat was back.
Every year after that it was the same. As soon as it got consistently hot, Molly got her haircut, and she acted like it was a rebirth. Shadow, in contrast, was only jealous at the attention we paid Molly during the haircut process. He'd try to get up on the table and push his way between us, then he'd circle and bump my knees and bark, and finally he'd sulk.
For years, home life was the Molly and Shadow show, with Dobbers as the amused sidekick, all of them running around on Jack's heels. It felt like it would go on forever.
Forever lasted until the summer of 2007. Molly got sick.
It happened suddenly. Over a few days, she lost her appetite and energy, and I watched her, concerned, but I didn't see any real symptoms and she'd fallen prey to indigestion like this before, and it had always run its course after a couple of days. Then, one hot afternoon I drafted Jack to help me spread mulch, which ran counter to his better judgement and made him a bit grouchy. We used an old riding mower to tow a wooden work cart (actually, we still use it). So we were going back and forth, loading and then driving it from garden to garden, spreading mulch--dirty, damp, sticky, occasionally moldy mulch. It's hot, sweaty, itchy work, and not conducive to good moods. The dogs followed us around, as usual. I noticed that afternoon that Molly was suddenly bigger around, as if her stomach were swelling. And, strangely, she would work herself between the mower and the cart, lying down just in front of the heavy wheels. She kept sneaking in there, we kept shooing her out.
Meanwhile, Andy was bush hogging the fields with the tractor. He came back in and parked in the yard to take a break, and we called a stop to get a drink. When it was time to go back to work, all of us hot and short-tempered and Jack and Andy arguing about something I no longer remember, something terrible happened.
Andy had left the bush hog raised up, which he almost never did because of the strain it puts on the tractor hyrdaulics. But that day he forgot to let it down to rest on the ground. Molly had crawled underneath the bush hog, which she had never done before, and was lying directly against the big back wheel. Andy started the tractor, distracted and arguing with our teenager, and slammed the gears into reverse.
I was standing across the yard and realized, a half-second too late, what was going to happen. Even as I screamed for him to stop, Molly let out a scream as she went under the wheel. I came running across the yard, yelling and gesturing to Andy to go forward and let her up, and I yelled to Jack to go and get a gun, because I knew already it was too late.
It was too late even for a gun, and Jack was too shocked to move. Andy rolled forward, killed the engine and jumped down as I pulled her out from under the wheel and into my lap. After only two breaths and a few seconds, she was gone.
I was upset, but Andy and Jack were devastated. Each blamed himself because they'd been distracted by their argument. But argument is the natural state between a teenager and a parent, and not something worthy of blame. When you work around heavy equipment, you do your best to take precautions, but accidents are called accidents for a reason: they're unexpected, unplanned, and always traumatic. And it wasn't only that Andy and Jack were distracted--Molly did something she had never done before, and it was something she'd been working on all afternoon.
We buried her and grieved.
Initially, it looked to me like Shadow wasn't really affected by Molly's death. Superficially he seemed about the way he usually was but still...over the following days, I began to see real differences in his behavior.
Shadow was always the outgoing, hyper dog. Lots of personality, lots of energy, lots of love but not always a lot of sense. Without Molly's influence, he became increasingly erratic. He and Molly both had always been gun-shy, so much that they suffered during hunting season, and we never let them alone around the 4th of July. But now Shadow developed a fear of lightning. A flash of light was enough to send him into our bedroom in the middle of the night, and one of us would have to sit up with him, usually with him in our laps, until long after the storm passed and he stopped trembling. Then wind set him off, to the same effect. He had always slept downstairs in the kitchen; now, he wandered the house restlessly and eventually developed the habit of jumping up on Jack's bed and sleeping with, and often of top of, him.
As he got older, it got harder and harder for him to jump up on the bed, so Jack positioned a bench beside the bed, to let him climb up and down, and for a while--through Jack's high school years--the night troubles faded.
Until a warm spring day, when I opened the door to the dining room and was knocked over by the smell. At some point in the winter, Shadow had taken to wandering at night to relieve himself on the dining room and living room rugs, and under the table in the parlor. We heat with wood stoves, one in the kitchen and one in the living room. During the winter, the front rooms (parlor, living room and dining room) are usually closed off. I think it was the combination of cool temperatures and a cracked door. It took a steam cleaner and a couple of gallons of Nature's Miracle to save the rugs, and Shadow was banished to the kitchen. We put a sheet over the doorway and a toddler gate in place and Shadow, although he was growing older, was quite powerful and could pull it down if he wanted to. And when it thundered or the wind blew loud or he just felt like company, he wanted to.
By daylight, we still had trouble, especially if we all had to leave the house. We'd put the dogs inside (by now, in addition to Dobbers, we had Major and Lea, a pair of black pugs). If something startled Shadow, his paranoid would take over and make him decide he needed to get out.
The first time it happened was at Thanksgiving and we went to dinner at my in-laws. As finished eating we heard the echo of thunder in the distance, but didn't much think of it. Until we got home and found Shadow, whom we'd left in the kitchen with the other dogs, running out in the yard, tail wagging and delighted to see us. And his paws and mouth were cut to pieces.
We found the answer in the kitchen, where the computer desk had been pushed to one side and the muntins of our 230-year old kitchen window had been gnawed, the window panes cracked and one broken out. He'd pawed the window so hard he broke it, then chewed out the broken shards and squeezed his 85-pound body through a ten by twelve inch aperture. The fur around his neck kept him from cutting his own throat on the way out. And it was not the last time he'd break out. Eventually I replaced all the panes with modern glass--harder to break and less expensive to replace. For about a year it felt like I was glazing a window every other week.
If he was inside he'd break the windows to get out and if he was outside, he'd break the windows to get in, whether we were home or not. We have claw marks that I may never remove in the plaster beside the kitchen window. Soon it wasn't only lightning and thunder, or gunfire, or even the wind, that would set him off. He would stare around wildly, tuned in to some internal terror, before he'd try to scratch his way in or out of wherever he happened to be. He ate the wall on the back porch so he could jump down and hide in the basement. I investigated the world of doggie downers but the side effects seemed worse than the benefits. We blocked the windows from the outside to make it harder for him to reach them, and tried to keep him secured when we had to leave. But, in fact, if I didn't take him with me I usually locked him in the basement, ironically the Creepiest Basement Ever, and about the only place he felt safe alone.
We waited and hoped that over time he would calm down.
Eventually, age caught up with him. His hearing faded about four years ago. It was great, at least in one respect--he didn't hear fireworks, or gunfire, or thunder, any more. Lightning flashes would still flip him out and I would have to sit up with him during thunderstorms, but I would catch him sleeping in the autumn sun, his black coat augmenting the heat and warming him while he snoozed, while the echo of shotgun blasts from hunters after geese would resound on the river. Many of the things he feared most just disappeared from his world. He calmed down again.
Then his eyes clouded with cataracts, and his world grew smaller. He got slower. And older. When he was fourteen we wondered if he would make it through the winter. He started getting a low-dose aspirin wrapped in a piece of cheese just about every day.
He lasted that winter, and the next one. His vision failed, but his nose and mind stayed as sharp as ever. If I went outside to do chores and Shadow missed my departure, he would track me. I could stand in place and watch him trace my steps. Whenever he found me, it was a celebration, like he'd won a scavenger hunt.
Last summer he spent most of his days lying in the sun. His digestion got finicky and we switched him to "senior" dog food, which I'd supplement with rice and chicken broth. For a while, trying to be fair, I supplemented the food of the other dogs but the pugs started getting fat, so we all learned that life is unfair and young dogs eat their kibbles if they're hungry enough. They slimmed back down to healthy weights. Shadow got more and more picky. At night he'd claw down the toddler door and come upstairs to wake me up. The last time, he couldn't go back down the stairs without falling, and step by step at 3:00 in the morning we navigated the steps together.
At least once a week, he'd perform his late night hurry call as an excuse to go, as we termed it, on walkabout. Mostly blind, mostly deaf, at night he would disappear into the dark, allegedly on a bathroom break but then he'd disappear for up to an hour before he'd come back. We wondered where he went, what he did, what he was looking for. I imagined him retracing his nightly patrols from the time as a guard dog. But, at 3:00 a.m. in the winter, it was tough enough to stay up and wait for him to come back, so I don't really know where he went or what he did.
He still had a good quality of life. He ate well, still bossed the other dogs around, followed me around outside and would gladly have spent his whole day at the barn, staring dimly at the chickens and channeling his internal predator.
Two weeks ago he started to lose his taste for food. About every other day he'd refuse to eat. Then about five days ago, he stopped eating completely. Two days ago, he stopped getting up.
Like Bert, Shadow is dying of old age. Unlike Bert, he's fading slowly, quietly. He doesn't seem to be in pain. If he starts feeling bad, if his pain increases or he gives us any indication of suffering, we'll call in the vet. We're hesitant--Shadow hates the vet almost as much as he hated gunfire or thunder or fireworks. Now he's on a journey, going where we can't follow. But we're doing what we can, keeping him comfortable while, every day, he slips a little further away.
Last week, my birthday fell on Palm Sunday and, for the day, we had snow. It covered the ground about three inches by late afternoon, and I took a lone walk down by the river. At least, I started out alone, but Shadow's nose led him to come along behind. His top speed was a slow stroll, so we spent an hour or so in falling snow by the gray-green river, just the two of us. When we got back to the house, I had to help him up the steps and he flopped down in front of the wood stove, worn out. It was our last walk.
For long stretches of time now he lies with his eyes open, unresponsive. I don't know what he sees. When he sleeps, his paws twitch as if he's running. Occasionally I hear a muffled dream-bark from him. I wonder what he's dreaming about.
I want to think he's running through the fields of youth, chasing groundhogs and birds. I want to believe that his ears and eyes are perfectly sharp and the world is vivid and holds no terror. I want to think that Molly, his sister, his anchor and his best friend ever, is waiting for him, and he has her in his sights. I want to think he's running to catch up.
4/3/2013: Shadow passed on this evening.
Much peace to you, buddy. You've earned it.