This story was written and subsequently published in a local magazine around this time last year. I remember thinking I didn’t want to wait to eulogize a special dog, I wanted to honor him in life. I love this story as much as I love my dear Howie. We did make it to Christmas and well beyond. And though Howie has now passed, this story lives on and there are amazing stories born from it that are still to come. But for now, join me in celebrating the story of this one special dog.
Today, Howie, my best-boy Dalmatian, is 15 years, six months, and two days old. But who’s counting?
Me. I’m counting. I’m counting my blessings every minute of every beautiful day with this dog. He’s my guy. The last of a very special family of dogs I’ve been so fortunate to love through the years. His great-grandmother and grandfather shared my home, and both are firmly cocooned in my heart.
To have a dog live 15-plus years is a gift, but sometimes it’s easy to just move through the day-to-day routine taking things for granted. Doing my “dog chores.” Getting everyone fed, out to potty, washing blankets, sweeping up hair, keeping up with vet appointments. All the normal stuff. But sometimes in that routine-focused existence you can miss some poignant moments.
The realization hit me when I read a story written by a mom lamenting about how she couldn’t remember the last time her school-aged son had given her a hug and a kiss goodbye at morning drop-off. Now the too-old-too-cool boy had stopped the routine, opting to just scoot quickly out of the car instead. She wished she had known when that last embarrassed hug happened so she could have really appreciated it.
That made me wonder. When were some of Howie’s last times for familiar routines? For example, during mealtime, when I’m passing out food for a healthy number of dogs, our own and our foster dogs, Howie always made it his habit to wait for me to close the dog food bin and then he’d hop on top of it to eat his meal. It was his idea and a good one. He is king dog of this castle, so a perch overlooking his subjects seemed fitting.
At some point, as aging joints and muscles started doubting the two-foot vertical hop, Howie would stand waiting for his meals right in front of the bin, eventually preferring a raised feeder for added comfort. What day did he make that last hop onto the bin? What day did he decide he no longer could?
As time marches forward there are more inevitable changes. I’ve learned that Howie doesn’t really want to go for walks or car rides these days. He’s a homebody now and a nap on a cushy dog bed paired with a casual amble around the familiar terrain of our backyard is all the adventure he craves. And that’s ok with me. I can adjust, though when was the last time he walked with me all the way to the road and back? Would it have been better to know so I could slow our pace and linger in the experience? Or is it best that I had no premonition in case worry robbed me of the ability to be in and enjoy the moment?
And when was the last time he jumped up into my partner Jim’s waiting arms? Jim has taught several of our dogs to leap up so he can catch them. Howie loved performing this trick and he was the master. He jumped high and executed a graceful turn midair, in complete faith that Jim would catch him. It was impressive.
Then came the times when Howie was invited to jump but hesitated, lacking the confidence to execute the move. I wish we had known when a specific leap was the last one. It surely would have been cause for a little extra celebratory hugging.
And when was the last time he gave me a high five? Actually, it was a fist bump. A much cooler move and he loved performing this trick as much as I did. Often, Howie would raise his paw high into the air for a bump before I even asked. Now, when I offer my closed hand and ask for a bump, he wags his tail and perks his ears, but does not return the gesture. That’s ok, buddy.
There are a lot of Howie-routines that are still very much in place. He is still ruler-in-chief of the dog population here, though some of the younger dogs must consider his lordly behavior just downright grumpy. He even reigns over our 118-pound wolfdog, Kainan, despite an incredible size and age difference. God love that giant hairy beast for continuing to grovel when Howie barks commands at him. If it is possible for an animal to understand he should honor his elders, Kainan is doing just that, and Howie is blissfully unaware that Kainan could easily kick his spotted butt if the mood struck him. But he never turns a hair toward Howie. All hale King Howie (thank you, Kainan…extra cookies, my friend)!
Howie also still religiously sleeps with me, my guardian in the night. Oh sure, the effortless ability to hop onto the tall bed that served him well for 13 years, give or take, has been replaced by a careful ascent on a little set of stairs, but we don’t focus on the journey in this case. It’s all about the destination and I sleep quite well with the reassuring warmth of his back pressed against my feet.
My boy has also always had the ability to predict when I will arrive home. Our driveway is quite long with the entrance out of sight of the backyard. But it has been Howie’s tradition to stand at the side gate, alert to my approach as I round the bend toward the front of the house. Then he hops through the dog door into the house to be first in line to greet me at the door.
There has not yet been a “last time” to this tradition. His instinct is still there, but I think sometimes his deep naps override his internal alarm clock. I’m not always met with his attentive gaze to welcome me home these days, but that makes the times he is there even more special.
As days continue to pass, I’m trying to pay attention to all my moments with Howie. Close attention. Howie has lessons to teach me, and I don’t want to miss a single one.
He is teaching me that it really is necessary to circle a minimum of about 15 times before you are ready to sink into the chosen spot on the bed.
He is teaching me that sharing is important, especially at my mealtime, and yes, he DOES like whatever I have even if it’s just a stalky piece of romaine.
Over the course of all these years I have been well trained to recognize that any milk left in the bowl after the cereal is consumed belongs to Howie. He assures me with his all-knowing stare that enjoying a small amount of dairy isn’t going to kill him. I reference that 15 years, six months, and two days achievement. Lactose be damned!
I’m learning patience during the dozens of times a day Howie’s slower, slightly unsteady gate tends to consistently land him directly in my path. I think this one is also helping me develop balance and uncanny agility as I manage a quick stop or sidestep in an unchoreographed dance to avoid causing us both to go crashing to the floor.
I’m learning not to worry about the small stuff that comes with loving an elderly dog. So what if he made a valiant effort to get to the yard to do his business, but didn’t quite make it out the door in time? I have paper towels. I have cleaner. I have a mop at the ready.
He’s taught me that if his legs are twitching rhythmically during a deep slumber, it’s not my cue to wake him. Instead, I should envision the dream in which he is surely racing across our front pasture framed by the long, golden rays of sunset as he has on so many of our adventures during his younger days. And if I happen to be there to add a belly rub to his first waking stretch, all the better.
Most importantly, Howie is teaching me not to focus on the the last times. We can never predict when a child will decide he’s too grown-up to kiss his mom goodbye just as surely as we can’t predict the last time an aging dog is able to climb the stairs without assistance. And truthfully, maybe having last times slip by unnoticed is a blessing.
Life according to Howie means you accept change, you celebrate firsts, you cherish memories of the past, and you embrace all the wonderful times in between. Each moment, each phase of life is precious.
As the holidays approach, the greatest gift I can imagine is one more chance to sit with Howie in the glow of our Christmas tree, logs crackling in the fireplace, a Hallmark movie marathon playing on the screen. But no matter if he chooses to stay with me for another month or another year, I’ll be right by his side, learning, adjusting, appreciating, and loving the heck out of my special best boy. He is the most amazing friend I could hope for, and his memory and gifts to me will last well beyond any last times.