Remembering My Step-Dog
I always referred to Gus as my step-dog.
He pre-dated me in Dani's life by a year. She adopted him when
a single girl living on her own, and what single girl living on her own
couldn't use a pet bear to scare away any threats? She says she
connected with him right away and immediately knew he was something
special that she hasn't seen in another animal since. She was so
enthralled with him at the adoption event (where she wasn't even
looking for a dog) that she actually forged paperwork from her
apartment complex saying it was okay to have a pet. This is
who wouldn't even pad her CV or online dating profile.
Gus had a rough time of it leading up to when the rescue group found
him. He was discovered tied in a field, emaciated. At least
old and full-grown by that point, he weighed only 26 lbs., all ribs and
his characteristically enormous akita/German shepherd head. We
picture of him around here somewhere that the rescue took at the
By the time Dani adopted him, he was up to 66 lbs. At his peak he
weighed 95 lbs, which, admittedly, was the result of us giving him a
share of left-overs too often. Still, he deserved it after
went through in that first year of his life.
One of the first times I came over to Dani's place, she had left the
front door open for me and was in the back yard with Gus. As I
coming in through the front, she had just let him inside. He
the corner and the two of us were startled to see one another.
bark he let out was more fear than aggression. It unmistakably
translated as a terrified "Mommy!" as he raced to her side in the
kitchen. Some watchdog.
In fact, every noise scared him and he was plagued with neuroses.
think I liked Gus because I felt like I was the only one who understood
his sensory gating problems since they mirrored my own. I once
terrified him because my hand brushed against a plastic garment bag of
Dani's as I reached out to pet him. Before I met Dani, a group of
dachshunds had terrorized him at the dog park once, and he was
frightened of the breed for years. But he was okay with hot dogs,
oddly enough, despite the resemblance.
Most of you who met Gus only in his later years missed out on the
playful guy we knew in his youth. You couldn't take him on any
around water without expecting to bring home a dog whose fur was
drenched. Back when I was doing "themed" gifts for Dani, one of
"practical" presents I bought her for her birthday (along with the shoe
rack and veggie chopper) was a blanket to protect the back seat from
the mud and wet-dog smell on the way home from the dog park. This
a regular occurrence.
Gus was full of energy back then. I would act like I was going to
chase him, and he would adopt a play-crouch, ready to spring up again
and race me. As he tensioned himself in that position, he would
his front paws on the ground audibly and almost rhythmically before
racing around the perimeter of the back yard. I could stand in
spot and just let him exhaust himself running circles around me.
was impossible to take him for a walk without pulling muscles in
whichever arm held his leash. He'd go so wild at just the sight
leash that it was a struggle to even clip it on him.
In later years Gus settled into his role as the bear rug I always
described him as. He certainly had enough fur to be one.
brush him for two hours and get as much hair on the last pass as you
did on the first. Wads of it! I know this because we'd done
for the duration of a movie, and by the end of it we wound up with
enough batting to stuff a pillow, which is what you could have used him
as in his entirety. One of the vet techs today [the day we
in to put down] recalled the scene a year or two ago of a much younger
Stan [our three year-old] climbing across a docile Gus sprawled across
the floor when I had brought him in for shots. (Note: The shots
for Gus, although Dani and I frequently refer to the pediatrician as
"the vet" and neither of us corrects the other.)
Gus tolerated a lot of things like that. Think about it. He
with Dani's house-full of cats before I came along. Then he put
with years of foster dogs and strays (I counted more than 30 just in
the time Dani and I lived together), and he never gave any of them a
hard time about sharing his space. Over the last three years he
had to put up with the tiny, noisy human who moved in with us, one who
eventually grew to habitually leave an obstacle course across the
living room for Gus. No matter. Gus just started plowing
the toys in the dark. He was too deaf to hear the racket that
Actually, going deaf might have been a good thing for that
hearing as much meant not being startled as often, even when he needed
to be. You might recall me having to yell "No-Chew!" at
Gus. One of
his neuroses was that he would chew his paws until they were bloody
stumps. I sounded like someone with an intractable case of
Tourette's. Once Gus went deaf, yelling at him didn't do any
we taught Stan to go over and tug his collar to make him stop, which
was nice because it meant I didn't have to be the bad guy all the time.
Everything was slowly failing on him though. His eyes were
get cloudy, but apparently he could still see fairly well. Toward
end, he was losing control of his bowels. Over the past month,
probably six out of every seven days found me following his trail of
poop with a paper towel in hand. No big deal. I'm used to
this point. This coincided with that awkward intermediate stage
potty training wherein a proud, pants-less child often presents himself
in the kitchen (or wherever I am at the time) and announces, "I
pooped!" Yeah, but not necessarily where he's supposed to.
Not that Gus was eating much, or this would have been a bigger
He had lost a lot of weight over the past month or two and was down to
73 lbs, which was 10 to 15 less than usual for him. He had been
up to this point and capable of eating if he was hungry, so it was a
sign that had been getting sicker for a while. We'd attributed a
of the above to the natural progression of the aging process.
vet and techs had assumed the same when they saw Gus recently for a
series of visits to treat an ulcer on his cornea. He had also
arthritic for several years, such that you couldn't move his legs
certain ways (especially his hips) when trimming his nails.
The decline continued. We blocked off the stairs last month when
had a stuttered series of slides down it.
A longer series of thumps. Pause. A few more thuds as he
onto the landing. It wasn't a pleasant sound to hear at any time,
never mind at 2am. He was already on the landing by the time I
the scene trying to catch him before he fell any further. We put
baby gate at the base of the stairs the next day. It felt cruel
exclude him at night, but the alternative was to let him kill himself
the next time he lost his footing when nature called. Even
the stairs, he started getting to the point that he wasn't able to walk
without a lot of weakness. Dani bought carpet runners (some of
were plastic too) to give him traction over the hardwood floors.
put those down with bath mats and Stan's play pads in all the
heavily-trafficked areas. It helped now that he was losing the
strength to keep from sliding spread-eagle like Bambi on a frozen pond.
We knew a few days ago that the end was imminent when he didn't get up
nearly the entire day. He was normally mostly sedentary in his
retirement, but not like this. That night he seemed at once both
restless and yet didn't get up to move, even after we gave him some
pain pills on top of the arthritis meds. We brought him in to the
around 8am the next morning. He offered to do biopsies and all
but it was just an expensive diagnosis for what he could already
ascertain from just a physical examination. He admitted that he
already guess sarcolymphoma with about 85-90% certainty. The
nodes in Gus' neck were huge and hard, as were other nodes in less
obvious places. Even his snout had sore areas springing up where
smaller nodes had enlarged in just the previous few hours. The
were to do chemo or simply pursue palliative care, but the choice was
obvious given how old he was and how advanced the cancer probably was,
given all his symptoms. We started him on antibiotics and
beginning with a shot of the latter. We followed that with a
pills later that evening.
Dani spent a lot of the night downstairs sleeping on the floor on a
blanket next to Gus to keep him company. He still wasn't moving
much by the next morning, even with several doses in him, by which time
they should have had an effect if there was to be any response at
He looked like he was just going to have more problems and the
suffering would grow even worse. He had a bad attack of diarrhea
the floor that Dani cleaned up the next morning. Other than some
slices of ham we hand-fed him the night before (plus a slice of cheese
with the pills), I don't know that he had eaten anything, just some
water that we brought to him because he wasn't getting up to get any on
his own. It looked like it was time to let him go.
Dani made an appointment and we brought him in to the vet's office
around 11:30 in the morning. He could barely walk. He could
but all his movements were slow and reluctant. One of the vet
looked like she was going to cry as she was admitting us, whether from
the sight of Gus struggling or us crying on the way in, I don't
I finally just carried him from the waiting room into the patient area
rather than force him to go the rest of the way.
We spent some time petting him and saying our goodbyes. He seemed
and not in a lot of pain, but he just looked fed up with being
He laid there and took it easy while Stan played with the stickers and
coloring book the tech supplied as they were getting everything
Stan didn't really get the full significance of the event, but he was
very quiet as they gave Gus the injections and he dozed off peacefully.
Thanks to all for the condolences. He was definitely a lovable
dog and we miss him.
Postscript. After I wrote the above, I realized that one of the
that affected me the most in all of those was that I'd never known a
time with Dani that Gus wasn't there. When we lost him, it was
losing a part of our history together. Even though he slowed down
his later years, we did a bit as well. My memories of the
our relationship are filled with memories of outing with him young and
playful as well.