Remembering My Step-Dog
About Gus, from beginning
I always referred to Gus
as my step-dog. He pre-dated me in Dani's life by a year.
She adopted him when she was 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 someone 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
a year old and full-grown by that point, he weighed only 26 lbs., all
ribs and his characteristically enormous akita/German shepherd
head. We have a picture of him around here somewhere that the
rescue took of him when they found him at his worst. 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 whatever he 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
was coming in through the front, she had just let him inside. He
rounded the corner and the two of us were startled to see one
another. The 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 that sometimes mirrored my
I think I liked Gus because I felt like I was the only one who
understood his sensory gating problems. I terrified him one time when 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
outing around water without expecting to bring home a dog whose fur was
drenched. Back when I was doing "themed" gifts for Dani, one of
the "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 was 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
drum his front paws on the ground audibly and almost rhythmically
before racing around the perimeter of the back yard. I could
stand in one spot and just let him exhaust himself running circles
around me. It 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 of the leash that it was a struggle to even clip it
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.
You could 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 it before for the duration of a movie, and by the end of it
we wound up with enough batting to stuff a pillow. One of the vet
today [the day we brought him 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 were 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
put up with Dani's house-full of cats before I came along. Then
he put up 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 even 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 through all the toys in the dark. He was too deaf to hear
the racket that jolted me awake.
Actually, going deaf might have been a good thing for Gus for that
reason. Not 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 good, so 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
starting to get cloudy, but apparently he could still see fairly
well. Toward the 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 poop at this point. This coincided with
that awkward intermediate stage of 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
deal. 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 mobile 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 lot of the above to the natural
progression of the aging process. Even the 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 been 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
Gus had a series of stuttered slides down it.
Thump-thump-thump. Pause. A longer series of thumps.
Pause. A few more thuds as he careened 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 reached the scene trying to
catch him before he fell any further. We put up a baby gate at
the base of the stairs the next day. It felt cruel to exclude him
at night, but the alternative was to let him kill himself the next time
he lost his footing when nature called. Even staying off 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
them were plastic too) to give him traction over the hardwood
floors. We 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
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
vet around 8am the next morning. He offered to do biopsies and
all that, but it was just an expensive diagnosis for what he could
already ascertain from just a physical examination. He admitted
that he could already guess sarcolymphoma with about 85-90%
certainty. The lymph 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 options 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 prednisone, beginning with a shot of the
latter. We followed that with a round of 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
around 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 all. 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 on 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
stand up, but all his movements were slow and reluctant. One of
the vet techs 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 know. 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
calm and not in a lot of pain, but he just looked fed up with being
sick. He laid there and took it easy while Stan played with the
stickers and coloring book the tech supplied as they were getting
everything ready. 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
things that affected me the most in all of this was that I'd never
known a time with Dani that Gus wasn't there. When we lost him,
it was like losing a part of our history together. Even though he
slowed down in his later years, we had too. Looking back, the
beginning of our relationship is filled with memories of outings
when he was young and playful as well. Losing him meant thinking
of ourselves as people without Gus.