“He was a pain in the ass. But he was our pain in the ass.”
It’s not the most eloquent eulogy anyone has ever delivered, but it’s one of the things Matt said to me the day we said good-bye to Buddy and I couldn’t help but laugh and smile through the waves of tears that kept streaming down my face. Such true words about our dear, sweet, loveable and incredibly difficult little dog who shared our lives for four and half years.
The first day we went to see him, we watched him run around the backyard with the other dogs at his foster home. From far away, he had the happy gait of a puppy but as he got close there was an unmistakable wheezing and it was obvious that the short romp had left him winded. He had been found along the side of a busy highway a few months before, malnourished, coat matted and sick with hookworms and heartworms. The woman who found him and brought him home was an angel to him. She searched unsuccessfully for his previous owners, and then paid out of her own pocket for the health care he needed. She sat him with him through a frightening 24 hours where it was unclear whether he would survive the heartworm treatment. She truly rescued him.
A few months after Roberta had found him, we found ourselves in her backyard, deciding whether Buddy would come live with us. We had been ready to get a dog for a few months, when I saw Buddy on a mutual friend’s Facebook feed and fell in love with him instantly. As we left from our initial visit, we both knew he was going to be ours. “Just remember,” Matt said that day as we drove home, “with age and his heart in that condition, we may only have three or four years with him.”
We had been warned by Roberta that he had some separation issues, and I immediately began devouring everything I could find about how to overcome separation anxiety. The first week we brought him home, Matt found himself sleeping on the couch, one hand reaching out to soothe the anxious dog who was pacing circles in his unfamiliar territory, unable to sleep.
We assumed it would get better with time.
With time, Buddy learned to trust and love us. He went from a dog who wouldn’t stay on the couch for two seconds to my favorite snuggle buddy, happy to curl up next to me for a nap on the couch and eventually jumping up to “big bed.” Oops. He went from a dog who showed minimal interest in food to, unfortunately, a world class beggar. Oops. (He was so skinny that we shamelessly fed him table scraps.) He learned to look us in the eyes and hold our gaze, something he wouldn’t do for the first year or so he lived with us. Later, when Bo came along, he was the most gentle and kind dog that a little toddler could hope for – never batting an eye as Bo practiced “gentle hands” on him by yanking on ears, tails and clumps of fur or allowing himself to be used as a highway for toy trucks.
The one thing Buddy never learned though, was how to be okay with being home alone. We started out following the training protocol for separation anxiety to a T. We practiced “desensitizing” him to our leaving cues, picking up keys or saying “bye bye” over and over to try and make them a non-event. We practiced leaving him in his crate for incremental time periods. I’d sit upstairs out of sight and time how long he would go in his crate without barking (or peeing) and feel a smidge of hope as he gradually progressed from 2 minutes to 3 minutes to 5 minutes. With Matt’s odd working hours, it was rare that we ever had to leave him for even a full 8 hours at a time, but the situation never improved. After he chewed on his crate door and broke his incisor teeth off, we tried leaving him out in the house. After repairing curtains, sanding and repainting three door jambs and then finally, renting a steam vac and having to clean a carpet after he accidentally got himself locked in the guest room one day, we realized leaving him out was not an option.
And then, of course, there was the period of time we climbed out our bedroom window. Our master bedroom is on the first floor and Buddy would sleep soundly in his bed in the living room if we were sleeping in the bedroom. Since Matt slept a lot during the day (odd work hours), this often meant Buddy would be sleeping during the day while Matt was in the bedroom. We realized that if we “pretended” to go to sleep –laid down in bed, closed our eyes and waited a good 15-20 minutes, Buddy would go lay down in his bed in the living room. We could quietly shut the bedroom door and… climb out the window.
Yes, we climbed out the bedroom window for approximately 2 months to trick our anxious dog into thinking we were asleep in the bedroom.
And it worked.
(For a while.)
Eventually, it stopped working and after having to clean up a few too many accidents in our house, we realized the bedroom window method had to stop. Also, it probably freaked out the neighbors – especially when Matt climbed out in his all-black work scrubs.
The bedroom window phase is just a snapshot of the lengths we went to work around Buddy’s quirks. There was a brief period of time where I had heard that dogs with anxiety just needed to exercise a lot before you left, so I dutifully woke up at 4:30 am every morning to walk him for an hour before getting ready for work. I lost 5 pounds, Buddy stayed anxious.
We tried three different types of medications. I talked to four behaviorists/trainers. I talked to a dog psychic. Twice.
I cried. A lot. I prayed. People told us we didn’t have to keep him – that we had tried hard enough. It was hard. We were constantly cleaning up accidents around our house, altering our schedules to make sure we weren’t gone too long, and in the last year of his life, waking up between one and four times a night to rush him outside. (Try doing that once your newborn has taken to sleeping through the night, and you’ll experience a special kind of rage and frustration and resentment all at once.)
We eventually found a routine that “worked” for us, with Buddy staying in the garage when we left. When it got too hot in the summer, he spent his days at Ruff Housing – a place with the kindest, sweetest dog lovers I have ever met. (I owe them a thank you note for their special kindness to my weird, difficult dog who often relieved himself immediately upon walking into their lobby.) We had a dog-sitter who dealt with his quirks when we went out of town, and a few kind friends who helped us out over the years when we were in a pinch and needed overnight care for Buddy. We had understanding friends who welcomed Buddy to dinner parties and potlucks.
When I think about Buddy’s death, I feel so sad and heavy and lonely for the sweet furball who was a part of our family. I also feel hugely guilty about the sense of relief that’s unmistakably present after almost 5 years of working the coming and goings of our family around our dog’s needs. It makes me feel like a horrible person to acknowledge it, but it’s there and it’s part of my grief processing. It was really, really, really hard being Buddy’s momma sometimes and I know there were many days when I showed the ugliest side of myself to him when I lost my patience with him.
Yet despite that, I know sweet Buddy knew we loved him. And we did. After a few years of trying to change him, I think we both just accepted that Buddy wasn’t going to change or at least wouldn’t be able to with the time and resources we had available to offer him. (I once read an article about a dog who sounded exactly like Buddy, and how his owner got him through his separation anxiety. It took a full year of her never leaving him alone – she worked from home and hired full-time caretakers to be present with him. I cried when I read that article, because I realized that’s what Buddy would have needed to have had any hope of getting “better” and that that just wasn’t in the cards for us.)
The last year of Buddy’s life I was home full-time with Bo. I half-expected things to get better with me being home, but this was even further proof that Buddy’s anxiety was more pathological than we ever realized. Once I stopped fighting his anxiety and just accepted that that’s who he was and how he was going to be, I finally started to feel a sense of peace about it. Buddy never asked anything of us, and I finally stopped asking anything of him. (Okay, that’s a lie. I asked him every night to please sleep all night without having to pee. He never listened.)
Despite his anxiety, he frolicked like a puppy on walks. We took him up to our mountain house a few times and in the cold air, he’d take off on a fast sprint through the woods, ears flopping and leaves crunching under his feet. He chased the geese in our neighborhood for years – there was many a morning where I’d let him out in the (unfenced) backyard and the geese would catch his eye and he’d be off. Off I would go, running through the neighborhood in a bathrobe and rain boots to catch him. Getting a fence was the best investment we ever made.
He fell asleep in the most random and funniest places. I’d often find him with his head hanging off the bed, or half under a piece of furniture or once, face down in his bed and his rump straight up in the air.
He loved Pup-a-Roni’s, which we called Schrupaschronis. When he’d see the bright red bag, he’d sit down and his front feet would dance and his teeth would chatter with excitement.
He never licked, but every now and then when he’d be sitting next to me on the couch, he’d give me one lick on the face. We called it his nervous kiss.
For a long time, I brought him with me wherever I could. I took him to work with me and found a coffee shop that was dog-friendly where I spent many afternoons blogging. We took him to the beach a few times, and he’d spend our beach days curled up on the sand under my chair.
Roberta had named him Buddy when she found him, and Matt and I had discussed other names for him when we got him. I’m so glad we kept it Buddy – through and through, he was my buddy.
At the beginning of this summer, we started to notice some undeniable changes in him. At first he started to drag on walks, then he became too tired to even go on them. He had difficulty climbing our stairs, and less interest in food. As his hearing and vision worsened, his anxiety grew worse and worse. He’d lose track of me when I’d walk upstairs to put Bo down for a nap, not be able to hear my voice upstairs, and have an accident in the five minutes I would be gone. Some days he needed to be carried down the back steps to go outside and would pause carefully before climbing back up. He started having mini seizures and would often walk into walls or lose control of his back legs.
Nobody thinks about the final days when you go to pick out your family pet. You know in the back of your head that it’s something you’ll inevitably have to face one day, but you push it far, far away. I kept waiting for a clear sign that it was “time.” I kept praying I’d wake up one day and he would have gone peacefully in his sleep. It was then that I realized – if I was praying for him to go gently in his sleep – then it was time for us to let go. I knew I was keeping Buddy alive because I couldn’t bear the pain of saying good-bye to him and because I struggled with knowing whether it was “exactly” the right time. The last few days I just sat with him every chance I could, and stroked his sweet head in my lap and tried to memorize how soft his ears felt, how his eyebrows twitched when he’d looked at me, how his nose was freckled and how his feet smelled like fritos. I felt like the look he gave me was always one that said “Mama, I’ll stay here as long as you need me to – but I’m ready.”
I miss him the most on nights like tonight, when Matt’s working and Bo has gone to bed. I’m sitting on the couch with the laptop on my lap, a glass of wine balanced precariously on the cushion next to me and I still look down before I take my feet off the table to stand up – looking for the little bundle of fur that made it his life mission to trip me. His stay with us was brief, but I know his impact will be forever felt in my heart. He was such a gentle reminder of the importance of patience and acceptance. I know I failed him many times, but it’s amazing how our dogs never get mad at us.
I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of love when I shared his passing on instagram and facebook. I also received so many kind texts and emails from friends and family. A line from an email from my Dad stuck with me: “Buddy wouldn’t have lasted 5 weeks and you gave him 5 years of love! Always give like that now that you know you receive so much more in return.”
One thing I read about separation anxiety was dogs that had a “job” to perform often felt less insecure and were able to overcome their anxiety. Buddy might not have realized it, but he performed one of the most important jobs I could have asked of anyone: he reminded me, day after day, to accept what someone offers you and let go of my own expectations of how they should be. Sweet Spuds, I am thankful for the years you gave us and truly hope you are now enjoying an endless bounty of Schrupaschronis. We miss you, Buds.