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Remembering old dogs while embracing the new

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We’re rediscovering the boundless energy and enthusiasm of a young dog, and the ways in which dog ownership can reorder our lives.

It’s been several months now since we said our final goodbyes to our Rhodesian Ridgeback, Penny, who terrified our home and office as a puppy before transitioning into a steadfast and loyal companion as an adult. She was a fixture at the office, demanding daily tribute from the UPS drivers, and at least half of Tom Klein’s lunch every Wednesday, back when our late Cook-Orr editor would arrive at our Tower office for the weekly layout. Governors, senators, and congressmen had all bent down to pet her belly over the years as they’d pass through town for the occasional interview and photo op. It was enough to give any dog the big head, not that Penny needed any encouragement.

It wasn’t just attitude. She had an unmistakably regal countenance and my favorite memory is watching her perched on our office’s front porch, lording over her Main Street domain. She was a powerful dog, that fit well with her dominant personality. Ridgebacks were bred to hunt lions, after all, so there was little out there that could intimidate her. More than once she took off after an entire pack of wolves. She probably could have taken them if I hadn’t called her off.

Perhaps because she was such a physical specimen, her inevitable decline was hard to watch. By about nine years of age, she had developed such terrible arthritis that the vet was surprised she could even walk. But walk she did, miles every day, thanks to the combination of pain meds and her tough-it-out attitude. But soon other ailments and age took their toll. By age 13, she was deaf, and we had to lift her 85-pound bulk into the car each morning, to head to work.

As her physical condition declined, the fire in the belly that had animated her over the years slowly faded as well. By the end, last November, we could see the look in her weepy, old dog eyes. We knew the time had come.

While putting an old dog down is always a hard decision, it was made easier by the fact that the Ely Vet Clinic was willing to do a house call. So we put Penny in her favorite spot, on her bed in front of the wood stove, and told her what she had meant to us as the vet delivered the drugs that sent our loyal friend to her long and painless sleep.

Even though we knew it was the right decision, it’s a hard thing to put out of your mind. For weeks, the littlest thing would bring back a memory. The places in the house and office where Penny had been such a dominant presence now seemed incredibly empty.

We knew instinctively that we would get another dog, someday, but neither Jodi nor I was ready those first few months. But slowly, the pall lifts, and thoughts of a new dog can take form.

Jodi was the first to break. About a month ago, she started secretly checking websites of dog rescue centers and the local shelters, looking for the right dog. About a week later, she showed me a picture of a young dog with that look that says “Love Me!,” and I was, instantly, all in.

We didn’t end up with that dog. But last week a call for a good home went out on Facebook from a family on the Vermilion Reservation. A young, medium-sized mutt with a handsome face and a sparkle in his eyes. We stopped by their house the next day, visited for about half an hour, and went home the happy owners of a new dog, who we’ve since named Loki, after the Norse trickster.

He instantly made himself at home. Within an hour, he was sprawled out on the floor in front of the wood stove, exactly where Penny used to lay. Dog food and chew sticks were suddenly back on the shopping list and the house was suddenly full of the insistent spirit of a young and inquisitive dog. It felt good. It felt right.

After years of living with an old dog, the enthusiasm and energy of a one-year-old is almost astonishing. Loki doesn’t walk… he bounds, seemingly in three directions at once. The red squirrels under the bird feeders, who have had the run of the place for the past several years, had no idea what hit them when we first let Loki out of the car door as we brought him home.

So, now we’re settling in, getting used to each other. We’re working to break him of a few bad habits, and he’s working to convince us he’s really a lap dog, all 50 pounds of him.

It’s that same test of wills that remind us that our dogs have minds of their own, and that try as we might, they’ll always have something to say about the relationship we create with our animals. Life is different with a dog— and that’s a good thing.

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Scarlet Stone

Very nice, put into words so very well!

Sunday, April 1