The Worth of a Dog
You never know where or when you will find something that will change your life and when it does it can sneak up on you very quietly – or run you over like a freight train.
I’m sitting here counting the proof of purchase labels I’ve collected from all the dog food I bought over the years. I don’t have all the labels because I didn’t start saving them until just a couple of years ago. I thought I would save them in case the dog food company had some sort of give-a-way and I could redeem them. Maybe they would offer some neat squeaky dog toy I could get for Katie. That’s my dog’s name Katie, and it has been attached to a 118 pound Harlequin Great Dane with one blue and one brown eye for a little over 8 years now. I didn’t name her as she came with that name along with a whole lot of attitude.
She was bred as a show dog but when she reached 9 months old her owner and the breeder realized that her front teeth were crooked and she couldn’t be shown so she was put up for adoption as a “pet” grade dog. I know that sounds absurd to give up a pet because her teeth are crooked but show dogs have to be physically perfect to compete. So because a few teeth were crooked she was given back to the breeder and put up for adoption. I heard about her from a friend, and even though I was planning on buying an Irish Wolfhound (I even had the puppy picked out from the breeder) I took a chance and drove to the veterinarian where she was being kept. She seemed nervous as I watched her pace in the outdoor pen and a little thin too. The vet who was also the breeder explained to me the details and said she could be adopted for a hundred dollars. They of course had already spayed her to prevent anyone from breeding her and then having a whole bunch of Great Danes with crooked teeth. As we talked Katie continued to pace around the yard and I remembered that I really didn’t like white dogs. It’s something about the way their pink skin shows through the white hair and that always put me off for some reason. But she wasn’t all white, being a Harlequin she had plenty of black spots and blotches and as I talked to the vet I began to notice those markings and her body seemed to come alive as she moved. As she paced back and forth the patterns danced in the light and I could almost make out images in the markings. I can’t remember why I made up my mind to take her, maybe it was the way she moved, but take her I did. I had forgotten to bring a leash with me and they gave me a thin red one that looped around her neck. I handed over a one-hundred dollar bill and they handed me Katie. She seemed like she was searching for someone and was still nervous as I put her in the van.
The ride home was about an hour long and she paced for a little while in the back of the van but then settled down and put her butt Great Dane style on the rear seat and then leaned over and put her chin on my shoulder and sighed, her big black and pink nose tickling my neck as she breathed. She stayed that way for the rest of the trip home. I could see her eyes in the rear view mirror watching me as I drove and I think I realized then I hadn’t just bought a dog, this was something a little more special.
Great Danes are a giant breed, large in stature and some of the big males can reach 200 pounds plus. But there is a strange thing that happens when you own a Great Dane, they seem to get smaller the longer you live with them. Of course no one else see’s that and I’m quite sure they see a much larger dog than I do. Many express their surprise about a Great Danes size more often than not by referencing something about a horse and saddle. My usual response is “five thousand four hundred and thirty two” adding a digit each time I hear those surprised words, but of course they never get it. I think the reason I wanted a large dog (and I’m not ashamed to admit it) there’s a lot more dog to love and hug.
Having an 118 pound puppy was both a joy and a trial. At nine months she was already fully grown and stood thirty-three inches at the shoulder, but she was all puppy in spirit. I brought her to my shop that first week and several people from the other shops near me who had heard I was getting a “puppy” stopped by to take a look. Katie who had started the habit of trying to see how close she could get to me was behind the counter under my feet as I was sitting in a chair. Several women from the other shops came into the store calling out to see the “puppy” using that baby talk voice people use when they encounter puppies. As they came around the counter Katie gave off a woof (that’s a Great Dane WOOF) and between trying to be the first one out the front door and screaming “that’s not a puppy” I learned one of the first joys of having a Great Dane, they can elicit strong emotions in a second, and a good laugh too. As a puppy she was no different from any other dog just a little bit more dog. A friend gave me a spare couch she had and I made it Katie’s. She understood right away it was hers and it was something to watch her fly across the room at full tilt, launch into the air from about six feet out and land on that sofa with all four feet, cocking her head as she looked at me with this pleased “see what I can do” look on her face. She was a real kid at heart and I loved every minute.
Did you know that a dog can laugh or at the very least smile? I can’t remember when Katie was ever sad. Always ready for a new adventure and pulling hard on the lead to be the first one there. Keeping true to her nature and never, ever backing down. I think if she had a motto it would be “If you are going to play, play hard and always be the last one playing when it gets dark”. It took me two years before I would let her off lead. Even though I’ve not had children I now know what it feels like to be a parent. She may be furry but she was my kid and I held her close to me protecting her from the world. It took the pleadings of a friend with her two Great Danes one day out in a large field. I was holding Katie back with a ten-foot lead as the two other Danes ran by. “Let her go” my friend said, “She will come back to you”. I reluctantly did and it was like letting a flame free to burn across the field. I never saw her run at full speed before and I was giddy with joy for her. Like a black and white streak of lightning she flew by me only inches away. Again and again until she was exhausted, her tongue lolling out of her mouth with biggest grin on a dog I have ever seen.
You bet dogs can smile you only have to give them the opportunity.
One day in the first year I had Katie I tried to make a lapdog out of her in my recliner. I gathered her front and rear legs with my arms and leaned back into the chair. She started struggling and had no idea what I was up to. When I was fully reclined she rolled onto to her back and started running upside down on my lap and chest. Her legs were going everywhere and I held on for dear life. But as I started to rub her chest she began to calm down. It took a little while but when she figured out it wasn’t as scary as she thought and she relaxed. After several tries later with the same routine on the recliner she began to realize how comfortable it was and fell asleep one day. As she grew older it was something she would “request” me to do with subtle body language. She would position herself in front of me and lean over as I pulled her up onto my lap. There were many evenings when she would fall asleep with her head on my chest quietly breathing and dreaming. Of course it’s difficult for the blood to circulate in your legs when you have a giant dog on your lap so it evolved to where I would have the top half of her body on my lap and the rest of her on the couch and we would fall asleep together like that. But every once in a while when I needed a real hug I would pick her up and she would curl up in my lap, her head on my chest and all would be right in our world again.
In the Great Dane community some believe Harlequins are a little high-strung. Something in their genes that gives them a little extra boost and it was something I was not aware of when I got Katie. I just thought that she was only a little more curious. There were many things Katie would teach me about life and whenever I find myself a little lost I would think, “What would Katie do”? Now of course you might think what could you learn from a dog, because what could they know?
I started writing this story when I found out Katie had bone cancer and for these last several days I’ve been trying to find the words that would reveal all that this dog has been to me. Close to me as always she lies on her side next to my feet, watching me as I type this. I keep vigil, carefully looking for her chest to rise and fall with each breath and I’m constantly attentive to her calls for food and water. This morning she made it out the door on her own but collapsed on the ground and I had to carry her back inside. I can see her strength leaving her body but not her spirit. I ordered pizza one evening and when the delivery guy rang the doorbell Katie was the first to the door on wobbly legs. She even made it out the door on her own to greet the pizza guy and then back inside before she collapsed on her blanket to wait for her share of the pizza. That’s my Katie, a knot head, always ready to get into the mix no matter what. Pushing hard to be first, nose outstretched seeking adventure or trouble it didn’t matter.
In the distance the storm clouds begin to form, I can’t see them at first but I can feel the faint rumble of them building tall into the sky. There is a quiet calm that precedes the storm and it seems to be a time set-aside for me to reflect on the warm earth and clear blue sky. I can hear the storm now, thunder breaking the calm and as the winds pick up, leaves on the trees seem to wink as they flip their pale undersides at me. The warm air is drawn away in a rush and the cool hand of the storm reaches to me and embraces both my body and soul. I inhale for what seems to be an eternity as the fresh cool air fills my lungs and quenches a thirst I did not know I had. A roll of thunder announces the rain as it first falls in impossibly large drops beating a tune to my ears. I can almost count the drops at first but then the symphony begins as the wind throws the rain against me in an ever-increasing wail. There is nothing now but the rain as it roars around me, no sound but the rain, nothing exists but the rain and the wind. I start to feel cold as the rain soaks me to my skin. The wind is now lashing and no longer an embrace. Each drop stings me until my skin is numb.
I am wet, cold, and I feel like I am alone in the world.
It’s calm again but I don’t notice it at first as my eyes are still closed and my skin is still stinging from the storm’s fury. It’s a dead calm. No wind, no rain, all is quiet. As I open my eyes I see the sky is still gray but the storm has moved on. The earth was so dry before the storm that there are no puddles and after a while it’s hard to tell that any rain has fallen at all except for the fresh clean air that is left behind. The sun finally cuts a path to the earth through what is left of the clouds. I hear a blue jay call in the distance as the sun now dances again with the clouds, as I stand between the warm earth and clear blue sky.
Sometimes life can seem to be overwhelming at first, but that feeling always passes. And when it does there is always something left behind. What is left is either a gift or a lesson. But it’s always something you can use.
Katie can no longer move on her own now as her rear legs will not support her anymore. Last night I had to drag her into the bedroom on a blanket and again this morning back into the living room. She is very alert but I can see how tired she is. I put towels under her so she can relieve herself and so I don’t have to carry her outside. I’ve bought all sorts of treats and special foods that she gobbles up. I’m unable to walk by her without kneeling and holding her head in my hands. My head is a blur of memories of all the time I’ve spent with her. I can’t remember a time in the past seven plus years when I was away from her for more than a couple of hours at a time. She has always been no further than arms reach away.
There is a calm repose you can call upon when needed. I believe that it is a defense mechanism we all have so that you are able to survive difficult moments in time. It’s like dream time where you can watch the actions before you from a distance and hold yourself steady for what is to come. Today I held in my arms the absolute trust of my friend and companion and then with a nod from me the vet silenced her body. With Katie’s head in my lap I caressed her chin in my hand near her nose so she could smell me and not fear her next journey.
The sadness of the loss of my friend and companion makes it difficult to write these words but I can still hear her giving me lip because I wasn’t paying enough attention and the follow up poke in my face with her nose to get me away from the computer and her demand that we “Do something, now!”
But there is something else she left me with that is only now coming to light. No matter what Katie was, she was always true to herself. She was a knot head, unruly, adventurous, kind, silly, hopeful, quick to action and easy to make friends with. Never waiting until you filled the bowl with water before she began to drink and then slobber everywhere. You always needed a firm hand to hold her back but when you let her go you could always trust her to return. You could always count on her making a scene at the pet supermarket as she did her mad dog impression (actually it was a ploy to get to the checkout counter quicker because she could reach the bowl of dog biscuits on the counter and grab a mouthful) and everyone clears out of the way so you never had to wait in line at the checkout. Making little kids giggle with glee as she inhaled every inch of them with delight with her big wet nose. Standing next to me and leaning just a little so we always supported each other. Never having to reach further than arms length to find someone who loved me. A dog yes, but a lesson and a way of living that I can only hope I can follow a little of in my own life. In the last months of her life I noticed something interesting, all those black spots and blotches that when I first saw her years ago and drew me to her, began to reveal images I had not noticed before. The first one I found was behind her right ear, a small perfect heart and I was surprised that I had missed it before now. I found several more hearts in the patterns, most not as clear as that first one but all you had to do was look at the right angle and you could find them. I suppose you can find anything you want when you look close enough and hard enough but it makes perfect sense that all I could find on Katie were hearts.
Sometimes when I’m alone and feeling a little sad I let my imagination take me away for few moments. I close my eyes and I can see a darkened room on a cold winter’s night and the only light is from the glowing embers in a fireplace. I can hear the wind whipping the snow gently against the windows with a soothing faint crispy ice crystal sound. The room is a little chilly but I am safe and warm on a big sofa with Katie next to me. Her head is on my lap and she is sleeping soundly as my hand rests on her neck and my fingers gently stroke her fur. I smile when I think about what adventures a new day will bring because I know I will always have a friend to share them with. This is where I will always keep Katie. Close to my heart as we share adventures together in our dreams.
I just recounted the dog food proof of purchase labels again and I came up with a total of 46. I figure that averaging $25.00 per 40 pound bag of dog food that comes out to $1150.00. But of course I don’t have all the labels so I figure I can double that amount and say I spent about $2300.00 on just dog food for Katie. The exact number of days she has been with me I can now count precisely at 2736 and if I divide that by $2300 I get $1.19 per day. If I also figure in all the toys, treats, vet bills, and weekly trips to the ice-cream parlor $1.75 a day would be a good estimate. So that means that this dog cost me approximately $4,788.
It can’t be true that such a gift of spirit could cost so little.
Katie (Taken Action)
10/8/1993 – 1/19/2002
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