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Sunday, September 9, 2018

Barking at Angels

If he were still in our lives I literally would not be sitting at the computer writing.  You see, it made him crazy when I sat at the computer.  But he’s not.  So, I’m writing. 

“He” was not an abusive husband or boyfriend.  “He” was a protective, sweet, 60-pound collie.  He looked just like Lassie in the movies and TV shows of my youth, with a silky, sable and white coat, resulting in dog hair in everything everywhere, and a prominent, white blaze down his nose, for which we named him Blazer.

Blazer came into our lives about five and a half years ago on a cold, wet, March day.  He was a snuggly ball of fluff with warm brown eyes that looked into your very soul.

Yesterday, we sent Blazer over the rainbow bridge, as the euphemism goes, after his short, difficult, and, not to mention, very expensive encounter with a deadly T cell lymphoma.

Although Blazer seemed incredibly young to have acquired what the veterinarians described as a very lethal illness, we learned that even young puppies can be stricken with the disease.  Due to additional unfortunate circumstances (before the lymphoma diagnosis Blazer had developed Lyme disease despite having been vaccinated, and been treated with steroids) any treatment for the lymphoma would, at best, be palliative.

We were told Blazer likely had 1 to 2 months to live after diagnosis.  Yesterday the palliative treatments no longer allowed Blazer to eat or even keep fluids down, breathe comfortably or enjoy his formerly regular park walks.  With the remainder of his time going to be one of discomfort and no hope of improvement we eased him from this world.

I won’t go into the regimen of medicines, infusions of fluids we learned to give, or hospitalizations to bring him back from the brink.  Rather, I’ll tell you about how Blazer came into our lives and some of his many endearing quirks that keep him in our hearts.

Blazer was a 9-week-old rescue puppy originally named Romeo, a particularly ironic name we thought to saddle a pup when we had agreed as a condition of adoption to neuter him as soon as he was old enough.

We’ve known the peculiar heartbreak that comes from opening your heart to any dog—as George Carlin called a puppy--the “heartbreak in the making”. Our lives have been enriched a thousand times over from sharing them with a number of collies in succession. Our last dog before Blazer was a sheltie who had what you might call “issues”. You can read some of what I’ve written about this difficult, but nevertheless endearing, sheltie on my blog.  

We deeply loved all our dogs. All were unique. 

What seems just a heartbeat ago, but in reality, was less than six years, we spotted a small litter of collie pups on a collie rescue site. After filling out more forms and questionnaires than if the would-be adopters were hopeful immigrants from a Middle Eastern country, we were notified we had been selected to adopt the one male puppy named Romeo. We had to take him at 7 or 9 weeks of age, apparently both particularly good ages when puppies are more accepting of strangers.  Only two hitches, Blazer had an infection and would likely not be ready for adoption at 7 weeks.  And by the time Blazer—or Romeo if you prefer—was 9 weeks old, my husband had just had surgery and would be restricted from lifting and other activities.

We both readily agreed to adopt the ball of fluff whenever he was available.  So, Blazer came home with us on a cold, wet March day.  The weather stayed miserable for the first week of his life with us.

Having learned from previous training and experience that most collies can be successfully housetrained in one, very intensive week of vigilance and positive reinforcement, we embarked on training Blazer.  That meant one person in the household always having eyes on the puppy unless he was sleeping in his crate.  And taking the puppy outside at least every twenty minutes, plus after eating, drinking, or playing, and then staying with him and praising him profusely when he responded to nature’s call in an appropriate location.  The idea is, if at all possible, to never let your pup make a mistake indoors and to know only praise when he or she does the right thing.

My husband and I watched Blazer like two parent-hawks and I scooped him up, immediately hustling him outside whenever we even suspected he might need “to go”, in the inevitably pouring rain that week.  We praised him effusively every single time he did what he should.  The training worked like a charm on Blazer.  In a week’s time he was completely housetrained.  He also NEVER made a “mistake” indoors during his lifetime.

Unfortunately, this also demonstrates the law of unintended consequences.  By the end of the week I had developed a severe case of bursitis in my right hip from which I have never completely recovered.  I wasn’t as young as I thought I was or had been the last time I’d housetrained a pup.

Going outside with Blazer involved carrying him down the stairs to the yard.  I suppose I should mention Blazer, at 9 weeks of age, weighed over 9 pounds and was crafty enough to pretend he didn’t know how to go up or down stairs until the end of training week.  At that point, Maxie, a large black Labrador retriever, appeared in a neighboring yard.  Blazer was out with me, in the rain, and, frightened by Maxie’s bark, to my amazement, was very able to scurry up our back stairs.  When I went over to the fence to pet the very friendly Maxie, who must have been on vacation or hiding from the rain for the previous week, Blazer then hurried back down the stairs to get a closer look at Maxie. From the start Blazer had demonstrated his cleverness.

Blazer had an exuberant, protective, fun-loving and somewhat quirky personality. As with many puppies, Blazer loved to chew. Blazer never chewed shoes, most furniture, socks or the majority of things he shouldn’t. But he had two forbidden, but insistent, chew targets: the timers we had around the house attached to electrical cords of lamps and also our expensive, oak grandfather clock. The timers made a very faint ticking sound which apparently drove him to distraction. Only now has it occurred to me that the tick-tock of the grandfather clock may also have done the same.

Blazer’s persistent attempts to get his teeth on the timers and the grandfather clock led me to fantasize about finding, or even creating some snap-together rubbery blocks that could wall off the objects until Blazer grew out of this puppy-chew stage. By the time I was considering inventing rubber bumper blocks and incorporating the first Blazer Bumper Blocks, LLC, to make and sell something for other dog families driven to distraction by chewing pups, Blazer abruptly stopped his chewing, but not before he left teeth marks on the grandfather clock and destroyed any number of timers.

Unlike our previous sheltie who was quick to bite, Blazer never met a stranger. He loved everyone: kids, adults, and other dogs.  However, for some inexplicable reason, he hated bicycles, and most anything with wheels. He would bark uproariously at them if they dared to pass us on a park path. We often walked one particular path to avoid bicycles. The path showed the universal sign for prohibited, a large circle with a bicycle in the center with a backslash through the bike.  Almost made us wonder if he knew the meaning of the sign and had appointed himself the enforcer.

The longer Blazer lived with us, the more careful we had to be about our words in front of him.  We could not say, even casually while eating dinner, “do you want to take a walk after dinner”, “go to the mailbox”, “have a treat”, or any of a number of words and phrases.  He constantly anticipated actions based on our words in ordinary conversation.  He also anticipated what we would do based on time of day (meals, walks, treats, getting the mail, or sitting in the sunroom) as well as other nonverbal behavior. There were times when the only way we could account for his prescient behavior was by his reading of our minds or deciding what he thought we should do.

Weekly our lawnmowing service parked down the road. If my husband, who usually opened the gates for the mowers, was not at home Blazer would lead me to the dining room window from where I could see their truck before they had started. Then he would lead me to the back door where I would need to go out and open the gate. I have no idea if he knew what we did in the back yard when the mowers arrived. But he sure seemed to know I needed to do something and where I needed to do it. Blazer never led my husband to those locations—we guessed he figured “Dad” could figure it out on his own.  

Blazer had many little quirks and unique qualities.  Like all of our collies he liked to run and play.  But Blazer alone loved toys of rubbery material with little bumps on them.  One favorite toy—actually we have two identical toys—is called a zoober.  It’s a long, rubbery, hollow tube that you can throw and it bounces in unpredictable ways.  Blazer could run after one of his zoobers to the point where his human companion was exhausted.  But the game never got old to him. Blazer also liked to catch a tennis ball, putting one in mind of Yadier Molina with his deftness. He also, alone amongst our other dogs, threw it back as if he were channeling Bob Gibson.  Afterwards, Blazer would settle in to watch the latest St. Louis Cardinal game, no doubt, we were anthropomorphizing him as we thought he was trying to learn some new tricks. 

Like most collies we’ve lived with, Blazer was a barker.  He had what seemed an irrational irritation at anyone walking in front of our house or anyone he could see from the windows.  Though he would be friendly if the same people, with or without their dogs, came to visit or were encountered on a walk.  But he simply could not abide their parading anywhere near his home.

As I mentioned to start this piece, Blazer also would not tolerate without protest my writing at this computer.  Long story, I’ll try to make short—in a previous house I’d used a computer monitor that occasionally emitted high-pitched squeals. Numerous efforts to stop the squeals, which were determined to be interference with some other electronic devices, were unsuccessful.  The squeals appeared to convince Blazer I was in danger if I was close to it, or even in the same room.  I waited too long to replace the monitor.  By the time I did, Blazer’s behavior had generalized to the now silent computer and monitor and to my doing anything in that “dangerous” computer room.  If I even removed paperwork from that room and appeared to be doing anything with the office items he would bark, try to put all 60 pounds of himself on my lap and between the damned computer or papers and me.  No amount of positive reinforcements with treats and praise ever changed Blazer’s mind that he needed to protect me from all things related to the computer, monitor and that room.

So, unless Blazer was out of the house, I improvised a solution that would not disturb his and my tranquility. I bought an iPad and learned to write on that in our sunroom.  Blazer then happily laid by my side in the sunroom.  In fact, every morning after breakfast Blazer and I had “sunroom time.”  All I had to say were those two words and he would happily trot out from wherever he was to lie by my side.  I could read or write as long as I liked as he was the most faithful of companions.

Blazer came to look forward to our “sunroom times” together.  If I didn’t promptly go to the sunroom after breakfast, he’d try to lead me there.  Other times he often initiated expanded sunroom times.  We passed many happy mornings and afternoons too in the sunroom together.

Blazer liked to sleep in our master bathroom on the cool tiled floors, often with his back wedged against the closed, linen-closet door.  But not before he had toured the walk-in clothes closet and dug in the carpet in at least two corners.  Every evening I’d admonish him to not dig.  But dig he must.  The admonishment could be brief because I knew I needed then to quickly get my contact lens supplies out of the linen closet so I could remove and clean my lenses before bed.  Once Blazer settled into his preferred sleeping position he was so comfortable I hated to disturb him.  Eventually I realized the smarter approach was to just leave the contact lens supplies out. 

Blazer’s last night was spent by our bedside rather than in the bathroom, where we could hear his restless moves and labored breathing, as well as occasional bouts of vomiting.  We had decided after Blazer’s diagnosis that in hindsight we’d kept most of our dogs alive and suffering longer than we should have for our sake, not theirs.  So, we’d vowed we’d give him a peaceful end when he was no longer interested in his many happy activities, able to eat or otherwise handle bodily necessities, or appeared to be too uncomfortable.

By yesterday morning Blazer had no interest in food, could not keep even water down, and clearly was uncomfortable just trying to breathe.  We made arrangements, then took him for a last, very short walk in the park where we’d first walked him.  We also drove past the first home he’d known.  Just driving to his first home neighborhood in the past had always produced happy notes of excitement from the backseat of the car.  But not now.  He was restless and uninterested.  By the time we got to the veterinary hospital where he’d been helped numerous times before, he walked without any hesitation.  In a quiet room, Blazer laid quietly a little away from us and, even without any sedative yet, seemed to rest comfortably for the first time in a while.

I’m not sure I personally buy into the various euphemisms for death, including “crossing the rainbow bridge.”  But if it helps anyone with a loss, that’s a good thing.  Each dog is unique and most are lovable in some way.  As I’d mentioned, the last dog before Blazer whom we had to say goodbye to was my Mother’s sheltie; she bequeathed him to me because no one else would consider taking him.  He had a nasty disposition at times and a penchant for “bite first, ask questions later.”  Nevertheless, we grew to love him before we lost him.  I’m not sure he is yet with the angels but may be in corrective, angel-training somewhere in purgatory.  I’m sorry—it’s the recovering Catholic in me.

Blazer was his own unique soul, totally filled with love and not a mean thought in his head.  Never did he consider biting any creature.  Though curious, he didn’t even hurt the baby bunnies he found in our yard a few years back.
His too-short life is over here.  I don’t know where he might still be other than very much in our and the hearts of those who loved him.  Everywhere we turn he seems just out of sight.  I like to picture him, like our other collies and maybe our sheltie someday, running and playing, and most assuredly barking at angels.