I hate dogs! I think they are aggressive, rude and smelly. Their hair ingratiates itself into everything within twenty feet. I didn’t cry when ‘Old Yellow’ died. ‘Cats rule and dogs drool.’ Anybody who knows me will tell you that I’ll choose a cat over a dog anytime. So imagine my surprise, and that of my family and friends, when a small auburn ball of fur of a puppy grew into one of my most enduring love affairs.
I started out loathing the very idea of getting a puppy. However we had just come back to the United States after four years abroad and had promised our children they could get one since we no longer had to worry about quarantining a family pet for months. The kids reminded us of that promise almost daily until my husband and I surrendered. So in early December 1990, on a weekend my husband was working, we searched the local classified ads until we found three “Free Puppies to Good Home” announcements. While our children silently jumped up and down around me and crossed their little fingers, I made the calls. A pleasant, middle-age male answered the phone. He politely and patiently listened to my inquiry and informed me that he was sorry, but all his puppies were gone. As I looked into the anxious little faces around me, I felt somewhat guilty at the elation I felt. One down, two to go. Maybe the search would be unsuccessful that day, and I could stall. After all, it was late in the day. With any luck, all the puppies had already found good homes. No such luck! The woman who answered my second call cheerfully responded that, yes, she still had five puppies left, and yes, we were welcome to come out to her farm to see them. I told her we’d be there soon, reluctantly grabbed my purse and keys, corralled the kids and pointed our car in the direction of her farm.
Upon our arrival, and after threatening my children about being on their best behavior, we were greeted by a pleasingly plump woman with shoulder-length brown hair and dimples. She directed us through her house, which was yummy with the smell of cinnamon, and to her back yard. The sunlight was that amber color it gets to in late afternoons in winter months and seemed perfect for our task. The woman called, our eldest son got down on his knees, and we were suddenly surrounded by five very lively, tumbling bundles of puppy.
One of the puppies headed straight to my son, as if “picking” Jon instead of him picking the puppy. After talking to the woman for a few minutes, we decided that one was our puppy. My son scooped him up, and we started to leave. A female fur-ball started to whimper and prance around, sensing we were taking her brother away. After some cajoling by both the woman and my darling children, and to make a long story short, we left there with two puppies!
I thought my husband would pop a blood vessel when he got home that evening, but he didn’t. Instead, he fell hopelessly in love with “Duke” and “Dixie” as they were now known. I got a large box and lined it with old towels. We’d put our new puppies in the box in the kitchen each night when we went to bed. But an amazing and amusing thing would happen: every single morning, we would find those misfits in bed with one of our children! December rolled on toward Christmas that way. Duke and Dixie seemed to fit right into the rhythm of our lives and were well-behaved as the holidays came and went. Unfortunately, it would not last.
In early January 1991, Dixie somehow dug her way out of our yard and was struck by a speeding pick-up truck. She died instantly. According to my husband, the driver didn’t even slow down – horrifically, Wade and our kids witnessed the whole incident. They called me at work, and I immediately came home. Amid their tears and after getting the kids in bed, I curled up on the floor with Duke. As I hugged him and was finally able to cry for Dixie, an unbreakable bond was formed between him and me. Duke became one of my best friends that night.
The years progressed with few incidents. Duke grew into a healthy 93 lb. dog. He seldom barked, only becoming loud and somewhat aggressive when he felt like some other dog or some stranger threatened “his” family. However, his mere size, a nod to his St. Bernard/Golden Retriever parentage, could intimidate even the bravest of neighborhood children. I knew that Duke was truly a gentle giant!
We took Duke camping with us on several occasions, but one trip in particular sticks out. On the way home one weekend, with Duke in the back of the van, my husband had to hit the brakes to avoid hitting the car in front of him that stopped suddenly. As he did so, all of our camping gear shifted onto Duke. We pulled over and got the stuff off of him quickly, but from that time on, Duke became claustrophobic – the only dog I ever heard of that was!
When the Air Force reassigned us to Illinois, Duke went with us, of course. As our children grew older, so did Duke. As they became teenagers with likes, dislikes and peccadilloes of their own, so did he. They learned things they would never forget. Duke did, too. An example of his learning comes to mind. It is both touching and humorous: once, when we had severe weather, and the tornado sirens sounded, I gathered my children and Duke in the bathtub to wait out the storm. From that day on, whenever the clouds produced thunder and lightning, Duke could be found hiding in the bathtub!
On the catastrophic summer night in 1995 when I had my stroke, and the world changed forever, Duke was the only living being home to witness my futile efforts to get help. When I came home from the hospital four months later, Duke danced around with obvious joy to see me, no matter how broken my body now was.
We were fortunate enough to have Duke with us for nine more years: well pass the average life-span of a dog that size. Whenever we all piled into our van for a camping trip, he piled in with us. When we moved, he moved with us. Whichever child came or went, he adapted with us. A lot of things changed during the fourteen years we were together, and he always rolled with it.
When Duke succumbed to stomach cancer in late 2004, we all cried for days, even our now-grown sons. It seemed as if something was missing in every task I undertook. I couldn’t fathom why the people around me didn’t act as heartbroken as I felt.
One thing didn’t change in all that time, though: I still hate dogs! But now I’m not so reluctant to give the small balls of fur I come across a chance!