People ask me all the time, ‘Is your dog friendly?’
My dog is a lot of things — old, lazy, mostly blind and deaf, senile.
Sure, if you lie down next to him and pet him for 45 minutes.
What people really mean is, ‘Will your dog try to bite mine?’
Sometimes I think people might be less offended if Boomer did try to bite their dog, as opposed to what he usually does, which is to walk right past and show zero interest. Some people are put off by this, I can tell.
In the old days I would make Boomer go through the motions of being polite. I’d stop and give attention to the stranger’s dog, thereby bringing Boomer himself back to the site of proposed friendliness. But now he’s old, and I’m getting on myself. There’s less concern over niceties.
He was always more interested in humans than other dogs, at least as long as I’ve known him. He arrived in our home at six months old, a stunningly beautiful gift from our friend June, who rescued him from a shelter. He grew larger than expected and wound up an enormous shaggy wheat-colored goldendoodle weighing more than 100 lbs.
When he was young, I would walk him to the stores near our house. The public reception was not unlike what I imagine the Beatles encountered in 1964 – frenzy, crowds, amazement, a fair amount of swooning. He was a show stopper.
He had idiosyncrasies. He destroyed nearly every football my family ever purchased. The way he tried to sit on your lap suggested that he understood himself to be a 10-lb. Yorkie, not a dead ringer for a polar bear.
He had so much energy and pulled so hard on his leash that I eventually hooked him up to the front of my son’s little yellow electric Jeep. With Boomer pulling, the car went twice as fast. My son was in heaven.
As Boomer got older, he underwent surgery twice for cancer, the second operation costing him his right eye. For the last few years he has had a lung issue which causes him to wheeze a few times in quick succession and then make the most alarming, human-sounding gagging noise. If we are on a walk, this noise keeps others from asking whether he’s friendly.
The newest challenge is senile barking. Apparently this is a thing in older dogs. Barking can be caused by disorientation, anxiety, boredom, loneliness, physical pain. With Boomer, deterioration of his senses and brain function seem the culprit. He still wants to defend the perimeter (in our placid, totally not-scary neighborhood). But he no longer has sufficient sight or hearing to feel he is carrying out the job correctly.
Sometimes I find him in the middle of the backyard in the posture of sentinel, crouching slightly, sending off a volley of crisp warning barks. Never mind that only butterflies and bees are nearby, and that it’s only five minutes since our last 45-minute petting session, or five minutes till our next walk together. He is on guard. Against the butterflies.
Maybe he is seeing ghosts, I don’t know. Maybe as he gets closer to the end, he has access to the spirit world. Sometimes I talk to him about the other side. I tell him that his mother and siblings will be waiting to greet him and play with him. And I ask him to make sure that he’s waiting for me, when my own time comes. I always thank him for being my dog these last 14 years. He was the only dog I ever had who wouldn’t beg for food or dash out the front door if you gave him half a chance.
One time we accidentally left him out front and when we finally noticed his absence a couple hours later, we opened the door and found him curled up on the welcome mat, sleeping soundly. Right from the start he knew he had a good thing going in our house.
Nowadays he can no longer go up or down stairs. And with the senile barking in the middle of the night, I finally just hauled a mattress to the living room downstairs. Now I spend most nights down there. He won’t bark if I sleep next to him. It’s kind of like having a newborn baby again.
Is he friendly?
He was friendly enough a few years ago when a prowler hopped our fence in the middle of the night and walked a stolen bike across our backyard.
Our security footage showed Boomer amble up to the guy, wag his tail a bit, and then wait for the thief to pet him.
When the man showed no inclination to stop and pet a massive dog, Boomer shuffled back to the porch and was asleep again in 90 seconds. His perimeter-protection instinct was less acute back then.
I will be devastated one day when he finally shoves off. It’s the only bad thing about dogs — having to say goodbye to them.
Until then, I take each day as a gift. I appreciate him more now than when the kids were young, when I was always scrambling to meet their needs.
In especially chaotic moments, Boomer would pop up right in front of me, tennis ball in mouth, tail wagging, as if to say, ‘Would this be a good time?’
It was always the exact worst time. But in hindsight, I think I misunderstood him. He didn’t want anything from me, he wanted to help me. He was saying, ‘Forget the kids, forget the wife. They’ll be fine. You don’t have to fix everything, do everything, be on time for everything. Just … pet me. Hang out for a second.’
He knew that my petting and talking to him would calm me down, and this in turn would make everyone else happier, including my wife and kids.
So now, years later, it’s the least I can do to sleep on a mattress or spend 45 minutes petting him. It’s my turn to calm him.