Wednesday, May 6, 2009
She was a placid little pup, when I found her waiting for me at the humane society shelter at seven weeks of age. I can still remember her sitting in that small steel cage, a black and tan cherub, with folded ears and and a take-me-home-and-I'll-love-you-forever look on her face. That was twelve years ago.
When I brought her home, I was pregnant with my first daughter. As my father-in-law is a big country music fan, he'd been teasing me that the baby should be named for his favorite artist. I had no desire whatsoever to name my precious baby after a celebrity of any sort, gorgeous or not.... and so to appease him (and as somewhat of a joke), the new pup was named Shania. In the photo, she is the dog on the right.
Shania was a farm dog, through and through. She was simultaneously the most compassionate yet tenacious dog I've ever known. When it came to my children, she was the perfect guardian. Patient, alert, and while she would enthusiastically eliminate any wild critter that dared venture into our yard, she never once so much curled a lip at any child, ever. The barn cats were her special buddies... she snuggled with them often (she was a "closet" snuggler... it was her not-so-secret passion), and took a particular liking to one tom cat in particular. She would groom him with her teeth, to the point his fur matted into a slimy mess, but he absolutely loved it and often sought her out for his spa treatment.
In her younger years, I never knew what sort of dead critter Shania might have waiting for me in the yard when I walked out for morning chores. Many muskrats, rabbits, raccoons, woodchucks, skunks, weasels... and once, even a mink... met their demise when they faced her. Our farm was her territory; our family, her pack; and she felt it her job to protect us. She did the job exceedingly well. The only creature that ever got the best of Shania (to her great discomfort and dismay), was a porcupine.
Shania was never a demanding, yappy, in-your-face dog, but always in the background, patiently waiting for a pat on the head or (joy of joys!) a belly rub. She was wary of visitors, and so would make a polite and obligatory showing as they first arrived, then fade into the background. When I was nearby, however, her eyes rarely left me. Shania was never formally trained, and yet would respond to the slightest verbal or hand gesture command from me. More than once, my mother-in-law commented as to how that dog always gazed at me with utter devotion. It was not human-like love, however, so much as it was the fact I was the "pack leader" and Shania looked to me for direction.
Yes, Shania looked to her humans for direction... just so long as that direction did not involve restraint. To confine her in any way was the ultimate punishment, and she would whine and claw at the door until she was released or found a way out. There was not a collar made that could be kept on her. She was independent, and yet she chose to submit to us. To confine her, it stole her spirit, and so we never restrained her. She never spent one day of her long life with us chained or kenneled. Few dogs are so fortunate. Shania seemed appreciative of the fact... and never abused her freedom, but always stayed within sight of the house unless accompanied by one of her family.
I can think of only one serious crime over the course of her lifetime... Shania was the instigator of the Great Easter Chicken Massacre. The summer prior to the Massacre, I purchased quite a few chicks, and cared for them through the long hard winter so as to have a lovely flock of layers come springtime. They were free-range hens, foraging for worms, weed seeds and bugs in addition to the mash I fed them. That Easter Sunday, we enjoyed dinner with my family a few hours away, and had a lovely day... that is, until we returned home to absolute carnage. Pulling into the yard that evening, we were met with one very guilty-looking dog.... and around twenty dead chickens, scattered hither and yon, the green grass of spring nearly obliterated by chicken feathers silently fluttering in the lilac-scented breeze.
Whatever sparked the whirlwind of squawking hens and provoked Shania's usually dormant hunting instinct that day, I'll never know. She never did anything like that ever again; the shame of her transgression seemed to haunt her for weeks afterward and one can only guess that she never wished to revisit that feeling again. What I do know for certain is that I now look back and smile at the thought of that normally polite, reserved, stoic dog, bounding through the feathered chaos of panicked poultry with unbridled joy in the moment.
Shania was our friend, companion and guardian for twelve years. Last year, however, we noticed she had lost her hearing (ever try to call a deaf dog off a raccoon? At night?). She spent most of this past winter lazing on front of the fireplace... and to her great delight, atop my cushioned ottoman. As winter gave way to spring, I noticed some weakness in her hindquarters in the mornings when I would put her outside... and also that she spent the bulk of her time napping in the sun, on the patio furniture.
In a weeks time, Shania went from romping in the new spring grass with my daughter, to the point where she was unable to walk... her physical deterioration was rapid and heart-breaking to watch. We made her days as comfortable as possible, spent a little extra time, gave her a few extra special treats... and then faced the unavoidable decision to end her suffering.
My husband and I brought Shania home before our children were born, and we were there with her at the end, hugging and petting her and thanking her for being such a loyal friend and guardian to our family. It was most profound when, at the moment Shania passed from this life to the next, a moment when most animals would struggle or paddle in the throes of death... Shania simply wagged her tail.
She had not been physically able to wag her tail for over a week.
It was one of those touching and miraculous moments in life which reinforces our faith and gives us a glimpse of what Heaven might be like. I told my husband that it was as if Shania were greeting someone she was overjoyed to see again... our long-dead dog Misty, maybe, or our beloved Grandpa Ding.
Together, we buried our old dog under a full spring moon, tears flowing down our faces. This all happened a few weeks ago, and yet I'm still so touched by the bittersweet beauty of that night. We were blessed to have such a good dog part of our family for so long, and so blessed to share the grief and beauty and mystery as she passed to the next life. I like to think she's now healthy, happy, pain-free... and waiting to welcome her family home with boundless joy, as she did countless times here on Earth.