I know that time will blur the edges of my memories, just as I know that this huge hole in my heart will eventually heal again, at least somewhat. But I also know that for the rest of my life now, I will be more alone. Because no one is alone who has a dog. They are there to be a part of your life, ask for a bite of whatever good thing you happen to be eating, talk you into playing when you think you should still be working, and defend you with their little selves against all comers. They will love you and love you and love you with every thing they have and everything they are down to their last breath, because that’s what dogs do. That’s what my dog did. And I will miss her until the day I die.
Gracie came to us by accident. And God help me, at the time I didn’t want another dog. Our black lab, Omni, was not well and was taking all of my dog energy, and I thought I couldn’t spare the room for another. But after Gracie was rescued by some friends who had been hiking and found her in the desert, almost dead, I said we could take her for a few days, until the people who were on vacation that wanted her came home.
She came in with so much attitude. She saw my dog in the house and figured there must be room for only one dog and it better be her. She tried to throw her little weight around. She was a hard dog to love, so desperate to stay, so scared. But so easy to love. She moved so beautifully, like a little deer, I named her Gracie. One week became two, and the people who said they would take her changed their minds. My husband said, “Well, make an adoption flyer.” And I did, with tears streaming from my eyes. I sent the email, then I think even before it had time to hit his computer at work I was on the phone to him.
“If you didn’t want me to keep her, you shouldn’t have left her here with me for two weeks,” I said. “Gracie is staying.”
Like a miracle, a dog miracle, once I decided she was going to stay, she settled down. She suddenly knew there was room in our home and hearts for two dogs. She and Omni got along just great. A retired seeing eye dog, Omni had to learn to how be a real dog once he came to us. Gracie taught him to play, and they had royal though gentle battles all through the house and our big back yard. They were pals. When we would leave them, they would look up and say, “Don’t let the screen door hit you on your way out.”
Now dogs come into this world with different kinds of jobs to do. Omni was a servant dog, like all service dogs are born to be. He didn’t learn to bark until he joined us. Gracie was a true watchdog. Our front window was just the right height for her to stand up on her hind legs and look out. That was her favorite spot and every day she took responsibility for all of the neighborhood that she could see. I knew everything that was happening outside because Gracie kept me informed.
She was a very vocal dog and she had different sounds and barks depending on what was going on out there. I knew when the mailman came, when someone was out for a walk and whether they had a dog with them. I could tell when one of the neighborhood cats was wandering through our yard, taunting her. And our doorbell suddenly became totally redundant. Gracie let me know when someone was coming to visit long before they got to the front door.
Omni had no interest in protecting anything, but he was a social barker. So from my office or wherever I happened to be in the house I’d hear Gracie’s excited little bark bark bark announcing something interesting happening outside, followed by one deep bass woof from Omni, standing a few feet behind her, saying, “Gracie, whatever it is, I’ve got your back.” Oh, they were such buddies in every way. You know, the only thing better than one dog is two dogs.
Over time as Omni continued to lose ground. He began to have less interest in playing with Gracie. This was hard for her. She would tempt him with her toys and with tennis balls, his favorite. She could get him to play for a few minutes but then he would lay down. She would stop and lay down next to him. I remember the last time she tried to get him to play. She picked up a tennis ball, walked over and just dropped it right on his nose. When he didn’t move, she knew. After that she stayed close and settled for our games.
When we put him to sleep, afterwards she was standing at her window barking, and there was no answering deep “woof” behind her.She turned around, saw he was gone, and quietly got down and walked away. She didn’t look out the window again that day. We all mourned, but oh, I was so glad to have my Gracie to hold on to when I cried.
Shortly after that I gave up my office downtown and moved my work home full time. She had our half-acre back yard to entertain her, once she adjusted to her new doggy door. At first she saw no sense in it. As she explained, “Why do I need to go through this thing when I can just call you and you can open the big door for me whenever I want to go out or come in?” But my friend Pris came over one afternoon and we spent about an hour alternately calling and shoving her through first in one direction then another, finally leaving her outside and just waiting. Of course she wanted to be where we were and suddenly saw the brilliance of it – with the doggy door she was in charge. She fell in love. That doggy door was her ticket to outdoor freedom. Once she made that connection we had no more trouble with her over it. She was such a smart girl. She thought things through.
Gracie was good about letting me work during the day. I’d break for lunch, hers and mine, and we’d play a bit before I got back into whatever I was working on at the time. She could entertain herself. She was in and out, watching out the window or wandering through the back yard. Lots of interesting smells and things to investigate out there.
Along about four or four-thirty, she would show up at my office door, a squeaky toy in her mouth, and inform me that my work day was done. If I was wrapping something up and not quite ready to quit, I’d tell her and she’d leave for five or ten minutes, then show up squeaking a different and hopefully more tempting toy, sure that this one would get me up and playing. How could I resist? All her toys had to squeak. The first thing she did when you got her a new one was chew it all over until she found the squeaky place. Her favorite toys made lots of different sounds and she’d play them like some sort of doggy accordion.
With Omni gone, we thought we’d get another dog to keep Gracie company, but she had other ideas. She made it clear that she intended to be an only child. We tried to bring other dogs in but she would have none of it, so we gave up. When we were gone for a while, we would find one of my then husband’s shoes somewhere in the house. She would carry it around with her for company and comfort but she never chewed on them. Unlike a lot of other dogs, she never chewed or damaged anything but her own toys. She knew what belonged to her and what didn’t. She was such a good girl.
There’s a basic difference between dogs that have been abandoned and those that haven’t. The ones that have always have an underlying fear that it could happen again. They know that being loved is no guarantee. She loved being on a leash because then she knew exactly where I was. Actually, I think she thought I was the one on the leash.
The only punishment I ever had to use was separating her from us. I would put her outside for about a minute and not let her come in. That’s all it took. I think I only had to do that about two or three times in her entire life. After that, all I had to do was say, “Gracie, do you want to go outside by yourself?” and she would stop whatever naughty behavior she was exhibiting – generally barking at someone at the door when I wanted to talk to them. This was a personal challenge for her, and she would end up keeping her mouth shut but making weird whiny noises in her attempts to stay quiet.
Gracie would bark any time someone came to the door unless three or four people came. Then she would suddenly say to herself, “oh, it’s a party,” and stop barking and turn into a welcoming hostess. She loved a lot of people and totally enjoyed any gathering. I think her ideal world would have been to have all the people she loved in one room with her in the middle.
Gracie had no interest in running away. One time I had been gone for a good part of the day and when I came home I found her attached to her chain at the front of the house, which is not where I left her. It turned out that one of our neighbors had found her loose in our front yard, guarding it, and put her on the chain to keep her safe. I realized she must have found a way out of our back yard.
So the next day I let her out, then went inside and hovered out of sight at a nearby window. She looked around to make sure I wasn’t watching and immediately headed off for one spot at the back of our yard and disappeared into our oleanders. I ran to the gate to our back alley and opened it to find Gracie trotting down the block to get to the front of our yard. I called her name and she turned around with that doggie look that says, “busted.” I think she figured she could guard our home much more effectively from the front yard than by just looking through the window.
I never read dog biographies because we all know how they end. And the hardest part of having a dog is knowing that chances are good that you will outlive them. They are the most wonderful creatures and one of the best parts of our lives, until they aren’t. And I can’t imagine my life without a dog. But now I am learning how.
So these days no one gets me up at six in the morning to go outside. And when I fix bacon or shrimp or eat vanilla ice cream I don’t have to share. No one follows me to the bathroom and pushes open the door with her nose to see what I’m up to (nothing new Gracie, same as last time). No one interrupts my writing with a fussy noise that means stop that and pet me now, right this minute, now please, now. And somehow, her favorite stuffed bunny toy is sharing my bed, and I find myself petting it when I just can’t stand having nothing in my life that asks to be petted anymore.
I have no children and so have taught myself to make do with other people’s children. It’s not what I wanted, but in life when you have to, you find a way. Now I have to teach myself to make do with other people’s dogs. And I know my broken heart will mend. But oh, it’s hard.