Tuesday, June 8, 2010

In Memory of Bela, a Good Dog

Warning: Long and extremely bittersweet post ahead for those who love animals, especially those who have experienced the loss of a companion animal.

I never have written about the "fur kids" here, as much as I love them and enjoy reading about and seeing pictures of yours.  I'm guessing it's because it started out more as a personal health log, then gradually evolved into including "life and times," in which the "furless kids" tend to reign supreme. 

Our lives are graced by having two wonderful pets:  Bela, a small, mixed-breed dog adopted from the Humane Society 11 years ago, and Elsie, a grey shorthair tabby cat whom I adopted as a tiny kitten from a young couple fostering the mom and her litter, 18 years ago.  They embraced the furless invaders from the start; Bela even licked the top of his head when first introduced to Thing 1, anointing him into the pack.  For Elsie, we're kind of like Cat TV; she seems to enjoy laying around and watching us do stuff.  Being older pets, however, they have been more furry presences than playmates with the kids.

I want to share Bela's story today, though, because our beloved girl passed away yesterday afternoon.   As I mentioned, Bela was adopted through the Humane Society, but with a bit of help from a local Welsh Corgi rescue group.  My step-dad had raised and shown Pembroke Welsh Corgis when younger, and when I first met him, he had a lovely, friendly one, Umber.  Oh, I loved that dog!  So when Mr. Handsome-and-Handy and I felt like we could provide a good home for a dog--he was going to be home retraining for a career change and would have some time to acclimate a dog to our lives--I pushed for a Corgi rescue.  The email came around my birthday in 1999 that there were two Corgi mixes in San Jose.  When we went to look, there was just one, a tricolor girl with a tail sharing a pen with a huge, very exuberant puppy (not hers).  She about knee-high, and was obviously part Corgi--we weren't sure if she was part Cardigan, given the tail, or part undocked Pembroke--but she had a delicate face and slender legs, so she was obviously something else, too...after we knew her for awhile, we figured part terrier, but it may very well have been Chihuahua (like 99.9% of Corgi mixes in Petfinder) or some toy breed.  She came over to the fence, and I let her sniff my hand.  She wagged, and so I gave her a little scritch on her shoulder.  She then plopped on her rump, leaned into my hand, and her eyes went to half-mast with bliss.  Pretty lovey for a stray.  We were sold. 

We adopted her on a Friday, spent a weekend excitedly waiting and thinking of names as she had her spaying over the weekend.  The Humane Society had dubbed her "Gretchen," which was the name of my in-laws' dog and had only been her name for the stay at the shelter.  We decided to change it to "Bela," for Bela Lugosi, because we loved Martin Landau's portrayal of the actor in the movie Ed Wood, even though everyone thought it was "Bella." I think that would have fit also, but maybe I'm just biased.  (And it was either that or "Zira," for the female chimpanzee in Planet of the Apes.  Let's just say it's a good thing Juice didn't listen to our dog-naming recommendations.)  Mr. H&H got to pick her up, and I got the call: "Yeah, she's home.  Yeah, everything's going great....aaaaaack!!! She's peeing on the carpet! [phone hangup]"

After some trial and error, we adjusted to each others' ways... 
Us:  You'll be sleeping in the house, but no dogs in the bedroom.  No begging from the table. 
Bela:  No way am I sleeping in this cage, though.  Okay, I'll do my "duty" outside, but what's this slop you call "dog food?"  It has no "bouquet," and where's the ant garnish?

She got along with nearly every dog she met (except the ones that tended to not like other dogs), but she remained very shy with people.  Once, when Mr. H&H was walking her, some children came up: "Oh, look at the cute dog!" She was obviously frightened, so he picked her up out of their reach.  "Oooh, look, she's PEEING!"  But after a 4th of July picnic at the neighbors, with lots of friendly dogs and people dropping food, she felt much more comfortable.  When Mr. H&H went back to work, we took her to dog daycare for a couple of days a week and had the sweetest dog walker come take her for a good romp on the other 3 days.  Those experiences really helped bring her out of her shell.  That, and going to the office with us.  Our office was very pet-friendly, and we enjoyed taking her to the local park at lunch.  The dog park was okay, but what she loved was dragging us on leashed squirrel chases.  (Sure, she would probably have preferred to be unleashed, but there are leash laws.  And she was quick and might actually have caught a squirrel.  She did enjoy catching gophers in our yard, and would go after the big ones that intimidated our cat.)

Bela loved belly rubs, walks, flirting with big boy dogs (even as a spayed girl--her "boyfriend" at dog daycare was a mastiff), and collecting socks and underwear.  On our first visit to my dad and step-mom's with her, she escaped from the dog-enclosed part of the house while we were out at dinner (they were equipped for a Mini Pin, who was much smaller) and created a little nest in the middle of the guest bed with our dirty socks and underwear.  Ah, the comforts of home!  She didn't fetch, but she did learn a few tricks.  One of our jokes was that she had been a circus dog, and knew all kinds of amazing feats, but had been taught in them in a different language, if only we could guess which one.  And she had her own sense of play:  we'd yell, "My box!" (referring to her dog bed) and start going toward it, and she'd race around the living room and then jump into it, rooting around her blankets.  We'd also play a game in which we'd take turns calling her from across the yard, and she'd bound to one of us, then then other, getting lots of pets at each point and doing that open-mouthed doggie smile.

We always wondered what Bela's "life before us" had been like.  We don't have a doorbell, but whenever one rang on TV, she barked.  She was very afraid of people carrying yard tools and flyswatters.  She overcame the yard tool thing.  One time Mr. H&H lowered it to her face, to let her sniff it, and the plastic swatter part fell off and bonked her on the head.  Poor girl, she never quite got over the flyswatter.  She also had a period of her life in which she became terrified of storm drains; I blame the X-Files episode in which Mulder and Scully were investigating a swanky home owners' association, in which this mud monster dragged a little dog down into the storm drain, because it was the walk after that in which she was first afraid.  It faded over time, but weird, huh?

Years passed, as they tend to do when you're having life.  She enjoyed being fussed over by her dog walker when we were both working, then fussed over by us when we took our "parenting sabbaticals" home with the kids.  The great thing about babies is that while it's a huge adjustment for parents, animals are able to get used to their presence long before they are mobile.  Bela adjusted beautifully to the kids; she'd greet them when they came home from school or outings with jumping around and yips of delight (or probably relief, now that her "herd" was all in one place).

She was by no means perfect.  Health-wise, she tended to be of tender tummy, yet she would sneak any disgusting bit of decomposed matter and get sick on it.  We had to be vigilant about letting her out for "duty," especially as she became older and more oblivious about where she "went."  (The home carpet cleaner paid for itself many times over.)  As a younger dog, she also tended to jump onto the counter when we were gone, so we had to be extra careful about leaving stuff up there, so as not to tempt her and to spare her hips.  But for the most part, she was quiet, well-behaved, and affectionate.

She gradually declined during the past year.  We noticed that she seemed unable to hear, and she developed a cough that the vet attributed to allergies, and she was on medication for it.  However, a couple of weeks ago we noticed that she was coughing a lot more than usual and seemed to be having trouble breathing.  With further testing, the vet diagnosed her with bad kidneys and an enlarged heart.  We tried the recommended medications but prepared ourselves for the worst; there was a brief rebound, then she continued to deteriorate.  So we decided to have her euthanized; it was a truly tough call to make.  It's curious; they always say, "You'll know when the time is right," but I'm not so sure about that.  From what I've read, animals by instinct hide their pain, so it was never obvious.  She ate, but there were days when she didn't, or didn't clean the dish like she used to; some days, she spent a lot of time in her open crate or just laying on her cushion or curled up at the end of the hallway to be closer to us.  During the last week, she seemed to withdraw, with brief moments of trying to be like her old self.  She became slower on her walks, not the old I-must-stop-and-sniff-everything slow; had she been a person, her gait would have been described as "shuffling."  My husband was with her during the daytime, so he was a little more in tune with her state; I think I was anxious for a more obvious sign, or hoping she'd pass peacefully in her sleep, but looking back (especially now, as I bring up more memories of her more exuberant self), it's become obvious to me that she was ready.  So being the queen of second guessing, I'm now hoping she hadn't been more than ready.  See what I mean about it being a tough call?  Anyhow, we made the decision and the appointment late last week for yesterday afternoon, giving us some time to say good bye and take her for a couple of final sniff-and-shuffles around the neighborhood.

I'm not sure why, exactly, but I wanted to be the one who was with Bela when she died.  I think reading about the procedure helped prepare me, as well as reading Juice's moving account of Cecelia's death.  (Maybe reading my experience will help someone else, too, when their pet's time comes.)  The appointment was set for Monday afternoon, after I helped on the school field trip to the zoo, coincidentally.  Bela has always been good in the car, but she seemed especially quiet, curled up in the front seat of the car.  It took a little while for us to be admitted, but I appreciated that there was a cushion and a soft, mint-green (and looking to be homemade) blanket on it for her on the floor, and a fan to keep the room comfortable (it was a warm day here).  She took a little sniff around the room, still so calm, and then laid down on the cushion.  I sat next to her and petted her.  She seemed really tired, but peaceful; she even laid her head down.  The vet and vet tech came into the room and were very kind; they marveled over her sweetness and her soft fur.  "Pet her ears," I gushed through tears, "Aren't they great?"  They explained the procedure, which I'd read about online, and then one held her as the other administered the injection; I sat by her head, looked into her eyes, and petted her the whole time.  She didn't even react to the shot, just gradually grew limp.  They listened for her heartbeat to stop, and when it did, they told me to take as much time as I needed.  I did spend a few minutes with her body; she was no longer there, of course, but it was hard to go, even knowing that she was gone and we'd pretty much been "saying" goodbye and thank you during the weekend.

It was a rough evening.  I comforted the kids, talked to my parents, reminisced a little with Mr. H&H.  We watched some home movies of when the kids were little, and we'd catch a background bark, a swish of tail, and our girl prancing across the screen here, laying under the high chair there.  It was comforting, having those in our movies.

A friend ours' dog, I read on Facebook later yesterday, also passed that day.  He was a greyhound, so if heaven for dogs is as we people like to imagine, I imagine she's already flirting outrageously with him, and maybe they're chasing a squirrel or two (which, being the divine variety, would enjoy being chased and never get caught).  Anyhow, our friend posted this quote in her dog's memory; it seems to fit Bela and us, too:
"We give dogs the time we can spare, space we can spare, love we can spare, and in return dogs give us their all. It's the best deal man has ever made." -M. Facklam
It's funny, those we've told so far have told us how lucky Bela was to have had a good home with us.  But it seems to me that we were the lucky ones, to have had such a sweet dog in our lives.


Our girl Bela, in waggier times.  Romp in peace, little one.


Lori said...

I am so, so sorry for your loss. I know that Bela was a better dog for you coming into her life and vice versa.


debby said...

Oh my goodness, Pubsgal, I was okay until I came to that quote. A wonderful quote, and so true. And why I love dogs so much. And what you said about dogs hiding their pain. And trying to know when 'its time.' True too.

Thanks for sharing Bela's story with us. What a great little dog. And I am so sorry for your loss.

Fattie Fatterton said...

I am sobbing, as I am a pet parent too and dread the day that I have to let go of my Ophelia.

I am so sorry for your loss. My favorite quote about dogs is:

Dogs are not our whole lives, but they make our lives whole.

Kirsten said...

This hits close to home on many levels. I'm old enough and enough of a cat/dog lover that I've had to make *that* decision now 4 times and unfortunately one more some time in the next week. And it breaks my heart. I'm glad Bela and you found each other. These fur babies make our lives better. Thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Oh Pubsgal, I am so sorry for your loss. This was beautifully written and I'm sure it will be helpful for someone else in a similar situations.

I'm with you on the second guessing - did I wait too long? Was she ready to go earlier? We'll never know, but I think you made the right decision at the right time.

Wishing you peace and happy memories during this sad time.

Lynn Haraldson-Bering said...

I'm so sorry about Bela. I love how you loved her, and she you, obviously. May you rest in her memory.

Anonymous said...

I am so sorry to hear about Bela!! We also rescued our dog from a pound, and he never liked little kids (except for ours!) - he never liked it if someone got at his eye level either when we first got him.

He's older now - probably 11? He's my first dog too, so not sure how I'll take it when its his time.

Sending huge HUGS your way!!

Brooke said...

i'm sorry :( *hugs*

we had a rescue dog for at least a decade - even at the end if a man approached wearing a hat (even if it was just my dad) caleb got skiddish. sad what people do to animals. :( glad that Bela got a loving home in the end!

Kat said...

I am so sorry for your loss Julianne Bela sounds like she was a beautiful girl. What a lovely tribute - it brought tears to my eye. Our pets are definitely part of our family. Sending you love and hugs.