This is the story of how my first dog found me. The long version.
When I was growing up, we always had a cat—first Smokey, then Flag, then Gully Cat, then Duffy, then Antley. We never had a dog, for whatever reason, and most of my friends did not have dogs, either. My experience with dogs as a child was mostly one of fear. I was charged and bitten by a dog once while delivering newspapers, and was regularly terrorized on that same paper route by a Giant Schnauzer that liked to hide in the bushes and wait for me to pass by. Dogs in the back of pickups that lunged and growled, dogs in back yards that barked incessantly and charged fences, dogs that left their piles all over the neighborhood to be dodged … there was nothing I liked about the dogs I knew.
Back in 1996, I had two cats that I liked very much: a bellicose, green-eyed, long-haired calico named Trillian and a sweet, shy, short-haired marmalade named KC.
I was, as far as I knew, a life-long “cat person.” My kitties and I had a comfortable life together and I had no reason to want to change it.
But then god spoke to me.
This was the one and only message I have ever received, I believe, straight from the divine, and it was brief and to the point: “You need a Rottweiler named Ruby.” I would hear this message clearly spoken to me in my head when I was driving, when I was at the beach, when I was working, all the time. It was relentless and unchanging. I initially blew it off as somebody having dialed the wrong number because I had always disliked dogs generally and feared big dogs, and I especially feared Rottweilers with their “devil dog” reputation. I am a mild person, conventional to my core and not especially fond either of confrontation or of standing out from the crowd. I couldn’t imagine life with a dog, let alone a dog such as that.
I resisted the entire idea of getting any dog for many months, while the message persistently rang through my head. Finally I began to do some research on Rottweilers, and asked my friends and family what they thought. My parents were worried, to say the least. Nobody thought it was a good idea for me to get a purebred Rottie for my first dog because they can be so strong-willed that they can completely dominate a novice owner. I thought it might be a good compromise to get another breed of dog, and I came very close to getting a 9-week-old Belgian Tervuren with a fear biting problem, a Rottie-mix puppy from a horrendously filthy home that appeared to be ill, and a border collie puppy that I never did end up meeting for various reasons. Fate clearly intervened each time to prevent me from adopting any of these dogs and I am so grateful for that.
After nearly a year of resistance, half-hearted looking and a few close calls, I realized there was no escaping my destiny. I called a friend of a friend who knew of a breeder who had a litter of 12 puppies ready for adoption, with four females still available. So off I went to meet them.
When I arrived at the breeder’s home, she invited me in and I was greeted immediately by the dam, a sweetheart named Zodiac. As we stood chatting, this dog came over to me and sat on my foot while leaning against me as an invitation to scratch her ears. “Zodie’s a suck-up,” the breeder said fondly, “and her puppies are going to be just like her.”
The breeder let me out into the backyard where the four females were all playing together. “Just see which one you like,” she said. I sat down and watched these fuzzy little black sausages chew the whiskers off each other’s faces and wrestle around, and after a while one of them came over to me and rolled over on her back at my feet. I looked into her eyes and asked her “is your name Ruby?” She lost all interest in her siblings, who continued playing together and ignoring us, and wouldn’t leave my side for the rest of the visit, so clearly it was. I knew suddenly and completely that I had made the right choice of the right dog at the right time, and all would be well for us.
Despite her breed’s reputation for independence and dominance, Ruby was smart, biddable and a joy to train. She mastered sit, down, down/stay, and house training in the first month I had her. It helped a lot that I had a home-based business at the time and could be with her 24 hours a day. The one trick we worked on all her life, though, was walking nicely on a leash. She grew up to 110 lbs. and I developed a really, really strong left arm. She was not an angelic puppy … she loved to roll in poop, which she would do with enthusiasm and lightning speed at the most inopportune times. (Is there ever a good time for a dog to roll in poop?) Fortunately for all of us, she outgrew that behavior after she was spayed.
Owning a Rottweiler is both challenging and rewarding. Some of my clients were afraid to come in the house when she was in the room, and she scared a lot of people just by looking at them (although she never once hurt anyone). She was protective of me at all times, which allowed us the freedom to go anywhere, any time, and not be bothered. When she was with me, I felt perfectly safe, even walking at night through downtown Seattle or exploring out in the woods. When I went to graduate school and had to rent a house, her breed was a deal-breaker for several potential landlords, but I was fortunate to find one who owned a 150-lb. malamute, next to which my dog looked quite puny. She had no concerns at all about Ruby’s breed.
Ruby loved a car ride and she traveled with me nearly everywhere I went. I cherish the pictures I have of her in the canyons of Utah, on the beach, against a backdrop of the Sawtooths, and so many places in between. She was an excellent traveler and companion. She had a calm temperament and a generally peaceful nature, although she had her fierce moments too. Generally speaking, she liked people, and from the time I got her, she had a habit of sitting on the foot of total strangers and inviting them to scratch her ears, just like her mother did.
She learned to swim when she was nine years old, and I couldn’t have been more proud of her.
She had mildly dysplastic hips, a common orthopedic defect in Rotties, and developed arthritis when she was about 5 that we managed with Rimadyl. Otherwise, she was always the very acme of health until the summer of 2007, when she started skipping every other meal or every third meal. She was losing weight and, I am sorry to say, I got impatient with her for not eating. She stopped getting excited when I’d pick up my car keys or her leash, and she would lie down whenever I stopped to talk to somebody when we were out walking, rather than impatiently pulling at the leash to get me to go again. She was restless at night, getting up several times and circling before settling again with a sigh, and I would hear her panting in the dark. It was a searing July, and I was sure it was just the heat. She’d been to the vet in May to have her teeth cleaned and she’d been perfectly fine then.
I watched her carefully for any specific symptoms, but the main problem just seemed to be extreme fatigue that came and went. I started to get a bad feeling, but was afraid to take her to the vet to confirm it. Then one Tuesday morning she went out to the yard first thing as usual and laid down on her side on the lawn, panting quietly. She would not get up when I called her, so I knew it was time to see the vet.
I dropped her off at her regular vet and went to work. The phone call came at about 10 a.m. “How’s my dog?” I asked brightly, still hoping it was just the heat, or a passing bug. The doctor, one of several at the clinic and one whom we had never seen before, responded flatly, “she’s in trouble.” I felt the ground fall away beneath me. “She has a mass on her spleen,” he said, along with a lot of other words that meant very little to me at the time. What was the prognosis? The mass, called a hemangiosarcoma, could burst, leading to a horribly painful death. Or it could just grow until it crowded out her other organs. Either way, she was going to die from it. What could we do? He could remove her spleen, which might give her a few more months but was not to be considered a cure. “Or I could put her down for you now” he said in the same flat tone. That’s when the tears started. The end had come so suddenly, so brutally.
The vet gave her a steroid shot to relieve her arthritis pain so we could discontinue the daily Rimadyl, as well as a vitamin shot to boost her energy level, and I took her home that afternoon. I asked for the rest of the week off from work and made plans for the endgame.
We spent the next few days visiting everyone she knew in town so they could say goodbye to her. I barbecued sirloin steak and fed it to her bite by bite when she wouldn’t eat anything else. We went to the river that she loved so much and we both did our best to act like we were having a good time even though she was so tired and I was so sad.
She never in her life slept on my bed, but if she had wanted to, I’d have let her. I couldn’t let her out of my sight.
I weighed the options carefully and decided that since she was only going to get worse and that “worse” could be really, really bad for both of us, the kindest thing to do was to let her go sooner than later. I didn’t want to hold on too long while my dog suffered because of my own selfish fears. So I called the vet and asked for a Friday afternoon appointment. “We have nowhere to store the body over the weekend,” the receptionist said coldly. “You’ll have to take her somewhere else if you want it done tomorrow.” This was the last conversation I ever had with anyone at that clinic, where Ruby had been a patient for five years.
On the last morning, she went outside to pee and came back inside and laid down again. I laid down on the floor beside her and stroked her soft ears while I told her the story of her life, from the very beginning when god said to me, “You need a Rottweiler named Ruby.” I recounted every adventure we’d had together, all the places we’d traveled, all the challenges we’d overcome together, and every funny story I could recall that had anything to do with her. I told her the names of everyone who loved her. I thanked her for being my dog, and for being such a good dog. I explained why she was sick and what was going to happen. I told her not to be afraid because I’d be right there with her and she wouldn’t feel a thing.
The morning passed into afternoon and she showed no interest in getting up. I knew that waiting longer would just mean so many more agonizing days of watching the light in her eyes go dark from pain and debility. I couldn’t do that to her.
We ended up going to the local specialty hospital for the last appointment, where we were treated with courtesy and compassion. I sat on a blanket on the floor with my arms around her as the syringe of red fluid emptied into her leg. She sighed softly once and was gone so fast, literally in a heartbeat. I stayed with her until it felt right to leave her there. I drove away from the hospital feeling surprisingly peaceful and free, knowing she was no longer in any pain and was safe in the arms, as they say. I knew I would miss her, but it didn’t set in right away. My grieving didn’t begin until I picked up her ashes a few weeks later. I keep them in my house in a finely made oak box, with this small rock on top of it.
I’ve kept a few of her things, including her leash and her last collar. We had to go to five stores before we found one large enough; her neck was 26 inches around.
This is the notice of Ruby’s death that I sent to my friends and family (click image for a larger version; Adobe Acrobat required to view).
I miss her still, five years on, but I do not mourn her. I am grateful that god chose me to see her through this life. This is and will always be my favorite story.
Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.
~ Roger Caras