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Small Comfort

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My husband and I are big-dog people. Wait, that doesn’t sound quite right. That is to say, we are not people who are also big dogs; we just prefer them over small ones. Although I do have a rather long snout and whenever my husband hears the metallic pop-shhh of a freshly opened can of Natural Lite, he does exhibit classic Pavlovian responses—wagging tail and excessive drooling.

Throughout our long marriage, we have always been owned by male German shepherd dogs, so I never thought I would ever consider having a little, yappy, ankle-biting dog. A dachshund. A female wiener dog. Actually, I didn’t consider it; little Sweetie was part of our inheritance, left to my husband and I by my late mother-in-law, Betty.


After losing her aged poodle Ginger, Betty was susceptible to the charms of almost any brown-eyed, fur-bearing creature. She awoke one morning to the sound of a small, filthy dog barking in the back yard of her home. One of the street people in our town had deposited the matted, flea-ridden mutt over Betty’s back fence and had gone off to do whatever street people do during the day. I suppose he intended to retrieve her at day’s end. But, after a trip to the vet’s office for a check-up and shots, and a much needed bath and shave at the groomer, little Sweetie was now recognizable as a long-haired dachshund. Her former owner did return for his dog several days later but my feisty mother-in-law refused to give up her new companion.


The rest of our family was glad that Betty and Sweetie had found one another, but after having big dogs for so long we really didn’t warm up to this new addition right away. I mean, she yapped and she was a non-stop face-licker—I couldn’t stand it. I never had a dog that burrowed under the covers to sleep or needed stairs to reach the furniture (in her later years.) That must have meant I was a big-dog snob who merely didn’t recognize the virtues of this little dog. She tried with all her might to be liked and we all just tolerated her.


During their nearly fourteen years together, the two were inseparable, and as Betty aged, so did Sweetie. Their walks became shorter and Sweetie’s steps began to match the halting steps of her mistress. They were two senior citizens, each tethered to the other at the end of a long red leash. Together their arthritis grew more painful and the cataracts on their eyes thickened. Thanks to Miss Clairol, my mother-in-law’s hair remained Lucille Ball red while Sweetie’s was allowed to turn a silvery gray down the middle of her head and back. If she wasn’t kept clipped, she looked like a skunk.


As Betty’s health deteriorated, we all began to take turns walking her dog. I noticed that Sweetie was more energetic and full of pep on those outings—chasing lizards that skittered across our path, barking at people riding bikes on the street, lunging at squirrels. She seemed to be transformed by the vibes of younger people and reverted to her slower self in the presence of her mistress.


Recognizing that her time on Earth was about to be finished, Betty fretted from her hospital bed about the fate of her beloved dog. “Don’t worry,” I reassured. “We’ll take good care of her.” We planned to take Sweetie for one last visit (allowed by Hospice), but sadly Betty passed away shortly thereafter.


I thought the dog would mourn terribly and possibly not eat after her loss, but she seemed to make the adjustment quite well. In fact, all she wanted to do was eat. Her way of coping, I suppose. I now had to get used to waking up at 5 a.m. (4 a.m. after the time changed) to feed this four-legged eating machine. Ignoring her was a waste of time; she barked until I acquiesced. The good thing was I was motivated to hit the gym early every day.


Sweetie found her second childhood after she moved to our house. She raced from one room to the next, chased lizards in the yard—she even caught a baby opossum and brought the mangled body into the dining room. She loved to watch America’s Funniest Home Videos and went crazy whenever they showed clips of animals. She even became a veteran camper, traveling with us to the mountains like a little trouper. Yes, this dog was finally having her day.


I’d always treated our German shepherds like the manly men that they were. Ralph, our first, was a water maniac. He loved our pool and leaped over the side of our small boat to swim across the Intracoastal Waterway. He was crazy. Chester was a handsome boy with the ability to scale our six-foot backyard fence. He was strong and proud until a thyroid condition crippled his hind quarters. Jack was a crowd-pleaser. He could leap high into the air to catch Frisbees and then actually return them to us. He was by far our smartest dog. Without much training, he obeyed commands and spent his days in our retail store. Our customers still ask about him so many years after his death. Rocky, our last shepherd, was funny and crazy and altogether too wild to be around our shop. No amount of training could curtail his enthusiasm. He chased trains as well as sticks with the same gusto and his one bent-over ear gave the impression of a permanent left-turn signal.


As we lost each one to old age or disease, I mourned them with brokenhearted vows to only have another German shepherd—some day—in the future. Just not yet.


Through no choice of my own, Sweetie became an orphan, and I, her adopted mother. With her silky hair clipped short, she didn’t shed. I was thrilled! Did I mention that those big boys were shedding machines? The vacuum cleaner was a permanent fixture in the living room. She also didn’t dribble mouthfuls of water and slobber across the kitchen floor either—another plus. If this little twelve-pound girl wouldn’t move from point A to point B, all I had to do was pick her up. Our other dogs were well over one hundred pounds each, of sometimes obstinate muscle and bone, and occasionally it was like trying to move a seated mule. This small dog ownership really wasn’t too bad after all.


Sweetie lived another year and a half in our care. And after finding it too painful to walk even short distances, she let us know it was time to join my mother-in-law. She quit eating; she quit playing; she quit begging for her favorite Milk-Bones. I wished she would just pass away in her sleep—it would have been easier—but she wouldn’t. The time came to pay one last visit to the vet. In the end I know this sweet little dachshund appreciated the good life she was given for so many years, just as we were grateful for her.    


As the lethal dose of medications was administered, Sweetie looked deep into my tear-filled eyes and gave my hand one final “thank you” lick. She had brought comfort and companionship to a lonely widow and she provided our family with one last living thread to my mother-in-law.


Now the question becomes, when the time is right, do we adopt another German shepherd, or scale down as we get older to a medium or small dog? I want a dog that will grow old with me and keep pace with my halting, feeble steps as I travel to the end of my own road. I never thought I’d ever want a small dog, but whatever we decide, the next one needs to be able to fit on my lap in the Lazy Boy recliner and be able to laugh along with me at America’s Funniest Home Videos.

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