Friday, September 27, 2013

Dog is Love: A Tribute to Mattie

This week our beautiful family dog, Mathilda, a German Shepherd, died rather suddenly while we were on vacation. When I say rather suddenly what I mean is, Mattie, as we called her, was almost 13 years young, which as you probably know is rather elderly for a German Shepherd and she’d had a few near brushes with death over the past several years but that old girl just kept on coming back to us, despite our vet’s gentle suggestions that "this may be it for Mattie". We got Mattie from one of those breeding farms and this particular one bred German shepherds from long lines of royal bloodlines of German Shepherds. This was important to my husband who wanted a pure bred, a man’s dog that would help protect the family. His dog had to be on the larger side, a male, have a good personality, nice pedigree and a deep menacing bark. I remember the day my husband, son Bobby, then 9, and I loaded into the truck to head out to the Misty Ridge German Shepherd Farm. We were excited because we were on a mission to surprise Caroline who was turning 13 that week and had been promised a new puppy of her own. Several previous trips had been made by Caroline and my husband to look at the puppies and play with them so we had it narrowed down. We knew this day we would choose the dog that would be the new member of our family, joining our 14 year old golden retriever BoBo whose health had been steadily declining for a couple of years prior. But when we arrived that day at Misty Ridge, there was no choosing. Mattie chose us. We quickly bonded with her, over several other, larger more strapping dogs. She was sweet, playful and so loving. Funny thing was my husband fell for her without even realizing she was a female. She met most of his stringent requirements so home she came with us to surprise Caroline. I think Caroline had been at a friend’s house who was probably in on our little surprise, and when she came home to her new puppy, you would have thought we had just given her the world on a silver platter. She loved Mattie immediately and we set out to give her a proper name, commensurate with her regal bloodline. We decided on Mathilda because we thought “it sounds kind a German” and we would call her Mattie for short. Mattie and Bobo were not instant friends. Bobo was the clear pack leader although previously he had been the submissive one, letting his brother Laddie who had died a few years back take charge. But no way Bobo was going to let this new little upstart take over his throne and he would bark and growl when Mattie wanted to play. It took some adjustment but eventually they became pals. Well Bo tolerated her puppy self anyways. As expected, the novelty of a new pet quickly wore off and the bulk of the training was left to my husband and somewhat to me. He had always been the one to discipline and work with our dogs and he has done a really great job with them. Laddie, our first had been a Frisbee catching champ, coming in fifth one year in the local Ashley Whippet Invitational. The next year, however Laddie did not fare quite as well as he decided he needed to do number two in the middle of the field and was quickly disqualified. But you get the idea. We had big dreams even for our dogs. And Mattie was no exception. Only problem was, when he tried to discipline her, she would cower. She really just wanted to please him and when she didn’t she took it very personally. and so he had to deal with both a sensitive and submissive dog. Not easy for a former Special Forces ranger slash wrestling coach. Mattie had those cute floppy ears that German Shepherds have when they’re little but then quickly grow out of, as they become the “fierce protectors” for which the breed is known. I put the term “fierce protector” in quotes because Mattie had a thing for most of her life where she would bark when a visitor came to the door but then when she would greet them, it was most often with a stream of urine on their foot, as she struggled with submissive urination. Every time a new person would come to the house and Mattie met them at the door, it would be to shouts of “Don’t say hi to Mattie. Don’t say hi to Mattie." Most often however the shouts would only make Mattie crouch and pee even sooner. Mattie was smart though and quickly learned that if she followed some rules, she was rewarded with treats. But the best thing she learned was to get the paper from our then almost quarter mile long driveway. Every day it was her job to travel to the bottom of the driveway to retrieve the paper for Rob who would be waiting with a treat. She loved having this job and would often try to squeeze two treats out of him if she could find an old paper to bring to him later, thinking he might not notice it was an already delivered one. She was smart. One day we were all at the school bus stop and Mattie who had already completed her morning ritual spied a paper in our neighbor’s yard. Now, we got the Baltimore Sun paper but this particular neighbor got the Washington Post, so that morning Rob got some variety in his newspaper reading. I think we returned the paper to the neighbor eventually but not without Mattie getting her second treat of the morning for a job well done. BoBo had a strong heart but that was about the only thing that was working by the time he died at 16. He had been slowly losing his eyesight and hearing but could still take off and walk to the neighboring farm to visit the 18 year old white lab who was also deaf and probably blind too. The dog’s owner was an older lady whose husband was homebound with diabetes and she always welcomed Bo into her home, let the two apparent soul mates visit for a bit, and then give us a call to tell us that Bo was ready to be picked up. I always felt like Bo knew she needed some love and so would get me over there to spend some time with her while I was retrieving our retriever. Bo died at 16 and we buried him in the yard while Mattie lay nearby with her head in her paws. Years prior, when Laddie died suddenly probably of a heart attack, I remember BoBo assuming the very same position as Rob and Bobby solemnly dug the grave for Laddie. We didn’t have a service or anything for Bo but there was something comforting about having him there in the yard and I think Mattie felt it too. After Bo passed, I would hear his footsteps in the house and every once in a while I thought I heard his familiar plop and sigh next to my side of the bed as he lay down for the night. When the kids grew older and started leaving for college, it was hard on Mattie. Whenever Caroline came home from college, Mattie would cry and pee and cry and pee at every happy reunion. Bobby was busy with school and wrestling but he got a little closer to Mattie after Caroline went to college. But one day Bobby decided it was time he had a dog of his own. What? You are almost eighteen and realistically who is going to take care of this dog? Um me? No way. A month or so later we got Wilson (named after the volleyball in the movie Castaway). As Caroline says, Wilson is stupid cute. And he is. He is a mixed breed of King Charles Cavalier and just enough poodle to make him cunning and deviously brilliant. We all fell in love with Wilson, except maybe Mattie, at first. It took a while for Mattie to grow into her role of mentor and second Mommy for Wilson. He was just a royal pain in her arthritic haunches and she tried to keep her distance, but Wilson would just not hear of it. He wormed his way into her heart just like he had ours and before long, they were the best of buddies. Well, maybe not the best but certainly Wilson thought so. He would try to cuddle up to Mattie and, more times than not, she would get up and move, leaving Wilson to lay there with his cute little head on his paws looking all forlorn and dejected. Wilson was good for Mattie though. Before Wilson came to us, Mattie had started to gray and slow down. Now she had a purpose to keep this young thing in line and she took that job seriously. Wilson used to bark at me when I tried to sweep the garage and he would nip at the broom. This annoyed me and Mattie knew it so she would take charge and chase Wilson around the garage until he was forced to leave me to my work. They also would play at the strangest times, often in my bedroom. Wilson would take off, circling the room until Mattie would chase after her barking. Wilson would bound over the bed knowing Mattie was way too old and arthritic to follow him up there and he would get Mattie riled up. They would just have the most fun playing tag or keepaway or whatever they called in in their doggy minds. It was cute and annoying at the same time. My kids often said I didn’t like the dogs because I complained about the dog hair and having to take care of them when they were off doing their things. But it wasn’t true. Sometimes those dogs and I would take off on a hike by us and they were great companions. Eventually Mattie couldn’t go along on any long walks and Wilson and I would go alone. Its bad enough when you have Mommy guilt over your kids, but when it’s over leaving a dog home, something’s just got to give. Bobby couldn’t take Wilson with him to college his first two years but when he transferred to Kansas to be closer to his girlfriend Mackenzie, no question, Wilson was going with him. I had trepidation about this because I frankly questioned Bobby’s ability to take care of himself, let alone a dog; my Wilson. But I was wrong. Wilson gave him responsibility and probably helped him grow up a bit. But then Mattie was left alone again without her young friend. We decided we would dip our toes in the water and try to sell our house and downsize a bit as Caroline was living in New York and Bobby was off at college and when it sold in two weeks we were shocked. We decided on a new house in a cool, hip new neighborhood with very little yard to take care of. The move was hard on Mattie and she developed some weird symptoms as she watched us packing and readying ourselves for the move. She had started to pick at her tail and she did so until blood would gush from it and splatter everywhere when she wagged it. We tried the conehead thing (the cone of shame), but she would keep taking it off managing to get to her tail and chew on it even more. Finally we had to have her tail removed before infection set in. After her surgery, Wilson, who was back home at the time, lay next to a still sedated Mattie savoring the one time Mattie would allow him to cuddle, and probably giving her some much needed comfort as well. Mattie had some other strange things going on health-wise. One day she woke up and we noticed she was walking sideways. She would canter down to the bottom of the driveway - literally sideways - but not wanting to let us down, she would return dutifully with the paper. When we took her to the vet for this we were certain he would say she had had a mild stroke but no, he quietly and soberly told a distressed Caroline that this was probably Mattie’s time and that we should prepare for end. Caroline would not hear of this and so we took Mattie home and prayed over her and did Reiki We had healed her and that was that. Screw that Vet. When we moved to the new house it was an adjustment, but my husband and I looked forward to not spending a college tuition payment on bark mulch and real estate taxes. And being closer to restaurants and, well, civilization. At first it was amazing and liberating until we realized that we had to walk Mattie and pick up her poop or our neighbors would come after us. I think Mattie actually liked the attention and she seemed to once again get a little younger as she was spending time with her people and not outside in a yard, sometimes alone. Again, the kids would tell me I was a bitch because I didn’t like the dog hair on the dark wood floors which reappeared seconds after cleaning them. But again, who was the one who let Wilson curl up on her lap when Bobby was working or out with friends and who talked to Mattie like she was a person all day when Caroline was off cavorting on Broadway. It was me and I loved those dogs as any self-proclaimed dog lover does. So, the deal was, with this new house, we were going to be able to pick up and travel more. That’s what empty nesters do right? And so we were, traveling to see Caroline in shows, traveling to fun places to do fun stuff. So this last time we left Mattie at the Country Club for Dogs – sounds like a nice place right? And it is. She had stayed there before. They feed those dogs food like they are humans, and they always come home all buffed and puffed. Sadly though this time Mattie took a turn for the worse and the poor fellow who worked at the doggie country club had to rush Mattie to the animal hospital when she passed out and was unresponsive. He had a hard time calling us, we could tell. I was grateful I have a dog lover brother who rushed over to be with Mattie in her last moments giving her the comfort we weren’t there to provide. My brother John has rescued several dogs and has such a heart for them, Mattie was lucky to have John there when she transitioned. It’s never the right time to say goodbye to a beloved pet. They are family members. They love us so unconditionally and perfectly, they remind us how we should love one another. I have learned so much from my dogs. They don’t worry or obsess. They get their work done, play hard and then rest when they need it. They are completely in the moment at all times and thoroughly present for whomever will pay attention to them. They are love personified – or doggified. Its no coincidence that dog is God spelled backwards.