By Bev Coleman
Last week a friend at work mused that her three young boys were waging a “we want a dog” campaign. The next day my husband and I stood comforting our 14-year-old Labrador retriever while our beloved vet, Dr. Mark Sullivan, gently ended Eli’s life. He had developed sudden and severe respiratory distress from a chronic, incurable condition. Almost as difficult were the three phone calls to our children, now 18, 20 and 22 years old, to tell them that we had to let him go. He entered our lives when the children were very young and they grew up together. He was part of our family. Therefore, my friend’s question about getting a dog for her boys resonated poignantly.
We named Eli for Mount Saint Elias, which was near our home at the time, Valdez, Alaska. We were not shopping for a dog. We had a wonderful 9-year-old lab that filled our home with love. Eli was a young puppy at our small town animal shelter. Someone had abandoned him in the snowy, Alaskan winter. He was beautiful, but had the loudest, most irritating, incessant bark I had ever heard. Many people considered adopting him, but all walked away. I first saw him with a friend who was looking for a dog for her two young boys - as he stood barking, we agreed he would drive us crazy. Soon after, I started volunteering at the shelter - working with him, hoping someone would adopt him. Yet, after several months, he was still barking incessantly - and still no one wanted him. There was limited space at the shelter; the animal control officer decided to euthanize him. I said my goodbyes. I also “suggested” to my husband that he would make a great family dog. Somewhat irritated and somewhat resigned he simply said, "Oh... go get him", four words that would forever change our lives.
We opened our hearts to Eli and he entered our lives like a bull in a china shop. When I brought him home, he galloped into the house, dove into the water bowl and immediately turned the front hall into a slip-n-slide of water and dog drool. The children squealed with delight. My husband and I wondered what we had done. Yet, his incessant barking stopped that day.
He was full of life. If there was water nearby, he was in it, whether it was an icy glacial creek, alpine lake, ocean, or mud puddle. The first time we took him to a nearby lake he disappeared. Alarmed, we called and whistled and then we saw his tiny black head far out in the middle of the lake. He stayed in that cold, clear water for almost an hour happily swimming. He was the Labrador equivalent of a long-distance swimmer. For our children, he was the world’s best playmate. His mischievous antics could elicit their giggles like nothing else. He became the family sled dog - pulling three kids in a saucer through the snow at lightening speed, usually enticed by dog treats some distance away.
He was no hunting dog, despite having an incredible sense of smell and an innate passion for retrieving. He could detect a rotten salmon carcass buried under a foot of snow 200 yards away. I remember his delight racing back to us with his discovery – flinging green slime on all of us, eliciting something quite different from squeals of delight. Eli loved everyone and everything. He never chased squirrels, or cats like normal dogs. He seemed oblivious to the deer that roam our Williamsburg neighborhood. He was a bunny-hugger. In 14 years I never heard him growl. He seemed to have a live and let live attitude. Once on a cross-country ski trail he bounded over a ridge and returned after flushing several ptarmigan. He did that just once as if to say, “See I can do it, but what’s the point? They aren’t hurting anything.” Instead, he honed his hunting skills on food. In this arena, he was more a pointer than a retriever. He could “lock in” on a leftover piece of toast on the kitchen counter for hours. He had his priorities.
He loved with abandon, always ecstatic to see us, grateful for any pat on the head, eager to spend as much time with us as he could. Whether he was the youngest dog or the oldest dog in the family, he was never the alpha dog. He was always the follower, the humble, grateful-just-to-be-here dog. To our children he was an understanding, warm heart, and cold nose nuzzling their cheeks when the rest of the world let them down. He taught them that part of life is growing up and growing old. While they were still young, he seemed to age much too quickly. Over the years, our strong, muscular, vivacious friend became frail, arthritic and hard of hearing. Recently he often struggled to get out of his bed, yet his tail always thumped in welcome when anyone entered his family room. Finally, he taught us that sometimes you have to love enough to let go.
Our house seems empty now, especially the kitchen. He has left a painful void in our lives. I stroked his grey face and velvet soft ears as he took his final breaths, and I thanked God for the blessing of this unassuming animal, the dog nobody wanted. Dr. Sullivan’s receptionist said Eli was a lucky dog. I told her we were the lucky ones. Should you get a dog for your kids? The answer is obvious to my family. And perhaps in five, ten or, if you are truly blessed, in 14 years, you will look back and realize just how complete your family was with a dog. Oh... go get him.
Printed with the author's permission.
Originally appeared in the April 1, 2009 edition of The Virginia Gazette