A Ridgeback-Shaped Hole

 Posted on August 28, 2012 in Uncategorized

Monday morning before I went to court, as the vet injected him with a massive dose of sedative, Indy drifted off to sleep with his massive head in my hands, and then to oblivion.

About a year ago we had a lymphoma scare. Indy had already had various tumors-mostly lipomas (benign fatty tumors), but also a malignant tumor in his armpit and a parathyroid tumor (both of which required surgery). When he seemed to have lymphoma the vet thought he might have a few months to live; I made the decision not to subject Indy to chemotherapy or radiotherapy, but rather to focus on his quality of life. At the time Indy was almost thirteen years old-past the average lifespan for a Ridgeback-and I thought I had prepared myself to lose him. I thought I had cried myself out.

But he held on for another year with quiet dignity and grace, and when he died I wasn't prepared at all. I hadn't yet cried a tenth of the tears that I had for him.

It wasn't lymphoma that did Indy in. It was something we'd been expecting for a decade.

When Indy was three the doctor (Matt Dikeman, a Ridgeback owner himself and Indy's vet from puppyhood) heard a heart murmur. He told us that there really wasn't anything to do for it, that many of us (Dr. Dikeman often doesn't distinguish between humans and dogs) live long lives with heart murmurs and die of something else, but that it could cause congestive heart failure (CHF), in which the body can't eliminate water fast enough so that the lungs fill up with fluid and we die.

So for ten years we'd known that this-drowning from within-was one potential cause of death for Indy.

When Indy first started having trouble breathing this year, I thought it might be congestive heart failure. I took him to Dr. Dikeman, who listened to his wheeze and diagnosed the problem not as CHF but as laryngeal paralysis. Because Indy's larynx wouldn't open fully, he couldn't pull in all the air he needed; because it wouldn't close fully water or food might go down the wrong way. Indy never had a problem with aspirating food or water, but he became shortwinded and lost his bark.

Losing his bark may have been frustrating to Indy because, while he wasn't a big barker, he had learned to use a single bark as a signal: "there's someone out front," or "it's time to go upstairs to bed" or "I demand a treat." Indy didn't bark often, but when he barked you knew it. That one big woof was always enough.

Even short of breath and without a voice, Indy kept trudging along. This summer he would wake me up at 6:30 every the morning by getting up and wandering out of the bedroom (I would almost always wake up when Indy made a noise). He'd wait for me to open the child safety gate at the top of the stairs and turn on the stairwell light, and he would follow me down to the front door. Then, if I was efficient, he'd go for a little walk around the block. If I dawdled, though-if my keys were by the back door, for example-he would go into my office and lie down on the rug, and there would be no dog walk for me that day. Taking a walk in the summer heat was too much for him, but he looked for opportunities to lie down in the sun. He would go out on the front porch to catch the morning sun, then at three in the afternoon he would go out on the back porch for the afternoon sun. In between he might stretch out in the back yard, or lie down with his face in a sunbeam inside the house.

Yesterday Indy was lethargic but remarkably healthy for a big hound dog pushing fourteen years of age (a while back on a walk E said "He's very fast for his age." I replied, "He's very alive for his age.") But the congestive heart failure finally got him. At about 12:30 this morning I woke up, and something was wrong. I turned on the light, and Indy was stretched out on his side, rigid, fighting for breath, bleeding from the mouth. He had lost control of his bowels and his bladder and didn't appear to see us. Terrified and in tears, I got him upright and then, slowly, got him calmed down, breathing normally, and cleaned up.

Having been expecting CHF for ten years, I deduced that when he lay down on his side the fluid in his lungs obstructed his airway, making him panic. I kept him upright for a couple of hours, then turned off the light. I heard him lie down on his side, and I listened for a while. His breathing remained normal, so I dozed off, only to wake up at about four a.m. with him rigid, suffocating, and incontinent. This time he recovered faster when I got him upright, but this was, it's safe to say, the worst night of Indy's thirteen-year-and-eleven-month life.

Indy had been acting like he wanted to go downstairs but hadn't wanted to brave the steep staircase, so I carried the 115-pound hound down and then outside, where he lay on the deck while I kept him from rolling onto his side until sunrise. Then he wanted to come inside. He went into my office where he liked to lie between the sofa and the coffee table while I worked on the sofa. He lay down in his spot, and I sat on the sofa bracing him with my legs to keep him from rolling over.

It was while waiting for the rest of the household to get up that I resolved to get him to the vet first thing, and to euthanize him if there was no way to prevent another attack. Two terrifying episodes were two too many. I didn't want it to happen to him again. My dad had been over after the first attack, so I called him and got him to take me to the vet-a two-person job, since I had to keep Indy upright while dad drove.

When I described the symptoms Dr. Dikeman first thought it sounded like seizures, but I was insistent on my diagnosis so he decided to take a lung x-ray. Indy was back about ten minutes later, wheezing and coughing. Dr. Dikeman hadn't been able to get the x-ray because when he had lain Indy down on his side Indy had started coughing up bloody foam, a telltale of CHF.

It was time. As I held Indy's head, Dr. Dikeman injected the sedative into his foreleg, and within seconds Indy had lain down, fallen asleep, and stopped breathing.

And so passed a wonderful dog.

We hadn't chosen Indy; Indy had chosen us. We got him from a breeder in Arlington, Texas. When Jen and I drove up to pick a puppy from the litter, I sat down on the floor and was playing with the pups. One of them (the breeder's kids had named him "Millhouse") climbed into my lap, and the decision was made.

When you buy a purebred dog, you can get a "show-quality" dog or a "pet-quality" dog. Either comes with a contract: if it's a show dog you commit to making a good faith effort to get him his championship and can breed him; if it's a pet you commit to getting him neutered and don't have to show him. Pets cost less than show dogs. We weren't interested in dog shows, and we wanted a pet. And this pup was the pick of the litter. But he had chosen us, and so we signed a show contract and, a few weeks later when he was weaned, he rode home from Arlington to Houston on my lap.

We crate trained Indy. The first few nights he didn't like being parted from his pack, and he protested loudly: bark-bark-bark-hoooowwwwllllll-whine-whine-whine-whimper-whimper-whimper-heehaw-heehaw-heehaw-chirp-chirp-chirp. It was like having brought a living, breathing car alarm home.

We knew that Millhouse was actually Indy ("we named the dog Indiana"), but show dogs need show names. Show Ridgebacks are traditionally named with the name of the kennel (here, Paka) and another name, often Swahili. After a few days observing his strongwilled independence, we made Indy's show name Paka's Nyumbu Dogo, or (roughly) Paka's Little Mule. (N-D, Indy, get it?)

When Indy was a pup, he would find downed tree branches on walks and drag them home. Sometimes he'd take a branch bigger than he was and drag it blocks to bring it home. I never did find a satisfactory evolutionary explanation for this behavior-Ridgebacks are known for hunting lions, not for building fires.

If we met children on a walk, we would have Indy lie down and let the kids poke, prod, and pull on him-we didn't have kids yet, and we wanted to get him used to kids' ways.

When Jen got pregnant with our first kid, Indy knew it before we did. He had been Jen's dog before that, but as soon as she got pregnant he chose me over her.

Today a prosecutor commented to me that her husband had wanted a Ridgeback, but they couldn't get one because "they aren't good with kids." Nothing could be farther from the truth. Indy was always gentle with the kids; we never had the slightest concern that he would hurt them. The kids would sit on him, and if it bothered him he would just get up and walk away. He never so much as growled at the kids, and never bit anyone.

Food left on the counters was not safe around Indy. Indy was big enough to counter-surf with his snout and reach anything within about six inches of the edge with his tongue; if his explorations revealed something farther back from the edge and nobody was watching he had no compunction about putting his front paws up on the counter to get at it. That's how we lost half a leg of lamb (o happy dog!) and, on another occasion, a pound of butter (that'll clear a dog right out). After we got Indy's daughter Lucy, Lucy would woof at Indy to chastise him for his countertop raids.

Indy was six when we got Lucy (Julou's Dread Pirate Lucy, another dog-show champion). We hung a string of bells on the back door, and trained Lucy to ring the bells when she wanted to go outside. Indy figured out that if the new puppy was annoying him he could go to the back door and ring the bells. We would open the door (we were conditioned too), Lucy would go running out, and Indy could have a few minutes of peace from the puppy.

Eventually we had to make the contractually required to get Indy his championship; Jen showed him once, but the dog-show people are crazy, so we contracted the showing out to Sue Cassel; after losing a few pounds on a green bean diet, Indy got his championship quickly.

Indy had a bed in the living room by the hearth (in the winter he loved the radiant heat from the gas logs). He had a bed in the master bedroom next to my side of the bed. He loved to lie, as I've mentioned, on the front porch in the sun. But his favorite place to be was wherever I was. In his last days he had lost much of his hearing and maybe a little of his sense as he got older, and he would wander the house looking for me. If I wasn't downstairs he would lie at the foot of the stairs; if it was after bedtime (Indy had an amazingly accurate internal clock) he would laboriously climb the eighteen stairs to the second story to find me.

Now I'm sitting on the sofa in the office, and there is an empty space between the sofa and the coffee table. The back porch was empty at three this afternoon-Lucy keeps going out there to look for him. There was no thump-thump-thump of a slowly wagging tail from the bed by the hearth when I came home after court. There's an empty space next to my bed where his bed used to be. His collar and leash are hanging by the front door because I don't know where to put them. And I keep catching myself talking about him in the present tense.

For almost fourteen years we gave Indy a good life, and in return he gave us almost fourteen years of unconditional love. The decision to spare him more pain and terror was easy: our arrangement had left us deeply in his debt.

[Anonymous-comment restrictions are lifted for remembrances of other great dogs.]

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