We had a dog hospice.  Our old Lab mix, Ruger, developed tumors last year, at age 14.  I took him to the vet, who said, ‘well Ed, you can put him down, or just love him and keep him comfortable.’  One tumor grew on his forehead, another on his chest.

He was long-suffering.  He growled at the other dogs now and then, but that was his job, and he did it well.  He was their beloved alpha male.  But with the humans, he was gentle.  In fact, as my wife said so perfectly, he was the Velveteen Dog.  And like the main character in The Velveteen Rabbit, most of Ruger’s fur was loved off.

Ruger was on borrowed time.  For a few years, we had expected winter to take him from us.  Some years he was thin, some years more muscled.  Some years he had rashes, others his eyes drained.  But he always wagged his tail in joy when we took walks.  He always ambled up to the children to have his ears scratched.  He barked when we came home from trips.

We counted on him.  He kept the children safe from strays and wild animals.  He took his job very seriously.  He lived with us before the first of our children ever were born. I can still see my wife, pregnant with our first-born, rocking on the porch of our house in Walhalla, petting the ears of young Ruger and his fellow pound refugee, Claudia.

When his tumors developed, when we knew this was the end, we did something we never do.  We moved his old bones inside the house.  Winter was cold this year, and he was just too old and too valuable to endure the freezing nights that swirl around our hilltop home-place.  So, we gave him pillows and blankets, a great big bowl of water, his own bathroom to sleep in at night and he was happy as I had ever seen him.  Out he would go to answer nature’s call, and back in he came.  If we forgot, he barked loudly, saying, ‘Don’t let an old dog freeze!  Open up!’

Whenever possible, he would lie by the gas logs, often while the children did their lessons.  He would simply camp out between all of them, happy, warm, delighted.  Oh, his nose would bleed from his tumor, and he would cough and hack at times.  And he ate all of the cat-food as the annoyed felines looked on angrily; ‘That is so unfair,’ they meowed.  Eventually, because he was on hospice, we bought him his own bag of cat-food.  It just seemed right.

One night he had a seizure.  I thought he was finally dying.  The children cried, and I held his head still while he shook, shuddered, then began to breathe in great snoring respirations.  I slept near him that night.  At 2 am, he was up and walking around, went outside, came back in, ate some cat-food and went back to sleep on his blanket.

Twice, in the midst of his illness, he disappeared from us.  He was gone for two days, then for five.  We thought he had gone off to die.  One of my boys, Seth, dreamed of his return, and predicted it with the skill of Joseph talking with Pharaoh.  I think it was Christmas Eve when Ruger stumbled onto the porch saying, ‘what, you’re going to let me starve and freeze?’

We wondered if perhaps he would never die.  We hoped he wouldn’t.  He was the endless dog, and now a beloved house pet.  But finally, a few weeks ago, he went out one morning and just seemed to decide the time was right.  He went into the woods, and despite days of searching and calling, we never found him and he never returned.  He was seeking, I suppose, the dignity of a dog’s death far from the prying eyes of man; or maybe far from the crying eyes of the children he loved.  The night before he left he barked his goodbyes.

We all grieved, even the dogs.  Elijah, eight-years-old, missed him most, waking at night with the belief he had heard that familiar, beloved bark in the dark woods, so thick with other howling dogs and coyotes.  But he finally decided that Ruger was like Enoch, the man who walked straight to heaven and never died.

I have to agree.  Until I find a body, I’ll figure God just whistled Ruger home, saying ‘good dog.’

Our dog hospice was a success.

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