My Dog Brother

Column By Chelsea Murray

    My house mate Christina and her family are putting their 13-year-old German Shepherd to sleep this weekend after a losing battle with cancer. Christina went home to visit Cheyenne for a final time and is struggling with the impending loss. I live with seven girls in a house at Marist College and we’ve all spent time consoling Christina, and talking to her about this difficult family decision. In the process we’ve all opened up about our own dogs and how they’ve impacted our lives. I’ve come to realize that everyone has a dog story.

   Pets are an extremely relatable subject. Everyone in our house could sympathize with Christina about her loss. A dog is not just a random animal, but part of the family. An important part of life is learning to deal with death. Many families buy dogs and incorporate them into their every day lives in order to teach children lessons about life, responsibility, and eventually about grief, and dying. Dogs are great teachers.

   All our talk about a dying pet has made me ponder my relationship with Dakota, my own yellow lab, who turned 12 this month. He is in great shape for his age and still loves to go for hikes up a sprawling hill in our backyard, and occasionally catch a ball or frisbee. But his age is starting to show. The fur on his face is turning white, he creaks and cracks when he stands up, and when he walks up the stairs he does so gingerly, instead of by leaps and bounds.

   Most people think I’m my father’s only child, but Dakota is my dog brother, and we’ve had quite a life together. Most of it as sibling rivals. We grew to love each other unconditionally, but it started out pretty rocky. There are moments, even now, when he irritates me beyond belief, but I also know that he is always there for me, and vice versa.

   When I was in fourth grade I wanted a female chocolate lab puppy. My Montessori teacher, Sondra, would bring her chocolate lab to school every day and I fell head over heels in love with Jessie. I would barely pay attention to my work and focused my attention on Jessie. I desperately wanted my own dog, and it was the perfect time since we had just moved to Morris from our small apartment in Waterbury. I begged my father for months and he finally he agreed that we could get a dog.

   I was ecstatic.

   One morning we were eating breakfast in Woodbury and found an advertisement for a litter of yellow lab puppies. I caved and thought that a yellow lab would be just as good as a chocolate lab. We drove to the farm in Torrington and spent an hour playing with a litter of 12-week-old labs. I held a female yellow lab in my arms and didn’t want to put her down. My dad thought she was boring because she slept the entire time. My father was enamored with a male puppy that was a ball of energy.

   Eventually we compromised (my dad was paying) and decided to get the frisky boy, instead of the boring girl. We named him Dakota and spent the rest of the afternoon watching Old Yeller and enjoying our first moments as a family. After the first day I wanted to give him back because he was a nut job. There is something about labs that make them the most popular, yet most annoying pet on the planet. For the first three years of a lab’s life their mouth guides them. Everything is a chew toy including shoes, “human food”, furniture, and their owners.

   For the first few years of our lives together he was an absolute terror – at least he was to me. In my eyes there were moments where he could rival Marley as the worst dog on the planet. My father would let me take him out on a leash and five seconds later he would be dragging me around the yard tugging on my sleeve and pushing me to tears. He would leap and jump on me, knock me to the ground and bite my hair.

   He was insane. After the chewing years were over, though, Dakota has been an absolute joy, except for the occasional accident, a desire to roll in animal poop, or digging into the garbage.

   A pivotal moment in my relationship with Dakota happened when he was a year old and ran head first into the side of a van. We returned home one night to find Dakota missing from his metal run. Moments later, our neighbor, Joan Seabury, told us that a car had hit Dakota knocking him unconscious. The Seaburys, being great neighbors, had taken him to the vet.

    I felt like all the blood rushed out of my body and I was going to puke. In that moment I realized how much Dakota meant to me and begged and pleaded in my head that he would be all right. The next day we picked him up from the vet and he was in mint condition. He had run head first into the side of a van going 50 MPH on Route 63 and come away with scratches. Dakota was a miracle dog and no matter how annoyed I can get with him I always remember that terrible feeling I had when I thought we’d lost him.

   Dakota has become a fixture in my life. Every time I arrived home off the school bus, or walked in from doing something, he was the first to greet me at the door.

    I can proudly say that I taught him to sit, lie down, roll over and speak. It took him a few hours to learn each trick, but they have stuck with him his entire life.

   Many of my friends are starting to lose their dogs and it makes you turn inward and reflect on your relationship with your own pet. I’ve started to realize how much I have appreciated getting to know and love Dakota through the years. He has been the most loyal friend in my life. He never fails to entertain me, and offers a shoulder for me to cry on. Pets, especially dogs, have the ability to lure real emotions out of people because they are unconditional companions. In second grade I learned that dogs can sense what you are feeling even when you don’t say a word. They know you love them without you telling them. They are extremely intuitive beings.

  Before I left for college my freshman year I surveyed the house to make sure I didn’t forget anything. Before I left I leaned down to hug Dakota goodbye and all the pent up apprehension I felt about leaving home came tumbling out and I began to sob uncontrollably. Dakota didn’t have to do anything to evoke those emotions; I was comfortable expressing my true self because Dakota would never judge me.

    It will be a hard moment for Christina the next time she goes back home and her dog won’t run up to greet her. But if humans want to avoid the heartache of losing a pet, they should let fear rule their life and never get one. But if you open up your heart and take a chance – you’ll find love.

   Most pet owners realize that barring some freak situation they are bound to out live their furry companion. Death is part of the gig. You get used to something in your life and think it will never change, but change is the only constant in our lives. It’s hard to think about losing Dakota, but I won’t let the fear of his death keep me from opening my heart to him, and celebrating the life we have lived together.

(Editor’s note –  Dakota passed away on April 16th, 2011, after a peaceful day filled with love and memories, surrounded by his family, Chelsea and John Murray)