In memory of the ‘alpha dog’

She was a gangly, six week old baby, panting behind the grating at the Toronto Humane Society. She was “a Simcoe County breed”, that special blend of dog genetics that even a purebred lover would get attached to. We were looking, at the time, for a pup that would be a great addition to our busy family, and she filled the bill.

No pup enters your life without notice, however, and we went through the tension of leash and command training, her insatiable consumption of butter and chocolate (unwrapped and eaten Christmas gifts of chocolate, wrappers frayed and scattered over the living room rug); butter left out from the freezer to thaw on the counter never made it to the butter dish.

Our pup came into the family in 1984, just as our baby daughter was pulling herself up to a stand on any available furniture, and our older kids were discovering the joys of elementary school.

“Jenny!” That’s what we named her. And last week, with the loving assistance of Dr. Lloyd Fisher, we let her go.

For any of you who have loved a pet as a member of the family, letting go of that pet is a wrenching pain. So it was with us. With the grown up kids working out west, and the toddler now half way through high school, Jenny’s days had become pain-filled. We’d coached her through physical deterioration, three strokes, the inability to walk anywhere anymore. And yet, and yet…

So, today, I want to look back on Jenny, the “alpha” dog (for us, anyway) as you look back on the lives of pets you’ve loved and let go.

When our baby daughter, back in 1984, would pull herself to a stand, let go and venture a step or two, Jenny would leap for her tail swapping back and forth, and down would go the child! They’d both laugh. Up would get the kid, swap would go the dog… down! Laugh! Up, down, laugh!

The butter and chocolate are today cute reminders of an animal that had so much energy we likely could have powered the house with it. She was determined, high spirited, funny, loyal, patient… my goodness, she was patient!

She’d sit quietly by her dish as we all got ready for work and school in the morning. “Don’t forget about me!” was the look. She’d get physically closer to us as we moved out the door… “My dish, my dish!” she probably wished she could yell. And one of us would run back, fill the dish, top up her water, and promise to be back at noon for a walk.

Don’t kid yourself, we didn’t walk her; she walked us. You know, that eagerness on a lead that has you tripping up the street, veering onto the boulevard, than onto a nearby lawn, then over to smell a rock, then to look up a tree trunk.

We have so many wonderful memories… when she caught her first frog at the cottage; her head turned on an angle, and her paw went down gently on the frog. Her paw came off, the frog jumped and she re-captured it; she took her paw off again, the frog jumped and she recaptured it; this game went on until she just let the frog go!

She hated to be left behind. As a gangly, 70 pound, “teenage” dog she ran miles, jumped fences from a standing position, and swam as though he life depended on it. She loved other animals; she adored children.

We enjoy a weekly water-based library at our summer cottage and it’s a two mile (or so) ride by boat to get there. Imagine 40 or 50 people, books in hand, standing at the library dock, visiting, children diving off a nearby board. Slowly, people began to turn and look “out to sea” because there was a little knot of movement coming across the bay. People stared. Was it a beaver? An otter? A fisher? It got closer and closer. A quarter mile away we realized it was Jenny! “You’re not leaving me behind… I’m coming to library, too!”

That same spirit chewed through the basement door, the cottage door, and several window screens until we realized that Jenny wasn’t going to stay behind.

When we changed houses a decade ago, Jenny did much the same thing. If we left a window open, she’d appear at somebody’s place of work, the screen in shreds. In all, we replaced the screens on eight windows and doors until we learned to shut everything when we left. I wish I’d been there for at least one of her escapes, through a window screen that from the inside seemed like ground level, but on the outside was at least an eight foot drop! It’s the stuff cartoons are made of.

I’m making her sound like an uncontrollable, hyperactive, huge mass of dog. She was big. But she was well trained and never lost the ability to heel on the left, stop at each intersection and wait for permission to cross, come when called, and love each of us.

Like people, Jenny’s last years got increasingly slower. She could do less and less. With each stroke, she’d spend a few days at Barrie Veterinary Hospital where the staff loved her as much as we do. She’d get the biggest cage (because she needed it, and we needed room to sit in it with her) and she’d have more visitors during her illnesses than most people in hospital.

Karen McDonald anchors the office at “the vet’s” and with Jenny’s third stroke, she gave us advice that proved to be true. I was wondering about whether we were being mean to Jenny to take her home in her reduced state. “When it’s time, you’ll know,” she said kindly.

She was right. Jenny knew. We knew. Dr. Fisher knew. But it’s never the “right” time. It just is.

Thanks, Jenny.