by Todd E. Smith
“My heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running today.”
- from Watership Down by Richard Adams
Josie died today. She’s been in my life for 12 years, since I adopted her at the Stark County Humane Society. It was my wife’s idea, a surprise gift for me. There were at least fifty other dogs at the pound on that Friday before Father’s Day, but one named “Duchess” caught my eye. As I approached, she immediately came forward to greet me. She didn’t bark like the other dogs did; she just looked at me with her soulful eyes, and when I reached out to pet her, she put her paw on my hand. I said to her, “You’re coming home with me.”
One detail of that day still haunts me: tied onto the chain-link gate of the dog’s cell was a red bandana. What I didn’t know at the time was the bandana indicated that the animal inside the cage had less than seven days until execution; my perfect dog was on death row! If we had waited just a few days longer, she would have been gone.
Her card said she was a three-year-old collie-shepherd mix. I could see collie, but not shepherd. What I saw that wasn’t on the card was rotweiler. Maybe they were afraid of scaring people away. I’ll let you judge for yourself:
Feb (?) 1991 – March 16, 2006
RIP and love always - TES
She was already spayed and had all her shots, so all that remained was to pay the adoption fee (about twenty bucks, as I recall) and take her to PetSmart to trick her out. When we got home, we were instant neighborhood celebrities. Kids I’d never seen before came by to say hello to the new dog.
I didn’t like “Duchess” as a name, so I re-christened her “Josette” after my favorite female character from Dark Shadows. My wife, who was a big Clint Eastwood fan, shortened it to “Josie,” and that’s what she learned to answer to.
Josie took to her new home
like a duck to water. We didn’t have
much of a backyard, but what we had became Josie’s kingdom (or queendom, I guess).
The neighbor kids adored her, and she was very good around them. The only one who didn’t like her at first was
our Siamese cat,
Yes, Josie was, pardon the expression, a chowhound, and it was entirely our fault. We started feeding her scraps from the table from the first few days we had her, and she was a fixture at (or under) the table from then on. For a while, we let her munch down all of our table scraps, but after she ballooned to over 70 lbs., we started regulating her food intake a bit. In time, she leveled out at a much more manageable 58-60 lbs.
Josie quickly became a member of our family. We took her on family outings whenever it was possible. At home, she ate from our table and slept on the couch in the TV room. We had Christmas gifts for her under the tree, and we celebrated her birthday (we didn’t know when it was, so we gave her mine). Apart from snitching the cat’s food, and getting into the trash occasionally, Josie was a very good girl. She never chewed shoes, she never scratched up the furniture, and she never peed on the rug. She was always calm while indoors, and she always greeted me at the door when I came home. She seldom barked except when she was playing with her toys, although for some unknown reason, she didn’t like people in uniforms.
Josie was my comfort whenever I was down, and that happened a lot; pressure from work, disagreements with my wife, and lots of bills weighed heavily on me in my less-than-carefree younger days. But when I was at my lowest, Josie would always find me. She’d stick her wet nose under my hand so I would pet her, then she’d sit on my feet, lean back against my legs, then tilt her head back to look me in the eyes, as if to say, “Hey, guy, don’t sweat it. Everything will be okay.” Her ridiculous upside-down face would always make me laugh, and then I’d be okay.
Josie was never much for tricks. She could sit, lie down, shake hands, and “dance” (stand up on her rear legs and beg), but only for food. Sometimes, she was so excited about the prospect of a treat that she would wildly go through her entire repertoire of stunts before even being asked. Once, I was putting her through her paces in front of some guests using a cheeseburger as bait, and when I turned my attention away, Josie swiped the burger out of my hand and ran away with it. That may have been her best trick, or maybe it was taking her Milkbones, hiding them in a corner, and then coming back and begging for more.
She gave us a good scare now and then. Once, she got away from my stepson while he was walking her. We enlisted the aid of the neighborhood kids and canvassed the territory for two hours with no luck. Returning home, dejected, we arrived to find Josie sitting serenely on the front porch, looking at us as if to say, “Where the hell have you been?”
Our home in
When a new job took me to a new town, Josie came with us (of course). Our new house had an outside staircase with a landing that boasted a commanding view of Josie’s new backyard, which was still small, but larger than the old one, with a few trees and a little creek running through it on the back property line. Josie would sit on the landing for hours on end, surveying her territory.
It was about this time we got Josie a buddy, another dog to keep her company, but the second dog was jealous of Josie, and I think tried to Alfred Hitchcock her by forcing her off of that outside staircase and onto the roof of the detached garage. I heroically rescued Josie (and its not easy to carry a frightened 60-pound dog down a ladder) and kept a good eye on that second dog from that day on. Shortly thereafter, Dog #2 brought a flea infestation into our house, and then nipped our stepson, earning her a trip back to the pound. The whole experience with Dog #2 taught me how very lucky we were to have found Josie, an even-tempered, affectionate dog that just wanted to be fed, walked, and loved.
My wife and I divorced in 1997. She wanted to keep Josie. I was devastated, but had to yield to logic; I traveled a great deal for my job, and when I was away, there would be no one to take care of the dog. Add to this the impracticality of finding a landlord who would allow any dog, much less a 60 lb. semi-rotweiler, and it was plain to see that the choice was correct. A few months later, though, my ex-wife called me, very upset. Having worked two days on back-to-back shifts, she had forgotten to feed Josie for that entire time. I am forever grateful to my ex for two things – first, for suggesting we get a dog, and second, for offering me the chance to take care of Josie again when she could not.
Unfortunately, my difficulties in caring for Josie still remained. I asked my mom and dad if they’d take her temporarily. They agreed somewhat warily, because Mom is terrified of dogs. However, I am delighted to report that the “temporary” arrangement has lasted for eight years, and Mom became Josie’s second-best buddy, next to Dad. My dog has slowly become theirs, but I visit my folks often, and got many chances to feed, walk, and love my dog. Also, I’m afraid, I learned to take her for granted.
About five years ago, arthritis started slowing her down. Not long after that, we started noticing tumors on her skin. Next came problems with her digestion. I began a long cycle of denial. She’ll be okay, I told myself; she’s just getting older, slowing down. The vet would give her medicine, or put her on a special diet, and she’d get better for a while, then lose ground again. Last year, she stopped playing with her toys. A few months ago, she stopped responding to her name.
Still, she loved her walks with her Grandpa (my dad, I mean, and no laughing, please!), stopping along the way to say hello to all of her two- and four-legged friends, and I thought that as long as she could enjoy that, we should keep her around, despite the annoyances of her increasingly-intricate care regimen and the mounting veterinary costs (borne entirely by my folks, I’m ashamed to admit).
Yesterday morning, I got a phone call from Mom. Josie had taken a serious turn for the worse. She was leaving puddles laced with clotted blood on the carpet every night, and her legs and balance had failed her three times during her walk the previous evening. Mom and Dad thought it was time to put her down. I cried all the way to work and all the way home.
That evening, I went to Mom and Dad’s to see Josie for the last time. I sat with her on the back porch and, fearfully, I let myself really look at her for the first time in ages. I saw the bow in her back. I saw her right rear leg, twisted by arthritis, turned inward almost ninety degrees. I saw her drooping tail and drooping ears. I saw the bandage covering a tumor on her left rear leg; the vet was fearful of anesthetizing her and would not remove it. I saw her ribs, clearly visible now that her weight had dropped to less than 50 lbs. I saw her fur, once soft and lustrous, now nappy and falling out in clumps. I watched her gasp for air with every exertion. I watched her limp around in circles on the porch, choosing the pain of walking over the pain of trying to stand or to lie down. I felt sick with her pain, and incredibly selfish for having forced her to bear it for so long.
As the sun went down, I took her back into the house. She looked at me dully, as if she didn’t understand what I wanted, and as if she didn’t know me anymore. I tugged on her harness, the same one I bought her on the day I first brought her to Mom and Dad’s because I knew they wouldn’t use the choke chain. Josie followed me, moving forward I think for no other reason than that there was nothing else to do.
I put her into the little pen Mom had made for her in the kitchen so she wouldn’t soil the rest of the house. The floor was lined with blankets, and she had her water dish and her favorite toys near her. I led her in, closed the door behind me, and sat with her there for an hour. I stroked her fur, and whispered to her that she was a good girl, a pretty girl, and that I loved her very much. I scratched her between the ears, and she looked up in me in that same upside-down way that had always made me laugh. But now I could only weep.
At that moment, a little bit of that Josie twinkle came back into her eyes, and I think for just that moment, she knew me again. Her eyes seemed to say, “Hey, guy, don’t sweat it. Everything will be okay.” It was in that bittersweet moment that I decided it was time to let her go. I patted her head and scratched her ears one last time, then climbed out of the pen, said good night to Mom and Dad, and headed for home.
Dad took care of the necessaries at 3:30 this afternoon, and now my Josie is gone. I want to remember her as she was, sleeping on the couch, catching morsels I tossed to her from my dinner plate, chasing rabbits down by the Tuscarawas river (oddly enough, she finally caught a rabbit just last year – her first, as far as I know). Maybe in a few weeks or months, the image of that shambling shell of a dog I saw last night will finally fade. I hope so.
This is an open letter from me to whoever is in charge of the afterlife for pets:
“Be on the lookout for Josie, because she’s headed your way. She loves to be talked to, and she loves to hear her name. You will need to scratch her belly and make a big fuss over her before she will get up in the morning. You will need to walk her at least three times a day, four if daylight and weather permit. She likes walking close to the water. She likes walking in the rain and playing in the snow.
“She has a small meal after each walk. Her favorite meal is chicken with rice, and she also loves cheeseburgers. For a treat, she likes banana slices with peanut butter on them; grapes will work too, but only the purple ones. She likes to play with her toys after supper; she’ll pick the one she wants, and she’ll expect you to toss it to her so she can catch it or chase it.
“She loves to be fed from your plate. You don’t have to give her any of the good stuff – bread crusts soaked in gravy will do. DO NOT give her Chinese food – trust me on this one. Sometimes, you can sneak doggie crackers to her as if they were on your plate, and she doesn’t seem to know the difference. Be careful not to eat the crackers yourself, though – they’re pretty dry.
“Josie loves to be with people and with children. She’s generally friendly with other dogs, but she can be territorial. She likes the couch, but put a cover on it because she sheds like crazy. If you ever have to leave her alone, make sure the radio or the TV is on; it keeps her from getting lonesome.
“At bedtime, put a little milk in her food dish, just enough to cover the bottom. She puts her head on her doggie pillow, but not her body – don’t worry, that’s just something she does. She doesn’t like thunderstorms, so if you’re expecting one during the night, leave your bedroom door open so she can find you.
“Josie was my dog for twelve years; my two marriages added together only lasted for eight. Take good care of my girl. If you don’t, you will answer to me when I get there.”
Rest in peace, Josie Smith. I will miss you always.
Todd E. Smith
March 16, 2006