It’s still sinking in that after more than eleven years, two states, three cities, and four homes, I don’t have a dog any more.
I never knew how Gypsy’s story began. I was never even sure of her exact age. All I ever knew was that by the time I met her, in September of 1998, she had been pregnant at least once, so I assumed she was at least 18 months old. She was left tied to someone’s carport not long before she gave birth. The woman who found her took her in and eventually found homes for all of the puppies, but as often happens, no one would take the mom. Since her rescuer couldn’t keep her herself, she decided to bring the dog to an “adoption event” at a local pet-supply store (after having her spayed, of course). First Husband, our son Chris, and I had been talking about getting a second dog as a companion for our flat-coated retriever, Shadow, and went to the store that Sunday afternoon with that thought. When Gypsy and I first saw each other, it was an immediate connection. She was very pretty and friendly, and I’ve always been sure that when she looked at me, she thought “There’s a sucker! There’s a sap!”
Shadow and Gypsy were never best friends, but they generally got along. She didn’t like toys, but when Shadow would run after a tennis ball, she’d run after him. She was a shepherd-mix (most likely Australian or Shetland Sheepdog), and she always liked to know where her “flock” was. She was always more of a “people dog” than a “dog dog.”
But – perhaps because of her early history, perhaps for some other reason – Gypsy was a challenge at times. She responded well to some behavior training and ignored the rest, and she could be rather high-strung. She wasn’t an indiscriminate barker, but she showed her anxiety in other ways. When she was younger, it was usually by pacing and panting, although there was also her brief career as an escape artist during the fall and winter of 1999/2000, during which she figured out how to jump a six-foot fence and roam the neighborhood during the day. She always came home – until the day Animal Control finally caught up with her. I arrived in time to bail her out so she wouldn’t have to stay overnight, but after that, she pretty much stayed in the backyard. The time period when this happened was an extremely difficult one – the beginning of the end of my first marriage – so I really couldn’t blame her for wanting to get away from our house. Even after she stopped running off, if she wanted to get into – or out of – something in the house, a door or a gate might not deter her. And only putting the trashcan out of her reach deterred her from getting in there.
When First Husband and I divorced, our son was seventeen and planning to leave for college in a few months, so we didn’t have major custody issues as far as he was concerned. However, we did have the two dogs…and we decided to split them up. We each kept our favorite. Shadow stayed in Memphis with my ex, and Gypsy moved to California with me in 2002. The day-to-day portion of my “single parent” years was spent with her. For the most part, she seemed to adapt well to apartment life (and the loss of a backyard), but my full-time job and long commute meant she spent most of her days alone. Some days, I could tell when I got home that something must have upset her while I was gone, but since I was never there when it happened I never knew what set her off. But most of the time she was peaceful, and I give her a lot of credit for helping me get through some of toughest times of my life. (I had not discovered blogging then; I’m sure it would have helped, too.) Obviously, she wasn’t much for conversation, but she was always up for a ride in the car or a trail hike, and I always felt safer with her around. I was living on my own for the first time, and if I hadn’t had her daily care to help keep me focused – and her nightly companionship on the couch and the bed – I can only imagine how much harder those days would have been.
When Tall Paul and I met in 2005, Gypsy took to him quickly, which was pretty important for the future of our relationship – and for the most part, he liked her too, occasional behavioral lapses aside (he’d grown up with very well-behaved dogs, as his mom is an excellent trainer). And when his daughter Katie, then 10 years old, was introduced to Gypsy, the “click” was almost as immediate as it had originally been for Gypsy and me. Katie has loved dogs from infancy – her first spoken word was “doggie” – and I’ll always believe that the fact I came with a dog helped her accept me into her dad’s life. When we decided to move in together, a place that accepted dogs was a must.
But as Gypsy got older, the “occasional behavioral lapses” were becoming less occasional, and while she never seriously hurt herself, she was capable of making quite a mess – which we’d find when we got home, because the acting out almost never happened unless she was alone. Her anxiety was starting to cause anxiety for me when I was away from her.
After consulting with her vet in May 2009 following her most destructive episode to date, he concluded that it was probably fueled by separation anxiety – which she may have had for years, but becomes more pronounced in older dogs. However, it was also possible that she was developing canine dementia – or that the conditions were combined. Since the anxiety was more treatable than the dementia, we put her on anti-anxiety medication after that vet visit, and doubled her dosage a month later. It helped reduce the frequency and severity of the incidents, but it didn’t end them – it was rare for a week to go by without her chewing or clawing or displacing something. We realized that when these things happened, it was because she was scared and confused, and trying to find something or someone to comfort her, but we could only guess about what triggered a “bad day,” and it was becoming a strain on us all.
Gypsy was never anxious about riding in the car; it was one of the places she behaved best. She’d just settle into her spot and lie down; we eventually bought her a car harness, and that made her an even better traveler.
But one thing that always made Gypsy anxious was thunderstorms. However, since leaving Memphis almost eight years ago and moving to the Los Angeles area, they hadn’t been an issue all that often. Still, animals are known to be more sensitive to environmental and weather changes than humans; we think that a small earthquake may have triggered the incident in May. And when a recent – and highly unusual for Southern California – series of daytime thunderstorms seemed to be the catalyst for the worst episode in a while, we had to accept that this was unlikely to get better, especially given her age. We just couldn’t give her the care and attention she clearly needed. We could increase her medication or put her on full-blown tranquilizers, but we couldn’t help the underlying causes of her behavior – and we couldn’t be with her all the time. And an elderly dog with serious behavior issues is unlikely to find a new adoptive home.
Almost everyone who has an older pet knows that they’ll probably have to make a very difficult decision one day. Gypsy had very little gray in her coat, and she still moved well most of the time – just less than she used to, unless she was having an episode. It was easy to forget how old she was; I still called her “puppy girl” half the time. In any case, her physical condition wasn’t bad for her age, so we hadn’t really expected to be faced with these thoughts just yet. If she were human, we’d have looked for a good nursing home for her, but that’s not an option for pets. There’s really no option with pets other than letting them go, and despite the pain of that option, we decided that the time had come to do that. Without question, it was one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever confronted, and carrying it out was even tougher.
My stepchildren said goodbye to Gypsy on a Friday morning before leaving for school; they would be spending the weekend at their mom’s house, and she’d be gone when they came back to ours. Chris, who’s known her since he was 14, didn’t get that chance; since he lives across the country, I had to tell him over the phone. He took it hard, but was glad he’d spent a little extra time with us – and her – during his holiday visit. He’d always felt that Gypsy was his dog. From the time Tall Paul and I moved in together, Katie felt that Gypsy was her dog. When they were both around – which, granted, doesn’t happen often – it was always amusing to watch the two of them try to assert their claims. But a dog only has one “alpha” – and whether or not the kids want to admit it, Gypsy’s alpha was me. She was our dog, of course – but she was my dog.
Tall Paul and I took Gypsy to the vet’s office for the last time on the morning of January 23, and then we spent the day away from the house. When we returned, we packed up a few of her things and put them aside. It’s too hard to see them, but we’re not ready to get rid of them, either.
A few things I said when I reviewed Marley & Me several months ago come back to me now:
(I)f you’ve had at least one beloved pet in your lifetime, the last few chapters of the book are tough. My own mutt Gypsy is now around the age Marley was when he died, and although she’s seemingly in good shape, one thing I learned from reading Marley & Me was that signs of aging can appear very quickly in dogs, and I couldn’t help projecting myself and my dog into that scenario…
Enzo, the canine narrator of The Art of Racing in the Rain, often laments being a dog and hopes to come back as a human in his next life. While Marley doesn’t get to tell his own story, I can’t imagine he would have ever wanted to be anything but a dog. He revels in being a dog. He is loyal, loving, and affectionate – by all measures except for his incorrigible behavior, he’s pretty much everything you could ask for in a dog.
Gypsy was pretty much everything I could have asked for in a dog – nowhere near perfect, but in so many ways, just right for me. Her breath was horrendous even by dog standards, but her coat was beautiful, her mouth was smiley, her nature was sweet, and she was pretty smart more than half the time. I hope I gave her a good and happy life, even if I couldn’t spend all my time with her. I miss her terribly, and it’s going to take awhile for me to stop expecting to see her wagging tail when I come home, her bed in the corner, her dishes in the kitchen, and her watchful, hopeful presence when anyone in the family is eating.