“Riley – The Best Damn Dog a Person Could Hope For”
When we met you, we had about $500 extra cash in our pockets and an apartment we were about to move into. On a whim we stopped at the humane society to look at dogs. We really weren’t there to adopt; it was just a fun, “cheap,” impromptu date.
When we met you, I have to admit, you didn’t interest me much. You were big and kind of ugly, so I walked right by you, but my newlywed husband of one month saw you immediately for your unusual black and gold brindled coat. I had my eyes on a puppy whose tail was in a cast because she wagged it too often. I knew nothing about her breed, but she was such a happy little thing.
I looked at the puppy by myself for a minute because my husband was transfixed with you. I got him to come over and look at the puppy, but then he got me to come over and look at you. He put his hand up to your kennel when he saw your big, ridiculously convincing sad puppy eyes, and you came up to him and licked his hand. It was over and I knew we weren’t going home empty handed – but it wasn’t with a puppy. It was with you.
When we met you, your name was Ryan. We really didn’t feel Ryan was a good name for a dog, especially you, so we played around with lots of different names. I wanted to name you Igor, after Stravinsky, but it really didn’t fit, and you were such a dumb dog that you just didn’t respond to it. My husband tried Riley and the rest is history. He would joke and call you marbled rye. Sometimes we called you rye-face, sometimes we called you bonehead, because your head was nothing but bone (and you really were quite dumb for a dog your size), but you were such a loving, gentle guy.
The first night, I admit, you were a bit scary to me. You freaked out my sister-in-law — who we were living with until our own apartment contract was finalized — and you growled in your sleep so I was worried what might happen if I accidentally woke you up. They warned us that you were considered an aggressive breed, and because you were so big, I worried that you had some pent up aggression. I couldn’t have been more wrong about you.
After we got to know each other a bit, I realized that you were a really sweet dog. We also realized that if you were given human food of any sort, you’d get sick and had the worst gas imaginable. Even though you were a year old when we adopted you, you were still very puppyish. Your head was bigger than your body could really handle, so watching you attempt to go down stairs was one of the most hilariously sad things I’ve ever seen. You eventually grew into your head, and stairs became no problem for you; something I’m sure you were really proud of. We quickly learned that you were terrified of dogs smaller than yourself, particularly chihuahuas. I once took you on a walk when a little old lady with her fluffy shitzu approached us from the opposite direction. The closer we got to each other, the more you tried to hide behind me. The little old lady and I got a really good kick out of that. It’s a story I’ve laughed about and told more than once.
Eventually we started taking you on outings to places like the local dog parks. The first time we took you to the dog park, you were playful and the ringleader of all the other dogs, but that wore off and you just started going to all the humans, flashing those crazy good sad puppy eyes of yours and getting them to pet you. You decided then and there that dog parks weren’t for playing with dogs, but for getting all the human love you could possibly get. We always thought that was a funny quirk of yours. People would always comment on how handsome you were. For as ugly as your face was, your general stature definitely made up for it, and your personality could win over anyone you met.
Of course, the excitement of getting a new dog did eventually wear off, and taking care of you sometimes was a burden, especially with your sensitive stomach. We learned about three months in that we couldn’t have a self-feeder for you because you would gorge yourself. You were a good listener, but you didn’t always move fast enough for our impatient selves, and now we’ve come to the part that I’m quite ashamed of: when you were young, I wasn’t very nice to you.
It wasn’t your fault. The excitement of being a newlywed was also wearing off. My husband took a job in the oil fields in the middle of nowhere Wyoming, and I rarely got to see him. Since we were in the middle of nowhere Wyoming, there were also virtually no jobs for recent college grads who had majored in music. Certainly there were no jobs for recent college grads who didn’t have any clue how to market their skills, so I was stuck alone with nothing to do but watch geeky sci-fi shows, eat bonbons, and begrudgingly take care of a dog I didn’t really want in the first place. I became depressed and apparently I had some pent up aggression of my own. I wasn’t very nice to you.
It wasn’t your fault. When I’d cry because my life looked like a complete failure at the naive age of 25, you’d come and put your head in my lap, trying to comfort me. Even though I’d yell at you for farting, or getting sick because you ate something you shouldn’t have so I had to run outside in the cold in the middle of the night to avoid having to clean up dog mess, or because you got into the trash and made a huge mess, you’d still come and comfort me when I cried. You were the sweetest, gentlest dog. When I’d smack you hard on the nose for having an accident, or smack you hard on your hips when you didn’t do what you were told, you always treated me, and everyone you met, with such astounding gentleness.
Life moved on and I stopped being mean to you. We moved again. You always got so sad and nervous when we moved. You acted like we were going to leave you behind. Of course we’d always try to console you and eventually you’d realize that you didn’t get left behind. Sometimes you were a burden to bring along, but we never wanted to leave you behind. Sometimes we had to leave for short trips and we actually did leave you behind, but of course you were as happy and playful as a puppy when we returned.
Eventually, we added a second dog to the family. This one I picked out. She was also about a year old when we found her and absolutely wild. She couldn’t have been more opposite to you. In fact, we called you the Yin and Yang because you were such opposites. She has long white hair with a small black patch on her tail, you had short black hair with a small white patch on your chest. She’s athletic and independent, you were lazy and always wanted to be with your “pack.” We would joke that she came from the “hood” so it’s best to not mess with her. She’s calmed down a lot and gotten a bit lazy herself over the years, but this isn’t about her. This is about you.
I remember when we were deciding on adopting her. The humane society requested that we do a “meet and greet” between you and her to make sure she would fit well into our already established dynamic. You were so joyfully playful when you met her. In fact, we’d never quite seen you so happy before that point. It’s like you knew she was going to become your “sister.” Indeed, you were so happy, that after a little bit of playing, you actually got on her nerves and she snapped at you to back off. It wasn’t anything we were concerned about though, because you really were being a bit overbearing. The staff at the humane society were happy with that, so we came home with two dogs that day. She pooped in the backseat first thing because she was nervous and scared, and you just sat there — although acting a bit disgusted — and behaved like the good dog you were.
More time passed. We began learning how to take care of you with a gentler hand. You still made me really angry at some points, something I’m not proud of, but you always responded with gentleness. I really do wonder if you were teaching us how to be gentle the whole time. There’s something to be said for wanting to become the person your dog thinks you are.
As we were learning how to be better dog owners, we also were learning how to be foster parents. What my readers should understand here is that foster parenting requires the utmost gentleness and patience. We realized through our training that, even though we would never, ever consider treating a child the way we had treated our dog at times, we could and would start being gentler with him. There were better ways of training and correcting you, even at your age (you were middle-aged in doggy years by then). No matter what we did, you always acted like you wanted to please us. We realized that sometimes your disobedience stemmed more from your inability to understand us. We had “intellectual” struggles with you that we never faced with our other dog because she is as smart as a whip. When we had finally learned how to understand you better, we became much softer with you. After all, it was only fair; you always responded with your affection, no matter what you got.
One day we introduced you to our first foster children. You were so gentle with them, even though you were taller than the little one. They learned really quickly that they didn’t need to be scared of big dogs because you were so incredibly gentle. Despite being gentle, you were also extremely protective. Our other dog is territorial, so many-a-time she’d hear something and start barking, and you’d bark right along with her, though your bark definitely was not backed up with any sort of bite. In fact, when you’d bark, most of the time you didn’t have any clue what you were barking at; you barked because she did. That’s not why I talk about your protectiveness though. You often slept in the room with our foster kids until they fell asleep themselves. Sometimes you’d lay outside their door, reassuring them that no bad guys would ever get to them. When they cried, you’d comfort them. When they were scared, you were by their side. After they left our home and returned to their own, you would sleep outside their room because you missed them. Our other dog definitely missed them too. And when I cried because I missed them so much it hurt, you both were right there ready to share your love.
We eventually got a second placement. I don’t like talking about this placement because the pain I’ve endured from it is so great that I haven’t healed much yet. With this placement, we were supposed to adopt a pair of siblings. They were quite a bit older than our first foster children and they had been through much, much more. As always, you were gentle, and they learned how to take advantage. I saw my own past meanness toward you in them and it reminded me once again how I could have been so much kinder to you when you were younger. Watching them with you taught me how to teach them to be kinder humans, but it still hurts me in knowing what it all did to you. It still wasn’t your fault. Hurting people hurt people (and pets).
By this point, you had entered your senior years. Some of the fur on your chin and paws had turned gray. You had to be on thyroid pills because you couldn’t stop putting on weight, regardless of how much/ little we fed you, and you acted depressed. The pills worked a small miracle for you, and I find peace in knowing your last few years were more comfortable for you. The drama that the kids brought with them, however, was so incredibly hard on all of us (including the kids themselves), but it was particularly hard on you. Even though we told them not to feed you anything other than your own food, they didn’t listen, so you began getting aggressive about getting into food in places you never would have gotten into before.
One unfortunate Christmas, this new behavior around food led you to find my stocking, which happened to be full of chocolate. Because you were you, you also ate part of my stocking, and not just what was inside. You became severely sick with a distended stomach, and we had to put you through emergency surgery. Somehow, you made it through that alive, but it was certainly a close call. After that, you got really shaky and nervous anytime I had to take you to the vet. It amazes me that you could even remember where you were when you were that sick. My husband said that you were so sick it was actually making you blind, so you barked at him when he and the kids came home that night, which was totally uncharacteristic of you.
The surgery bought you some time. The drama around the kids’ case got worse. The stress in our home rose. For reasons I refuse to go into right now, you suddenly got sick a few months later. We had no idea what was wrong with you, and it looked like you had been poisoned. We took you to the vet again and they gave you hundreds of dollars worth of medicine to make you better again. They confirmed that somehow you got ahold of an
Advil liquigel pill and that you were honestly lucky to be alive. Those meds bought you a little less than a year, and we’re still paying off that bill.
Yet I’m glad we had that year together. Eventually, the placement of the kids we should have been able to adopt completely fell apart and it was just us four again. I had been through Hell and back for those kids, and the damage that year did to both of our dogs was visible. The events of the year had been traumatic, and somewhere in that timeframe, I had started researching cats as therapeutic support animals. Apparently purring helps to regulate breathing (I’ve since confirmed this). After the kids left, we decided to go ahead and adopt a kitten with the hope that he would help me be able to sleep better. It worked, and because of you, we approached training and caring for him much differently than how we approached it with you. Because of you, we had learned how to be gentle.
When we brought home the kitten, you were curious but cautious. You quickly realized that cats have five pointy ends and you really didn’t want much to do with him. He would cuddle right up to you on your bed and you’d look at me with the sort of desperation that said “please rescue me” but you’d let him be as long as he wasn’t attacking your tail. We thought it was amazing that he always wanted to cuddle with you, and much like you, he too likes laying in the sunshine. As always, despite everything you had been through, you treated the tiny little kitten that you could swallow whole with the same tender gentleness you always had with everyone else you met.
And then it happened. About four months after we brought home the cat, you suddenly got really, really sick. This time, we couldn’t do anything about it. You were so sick, so frequently, that we had to have you sleep in the garage. I felt so horrible for you. You had never slept alone in the cold garage before; you had always known the warmth of your bed next to our own. We moved your bed to the garage, and put your winter coat on. We set up heat lamps so you wouldn’t be cold and covered you with old towels.
Unlike the rocky past, we didn’t get mad at you when you messed so often that we had to clean up blood almost every hour. I am sad to say that when you first got sick and messed in the house the first two times, I did get angry and yelled at you. Again, my anger wasn’t your fault; I had actually just received some bad news of my own that had absolutely nothing to do with you, so your sickness caught me off guard and made my day that much worse. The anger is something I struggle with now and then, after going through the Hell I went through this last year. Over time you’ve helped me get better though, and the anger wore off quickly. After I realized that you were no longer in control of yourself, I stopped being angry about the messes and started focusing on making you comfortable, on making sure you had what you needed. At one point, you almost threw up on me because I was sitting next to you inside trying to warm you up (you had been shivering for a while) and by that point, it didn’t even bother me. I just felt really sorry for you and the pain I’m sure you were going through.
It was really difficult for me to leave you alone in the garage that night so I could go to bed. I wasn’t sure in what state I’d find you when I woke up, but you somehow miraculously made it through until the morning. You wagged your tail when you saw me and I thought maybe you’d bounce back from whatever it was that was killing you.
The next morning we had to leave you alone for a while and I’m really sorry I did, although I know we made the right choice and I’ve been told that dogs prefer to die alone. I don’t know if I believe that about you though, because you never liked being alone; you always wanted to be near us. Before we left, we tried to make you as comfortable as possible outside in the dog run. You sort of fell down in a soft spot our other dog had dug and we moved the heat lamps in that area so you’d stay warm. Fortunately, it was turning out to be a sunny, warm day, and when we left you, the sun was shining on you, just like you always enjoyed. When we returned, you had left us for good.
So now I’m writing this eulogy for you, Riley, because you were the best damn dog I could have ever hoped for, and I’m not even the one who picked you out. I’m struggling more with your death than I expected. You taught me what the true definition of gentleness is. Your death made me realize that I had been taking my pets for granted, something that I’ve already begun to remedy. You were incredibly sweet, astoundingly forgiving, protective, sensitive, and most of all, gentle.
I already miss your enthusiastic tail-wagging (tail of mass destruction, we liked to call it), to welcome me home. I miss being able to feed you popcorn (the only human food that didn’t make you sick and therefore your favorite treat), I miss having your heavy self sit on my foot to let me know that we’re buddies, I miss your perfect sad puppy eyes when you’re wanting my attention. I miss how you’d lay your head on the back seat so you could look out the rearview window and still be as lazy as possible when we took you for car rides. I miss having your heavy head on my lap.
I doubt I will ever find a dog like you again. You left an impression on me, Riley, and I have been forever changed. I do believe that we’ll be reunited one day, so until then, rest in peace sweet puppy, in the sunny spot we buried you. Your light has forever warmed my soul.