My dog, Albert Lee, died this past Monday, June 30, 2014, which is not to say that he passed away in his sleep or was run over by a car. We took him to the vet and we euthanized him because he was old and, we think, in pain, though in my experience that’s difficult to say for sure with dogs. We don’t know exactly how old Albert was, though the shelter workers estimated he was between seven and nine years old when we got him. He lived with us for just a bit more than six years, so you do the math. He was a medium-sized mutt — around 30 pounds — so if he lived to be fifteen, as I suspect was the case, that’s a pretty good lifespan.
Albert had a stroke about three weeks ago during a walk on a hot summer day. I thought he was going to die that day, but Albert was mighty and seemed to come back to himself over the next few days. Then, last weekend he stopped eating and refused to take any medication. By Monday morning, he was very weak and disoriented. I cannot say, in my heart of hearts, that he was ready to die; the only thing I know for sure is that I couldn’t stand to see him living that way. Dogs are our creatures: we made them and they are strong, sometimes stronger than they should be. Our hearts give out before theirs do.
We got Albert (or Albert Lee, to use his full name) from the Main Line Animal Rescue (http://www.mainlinerescue.com/), which is a wonderful place and please ignore the trolls who post negative feedback on Google and Yelp. He was one of a group of dogs seized from a hoarder and he displayed many of the tendencies we’ve since learned are peculiar to animals who’ve been in that situation. Fundamentally, he was healthy and well cared-for, but he was poorly socialized and required special handling. In brief, psychologically, he was a bit of a mess. Please don’t get the idea that we’re especially wonderful and kind people: if we had known what we were getting into, I’m not so sure we would have brought Albert into our home. Our first impression of him held for a few weeks: he was cute; he had floppy ears and a plumy tail. He barked and wagged his tail and chased a ball when you threw it. Little did we know that this was all a ruse, a subtle disguise Albert perpetuated in order to be adopted.
He was supposed to be Helen’s dog. She was working from home and wanted a companion while I was at the office, another pair of feet to pad around the house. Our (then) two cats, Kirby and Puffy, were usually outside during good weather, so they didn’t count. She found him on the MLAR web site and arranged the visit. I was along for the ride and was content to offer my opinion about him.
The first week Albert lived with us, he seemed fairly normal. He ate, slept, went on walks, and pooped in the backyard. He had one accident in the living room on the first night, but never again. The only thing about him that seemed odd was that he hated sleeping downstairs in the living room and would bark incessantly until we would come get him. Perhaps this was a mistake — relenting to his demands for company — but I never regretted it. In any case, he was friendly with both of us. We found a new rhythm and settled into it.
And then Helen went away on a business trip. I forget where she went or for how long. It couldn’t have been more than a three or four days, but something happened during that time. I suspect I arranged to work at home part of the time to make sure Albert was okay and some alchemy occurred. He went from being the dog and became my dog. Albert made this very clear a short time after Helen returned when she tried to remove him from the bed when I was still asleep. He growled at her. He said, very clearly, “No, I’m staying here until he’s ready to bring me downstairs. You just go over there until we’re ready.”
Helen never completely forgave me for this affixing. I say in my defense that I never did anything to demand Albert’s devotion except, perhaps, stay in one place for a period of time.
A couple of weeks later, Albert nipped Eva — Helen’s sister — on the ear so hard that we thought we had to take her to the emergency room. To give you a sense of the big-heartedness of Eva, not only did she not demand that we send Albert back to the kennel (though I think it was close), she eventually forgave him. A little while later, Albert bit my son, Andrew, on the toes. Andrew, too, is a forgiving soul. He admits that his feet are very appetizing-looking. A few weeks later, Albert chased Kai, the son of my friends Fred and Lori, across the living room because Kai had the temerity to, I don’t know… walk across the living room? Lori, beloved by every dog she’s ever met, started calling Albert “Cujo, Jr.”
Somewhere during this period, Albert began to bark at other dogs. And I’m not talking about, “Oh, hey, there’s another dog. Hey! How you doing?” kind of barking. I’m talking about Hey! Asshole! Yeah, you! Don’t look at me! Yeah, I mean you! Jerkface! I’m going to bit your face off! It got so bad that we had to switch to attaching his leash to a collar because he would pull so hard that he would choke himself if we attached it to his collar. We got into the habit of walking him at times when other people wouldn’t be out. Albert Lee did not play well with others.
Clearly, there was something wrong with this dog, so we did what any 21st Century, Middle-class American would do: we took him to see a puppy psychologist, a doggie headshrinker. Dr. Karen Overall was her name and we recommend her highly should you ever need to get a better sense of what’s wrong with your crazy dog. Naturally, within twenty minutes of meeting Dr. Overall, the woman devoted to helping troubled canines, Albert tried to bite her. He had issues.
I won’t say that Dr. Overall wasn’t slightly upset about our dog’s behavior, but she dealt with it gracefully and then very carefully explained (while Albert lurked around the room) the probable causes for his bad behavior. In brief, Albert was anxious. He was worried that someone or something was going to come between him and his meal ticket/comforter — me. Why hadn’t he acted that way the first couple weeks we had him in the house? Why the good boy deception? Simply, because Albert hadn’t realized he was going to stay. He was the house guest who uses coasters and asks if he should take his shoes off before leaving the foyer and stepping on your nice rugs. Once he decided he was staying for keeps, the real Albert Lee came out and the real one was kind of an adorable mess. He needed to be soothed, Dr. Overall said, and reassured. He needed to know he was safe and in a structured environment.
So, we gave him Prozac. Puppy Prozac, to be sure, but, still, Prozac. It helped. He mellowed out. He got better at having other people around. My son’s toes went unsavaged.
This is not to say he wasn’t a jerk.
Sigmund Freud once wrote something that approximately meant that the purpose of psychotherapy is to transform hysterical misery into common unhappiness. With medication and some other interventions, Albert got better. He ceased to be a menace, but that didn’t mean his personality fundamentally changed. He remained — and I say this with love — a curmudgeon.. He didn’t like many people. I believe he trusted me and Helen and considered Andrew non–threatening. He liked our friend Tristan, largely because Tristan knows dogs and understands that if you walk in the front door with food in your hand, you will always be welcome (which is good advice for anyone, truth be told). Albert formed odd attachments here and there. He was extremely — some would even say mystically — fond of Tristan’s wife, Amy, who only had to sit down and Albert would be asleep at her feet. He liked my father, who Albert met exactly twice and, really, I’m not sure I like my father as much as Albert did.
He was a peculiar creature. Albert was not the most doglike dog you would have ever met, but he was, as Helen said so often, good and true.
I hadn’t expected this post to last so long. I have more to say about him, but I’m going to close now and come back soon to describe the rest of his life with us and, finally, his death and what’s come since.
Here’s a picture. Doesn’t he look sweet? Today’s lesson, kids: appearances can be deceiving.