The Greatest of Dogs
On December 2nd 2016, we put our beloved dog Bella to sleep. She lived with us for 14 years, through 4 homes, 2 births and 2 different cities. We were lucky to have her for so long, and lucky to own such a strong dynamo of love. I know she felt lucky too. This is the story of her and us.
As with many things, my wife understood how great it could be before I did. She was going to grad school at the Bank Street College of Education and a friend of a friend had found a stray dog approximately 2 years in age loose in Riverside Park with lacerations around its neck and no owner apparently looking for her. Jessica immediately knew she would be the dog for us, but I was hesitant. I complained she seemed aloof when I first met her and fretted about the work of taking care of a dog. I have never been so happy to be wrong. The foster owners were calling her Winnie, but suggested she responded better to Stella. We chose Bella to avoid yelling like Marlon Brando in the dog park. In early November of 2002, we adopted her and brought her home to our sixth-floor walkup near Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village.
Some dogs come with a backstory. Not her. We didn’t know her prior name or what she looked like as a puppy. For Bella, all we could do is guess. She had a fondness for people speaking Spanish, so that might’ve been a clue about her former owners. She did not like to be hugged; the vet informed us she was approximately two years old and that “she was no virgin” but seemingly had never had puppies. It was possible that her prior owners had tried breeding her and then let her loose when that failed. Other painful aspects of her past were less ambiguous — she would cower in fear every time I picked up a broom or growl in anger when we hugged her from behind — these cemented my resolve to never return her to her prior owners if they ever emerged. But they never did. She was just one of the many disposable dogs of NYC, lucky enough to get a ticket to a new life.
We also didn’t know exactly what sort of dog she was. The question always came up, and with those big ears, how could it not? One neighbor was absolutely convinced she was a relatively rare Mexican breed called a xoloitzcuintli, which does indeed looks somewhat similar but is also 30 pounds lighter and completely hairless. Most likely, she was a mix of a basenji (her big ears and general shape, her weird yodeling bark) and pit bull (her head shape and smile, her loud and serious bark). The pit bull was the only certain part of her lineage. It’s quite possible might’ve been 100% pit bull — the breed is as remarkably varied as America itself — but strangers would suddenly yank their hands away from petting her when they found out her heritage — as if she would attack them now that they knew her secret — not realizing that pit bulls have the sweetest hearts and noblest spirits of any dogs I have ever met. Breed characteristics are largely eugenics and hokum anyway; she was just herself. I grew so tired of having to defend or demarcate her from her past that I started making up breeds when people asked me. My favorite lie was that she was a remnant of a Soviet dog-breeding program descended from Laika and her cohorts to join cosmonauts on their eventual planned moon base. That was somehow more plausible to many people than that a pit bull could be so sweet.
She easily moved into our lives and moved with us through several apartments in New York. Our first home was a sixth-floor walkup a few blocks south of Washington Square Park. We would take Bella on long ambling walks throughout the East and West Village. And most days, we would go to the dog run in the park, where Bella would gamely flip other dogs onto their backs or visit the owners while I would try to nonchalantly spy on one of the resident celebrities who was often also there. Once on our way there, Bella quickly pounced on a pigeon only to let it go when Jessica gasped in surprise. She never hunted like that again, but we made sure she would never feel like she needed to. When we first brought her home, she was so hungry that she sucked up crumbs from between the floorboards of our apartment. Whenever we fed her, she would drink water afterwards and use her now-wet tongue to find any small molecule of food somehow still left in the bowl. Soon, she started to put on a healthy weight and developed a confident swagger. She was alpha, and she wanted everybody to know it. She would sometimes lift one of her rear legs to pee like a boy and woe betide any male dog in the run who tried to mount her. She loved to take on the big boys at the dog run and flip them on their backs.
There were fights sometimes of course. Bella would not back down from any dog, and she had a specific technique for deflecting attackers through a precise but bloody nip to the skin near the eye. The other dog might have started it, but it was never good. And there were also times that she was the one who started the fight and escalated it upwards. I became skilled at separating two fighting dogs at the dog run, but dreaded when one of the dogs was my own. Those times were worse. Thankfully, she put her fighting days behind her as she matured, even though she always wanted to be boss.
Owning a dog is a good way to finally realize that your expensive sixth-floor walkup is quite possibly not such a great apartment after all, and within a few years we moved out to a larger apartment in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn. The dog run was not as nice, but Bella adored going for walks down past the brownstones and up busy Smith Street. She assumed naturally that all the people gossiping on stoops or smoking in front of restaurants were waiting there for her and they were ready to become her instant friend. Once she had sighted her target, she would begin a barely perceptible wiggle that became more pronounced as she got closer and closer until she was wagging her tail and practically bouncing into them as she arrived. It usually worked — she was a natural charmer–even if it meant a quick errand would take more than half an hour.
Some nights, I would take her across one of the bridges that spanned the BQE to walk alongside the cargo port that lines the Buttermilk Channel. We would stop for a moment to watch and hear the hum and crashes of cranes unloading containers from big ships. She liked those moments of solitude too. On ambitious days, we would walk her all the way to Prospect Park and back and exult how she would sleep for days afterwards, curled up on the couch or snuggling on the bed. An exhausted dog is a good dog.
Several years later, we moved even further into Brooklyn, into a snug co-op apartment in Park Slope that was only half a block from Prospect Park. And we moved in only two weeks before the birth of Alex. Our family was larger. My wife has noted that Alex’s arrival was when Bella became a dog instead of furry child she had been — a downgrade in status that she made official when she nipped him over some food when he was only a few months old. It was a mistake she would never repeat however, and she bore the tugs and pinches of two children with patience and love, especially when she realized that small children usually have food and they also usually loved to hand that food to her. For both of our kids, their first word for “dog” was “bella.”
When both our children were really little we wore them in baby carriers when we went outside. This made it easy to run errands and bring Bella along too. We took her all around Park Slope, up to the Farmer’s Market, down to the bodega, on bagel runs or trips to get that really good banana bread sold a few blocks further away. Some dogs will wait stoically for their masters to return when tied up outside stores. Bella was not that type of dog. Her annoyance would start as a series of aggrieved snorts which then transitioned into a series of loud barks and then into a continuous series of loud whining and caterwauling until we returned. And if she could see you through the plate-glass door of the store, there was no limit to her directed annoyance. The few times she suddenly got silent, I would rush out worried that she had been stolen only to find out that she had suckered some passerby into petting her and sometimes feeding her.
And many mornings we would take her into Prospect Park. If you are there before 9 am, dogs do not have to be on a leash, and the main lawn becomes a riotous carnival of dogs running around, a big dog party straight out of Go Dog Go. Bella would sometimes play with another dog, but she was already in her late middle-age so often her favorite thing was to go up to the other owners and their children, always on the prowl for new friends.
In 2012, we left New York City and moved down to Washington, DC. Bella at 12 became a suburban dog with a house and a yard. Instead of commuting into an office, I saw the kids off to school and teleworked most days, so I got to spend more time with her. We would go for long walks in the woods and she really loved going down to the corner to hang out with all the kids waiting to get on the school bus. Mostly though, she loved to sleep. The living room of our house is backed by a patio doors and receives a ludicrous amount of sun most afternoons. Bella would find a sunny spot on one of the two couches, stretch herself out into a beatific pose and snore loudly. It was so peaceful and pleasant to work next too, I started taking her photo and posting it to Instagram. It became a habit. She was just too photogenic.
As the next few years passed, Bella settled gracefully into her senior age. Her once-black snout became filled out with white hair. We didn’t go for as many walks as we used to, but she would still sometimes run and prance and want to play like she was a dog half her age. I began calling her the Dowager Countess for the comical way she would harass me for dinner every night: she would make little snorts to herself then sneeze a few times in irritation — it made me laugh that she would sneeze when she was angry, because really– before becoming a more pronounced series of harrumphs and barks or defeated yodels as if she were saying to herself “well I never!” When I finally did give her dinner, it was gone in 20 seconds. I liked to complain on Twitter about her trolling me. I think she was more popular than me.
I once saw a random meme image that showed a golden retriever haplessly trying to eat a rainbow from a prism on the wall with the caption “what did we ever do to deserve dogs?” Indeed. How did we as a species get so lucky? And while I don’t believe in a divine hand guiding all of us, there is something miraculous in how people and dogs have coevolved over the past few millennia. It’s a link that has lasted despite all the ways we have changed. Once our hunting companions, we could’ve abandoned dogs like the atlatl once we developed better technology, but dogs adapted into new roles at our sides. They became guards and workers and then just companions — no longer extensions of our need to survive but our need to connect and love and be loved. I liked to joke that Bella’s wolf ancestors would be ashamed every time she begged an apple core from me —and indeed if you dropped her in the woods, her only survival skills would be to find the nearest occupied cabin and mooch some food — but you need just look at how many dogs there to see how well this transition from tool to friend worked. Humans advanced out of the stone ages, but dogs followed us every step of the way.
This was an evolutionary process; humans created new niches and selected traits in dogs to fill them. But it still feels magical sometimes how dogs can understand us and tend to those raw parts of our souls that need healing.
On the night of my first Father’s Day as an actual father, I took Bella out for a walk. As we crossed an avenue on the way home, a large SUV turned left in front of us and quickly dragged Bella into its front wheel well, dragging her for several feet. I pulled her out, screaming and banging on the side of the car, but it just sped off. To this day, I don’t know if the driver even knew that anything had happened. Bella was lacerated and bleeding, limping, and confused about what had happened. So I picked her up in my arms (she weighed 50 pounds) and ran to the animal hospital four blocks away. They ushered me into an exam room where I could finally call Jessica and tell her what happened. And then as the adrenaline wore off, I slumped on the floor and bawled my eyes out. Which is when Bella — who was the one who had been hit by the car after all — hobbled over to lick me on the face and check that I was okay. She was in pain but she was more concerned about me. And in the end, she walked away with only some lacerations and no broken bones. The vet joked that she was stronger than us all. That was no lie.
In the past six months, what had been a gradual decline accelerated and Bella changed from being elderly to truly old. Her eyes clouded and she became mostly deaf and blind. She would try to jump on the couch and misjudge the distance and fall on the floor. Her fur thinned and she lost fifteen pounds of weight and muscle. She started having accidents in the house, and they became more and more frequent. Her arthritic limp became severe, and her legs would slide out from under her when she walked, like she was navigating a sheet of ice. We had to carry her up and down the stairs to the yard. We took the cushions off the couch to make it easier to climb on to it and when that became too difficult, we bought her a dog bed for the first time in her life. When she fell down, she could often not get back up and would bark helplessly until one of us rescued her. She would shiver even when it was only slightly cool and pace for minutes to find a comfortable way to sleep on her bed. She stopped snuggling and never wagged her tail. She was no longer strong but incredibly frail.
Underneath her infirmity, she was still the same dog though. She never stopped eating. She still liked to troll me for dinner and sleep on the couch. And so we tried — perhaps for too long — to help her adjust to her old age. We put her in doggy diapers, but those are designed more for little pups and were ineffective for an older dog like her. We picked up the carpets because of the accidents, but she started to slip more on the wood floors. We ordered her special rubber boots to give her a better grip on the floors; she hated them and tried taking them off whenever she could. We tried various painkillers in various doses, but those made her drowsy and caused her to fall more frequently and sometimes cut herself badly. Mostly, we just adjusted our lives to do more for her, never leaving her for more than a few hours, giving her some medicine to soothe the pain a little, stumbling downstairs in the middle of the night to help her when she barked to get up or go out. We pretended that if we could not reverse the direction, that we could at least slow its speed and buy more time for her. But, really it was so we could procrastinate a painful decision.
The worst part of pet ownership is the moment you have to let them go. There are no platitudes to make it seem better. Even when it’s the right thing to do, it’s still fucking horrible. At least in the end for her, it was easy. At least now she was at peace.
What comes next? I know there will be another dog in our future. I already miss walking Bella in the park and chasing her around the yard. I yearn to start this whole cycle over with a new furry stranger who will become part of our family. But not yet. I need some time first.
I miss my dog. I love you, Bella.