How My Heart Dog Almost Wasn’t

Suzy Q. Burke; 2001–2016.

This past Monday (Oct. 3), Suzy Q. Burke — the dog of my heart — died. And I am wracked with grief.

But the funny thing is, Suzy Q. wasn’t even supposed to be my dog.

She was supposed to be my husband’s dog, because it was he who insisted that we “needed” — he used that EXACT word — three dogs, because “did I know what happened to dogs in shelters?! Not every shelter is the San Francisco SPCA...” blah blah blah.

At the time, the SF/SPCA was one of my clients (my favorite client, I might add), so I was neck deep in animal welfare and the no-kill movement (clearly I was doing a good job of communicating their mission).

We already had two (rescue) dogs, and a heinous commute from Antioch, Calif., to San Francisco… four hours of commuting every day, I shit you not. About an hour to drive the 10 miles to the BART station, because the two-lane Highway 4 was more clogged with traffic than a pizza with cheese, and then about another hour on BART to get into our respective downtown SF stops.

So with four hours of my life surrendered to Bay Area traffic, and two dogs I already felt terribly guilty about leaving all day, the last thing I thought we needed was a third dog.

My husband wore me down, however, so off we went, one Saturday, to the Antioch Animal Shelter.

But I wasn’t unprepared; I had all these conditions. It couldn’t be a male (ours were), it couldn’t be a puppy (no time for potty-training), etc. etc. etc. So as we made the rounds of the cages, and saw nothing but puppies and big honking males, I started feeling more and more hopeful that we might escape the shelter sans 3rd dog and avec a less-stressed pocketbook.

But of course, Fate has a way of laughing at you right as you’re about to pass “Go.”

Just as we were about to head for the exit, we saw there was one row of cages we hadn’t walked by.

And there she was, “Lady,” as the shelter had named her.

A golden, little (to us) dog, paws dipped in white, freckles on her face amid the white streak that continued on down through her chest, the cutest brown nose, and the most limpid of brown eyes, right in the corner cage.

She’d pulled her ears back, the way dogs do when they’re trying to get into your good graces, and started wagging her tail furiously.

The look that got Suzy adopted

We walked on, and then, out it came. “Yip!” A plaintive yelp that drew us right back to her cage. Whereupon she wagged her tail and yipped even more furiously, attracting the attention of an older woman who’d been lurking in the background.

That did it. John was determined to head Mama Cass off at the pass, so that we could at least “get a look” at the dog. So while the attendant got Lady out of her cage, we headed for the “getting acquainted” room. I did my best impression of a wallflower while John seated himself on a chair right in the middle of the room, waiting for Lady to make her entrance.

Because, after all, he was the one who wanted the dog… so it was up to him to bond with her (or not).

Of course, what must Lady do but put her paws on his shoulders, and start licking his face furiously. And when John gave me his puppy eyes, I knew it was a lost cause. Simultaneously sighing (me) and triumphant (him), we made our way back to the desk to take care of the paperwork, since we now had a 3rd dog.

As it turned out, Lady hadn’t been spayed. So we only took her home about a week later, picking her up from the vet that performed her surgery.

I was so determined that this wasn’t “my” dog, that I drove to and back, instructing John to sit in the back with Lady, as she was his dog. So he could be the one to comfort her. Poor thing, she was still a bit unsteady after all she’d been through, but she still made it gamely to the car, and into the backseat.

As we were driving home, I heard a very quiet, “Uh-oh.”

“What?”

“She threw up. And peed.”

“Well, I guess when we get home you’ll be cleaning it up, seeing as how she’s your dog…”

And true to his word, clean it up he did. Meanwhile, I took the boys into the backyard, who were unbecomingly but typically rambunctious, having sniffed a comely lass about to enter their frat house. And then I took Suzy (which is what we’d decided to call her) into the backyard to meet them.

I think it took five seconds, maybe less, for her to tell them who was boss. Despite still sporting the Cone of Shame, all she had to do was let out a controlled and well-modulated “Grrr,” and they snuck into their corners, coming out only when she told them it was ok. And that was how it was from that point on; they always had a great time together, but Suzy was, and always would be, the checker, and the minder, of the family.

I was quite impressed by the chutzpah of this little dog… putting everyone in their place and, that too, fresh out of surgery! However, she was still John’s dog. So once he entered the house, I walked away, leaving him to bond with his new baby.

But she didn’t. Instead of lavishing attention on this man because of whom she was now part of the Burke family, Suzy attached herself to me.

I was bemused by this… I mean, I love dogs, but this was not a dog that had called out to me.

So I tried to shake her. And just… couldn’t.

John is too generous of a person to hold a grudge (he probably got a kick out of the fact that this dog, that I’d categorically not wanted, took over my life while still covered in puke and pee). But from that day on, Suzy became my dog. And she remained my dog until the day she died: Monday, October 3, 2016.

Why a “heart dog”?

If you have read this far, you are likely a dog lover. And if so, you are likely familiar with the concept of a “heart dog”… a dog with whom you have such a strong connection, s/he becomes a piece of your heart.

Suzy was (is) that dog for me. We walked together, and ran together. When I went to sleep, she’d curl up directly by my side of the bed, and when I woke up, she’d be looking at me, ready to go. When I left the house — whether for a few minutes, or for a days-long business trip — she’d keep her “Mommy-dar” on, relaxing only after I returned, and after giving me the most ecstatic welcome unimaginable.

When I was happy, she was blissful. When she was happy, my heart sang. When I was sad, she kept me company, comforting me with her very presence and stillness. When she was in pain, knives pierced my body through the soles of my feet.

She was social. OMG, was she EVER social. Everyone in the neighborhood knew her (we joke we know all the dogs’ names, but not those of the owners), as did our families and friends… including the thousands of people I’ve met and become friendly with in the course of my work. You could not have a party without Suzy; she wanted to give everyone “lickies,” because lickies make everything better.

Suzy giving me “lickies” while atop a kid’s play set (don’t ask)

Suzy was up for anything. Literally, anything. No matter how ridiculous.

“Suz, ready to go bye-bye?”
“OMG, Mom, yesyesyes!!!”
“Suzy, where’s your belly?”
“Moommm, you know where it is… ok, I’ll show you and give you a laugh.”
“Suzy, give me ‘Elvis’.”
“Ugh. OK.” [Curls left side of lip and gives lickies like never before, while ‘Jailhouse Rock’ starts playing in background.]

She was so brave. She survived a vicious, unprovoked attack from a bull terrier in our local park (which is why I will never like the Target dog no matter how much I love Tar-jhay), not fighting back even though, IMHO, she had every right to wring the damn thing’s neck.

She went through TPLO surgery and the agonizingly long recovery — complete with mandatory P.T. (which she hated) — to be better than new. Heart murmur, degenerative myelopathy… you name it, she dealt with it, and you wouldn’t even know she was sick.

And she endured all her cancer treatments (she was diagnosed with an extremely aggressive oral melanoma in 2014) like a star. She put up with a biopsy, surgery to remove the tumor, and then a partial mandibulectomy coupled with a melanoma vaccine protocol, without a peep. And once she recovered from her surgery, the only clue she now had half a mouth was the cute way her tongue lolled out to the side (because there was nothing to hold it in).

Suzy kicked cancer’s butt for more than two years (2014–2016). I suppose it was inevitable that this wonder dog [Facebook photo album] would be brought down at some point, especially since she was 15.

But she’d beaten the odds so many times, I guess I had a flicker of hope inside me that she’d beat them once again… for just a little longer.

Losing a heart dog

The pain is indescribable.

I’m well aware I’m not the only person in the world to lose a beloved pet (and non-pet people will have long rolled their eyes and clicked away). I’ve lost many before.

But a heart dog? That pain is something else.

I’m so grateful I never wanted a 3rd dog, all those years ago.

Because I could never have predicted the way Suzy would come into, and take over, my life (thank you, John).

And while the pain is indescribable — and I have absolutely no idea when I’ll be able to think, or talk, or write, about Suzy without dissolving into a hot, blubbering mess — it is the flip side of an intense love that I have never before known, nor may ever know again (which is ok).

And my life is infinitely better for having known, and loved Suzy.