14 October 2009

Gus, 1996-2009

Sunday night my dog and faithful companion, Gus, died. He had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure a year and a half ago. As best as the vet could tell at the emergency clinic, one of his heart valves finally collapsed, a full year after he was expected to succumb.

As a dog-owning friend of mine said when I told him the news, it is impossible to understand how much a part of a family a dog becomes until you have one of your own. Gus was a true friend. He was the only pet either of my parents or I had ever had. I don't have any siblings. Gus has been my best friend and closest companion since middle school.

The house has been too quiet without him the last few days, and I'm realizing how many small aspects of my life involved Gus. Not just taking him for walks or giving him his medicine before bed, but turning the lights out at night, taking out the trash, getting a glass of water — Gus affected how I did all of those things. I'll miss him.

I'll miss him waiting at the door for me to come home.

I'll miss that every time I came home he put everything on hold, including going out for a much-needed pee, until I acknowledged him with a vigorous head rub.

I'll miss him inspecting the grocery bags when I got back from the store.

I'll miss him peering up from under the desk, interrupting my work because it was critical that he get some belly scratches right away.

I'll miss him sneaking only half way under the bed and being surprised that I knew where he was.

I'll miss the dozens of different ways he had of wagging his tail.

I'll miss the fierceness with which he would pounce, unprovoked and out of the blue, on a perfectly motionless toy.

I'll miss the neurotic way he would only eat food if it was removed from his bowl and placed on the floor nearby.

I'll miss the way he stuck his nose right up against the door jam so he could be the first one back in the house.

I'll miss having him to clean the crumbs off my plate, and pick up any food I fumbled.

I'll miss the way he flicked his tongue out after having peanut butter, as if the flavor of it was still in the air in front of him, and not stuck to his tongue.

I'll miss having him underfoot the entire time I fix dinner, or having him following me out of the room whenever I went somewhere else, even when I was only leaving for 20 seconds.

I'll miss the way he would hold my arm down so he could lick the back of my hand, and how he would wait in the bathroom for me to finish showering, and then clean ("clean") my ankle when I was drying off.

I'll miss how he used his paws to hold up a rawhide stick to chew on.

I'll miss the naive optimism with which he repeatedly tried to pick up a tennis ball when he already had one in his mouth.

I'll miss the ADHD-addled way he would launch himself after a thrown ball at the park, only to become distracted halfway there by some particularly interesting smell on a patch of grass.

I'll miss how his paws would slide in all directions on the tile floor like Bambi on ice when he took off after a tennis ball and how he would constantly misjudge his own momentum and go careening into walls in the pursuit of escaping toys.

I'll miss how proud he was when he won a game of tug-of-war, the comical ferociousness with which he shook his stuffed toys like he was a bear with a salmon in his jaws, and the simple satisfaction he got from tearing apart a string toy or whittling down a rawhide.

I'll miss the simple joy he got from sticking his head out the car window.

I'll miss the optimism with which he would take off after birds and rabbits and squirrels, even though he never came within 20 yards of catching one.

I'll miss the way he would push a bowl all the way across the kitchen and back with the force of his licking tongue, just to make sure no single grain of rice — or solitary molecule of delicious rice flavoring — remained in the bowl.

I'll miss how the moved his paws like he was walking if you held him suspended a few inches above the ground.

I'll even miss how he unrolled any unattended toilet paper, or ripped apart wayward paper towels, or licked the inside of my boat shoes when I left them out.

I'll miss how indignantly animated he would get when you repeated his begging noises back to him.

I'll miss the way he would demand to be invited up on the bed, only to jump down two minutes later, just to make sure that he had a spot if he wanted one.

I'll miss the stubbornness with which he would refuse to walk around the block clockwise.

I'll miss how his ears would sometimes got flipped up on top of his head, and the way he would remain entirely oblivious to how ridiculous he looked.

I'll miss the single-minded way he would attack a rib bone.

I'll miss the way he could cheer me up, without fail, every time I sat down on the floor near him.

I'll miss having a friend in the house.

Below are a couple of pictures from Gus' last trip to our local park a couple of weeks ago. The walk there had him pretty well tired out so he mostly plunked himself down in the grass and watched the world go by, but he was no less happy to be there than when he was a three pound pup, still trying to figure out how to walk in a straight line.

To lighten the mood a bit, here's Gus from a couple of years ago looking young and jaunty, hanging out with his favorite toy, Mr. Fuzzy. Pretty handsome fella, right?

I have many, many more pictures of my little crumb-crunching fuzzy man, so maybe this is probably as good an excuse as any to finally open up a flickr account and post those. (And hopefully some images from my photography class.) I've previously posted pictures of Gus here, here and here, if you're interested.

In New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton wrote the following:
Trees and animals have no problem. God makes them what they are without consulting them, and they are perfectly satisfied.

With us it is different. God leaves us free to be whatever we like. We can be ourselves or not, as we please. We are at liberty to be real, or to be unreal. We may be true or false, the choice is ours. We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face.
Gus reminded me of this daily. He was exactly what he was. There is an honesty about dogs that I have never seen in another person. Gus could not have lied if he wanted to. When he was acting happy to see you, it was because he was happy to see you. When he urged you to throw his tennis balls, it was because he wanted the balls to move. There were no ulterior motives, no struggles to find himself, no mask between him and the world. There was an innocence to Gus, a peace, a surrender, which I envy. Dogs don't struggle against the world like we do, they just live in it.

Finally, I want to thank the staff of the Metropolitan Emergency Animal Clinic in Rockville, Maryland, even though they'll probably never see this. They worked hard to make an innocent animal comfortable in his final minutes, which is Good and too often thankless work.

I'll also include links to the national and international SPCA, as well as my local chapter. The local chapter, like many others, relies entirely on donations and has no paid staff, so they focus all of their efforts on the animals.


  1. I'm so sorry for your loss.

    Losing a dog to cancer a year ago was the hardest thing I ever faced.

    You'll never stop missing the pup, but the pain will diminish in time ... and rescuing some new dog from a shelter will never REPLACE Gus, but will salve a wound for both you and a new guy that needs a home.

    Best of luck,


  2. Thanks for the kind words.

    As soon as my fiancee and I are settled in with the wedding in our rear-view mirror the first order of business is getting a dog. She lost her lab to cancer last summer, so we're both eager to have a new dog in our lives.