by Sherry F. Colb
[Note from Michael Dorf: A reader suggested that we run a series of Sherry's "greatest hits," which I think is an excellent idea. Over the next several weeks, I'll periodically post Colb classics interspersed with new essays by my co-bloggers. I begin with an essay Sherry posted last December on Medium but not on Dorf on Law. Re-reading it now, it is evident that in talking about our dog Scooter, Sherry was in some way talking about her own illness, but I hesitate to make too much of the point. Sherry never liked when people used the stories of non-human animals simply as a vehicle for talking about humans. In any event, I'll let Sherry's own prose do the work, as it always did.]
When I first met Scooter, he was a small, soft pillow of black, beige, and brown. I picked him up and he licked my nose and eyes. He smelled like corn chips. His mother Hiccup stood outside in the yard, looking in through the sliding doors, back and forth, from him to me.
I never told Scooter this, but he had been my Plan B. I had first attempted to adopt an adorable black puppy from the pound, but a woman named Ray — whom I never met — rejected me. In the adoption paperwork, I had to list everywhere I had lived in the last ten years. I asked Ray’s secretary for more paper because I could not fit all of my homes onto one page. “Ray won’t like that,” sang the secretary as she shook her head. I could not help noticing her name tag, which said “heryl” like an unrepaired sign on the front lawn of a motel.
Ray concluded that a shelter dog was better off euthanized than in my care. So, the next step was the classified listings in the newspaper. One ad described a litter of chocolate and yellow Labrador retriever puppies, and I called and arranged to visit first thing the next morning. I could barely sleep that night before I met Scooter. I loved him at first sight and told the man that I would return in a week to pick up my dog.
In the meantime, I bought toys and dog food and investigated the local parks, and when I brought him home, Scooter proved to be the playful darling that he had seemed at first sight. Just about everyone, especially children, wanted to meet him when we strolled around our Capitol Hill neighborhood.
Scooter quickly grew into a wondrous hound. At 100 pounds, he was bigger than I could have predicted. He was also quite wild. He jumped on and kissed everyone who visited us. He loved to play and could catch a frisbee or a ball in the air with balletic grace. His favorite activity was swimming, and whenever he got free of the leash, we knew we could find him in the nearest body of water.
When Scooter was about eight months old, I walked him once at night with my friend O. O came along with us to help keep me safe in what was then a dangerous neighborhood after dark. While we walked, a biker drove onto the sidewalk, stopped in front of us, and revved his engine. Neither O nor I knew how to react. But Scooter did. He had never made a hostile sound in his life, but he rose onto his hind legs and growled menacingly at the man on the motorcycle. The stranger turned his bike around and headed toward the street. When he was out of sight, Scooter lowered his front legs to the sidewalk and settled down, panting quietly and once again wearing his goofy grin. O scratched Scooter’s chin, and Scooter closed his eyes and scratched along with his hind leg.
When M and I traveled after that day, O babysat for Scooter, each time teaching my boy a new trick that I would discover upon returning. O taught Scooter to “sit,” “stay”, and “shake hands.” I never figured out how to teach my puppy anything, but he knew on his own to protect the ones he loved. A police officer once stopped in front of my house to pat Scooter and told me that every apartment on the block except for mine had experienced a break-in and that “that dog” was the reason I was spared.
If Scooter had to hurt someone who was threatening me, he had the power and will to act. But the rest of the time, he was an adorable, affectionate, fun playmate and friend. I loved to pat the soft fur on his head. I thoroughly enjoyed his warm kisses. And I could watch him play with other dogs for hours. He wrestled with the ones who liked wrestling, and he raced around with the runners. Socializing was like water for Scooter.
After I left Washington, D.C., I bought another dog. I worried that a shelter might reject me again.
This time, it was a girl, a black German Shepherd I named Amanda and called Mandy. She was only seven weeks old when I brought her home. I didn’t know to introduce her to Scooter on neutral territory, and he became visibly incensed when he saw her approaching the house. As Scooter barked and scratched from behind the screen door, Mandy peed on our walkway and bowed her head.
It took Scooter time to acclimate to Mandy. It seemed he did not get the point of her. When she approached him, Scooter would immediately rise to his feet and leave the room. Mandy desperately wanted Scooter’s attention, but Scooter was not interested.
At the time, M and I lived in a two-story house. Mandy had figured out how to climb the stairs but not how to descend them. One day, I watched my two dogs interact in the living room on the first floor, Scooter lying on the couch and Mandy trying to snuggle with him and kiss his eyes. He tolerated her for about four seconds and then rose and moved to the kitchen, where he lay down again. Mandy followed him there and resumed her apparent attempts to groom his face.
Scooter rose once more but this time headed toward the stairs and up to the second floor. Mandy followed, but the moment she reached the second floor landing, Scooter bounded back down to the ground floor and curled up on the living room carpet. Mandy could not follow him, because she was still unable to descend a flight of stairs. She just stood there, forlorn, looking down at the stairs.
I carried Mandy back to the first floor, only to watch Scooter pull his “lead Mandy up the stairs and then leave her there” trick repeatedly. Scooter was a problem solver.
Years later, the dogs reversed roles. Scooter could no longer hear well, and Mandy had grown into a fierce panther. Scooter was chewing on a toy one morning, and Mandy tried to take the toy from Scooter’s mouth. Scooter growled a warning, and Mandy backed off. She stood for a few seconds, looking at the toy, and then raced toward the front door, barking.
That was what she did when anyone knocked on the door. Because she could hear better than Scooter, he would follow her lead and go with her to the door, barking as well, as soon as he observed her doing so. This time, however, as Scooter dropped his toy and ran to greet the guest, Mandy stopped heading toward the door (on which no one had knocked), turned around, and retrieved Scooter’s toy from the floor.
Though Mandy was younger than Scooter, she was the grownup of the pair. She did not tend to play with other dogs, though she enjoyed chasing the very fast ones, particularly greyhounds and a sleek whippet named “Velvet.” Mandy adored all of the humans in the house, especially the children. The girls could lie down on Mandy’s belly, and she would stay put until they rose.
Mandy was gorgeous, jet black with warm brown eyes, and almost as fast as the greyhounds and whippet she chased. She picked up on what various human words meant without any training.
When I could not locate Scooter in the house, I would ask, “Mandy, where’s Scooter?” She’d rise from the couch or floor and sniff the ground, following a scent. I would trail her until she stopped and looked up at me. There would be Scooter, every time, in the bathtub, under the bed, inside the coat closet.
One afternoon, when walking in the snow with the dogs, I unclasped Scooter’s leash. Instead of walking with me, he ran into the powder-covered woods and disappeared. I reluctantly released Mandy from her leash as well, asking her with urgency, “Mandy, bring back Scooter.”
She headed for the woods, and everything became instantly silent, the snow absorbing all sound. After a minute or two, I regretted freeing Mandy with instructions I had never used before. Instead of losing one dog, I was losing two. I yelled out their names, but the snow swallowed the sound of my voice.
I began to cry, concluding that they were gone, and at that moment, Mandy appeared before me. She looked up and seemed to nod. Then she returned to the woods, and when she came back, she was herding Scooter back to me.
The years passed quickly. Scooter turned nine, and I threw him a birthday party to which I invited his dog friends from the park. The venue was a dog “club” complete with fake grass, treats, and water, and Scooter and his buddies ran, wrestled, and played until they collapsed in blissful exhaustion. Caleb, a very friendly chocolate Lab, gave Scooter a discount on dog photos by Caleb’s daddy, a “Petographer” who later photographed my canine brood.
The pups and I would sometimes visit an unfamiliar run, an opportunity to meet new dogs. One morning, we chose a small fenced-in park where people seemed to be taking pictures of the dogs. Once in the run, I forgot about the photographers, but the next morning, I slid the New York Times in from under my front door, and there, right on the cover, was a picture of Scooter.
The article highlighted the problem of dogs running loose in the park without a leash, in violation of the law. Though they seemed to be pinning a crime on an innocent dog, I was still proud that my boy had made it onto the front page.
As a full and half German Shepherd, respectively, Mandy and Scooter were formidable guard dogs. I never taught them how, but they instinctively knew when someone needed protection. On a particular afternoon in late Spring one year, I walked the two of them down West End Avenue, and a woman yelling at her young, crying son caught my attention. I was uncomfortable with the scene but did not know whether or how to intervene. Was it even an emergency? I was unsure, and so I planned, somewhat guiltily, to walk by and look away.
Scooter had different plans. He yanked me (and therefore Mandy) over to where the boy stood. Scooter then sat between the boy and his mother, refusing to move for about two minutes. In that time, the little boy patted Scooter, and the boy’s mother quieted down, conscious for the first time that others had been observing her abusive behavior. Once things had settled, my canine Samaritan stood up, and we resumed our walk.
On another occasion, I took the dogs into Central Park at one o’clock in the morning. I was cognizant of what a privilege it was for me to be able to stroll around at night without a man to protect me. I routinely let my mind wander, knowing that I could trust my boy and girl to keep me safe.
As I sauntered through the wooded dark roads, I thought I detected a low growl. I looked down and then followed Mandy’s gaze. She stared behind me, transfixed, eyeing a man with muscular arms and neck, in a beater and loose jeans, a hard look on his face. He stood very close to where I did and seemed to be looking through me. He had no reason to be so close to a stranger in a virtually empty park. Mandy continued to growl and then leapt toward the man, who finally backed up and let us be. Scooter seemed unfazed by the whole experience. Mandy had things under control.
I woke up and went to work one weekday, and it seemed just like any other day. In the afternoon, I received a call that my dog walker S had arrived at my home and found Mandy collapsed on the floor, writhing in pain. S lifted Mandy onto our “little red wagon” and wheeled her to the vet. The vet diagnosed bloat, which happens when part of the gastrointestinal tract twists and cuts off its own blood (and therefore oxygen) supply. The vet operated on Mandy to fix the problem but was not confident that she would survive the surgery.
That evening, I brought my daughters to visit Mandy at the vet. My younger one, A, was two years old and said “daw daw” (her word for dog), pointing at her canine friend. Mandy heard A and looked up. “That’s the most animated I’ve seen Mandy since she got here,” observed the vet. We all patted Mandy, who was hooked up to I.V. fluids, and we headed home.
The next morning, the vet called to tell us that Mandy was gone. The bloat had put such a strain on her heart that she suffered a massive coronary, a heart attack, the morning after her surgery. M went to the vet to pick up the little red wagon, empty of passengers this time.
Mandy was too young, and we had not anticipated losing her. Scooter aged years in the space of months after Mandy died. He stopped wanting to go to the dog run, and then he stopped wanting to leave the house at all. He perked up one day when our friend N brought his dog Maynard over to visit, but we realized too late that from a distance Maynard looked like Mandy. When Scooter got closer and realized it was not his sister, he returned to the spot where he spent almost all of his time, staring without seeming to see, barely moving.
Then Scooter became very ill, and the vet said it was probably metastasized cancer, observing that depression can undermine the immune system’s ability to kill cancer cells. Scooter had trouble sleeping at night and paced back and forth in the hallway. My older daughter, ML, suggested that Scooter might be more comfortable spending the night in her room, and he did seem calmer there. But his condition worsened. The vet said it was time to do the last kind thing we could for Scooter.
The weekend before going in to the vet, I spent a lot of time with my sweet boy. I patted and talked to him and said how much I loved him. He lay in the dining room near a window, bathed in sunshine as I silently wept by his side.
Monday morning came quickly, and M and I leashed up Scooter and gathered his favorite treats. We walked him slowly, because he could not move quickly as he once had. A child approached and asked if he could pat Scooter. As he did, the boy marveled at how cute the dog was, asking whether he was still a puppy. No, M said, because I could not trust my voice; he’s thirteen years old. We resumed our hardest walk to the vet.
When we arrived, I signed a form saying that I consented to the vet killing my dog with something called “euthanol.” The vet tech took Scooter to the back to insert an injection port into his front leg. The vet himself, F, then brought Scooter into one of the examination rooms, where M and I had been waiting. F left us alone and said to open the door when we were ready. We kissed and hugged and said goodbye to our very first child.
The vet inserted the syringe into the port and told us what to expect. The pink substance was cold, so Scooter might shiver. He might vocalize. Some dogs urinated or defecated as well.
As tears fell from his eyes, M whispered into Scooter’s floppy ear, “Send our love to Mandy.” And then the vet pressed down on the syringe. After ten seconds, my wondrous ball of black, beige, and brown left us. He had made eye contact with me just moments before, but now his eyes, though open, had no focus. The vet said we could spend as much time as we wanted with Scooter, with Scooter’s body, but M left right away. Unsure of what I should do, I sat down with the body for what became a long time, patting Scooter’s lifeless form, feeling like he might awaken for me if only I was patient. Someone must have closed his eyes. He looked so like himself.
I thought back to the day that I returned to the breeder to pick up this impossibly sweet puppy. When I placed him into my car and shut the door, his mom Hiccup stood at attention in the open yard, uncomprehending.
I began to drive away on the dirt, slowly at first, when Hiccup shot after the car. She hadn’t done anything like this on my first visit, just a week earlier. I picked up speed as I reached the road, studying the black lab in my rearview mirror. Hiccup continued running until she could run no more. Then she stood, staring at the car getting smaller and smaller in the distance.
Meanwhile, Scooter was crying and looking back, very agitated. After whimpering for what seemed like a long time, he lay down on the front passenger seat and placed his head on my lap, sleeping for the remainder of the trip.
I tried to hold Scooter in my heart, knowing that all else of him would vanish. I hoped that somewhere, baby Scooter and Hiccup were together once again, nursing, grooming, running, playing in the sun.