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An Engineer in the Woods, Installment 22: Pets #2; Dog 1, Ely

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

After a few months as kitty parents, the cat was still alive and appeared to be thriving.  Kristen and I were thinking in the back of our heads that someday we would become parents to small humans as well, though we’d never admit it.  Bentley the cat had become easy to raise, but a baby seemed impossible.  We needed to practice on something more difficult than a cat and the obvious choice was a dog, but we didn’t know what breed would be best for us. In the days before EVERYTHING was on the internet (Ask Jeeves would only give you a handful of useful responses, sometimes, and only if you used the correct -and correctly spelled- keywords in your query) we had to buy books, magazines, and we researched at the library.  We wanted a big dog.  We wanted a smart dog.  We wanted a friendly dog.  We wanted a loving dog.

We thought an Old English Sheepdog might be good, but then I remembered a story from my former boss, Larry.  Larry had brought an Old English Sheepdog puppy home on a wintery Friday afternoon and he, his wife Darlene and their preschool son Matt had a great weekend with the dog.  I think they named him Buster.  On Monday morning Larry went to work.  Darlene took Matt to run some quick errands, so they locked the puppy in Larry’s den.  When they returned a couple hours later, there was a stack of gnawed wood along one wall of the den, and there was white fluff EVERYWHERE!  Buster was curled-up in a corner shredding, chewing, and swallowing some chunks of brown cowhide.  It took Darlene a few moments to process the clues at the crime scene.  Buster had eaten Larry’s leather couch!  He wanted the damned dog, he could clean this up!  She closed the door to the den.  When Larry returned from work, there was almost no leather left and most of the wood framing of the former couch had been further reduced to splinters.  Larry bought a crate for the dog. Strike one for Buster.

A few days later Matt lost his brand-new orange Illini jacket.  That kid was always losing things!  A few days later the snow melted revealing that the back yard was covered with fluorescent orange piles of thawing dog poop.  Strike two for Buster.

A couple mornings after the “thaw” Larry put Buster in the crate in his den and went to work.  When he returned, the den was hazy with sawdust.  The crate was next to his antique oak rolltop desk.  Buster had been able to reach his paws between the bars of the crate and had dug a hole in the side of the heirloom.  Strike three for Buster, he regrettably went back to the breeder.  Larry couldn’t control an Old English Sheepdog, we wouldn’t try…

Saint Bernard? Cujo.
Mastiff? The Omen.
Irish Wolfhound? Hound of the Baskervilles.
German Shepherd? Queeny, the name of the neighbor’s shepherd that pulled me off my bike when I was nine.

Akita?  Now that is a cool dog!  We went to a breeder’s home in New Lenox to meet an expectant mother Akita. She was a very friendly dog!!  We had a great visit with the breeder.  As a final question Kristen asked, “How are Akitas with cats?” 

“Oh… keep them away from cats, other dogs, and children,” the breeder replied.
“Why?” I asked.
“Akitas will eat them.”

No Akita then.

We finally decided on the perfect dog, a Belgian Sheepdog (aka a Groenendael).  We found a breeder in DesPlaines, and after an interview she approved us for a six-week-old bundle of black fluff.  The puppy was all vaccinated and the breeder’s vet said she was healthy.   We fell in love immediately and we named her “Ely” after our second home, Ely, Minnesota  (see the Appendix to my June 2017 blog).  We were looking forward to taking her to our cabin in Ely the following week.

When we returned home from the breeder with our new pup, I walked next door to speak with my neighbor, friend, and veterinarian ‘ol Doc Hampton.  I showed him Ely’s records, and asked if he wanted to see her before we left on vacation. “Nawww, everything looks in order, and she’s due for a booster in two weeks which is after you return.  I’ll look at her then.  Have a great time with your new family member!”

Ely and our cat Bentley were immediately best friends. She wanted to please and was quickly housebroken.  On the ten-hour drive to Minnesota, the cat and puppy curled-up together and slept.  She loved the boat. She loved the canoe. She loved to fish. She loved to swim, and she dried almost immediately with no wet dog smell. We had the perfect dog! When we returned from vacation we made an appointment with Doc Hampton for the booster shot.  Kristen and I both took Ely to the vet office.

“Welcome back vacationers!” our white-haired neighbor greeted us in the exam room with his laughing, slight southern drawl.  “Let’s see what we have here.”  He put his stethoscope to Ely’s side. He repositioned the chest piece.  He frowned and repositioned again.  And again.  And again. His face blanched to match the color of his hair.  He held Ely on the exam table with his left hand and reached with his right hand to retrieve her records from the counter behind him.  He squinted and winced as he paged through them. “Excuse me for a minute, I have to make a phone call.”  A moment later we heard the doc speaking animatedly on the phone.  There were a few minutes of silence, then he was speaking again, this time sounding like a professor lecturing a student.   Another brief silence, and he reentered the exam room.  His face was no longer white, now it was red!

He was kind and measured as he addressed us, “I think you should give the dog back to the breeder.  I spoke with her and her vet. They both agreed.  Ely has a very serious heart defect, which is not uncommon in pure-bred shepherds.  I’m sorry that I didn’t check her out sooner, but the other vet supposedly had.”

“How…long…?” I asked trying to be tough.

“As she grows, this can get a little better, or a lot worse.  But she won’t ever be cured, and you’ll need a specialist.  Your breeder’s vet recommended one, and the breeder offered to pay for any visits and treatments.  But she probably won’t live a very long or very healthy life and I think you should give the dog back.” 

Too late, she was part of our family.

Other than 1½ hour car rides to and from several very expensive vet visits, paid by the breeder, Ely’s daily life was normal.  She had an extreme aortic stenosis and the prognosis was grim.  A several thousand-dollar surgery was offered, but the likelihood of success was almost zero, if she even survived the procedure.  We decided to let her enjoy the time she had.  We went on trips.  We played in the DuPage River in our backyard.  She and our cat Bentley would chase each other and wrestle.   We had a happy family of pets for a little over a year.

One Sunday afternoon in October 1989, Kristen was sitting on the floor of the living room, reading the paper.  Someone sitting on the floor was Ely’s invitation to play, but the newspaper was distracting Mom.  Ely sat on the paper and licked Kristen on the face, “No!” and she pushed Ely aside.  The pup took a step, yelped and collapsed to the floor.  I was in my home office and I heard the yelp, the thud, and Kristen’s sob.  I knew what had happened, we had been expecting it for over a year, but it was still difficult.

Doc Hampton took our lifeless Ely to his clinic, and a week later he brought us a tin can of her ashes.  We spread her along the banks of the river in our backyard where she liked to play, and I buried the can there with her collar and dog tags.  A few weeks later I went to work and our lives were changed forever by a drunk driver on a road construction site in New Lenox (see my May 2018 blog).  The Fall/Winter of 1989 was not one of our happier times, but it made us strong.


Each of my first two pet stories has ended in death and distress.  But that’s not bad necessarily, that’s life.  Every story of life ends the same way (at least temporarily).  I know people that have experienced the death of a pet and were so crushed by it that they will never own another animal.  And that is sadder than the loss.  The pragmatist in me wants to say, “What were you thinking when you got the pet?  That it would outlive you?”  But instead I have sat with friends and family after a loss and have prayed, reminisced, and mourned.  Mourned for a time, not forever.  The happy memories are forever, the painful ones seem to fade.  Enjoy the great times, learn from the tough ones and count yourself better for the journey.