The Passing of Dogs and the Meaning of Life

by Jeffrey Morgan


The passing of a dog has always marked defining moments in my life. If you have dogs, you probably know what I mean. Dogs become an integral part of your life and family and they are there for all the big moments.

Winnie, the family dog

We got Winnie (the Pooh) just after my third baby was born in 1993. We had recently moved to my family’s Northeast Pennsylvania farm from Austin. Yellow labs are great farm dogs and wonderful for a young family and Winnie was a perfect fit. When my youngest daughter Emmy was learning to walk, she and Winnie would slide down the stairs together rather than risk walking them. Emmy was always a daredevil and she’s now assigned to the 3rd Special Forces Group.

Apparently, Winnie didn’t like the sound of gunshots so she wasn’t trainable as a working retriever but I don’t hunt, so it all worked out. She was always up for a long hike regardless of the weather and her whole body wagged when she was especially happy.  She never got on the furniture when anyone was home, but would immediately hop on a couch for a good snooze once everyone was gone.

When Winnie stopped going for walks with me, I knew the end was near. She had gone hiking with me for over a decade and got to the point where she would just give me a sad look as I was walking down the road.

Winnie lived for 13 years and her passing marked the end of my children’s youth. Although she is buried on the west side of our pond, she still walks with me when I hike the woods.

Cosmo, the Hipster Doofus

In 1999, Emmy and I drove down to Poughkeepsie to pick up the puppy we would name Cosmo. Emmy was in Kindergarten but insisted on skipping school to assist with the selection. Cosmo turned out to be a two hundred pound giant doofus at his peak.

Cosmo loved butter and would steal it from the counter at every opportunity. I would find butter wrappers all over the house. He knew he was in for a treat if I was preparing for a bake sale and he would quietly wait for me to leave the kitchen unattended. His head was chest-high to me, so anything on the counter was an easy reach.

Cosmo’s passing marked the end of home life for my children as they started attending college. He lived to be 8 and is buried next to another pond where he liked to go woodchuck hunting even though he rarely ever got one. I thought he was a goner a year earlier and I had the local backhoe guy dig him a grave. Cosmo snapped back and there was a big empty hole in the ground for a year before he finally went to rest there forever.

Colby, the Warrior Princess

Once you have a Great Dane, word gets around. We got a call from a local animal shelter and they asked if we were interested in another Great Dane. My fearless Emmy and I went to meet her and we instantly fell in love.  Colby was so ferocious that the Shelter Board President was housing her in her own barn because the shelter workers were afraid of her. Nevertheless, we were confident in our ability to bring her into the family. She was some kind of mix – obviously part Great Dane, but also mixed with something with a huge chest, enormous wolf like teeth, and terrifying yellow eyes right out of a Hollywood horror movie.

Colby immediately took charge as the Chief Security Officer. It was months before my father was allowed to enter the house unsupervised even though he lives across the street. She managed every aspect of the household and enforced all the rules.

I used to play tug of war with her and had to buy a six-foot rope for our game. She was a big cheater and didn’t like to lose. She was also a flawless judge of human character. She especially disliked Sons of Anarchy-looking people; a big belly, tattoos, and long, greasy hair always raised her hackles. She didn’t take much stock in sales people either. If she disapproved of someone, you could rest assured he was a scoundrel. My vet later informed me that she had a couple of .22 rounds in her from her former life – wherever and whatever that was.

Colby’s passing in 2009 coincided with my mother’s diagnosis of terminal melanoma.

Lucy, the Prison Dog

Lucy had been arrested multiple times and a local police department, a client of mine, called me in 2006 to see if I wanted her. Apparently her owner had gotten a girlfriend who didn’t like dogs. He would just leave Lucy alone in his apartment while shacking up with the girlfriend. Lucy was a consummate escape artist and was once too often found wandering the streets of the small upstate New York town.

In my opinion, Lucy was a better deal than the girlfriend. Who doesn’t love Great Danes? You can always find another girlfriend, but Lucy is one-of-a-kind – all love and not a mean bone in her body.

Lucy was a “manic whipper” and when we did the official adoption from the pound, her tail was shredded from whacking the concrete walls in her tiny prison cell. Our vet suggested that her tail be docked but I researched it on the Internet and found a great solution. We wrapped and taped pipe insulation on her tail until it completely healed. She was with us through the kids’ teen years, college, and going out in the world to make their own way. She has her own futon in my office and is sleeping there as I write this.

Birdie, the Guardian Angel Divorce Dog

I found Birdie on the side of the road with a broken leg just three days after the 2008 national election. I immediately understood he was a sign of one sort or another and that the universe had sent him for a reason. My mother was of Irish descent and my father Ukrainian, so I understand signs. The universe is always sending messages and we just have to listen to them. I got him in the back seat of my car and took him right to the vet.

When I took Birdie home, my wife immediately threatened divorce, which came soon enough anyway. He is the most expensive dog I have ever owned and his leg was broken in two places. I declined the special surgery to insert a pin in his bone and opted for a simple cast. He limps a little and looks like he needs a cane but he turns into a Jedi Knight if he spots a woodchuck. My new wife calls him Yoda.

A Born Heeler

Soon after I brought Birdie home from the vet, he spotted a couple of cows in the barnyard and went tearing off after them in his cast. He is a natural heeler and had them all pinned in a corner in a few seconds. I spent months looking for a home for him. I even stopped at the local drug task force dirty site (also a client of mine) and tried to place him with one of the undercover guys. They all loved him but no one would take the plunge. He’s been mine ever since.

Birdie always rode with me to Penn State and St. Bonaventure University to pickup and drop off my two older children. And he stuck with me through 30 gruesome months of divorce litigation.

Time to Go

Birdie is doing well but Lucy is 12 now and I am waiting for the vet to come and euthanize her. My neighbor was generous enough to come over this morning and dig a grave with the tractor. Lucy was still chasing cars last Wednesday, but she has really gone downhill since then and is clearly in a lot of pain. Twelve is really old for a Great Dane but she’s been a trooper to the end. Her hips are shot and her eyes are asking me to stop the pain. I am always the last one to make the call for euthanasia, but I know that heartbreaking look all too well.

The Meaning?

There have been a lot of other animals: Spanky and Delilah (goats). Sir Jiggles and Guinevere (Guinea Pigs), several horses, quite a few cats (Pepe, Bobi, Sisi, Sara, Mako and Drako) and lots of cows. But dogs become a part of a family in a way that other animals don’t. They get under your skin and inside you. They become guardians, therapists, hiking companions and so much more. There is never judgement, just unconditional love and affection.

I’m not really sure what watershed event Lucy’s passing will represent to me since I am only able to understand these things clearly in retrospect. I am hoping Birdie will be around for a few more years.

My wife and I have been talking about a St. Bernadoodle, but I think I will hold out for a sign.

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