“Dad, I told you. I don’t want another dog!”
Dad gave me a mocking smile and placed his hands on his hips to feign being an adolescent know-it-all. “Well guess what? We’re getting one anyway!”
Dad continued to smile, and I stomped out of the room with righteous indignation. It was the opposite image of what a grateful son who’s getting a new puppy should look like—but I played that part really well. And leave it to my Dad to do the thing I didn’t want—which ended up being the completely right thing to do.
My family has always been a dog family, mainly because my Dad was always a dog person. Don’t get me wrong—we all loved dogs; but Dad had a special connection with the canine world. Throughout our family life, we’ve always had dogs.
In fact, my parents got our first puppy, a dog named Muffin, before I was even born. Some of my earliest baby photos show Muffin trying to climb into my baby carrier to get a sniff of her new housemate. I don’t even remember what breed Muffin was, but she was one of the kindest and gentlest dogs I’ve ever met.
Muffin was definitely Dad’s dog. She loved him more than she loved any of us, and she would follow him around throughout the backyard any time he was home, always traipsing within a few steps of him everywhere he went. And Dad loved Muffin, and he always tried to make her feel special. Dad used his carpentry talent to build Muffin a beautiful, sturdy doghouse in our backyard—which I saw her use only a handful of times throughout her long life as the inaugural pup of the Bradshaw family. Muffin loved Dad, but if it was even possible, I think Dad loved her more.
Even though I am a dog person, I must admit that Muffin and I never had an extremely close connection. Maybe it was a function of my age and youth, and my failure to recognize any other needs outside of my own. Or maybe she didn’t like me because I was the human baby that knocked her off the pedestal of parental adoration. Muffin wasn’t an extremely active dog, which probably contributed to our lack of connection. She didn’t fetch or run, and all the dogs I saw on TV fetched and ran, so I was jealous. I still have great memories of Muffin, like seeing her pass our family room windows in the well-worn path that she repeated thousands of times in our backyard. Or the moments when I would entice her into the house on cold winter days using miniature Reese Cups (who knew chocolate was bad for dogs?!).
Muffin lived for an impressive 16 years (maybe that whole dog/chocolate thing is a myth…), and when I was in 8th grade, my parents had to face the difficult decision of having Muffin put to rest. Her hearing had completely disappeared, and a large tumor on her leg made it painful to walk and maneuver around. I can only imagine how hard it was for my parents to make this decision. Muffin had been their first real “child” until my arrival disrupted the family two years later. She was their very first dog as a married couple. What an emotional loss it must have been to know that she was approaching the end of her life.
On the day she would be put to rest, I remember my Mom signing me out of school early so I could come see her one last time and say my goodbyes. When I got home, the scene that I witnessed is one that is still burned into my memory bank. I saw my Dad laying on the floor next to poor Muffin, tired and beleaguered, gently stroking her coat as the occasional tear rolled down his weathered cheek. Dad had decided to give Muffin the most perfect dog day she could ever have. Having taken an entire day from work (a rarity in Dad’s life), he had cooked her breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast and hand fed it to her from a plate in our family room. Dad had spent the entire day petting Muffin and combing her coat, telling her how much he loved her. Midway through the day, he grilled her a steak and fed it to her bite by bite. They had eaten snacks throughout the day and spent time resting nearby one another. My Dad wanted to be there next to her to let her know that he was there until the very end, in good times and in difficult times.
I said my goodbyes to Muffin and even told her how much I enjoyed giving her all those Reese Cups when my parents weren’t looking. But my memories of that day aren’t nearly as much about my own pain. Instead, I vividly remember seeing my Dad suffering more than I had ever seen him suffer before.
Dad was rarely helpless in his life, but in this moment I saw how much it pained him to know that there was truly nothing he could do to help. Dad just laid next to Muffin, staring at her and slowly patting her head. My Dad didn’t cry very often, which made it even more difficult to see tear after tear drip from his eye without him ever making a sound. I could tell that all of the pain about Muffin’s death was bottling up inside of him, and it broke my heart to see how affected he was about having to put Muffin to rest.
As the time for the veterinarian appointment approached, Dad eventually collected sweet Muffin in his arms. He put her in the front seat of the truck, and drove off down the street. The car vanished in the distance, and Mom and I cried back at the house, but I often wondered what that last ride was like. I wonder what Dad said to Muffin.
A few hours later, Dad returned home with Muffin’s lifeless body. For the next few hours and deep into the night, Dad toiled away digging a proper grave in one of our backyard gardens. In a way, I think that my Dad doing physical labor was his way of grieving, so Mom and I tried not to disturb him as he labored deep into the night. From an upstairs window, Mom and I watched Dad dig with work lights shining over his shoulders, and we talked about how sad he must have been. Long after the sun had set, Dad had buried his pup and said goodbye to the dog he loved so much. And I wondered if we would ever have another dog again after watching how hard it had been on him.
I don’t remember how soon it was after losing Muffin, but something very unusual had happened. Our neighbors, Jim and Deena, had recently approached us about their beautiful puppy—an Airedale terrier named Willow. Willow was a much bigger dog than Muffin was (around 80 pounds), and she had a very different spirit and personality as well. Our family had admired Willow from the fence line since Jim and Deena had brought her home. She was less than two years old, and she was one of the most beautiful, friendly, playful, intelligent pups we had ever interacted with. Numerous times while doing yardwork, I would see Dad reaching over the fence to pet Willow’s bristly coat. Or I would find him grabbing a tennis ball from her mouth and throwing it deep into her yard. Deena had trained Willow to sit and lay down and do other commands, which always impressed my Dad. In fact, Deena had even trained Willow to retrieve the newspaper from the end of the driveway each and every morning! Dad had always talked about how beautiful she was. Airedales were a breed we were unfamiliar with, and we loved watching Willow run and frolic in the yard adjacent to ours.
Jim and Deena—wonderful neighbors and even better dog parents—had approached us with a unique situation and one that no one in our family had expected. Jim was being transferred to Florida for a new job, and the family was planning to move. Knowing that Willow was used to having her space and plenty of room to play and be active, Jim and Deena were worried about confining her to their new Sunshine State residence—a smaller condo. So, completely unexpectedly, they asked my Mom and Dad if we would be interested in taking Willow. They wanted to give us their dog!
I honestly could not believe it! I was so excited about the thought of having another dog, and both of my parents were too after they thought it through. I think their hesitancy faded because they knew what a great dog Willow was and how perfectly behaved she appeared to be. My parents thought things over for a few days, but they excitedly told Jim and Deena that we would love to have her.
And boy am I glad they did.
Willow was a tremendous dog. We had a few “trial runs” before Jim and Deena moved to make sure Willow liked us and that we felt comfortable with her, and she took to our family quicker than anyone anticipated. In fact, I remember Deena feeling so saddened because, after only a few of our brief afternoons together, Willow began to sit at the back door of Jim and Deena’s home, staring towards our house and waiting for us to come get her again! It truly was treasonous behavior, even for a dog. Deena had even fed Willow with a bottle when she was a tiny puppy, so I can only imagine how that betrayal must have felt!
After Jim and Deena said goodbye and made their way down South, Willow immediately came into our family and changed it for the better in so many amazing ways. I enjoyed taking Willow for walks—except for that one time she saw a rabbit, pulled me face down onto the street, and took off running for what felt like 47 miles. After about 30 minutes of complete terror thinking I had just lost our new family dog, she eventually came back. Willow’s excitement when we arrived home each day was so memorable. Upon hearing us on the porch, she would begin slamming her nose into the doorknob repeatedly until we opened the door. Typically, we would stand on the other side of the door for a few seconds, jiggling the handle and waiting for her to jiggle it back. Her wiggles and waggles would bring a smile to anyone’s face. Willow was also very affectionate and always gave “hugs.” If you laid down on the floor and told Willow to come give you a hug, she would run over and put each of her front legs around your shoulders. Then, she would lay her head down and nuzzle her snout in your neck and give you kisses, all the while leaving her constantly-wagging tail high up in the air. Getting hugs from Willow was the best feeling ever. I can still picture it—I can still feel it.
Willow was a funny dog who was extremely intelligent and had unique little quirks that made her personality so charming. A reluctant fetcher, Willow always knew how to make me laugh while fetching one particular toy. She had an oversized, squeaking set of rubber dentures that she would fetch in the backyard. All of a sudden, you would have an 80-pound dog running at you with these televangelist teeth and a smile from ear to puppy ear. I can still picture Dad laughing at her while she galloped through our backyard.
Or there was the bone-shaped toybox that we kept for Willow in our family room. Willow would attack that plastic toybox with her paws and snout until it popped open and she got what she wanted. She was the fun dog that I had always wanted, and she brought so much life to our house.
More than anything, I loved watching my Dad’s games of hide and go seek with Willow. You read that right, folks—hide and go seek. With a dog. It was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen. Dad would tell Willow to sit, and then he would scurry up the steps. Sometimes Willow would break from her typically-obedient nature and sneak after him, but Dad would return until he got her to sit and stare at him as he made his way upstairs. You could almost see the panic setting in on Willow’s poor little puppy face as Dad made his way up the stairs. Once he made it upstairs, Dad would choose one of a few hiding spots: behind the door, under the bed, or in the shower. Then, just when poor Willow couldn’t stand his absence any longer, Dad would shriek “OKAAAY PUPPPPPY!” in a high-pitched squeal, and Willow would go charging up the stairs. She would run around from room to room searching for my Dad. Sometimes, she would find him quickly; but most of the time it took a few minutes of sprinting around looking for him. On occasion, she would miss him entirely and charge right back down the stairs, looking for him everywhere. Eventually, she would find him; and Dad would go crazy. He would start yelling “You found me, Puppy! You’re so smart!” He would hug Willow and rub her ears, and she would try to lick his face and jump around in excitement. The two of them would keep this up for longer than any dog and human should be able to, and the joy never dissipated.
You haven’t seen joy until you’ve seen a grown man play hide and go seek with his loyal companion.
Whether they were playing hide and go seek, or taking walks, or sitting by bonfires in the backyard together, there was no mistaking one fact that was irrefutable—as much as Willow loved me and my Mom, she loved my Dad more than anyone else. End of story. No debate necessary.
Willow’s love affair with my Dad was stronger than any other human-dog relationship I had ever witnessed. Willow was always wonderful to Mom and I when we were at home; but the second my Dad got home from work, my Mom and I ceased to exist in Willow’s eyes. She would follow my Dad around for the entire night, rarely (if ever) leaving his side. If he laid on the couch, she laid right at his feet. If he got up to go the kitchen, she went. If he went to the bathroom, she would sit right outside the door and whine and occasionally claw at the door frame until he came out. If Mom and I would call for her, she would lay even closer to Dad. It was unbelievable—and Dad absolutely loved it. It’s fun to the be the favorite, and only my Dad knew just how much fun it was.
And now that Dad’s no longer around, I can admit this truth: Mom and I were very, very jealous. We wanted Willow to like us just as much as she liked Dad! In fact, I was the one who fed her dinner every single night, nearly puking every time I had to empty out a tin of that disgusting dog food in a can. How was it that I provided the food, but she still liked my Dad better?
Looking back, it’s easy to see why. My Dad always had a connection with animals—especially dogs. I think it was because he had a ridiculously tender heart. My Dad was a gentle man when it came to any human interactions, but he was just as gentle when he interacted with animals. Whenever we would visit a friend or neighbor’s home that had a pet, Dad instantly became the favorite guest. He would constantly pet them and play with them, and he never got tired of being an animal’s best friend. My Dad did a lot of construction side jobs where he would work on people’s homes, and if the homeowner had a dog, Dad was in heaven. During the time he would spend there, he would get to know the dog of the house, and he would always come home and tell Mom and I stories about the animals he interacted with. He would even bring pictures! His tender heart allowed him to establish an immediate connection with any animal he met.
Dad also had a mature patience that made him the perfect companion for a dog. If you know me well, this may not come as a surprise: I’m a rather impatient individual. I don’t always have the most even-keeled temper when things don’t go my way. I can say this with the utmost certainty: I did not inherit Dad’s patience, and I really wish I had. Dad was one of the most patient individuals I’ve ever known. Sometimes to the point where his patience was annoying to me! (See, I wasn’t lying…)
Dad’s patience really paid off when it came to animals and pets, however. Dogs, like humans, are imperfect—but in their own unique way. They bark when they aren’t supposed to. They pull and jerk when they’re supposed to walk calmly. They get afraid of fireworks. They use the restroom in non-restroom locations. Any of these things were enough to send me over the edge; but Dad rarely lost his cool with our family pets. He was stern when he trained them and disciplined them, but that direction always came from a place of love, not frustration. He understood that it might take a while for a dog to learn a particular command or behavior, and he never went ballistic if a dog behaved in a dog-like fashion. I know that made pet ownership fun for him.
But more than tenderness or patience, Dad always made our dogs’ lives fun. He never got tired of the cute and adorable things that dogs would do. Their tricks never ceased to amaze him. Their playfulness never got boring. If Willow wanted to walk further, he walked with her. If Willow wanted to play tug with a rope in the backyard, Dad would play until his arms were sore. If Willow wanted to play hide and seek for the 83rd time, Dad would just keep going. He had a sense of wonder when it came to dogs that I don’t see in many people.
That sense of wonder he had with Willow never faded over the many years that she ruled over our home, which made losing her many years later that much harder.
Let me start by saying this: there is never a good time for your dog to pass away. No matter how long they live, you just want more time. No matter how much they might frustrate you, you long for their eternal companionship. No matter how many squirrels they bark at, you never want that bark to cease. There is no good time to say goodbye—ever.
Losing a dog is hard at any time—but it’s especially hard around the holidays. Especially on Christmas.
Willow was 14 years old on Christmas Eve a few years back, and when I awoke that morning and saw my Mom enter my room with tear-filled eyes, I knew something wasn’t right. She came in and told me that Willow was not well. Her respiratory issues were making it nearly impossible for her to breathe, and after a consultation with the veterinarian over the phone, my Dad had made the decision that it was time to have Willow put to rest. As I sat in my bed and cried, Mom hugged my shoulders and told me that we didn’t have much time. In the time we did have left, she wanted me to have an opportunity to say my goodbyes.
I walked out of my room and down the hallway, stepping over Willow’s bed which sat right outside of my bedroom door. For the past twelve years since she had become ours, she slept outside my room on a pillow-style bed, waiting for my Dad to rise each morning so she could traipse behind him until he left for work.
I wondered what that next morning would be like. I wondered how horrible it would feel to walk about of my room and not see Willow laying there. To not be able to reach down and pet her head.
But as much as I worried about me, I worried so much more about my Dad.
Willow had been his best buddy in life. For twelve years, they had been inseparable any time he was in the house. In fact, my Dad always had a favorite Dad joke related to my sibling rivalry with Willow. He would grab me by the shoulder and look me square in the eye and say “You know, if it wasn’t for Willow, you would totally be my favorite child.” (I think it was a joke. I think…) I was worried about Dad losing his best friend.
As I came down the stairs, I saw Willow and I could tell that she was clearly in pain. She could only sit for a few seconds without getting up and needing to move, but she couldn’t move without being unable to breathe. It was so difficult to see our once vibrant, active dog experiencing such pain and feeling completely helpless to do anything about it.
And when I looked over by her side, I saw how much pain my Dad was in watching her suffer. Dad had clearly been crying—hard. His eyes were swollen behind his oval-shaped frames. With our family Christmas tree glistening nearby, he sat next to Willow, gently stroking her side and telling her it was going to be okay. I’ll never, ever be able to erase that image from my mind. I’ll never be able to unsee the pain my Dad was in during that moment.
I had my final moments with Willow where I told her how much I loved her. I told her what a wonderful dog she had been for so many years. I apologized to her for yelling at her when I got frustrated, and I told her how much joy she had brought to all of our lives. I told her that she had been the absolute best dog I had ever had—and I meant it, even if she did like Dad better.
I hugged my Dad and told him how sorry I was. I remember him saying that he just didn’t want to see her in pain anymore, and I could tell what a difficult decision this had been. Dad asked me if I wanted to go with him to the veterinarian’s office, and I told him I didn’t think I could. He understood, and told me Mom would be going with him. I watched as he loaded poor Willow into his truck like he had done for so many rides around town together (which she loved), and when he and Mom were clearly out of site, I completely lost it.
But just as he had promised, Dad stayed with Willow until the end. He just couldn’t leave his best friend—that was the type of man my Dad was.
Needless to say, Christmas that year was tinged with an unbelievable sadness. My entire family—my Grandpa and Grandma, my aunts and uncles, my cousins—had all loved Willow just as much as we did. We didn’t feel right having our normal Christmas Eve celebration, so we had to postpone it for a few days until the initial grief wore off. That Christmas was a rather bleak one, because Willow had always made Christmas so much fun for us—especially Dad. One of her favorite things to do was opening Christmas gifts. Dad and Mom would buy Willow all kinds of wonderful doggie Christmas gifts—snacks, toys, collars, more snacks—and they would wrap them with ribbons and bows. Somehow, Willow seemed to be able to sniff out which presents were hers. She would grab them and put them between her paws and unwrap them with her teeth one-by-one, leaving little shreds of wrapping paper all round her.
I have never seen my Dad as entertained as he was when he was watching Willow unwrap Christmas gifts. He would laugh, and laugh, and laugh some more as she pulled tiny strips of paper from her gifts. He would tell Mom and I over and over again to look at her—and we would tell him we were watching as he smiled along. I swear the man took more pictures of the dog opening her gifts than he did of his only son! But he loved it—and I knew this particular Christmas was going to feel so empty without her. We had to remove her gifts from around the tree before Christmas morning because we couldn’t bear the thought of finishing our morning and seeing only her gifts left behind.
Dad loved Christmas, but he just wasn’t the same that year—rightly so. He still enjoyed the holiday with his family, but his sadness was palpable. He just wasn’t himself that year because he missed Willow so very much. I even offered to open a few gifts with my teeth on Christmas morning. Dad laughed, and then we both talked about how much we missed Willow. He talked about how his mornings just wouldn’t be the same without having her follow him around. My heart broke for Dad.
Which is why I was so surprised when, just a few short weeks after losing her, Dad said he wanted to get another dog.
Surprised probably isn’t the right word. Because I was a know-it-all young adult, I was actually outraged. Furious. Upset that he could just “forget” about how special Willow had been.
Mom and Dad had told me sometime in January that they were talking with a breeder who had a litter of Airedales being born soon. They were planning to get one of the puppies. I couldn’t believe it! We had just lost Willow a few weeks earlier, and I didn’t see how it would ever feel right to replace her so quickly. I was still grieving her, and I didn’t understand why they wanted to get a dog so quickly.
So, I did what any self-righteous adolescent would do—I told them they could get a dog, but I refused to be nice to it or accept it. I told them that my days of scooping retched dog food out of a can were done. I told them that I was going to stand my ground, and that no amount of puppy eyes would ever be able to sway me. I may have even called my parents heartless for wanting to get another dog so quickly (talk about dramatic!). I told them that I wouldn’t budge.
And when my Dad brought Lucy home and I opened the front door, I saw two little black eyes peeking out from inside a tightly wrapped bundle held in my Dad’s arms. And I didn’t budge.
I completely caved.
Stay tuned for the continuation of the “Lucy” series in the coming weeks at SeeyaBub.com.