Tuesday, July 16, 2013

My Dog, Claire

My dog, Claire, in the kitchen at home. 

I got my dog, Claire, back in March of 1999—over fourteen years ago. She was a nine week-old puppy back then. And since then, I’ve spent more hours of my waking life with her than with any person—even my parents when I was growing up.

Think about it: I work at home, so she’s always hanging around—either napping directly behind my chair, or stepping out onto the balcony and watching the world go by. Even during the years when I worked in an office with other people, I would bring Claire along. (I could get away with that, of course, because I owned the businesses.) I once even had a fairly tense meeting with some investment bankers in my office, and Claire was there. No one noticed her: She lay under a corner table, watching everything without making a sound, the squad of banksters completely oblivious to her presence.

Claire was probably wondering, What are these crazy humans up to?

Claire isn’t my child, by the way:
There are some pet owners who—perversely, as far as I’m concerned—treat their pets as if they were children. Or rather, allow their pet to fill the psychic space where a child would be. That’s not the case with me and Claire: She’s the dog, I’m the human. In the next life, our roles might be reversed, but for now—in this life—she’s the dog, and I treat her as such.

I walk her four times a day—early in the morning, then just before lunch, then at the end of the work day, and finally at nighttime just before we go to sleep. She’s never on a leash. I used to have her on a leash, back when she was a puppy. But already when she was six months old or so, she would yank so hard on the leash that sometimes I’d stumble. One time, in fact, she yanked so hard that I tipped over and fell on top of a fire hydrant, cracking a couple of ribs.

This was in New York, in lower Manhattan, where I was living at the time. I was worried she’d run away, if I let her off the leash—but she kept insisting that she wanted off the leash, so . . . We would walk the circuit from my apartment, on Pearl Street, to Broad Street, past the stock exchange. Then at Wall Street, we’d turn right—east—to William Street, until we got to Hanover Square. Then again right—west—on Pearl Street and home.

At first, I was fairly worried she’d run away—but Claire never did. She’d pad along bside me—sniffing around—briefly panicking whenever she lost sight of me amid the crowd of people going to and fro, relaxing when she realized I hadn’t been swallowed by the throng.

I got Claire for my birthday in 1999, from the North Shore Animal League in New York; a fairly well-known animal shelter. I was living in lower Manhattan at the time, and when I decamped in 2001, I left on a six month roadtrip—travelling across Canada all the way to Yellowknife, then west over the Rockies and onto Deadhorse, on the North Shore of Alaska, camping out in the middle of winter in –20ยบ C weather. Then south all the way to Anchorage, then down by ferry to Juneau, and then by three day ferry to Bellingham, then down the Pacific coast to San Diego, then on to Texas, and then back up north to Boston.

Claire of course came along.

She was the perfect roadtrip companion: Never fussy, always curious about the surroundings, always friendly with strangers. In Seattle, a junkie broke into my Land Rover—with Claire in it—and tried stealing my video camera. He succeeded, but he paid dearly for it: Claire literally mauled him, leaving the junkie’s blood all over the inside of the car, the camera gone but the junkie clearly the worse for wear. When I came back and saw what had happened, Claire was drenched in blood but looking very happy with her tongue lolling out, and a look that said, See that? I rock!

But Claire isn’t violent or vicious. On the contrary, Claire is a very affectionate, very easygoing dog. She loves socializing with other dogs—she never barks at a strange dog on first meeting—and she’s very good with children, letting them paw her and yank at her ears without ever complaining; I once saw my year-old nephew stick his whole arm into Claire’s jaw and down her throat, and she didn’t complain. And since she’s so athletic, she’s always up for any adventure, even if it’s no more exciting than a quick 3-mile jog.

Claire never barks, except when there’s someone just outside the door. And she’s friendly with just about everyone—except two very specific classes of people: Bums, and girlfriends (and now wife).

Whenever she sees a bum—or a particularly slobby construction worker—she’ll bark like crazy, really go around the bend. I don’t know what it is, but a couple of times, I’ve had to physically restrain her. Bums just drive her up the wall.

The other class of people Claire definitely does not like are my girlfriends or my wife—and oddly, none of them have liked Claire. She makes them jealous.

With good reason, I suppose: One time, while living in Manhattan, I was dating S., a 26 year-old finance goddess: 5’9”, blonde, athletic, investment-banker, scary-smart. One Sunday, I’m making brunch in my loft, while S. is lying on the couch and watching the Sunday news shows. We’re chatting about the news, while Claire is eyeing us both, sitting on her haunches in a spot a bit aways, where she could observe both of us.

Finally, in a lull in our conversation, Claire quietly goes over to S., stands by the couch next to her—eyes her—cranes her neck and turns to me, her ears perking, making sure she gets my complete attention—

—and then Claire jumped on the couch—jumped on top of S.—and then Claire stomped her head.

S. and I broke up shortly thereafter.

Claire has peed on girlfriend’s shoes, barked constantly at a couple of others, and once physically pushed aside another—pushed her so hard that this young woman fell over. (She was wearing high heels; she shoulda known better.) My wife and Claire are severely jealous of eachother, both of them constantly complaining about the other.

Claire adores my mother, though, and has no trouble with my sister. Claire instinctively knows which girl is a friend, and which girl might be a girlfriend. With the former, Claire is sunshine-and-kisses. With the latter? Ugh.

The weird thing is, living together so long, we can read each other instantly. Even though she has the same expression, I can instantly tell the difference between when she’s bored, when she has to pee, when she’s hungry, and when she’s sick. She can also tell when I’m whiny, and when I mean business.

This ability to read intentions goes to something pretty interesting: Claire has a sense of humor. She can tell when I’m serious, and when I’m just fucking with her.

One time, years ago, it was time for her to go out for her walk.

I got up, got ready to go out—Claire perked up, wagging her tail and lolling her tongue in anticipation—but then I opened the door and told her, “Stay Claire, be good.”

And then I began to close the front door—with her still inside.

She stared at me as the door closed, with a look like, What the fuck? It’s time to go pee!

But then I laughed and opened the door wider—and then Claire made an annoyed sound, and then laughed. Like saying, Good one!

It’s a running joke we now have. Sometimes—not often, or else it gets boring—I’ll pretend to leave her behind, when it’s time to go out. She’ll make complaining yaps sometimes, like saying, Quit it already, that’s an old one. But when I haven’t done it in a while—say a week—she’ll smile and let out a light yelp, shoving her way out the door between my legs.

However, sometimes when I have to go out right when it’s her usual time to go out, she’ll instantly recognize that I’m not kidding. She’ll know that it’s no joke—I have to go out, but she has to stay home. And she’s cool—she somehow understands.

Claire is dying. I can tell.

Claire is fourteen, and I can see how she is getting older. She can’t jump anymore. She used to be able to jump up on her hind legs, put her front paws on my chest, and stick her snout up into my face. She’d do this all the time, but not anymore. It’s because of her back: About four years ago, she had an operation to repair a slipped disc; it was successful, but she wasn’t as big into jumping after that. And as the years went by, she lost her confidence.

She used to be able to jump so high . . . as if she had springs in her hind legs. Near my apartment, there was a thick retaining wall about five-and-a-half feet high, about six inches wide: In a single bound, Claire could jump on top of the retaining wall effortlessly, standing on the six inch width as if it were all the space she needed, turning around to look around from that height, then leaping off the wall effortlessly before going on her way.

Not anymore. When we pass even small obstacles—no more than a foot high—which she used to leap over as casually as taking a step, she eyes the obstacle, then goes around it.

In 2011, doctors removed a tumor. Last year, doctors removed another tumor, this one on one of her teats, and another lump on the side of her ribs. They checked her and found more tumors throughout her body. A team of veterinarians outlined a treatment plan. But it was clear that the consequences of the treatment would not be particularly good for Claire, so I desisted.

It’s not that the treatment would be painful or expensive, but rather, Claire would not understand what the treatment was doing. When a human gets treated for cancer, the short term pain and misery is offset by the knowledge that the patient has during the treatment: The knowledge that, after the treatment is done, the patient will get better. Or at least might get better.

But you can’t explain that to a dog. To her, the treatment would feel like dying—worse than dying, probably: It would just be misery. Worse still, it wasn’t clear that Claire would recover, after the treatment. So several months of misery-inducing treatment might well end up with her dying of cancer anyway.

The head veterinarian was a very decent guy. “She’s a fourteen year-old dog: With or without treating the cancer, she might last a year, she might last five years—no one can say,” he told me, when I asked about treatment options.

So I decided to forget about it. I decided that Claire wouldn’t get any treatment. If she dies in a year, it’ll be a good and happy year. If she dies in five years, they’ll be happy years too. I don’t see much of a point of making her suffer so as to maybe extend her life for my sake.

Because any treatment wouldn’t be for her sake—it would be for my sake.  I would be happy for her to live longer—but Claire would be suffering through the treatment. My guilt would be assuaged—I would be able to say, “I did everything possible, spared no expense, got all the best treatment.” But Claire would feel miserable—and have no idea why this misery was happening to her.

So we live every day like it’s the last. Because it is, every day. For the dog. For me.

I very much regret not allowing her to have puppies of her own. When she was in her prime breeding years, I was just too busy with stuff. I couldn’t be bothered, to have a dog with puppies, and the hassle that that would entail. And when it was too late, I realized how much she would have needed puppies of her own. How happy she would have been. Not only because having had puppies would have likely prevented her from getting breast cancer. Puppies would have made her life . . . fuller.

The fact of the matter is—and as insane as I know it surely does sound—I recently had a child of my own precisely because of Claire. Like everyone else, I’d always thought I’d have plenty of time to have a child, just as I always thought that there would be plenty of time for Claire to have puppies. But after Claire’s bouts with cancer, I realized that it was too late for her—and that it would soon be too late for me. This wasn’t some sort of big reveal; it didn’t even rise to the level of being articulated. But it was a feeling of missed opportunity, whenever I looked at Claire. Her compressed life—because compared to a human’s, a dog’s life is severely accelerated and compressed—taught me better than words ever could that life is short, and that once an opportunity passes you by, it does not come back. Which was why, when the opportunity came to have a child and start building a family, I didn’t hesitate.

Claire taught me that. I have her to thank for my new family.

When she was a small puppy, I would tickle her belly. That would get her kicking up into the air, thrilled. As she lay on her back, expecting me to tickle her some more, I would sometimes instead spin her around and around, and then shove her across the shiny wood floor of my apartment. Because it was so polished and smooth—and because she was so small and light—she would slide a good five-six feet away from me. But even as she was sliding, she would be scrambling to get back on her feet, scrambling to get back to me, her little paws scampering ridiculously as they tried to get purchase on the polished, smooth wooden floor. And when she did get back to me, she would roll over on her back again, her belly up, her tongue lolling, her shiny brown eyes alight, looking up at me as if saying, “Do it again! Do it again! Do it again!

She's lying right behind my chair as I write this: An old fourteen year-old dog lying on her side as if guarding me. She’s asleep, and she’s dreaming. I can tell: Her paws are twitching as if she were running, and she’s gently yelping, her woofs high-pitched and eager. She’s dreaming about chasing something, a rabbit or a cat maybe. Sometimes, her woofs turn nervous, as if the dream is turning sour. So as she sleeps, I’ll say in a calming voice:

Good dog. Good puppy. It’s all good, Claire. It’s all right.

Claire at rest.


  1. We were devastated when we lost our dog to cancer.... regarding our grief I found that it was a case of "If you have to explain it, they won't understand"

  2. God Made the earth, the sky and the water, the moon and the sun. He made man and bird and beast. But He didn't make the dog. He already had one. -- Native American saying.

    All dogs are God's dogs. Their lives are short because He cannot bear them being gone too long.

  3. you have girlfriends (plural) and a wife? Lucky bastard... Or maybe not.

  4. Great piece. I've lost a dog to cancer and know what you're going through. It's tough but I wouldn't trade the time with a dog for anything in the world. Our current dog is 10 and I'm taking advantage of every opportunity to spend time with him since I have no idea how much longer we have together. I'll be praying for you Gonzalo and Claire. I hope every day is special. God bless.

  5. Hi Gonzalo,
    My husband, who is an ardent reader of your writings, sent me the link to this piece. Our 16 year old dog died two months ago and he knew I would enjoy reading about you and Claire. I know what you're going through. You'll be heartbroken when she goes, but it'll all have been worth it. Carpe diem to the both of you!

  6. Dear Gonzalo,

    Some years back I bought a dog - my first which I named Buster. Soon after, we got another one for my wife - a little female JR x Bichon Frise that we called Minnie. They were both puppies together and were great friends. Buster was a lovely lively Jack Russell puppy but soon after we got him he started having fits. We suspected accidental poisoning but in time and after lots of tests and observation it became apparent that he had epilepsy. One day he began fitting and didn't come out of it as he usually did. The vet advised that we put him to sleep and so we did.

    The point of this is to let you know what happened next. I was determined to have a companion dog for Minnie (dogs like to be part of a pack and humans can only partly replace dogs in this way) so within a month we found another JR puppy (a pedigree animal from a reputable breeder). He didn't look exactly the same as the first Buster but the breeder wisely said that I shouldn't try and measure a new dog against the standard of the previous one. She was right, the new puppy was different but he was a wonderful replacement.

    In no time at all, Minnie and the new dog (also called Buster) were best friends and eventually they had two litters of puppies together. We kept one of them (the littlest one called Peanut) and now all three live together with us.

    My wife was sceptical of the idea of replacing Buster with another dog so quickly but there is no doubt it was the best thing for all of us and for Minnie too.

    It eases the pain of the loss and provides a good home for a tiny animal that needs one and well... you know about all the joy the dogs bring to you.

    So my advice is don't dismiss the idea of quickly getting another dog when Claire passes. It's the best thing for you and living in a good home like yours (even with a sceptical wife) is surely a very good thing for a dog - and a baby too.

    Best wishes

  7. I'm not a pet person, but I understand those who are. It's good to find joy in companionship and from your comments, both you and Claire did.


  8. For those of you dog/pet owners that may have missed it, The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein is a terrific book. The novel is written from the point of view of a dog; absolutely terrific.


  9. Sorry to hear. I think you're doing the right thing not pursuing treatment - I've recently been through the exact same situation with one of my dogs. I was heart wrenching when we lost him, but I agree 100% with you - treatment would be cruel, and more for your benefit that the dog's.

    Cherish and enjoy the time you have left with her.

  10. Gonzolo,
    I found a video you made on economics, I am a gold silver broker and write on my own site whynotgold.com and on a couple of other sites but I enjoyed you and found your BLOG. About Claire, I too have had many dogs and I want to point out to you and others that with a dogs life compressed into a decade or so a day away from their owner to them feels like it would to 5 days away from a humans loved one. Just thought pet owners would then understand how dogs feel when we leave them alone. Now you understand why they sometimes get made and tear yp the house or couch or your favorite pair of shoes.

  11. I usually end up with a stray cat but I guess that's me. But the cat always remains an “outdoor” cat although the cat does tend to spend a good deal of time inside, especially in winter. No indoor litter box necessary and she never messes. Strays, abandoned animals, dog pound dogs, etc are always very affectionate since they never forget who saved them and took them in.

    Some people say, “Oh, but your cat could be killed outside, or eaten by the coyotes, or maybe she'll run away...!” Well, she's a smart “street cat”, very cautious, so being killed is unlikely. Besides, it's her freedom to be a cat and live like one. Freedom vs security. Hasn't that been in the news lately? And if she wants to run away, well that's always in her power. But I've never had a cat do that.

    GL, your dog has had a good life. Your decision to let her go in her own time is the right one. You are respecting what's best for her and not doing what's psychologically easiest for you. I think many vets have turned end of life issues for animals into an occasion for obscene profit and shamelessly play upon peoples' attachments to that end. They monetize guilt. But it seems that's not the case with your vet and you're lucky there.

    Anyway, let your wife pick out the next dog, with your approval, and only after a suitable period of mourning for Claire. Get a breed that doesn't attach to just one person and likes kids (emphasis on the plural, and yes there's never a “good” time until there's no time left so just do it.) I have friends who chose not to have kids and I've never understood that. Kids are great. And so are pets.



  12. Gonzalo,

    I haven't owned a pet since I was a kid, but your story about Claire was moving. But for your gratuitous profanity, I loved this memoir of a special relationship with your dog. The curse words were a needless distraction from an otherwise beautiful story.

    You are better than this. You don't need those words to communicate in a powerful way.

  13. i recently lost my elderly dachshund, minnie. she was thirteen, and had had several tumors. i decided for reasons similar to yours, to not subject her to a long, painful, and probably futile course of treatment. i found her one morning on the lawn, stiff and cold. i buried her where she fell.
    i now have a new puppy. half jack russell, a quarter miniature dachshund, and a quarter chihuahua. i found her on craigslist.
    the dog is gone. long live the dog.
    bob iglehart

  14. Moving story G. Take care. Thanks for sharing. I lost my Huskie of 19 years and replaced him wih a Shiba. Now the Shiba is showing sings of ageing. The Jack Russel / Beagle we got in between keeps everyone "engaged". They are and always will be part of the family.
    Amazing animals they are. Much better often times than humans.

  15. For the past 25 years or so, my wife and I too have had dogs (beings whose common name is GOD spelled backward in lower case letters). We have now had the care , feeding, and loving of five dogs since 1992 or so. Three have passed on, each leaving that deliciously sorrowful vacuum of heart, what I came to call over many more years than this story, the Infinite Well of Sadness and Grief. No wonder dogs and humans have linked up for so long. We were made for each other.

  16. We just got our 2-year-old German Shepherd back from the vet -- osteosarcoma. They took her front leg off at the shoulder. If they got it all, she should live to 10 or 12. If it has metastasized, she's got maybe four months. We feel like we've given her her best chance -- now, it's between the dog and God. Your Claire has led a great and happy life -- she'll be with you in spirit forever. And when it's your time, you'll get to Heaven and there will be a great slobberfest as she happy-attacks you like she's never done before. Love to you all right now -- you're not alone.

  17. We recently lost our dog Louie, who was there for so many important events in my and my wife's life... Our meeting, our marriage, our moving far away from "home" and back again two years later - and finally the birth of our daughter. She entered our lives earlier this year and dear Louie left us just weeks ago. We did our best to make his life as full and happy as he helped make ours. My only wish is that our little girl could have grown up knowing our good buddy and been able to enjoy him as her ever-loving companion as we did.

    Louie will always have a special place in our hearts and we have so many good, crazy and happy stories to share about him with our little girl... And hopefully we can take the leap sooner than later and find a dog that will accept us as their pack and grow up alongside her.

  18. Lovely story. I really enjoyed it.


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