A little more than eleven years ago, at the very end of December 2003, we welcomed Jetta into our lives. Mira, our daughter, had done a very effective job of lobbying us to get a dog–even including a pitch for one in her Bat Mitzvah speech that previous September. We decided we wanted to “rescue” a dog rather than adopt a puppy, and found Jetta through a listing on Craigslist. She was living with a family in Greenwich Village in a small apartment–they had adopted her from friends who found her abandoned somewhere in Brooklyn, tied to lamp-post with a note saying something along the lines of “I’m a good dog, please adopt me.” She seemed happy there, but it was also clear she needed more space and the family that was taking care of her wanted her to be somewhere in the suburbs with more room and green. They were right.
On her ride home, Jetta was really nervous and nauseous, and it took Leslie doing several weeks of slow and steady behavioral training to get her comfortable being in a car. But as soon as she came into our home, she found her “house”–the cage that she had grown accustomed to living in in the city, and we marveled at how quickly she started to adjust to being a member of our family. I remember vividly how she behaved during a blizzard that winter–she desperately needed to go out to go to the bathroom (she never had an accident in the house), and somehow, in the whirling and blinding snow, she managed to find the one patch of grass to go pee on. A smart dog!
Something about being abandoned as a puppy definitely made her more nervous around other dogs than many Labs, and in those early years we worked on trying to help her with socialization–hiring a trainer to work with us on helping her calm down when other dogs might pass by, and then taking her up to Saugerties for some in-depth training. None of it completely stuck, but over time she got calmer and with some dogs in the neighborhood, didn’t care in the slightest when they passed by. Others–rivals? or just dogs who themselves were a bit more aggressive too–still got her hackles up. But I also think she was doing what she thought she needed to do to protect us and protect our house.
As she matured, we taught her some tricks, and she showed us some of her own. When she wanted to play, she could bring a rope toy over to you to ask for a “tug of war.” When Leslie was in the kitchen making dinner, she learned to wait patiently on the mat nearby in expectation of an eventual treat. When we had pizza, she always managed to beg some crust from me. And when we lit candles on a Friday night and ate challah, she’d come sit alongside us, knowing full well that she was going to get a piece of Leslie’s yummy homemade challah too.
When we got Jetta, the deal (in theory) was for Mira to be her main caregiver. But in truth, the real deal was for me and Leslie to parent her–and since Jetta’s nervousness around other dogs was sometimes worrisome to Leslie, I became her main dog walker for all the days that I worked from home, or in the mornings or evenings as well. And while walking a dog can be a chore–especially in bad weather–the truth is that Jetta was really good for my health. For a number of years we’d jog together, even in winter when I would bundle up in long-johns and thermal undershirts.
It’s hard to say exactly how this works, but at some point our walks simply became islands of calm focus in a sea of noise and competing demands on my attention. I almost never made or took a phone call while walking Jetta–walk time was our parentheses away from the rest of the real world, when being outdoors and noticing the changing light, or the birds in the trees, or some new flower or a change in one of our neighbors’ houses was more than enough stimulation.
When I had time, I’d take her up into the Hillside Woods behind the Hastings elementary school and let her run free–with plenty of treats to hopefully keep her nearby. That generally worked, except for the one time that she took off after a couple of deer and disappeared deep into the woods for about a half hour. That time, I kept calling her name, and Leslie went to different corner of the woods to try and spot her before she perhaps wandered onto a nearby street. We honestly began to worry that we had lost her. And then suddenly she appeared, right where she had left me to chase the deer, panting heavily, but with a happy glint in her eye.
We also jog or walk along the old Croton Aqueduct trail (that’s a photo of the trail in my blog’s header), and many years ago discovered that if you veered off the trail at one of the spots where the viaduct was built over a stream, you could actually get down to the water. Jetta came to know and love that spot, and often when we’d walk or run by, she’d pull to make sure I took the detour so she could cool off a little and drink the running water.
Over the years, we took a couple of trips with her. Once, when she was pretty young, she came with us to a house we rented out on the North Fork of Long Island. We had found that there was a local swimming area that allowed dogs to wade into the bay waters, and we took her there to try swimming together with the whole family. Back then, we weren’t sure how well bonded she was to us, so I think we were pretty nervous about letting her off the leash to swim. Knowing what I know now about her nature and intelligence, I am sorry we didn’t try doing that kind of swimming play with her more often. At Goldens Bridge, I only let her off the leash when we went walking deep into the woods (the “17 acres”) behind the colony, where she would run happily down to a stream she knew. Back at the house, we’d keep her on leash in the yard for fear of her running after some animal into the busy road nearby.
She had endearing habits. In the summer, when her black fur undoubtedly kept her too warm, she’d curl up either on the bathroom floor downstairs, where it was really cool. That’s where she is right now, as I write these words. Or she’d plop down by the air conditioning duct in the main bathroom. Sometimes we would find her resting in the bathtub. Thunder and lightning made her really nervous and she’d bark unhappily during storms. She also always barked at the mailman as he approached the house. Even two days ago, when her illness was really weakening her and she could barely walk more than a few steps outside to pee, she barked heartily when the mailman approached. That game she always won, because her barking was always followed by him walking away.
She loved having her belly rubbed, and endearingly she would stick out her top paw and touch you on the chest or shoulder if you came close while giving her a scratch or massage. And if you asked for a “kiss” she was always happy to lick your face. Sometimes if you stopped petting her while she was sitting, she’d wag just the tip of her tail back and forth as if to say, “I like that–do it more!”
In the last year, before she got sick, she started to change in two ways. First, there was her arthritis, which weakened her back legs at the hips and made it much harder for her to get up stairs. Nevertheless, most mornings she’d come up to our room before we had awoken, either to lie nearby us or to start to nudge us awake. And the other big change was that she started to talk a lot more–she developed a whole repertoire of mild yips and low rumbling growls that weren’t full barks, and usually meant: “pay attention to me” or “feed me” or “let me out.”
When Mira went off to college, in 2009, we put up a fence closing off the backyard, so Jetta could run freely. Before that, we had a rope run which she never really enjoyed. If only we had put up that fence sooner! She loved being out back, either so she could patrol the grounds, or chase squirrels, or just zone out on the deck or in the grass. Like most Labs, Jetta was by nature an outdoor dog, one that needed plenty of exercise and stimulation. I remember the vet telling me, back in the days when I jogged with her regularly, that she had a very strong heart, no doubt because of all that exercise. And even in this last year, as her arthritis kicked in, she still often had the energy and desire to take a long walk with Leslie and me on the old Croton trail by the Saw Mill–we even did a really long hike with her and Mira deep into the Rockefeller State Park wood in April.
Fencing off the backyard also led to another one of her self-taught tricks. Often during a walk around the block, she’d pick up a stick to bring home. Once we got to our house, she’d tug me on the leash, still holding the stick, and walk us to the gate to the back. Once there, she’d drop the stick, sometimes to gnaw on it, and other times just to add to her collection. Here are two photos with truly enormous sticks she managed to carry home.
I know that sometime in the last year, I started steeling myself for the possibility that she wouldn’t be with us for much longer. Her arthritis along with occasional odd bouts of stomach trouble were just reminders that like all creatures, Jetta was mortal, and that she couldn’t be with us all our lives. Of course, I also imagined that it wouldn’t be for a few more years. But I started taking more pictures of her, and thankfully we have some wonderful videos of her playing in one of this winter’s blizzards. I also discovered that she really liked going for dips in Sugar Pond–the cold water seemed to be good for her arthritis–and when we’d go up to the Hillside Woods nearby she’d often pull me to take her to the pond, just so she could get a drink and cool off a bit.
Today is the day we are saying goodbye. Writing those words is incredibly hard and right now I am taking turns howling, wiping back tears, and trying to collect my thoughts about how we can do this. But this is part of life with a dog, too. We’d noticed that she was getting a bit weaker, and not long ago Mira noticed that she seemed a little bloated. I took her to the vet Tuesday and sadly, we discovered that her spleen was quite enlarged and filled with tumors. For a dog at her age, surgery simply isn’t a realistic option. Even if she miraculously doesn’t have more tumors in other parts of her body, and even if she survived the operation and risk of complications, at best she might gain a few months of life, and she could still die suddenly, scarily and painfully, from hemorrhaging. Our vet is very experienced and humane, and when we asked him what he would do if this was his dog, he didn’t mince words. She’s terminally ill, he told us. The most humane thing to do is to give her a calm and painless release.
I know this is the right thing to do. But right now I am also reminded of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. In it, every human has a spirit creature or daemon that represents their inner self and manifests as some kind of animal that is intrinsically bonded to that person. In that fictional world, to be separated from one’s daemon is to lose a part of oneself. It is physically painful.
In our real world, we bond with many other beings, and the strongest of those bonds are made with unconditional love. As a parent of two wonderful children, I understand how this bond works, since I (and Leslie) have given only unconditional love to Mira and Jesse. And we have, fortunately, received unconditional love from our parents, who taught us well. But the amazing thing about a dog is that she gives unconditional love back to you. A dog’s mind may be simple, but in this one respect dogs are our masters. Jetta gave us the one pure thing a dog can give, and for this we are now tightly bonded, so much that our inevitable parting is causing me and the rest of our little family great pain. We have been blessed by her grace. May her soul be blessed.