We first met Toby when he was a tiny little ball of chocolate fur. Desperate Hubby and I were not yet married, but engaged and living together. DH saw an ad in the paper for a litter of six-week old puppies – half Chesapeake Bay Retriever, one-quarter lab and one-quarter golden retriever.
He just had to have one.
Although we already had a motley assortment of dogs around the place, I was newly in love and disinclined to deny my future husband even his smallest wish. We drove to rural Meridian on a cool October day and were escorted to a pen out back of a country-ish looking residence. The pen featured a big wooden dog house and was filled with about a foot of fluffy yellow straw. And puppies. Lots of puppies. They barked and leaped on the chain link in excitement, greeting us as though we were long-lost friends.
I don’t remember how DH chose Toby out of the nine candidates, but it wasn’t long before we paid the owners our $150 cash (kind of expensive for a mutt, don’t you think? I remember saying). Toby rode home in the back of our Suburban, small enough to fit in a plastic cat carrier.
Our new pup had an idyllic life out there on Flicker Lane. We were a mile or so from a paved road and he had easy access to an irrigation pond that offered delightful swimming in the hot months. He learned to follow the four-wheeler and trail ride with the horses, and to hunt for pheasants and quail in the potato and wheat fields around the house.
He grew quickly into a big, strong, completely unmanageable dog.
Our beautiful mutt was great with humans of all ages, but as he got a little older it was evident that he did not play well with other dogs. I begged DH to get him neutered, but that subject never got far. I finally talked my new husband into sending Toby for some formal training. The dog was strong both physically and mentally, and it was difficult for me to handle him, particularly around other canines.
DH reluctantly agreed, and made arrangements to send Toby to a trainer in the Payette area for a two month hunting and obedience stint. The training was expensive (again….for a mutt?) but I was at my wit’s end trying to contain the thinly veiled aggression that Toby showed to any strange dog.
I remember clearly the day I delivered Toby to the trainer. I had him on a leash with a choke collar, and he dragged me from the car into the office area where I was to sign the paperwork and pay for his lessons. Once I got him in the enclosed room I let go of his tether, and he ran around sniffing everything like crazy. The trainer grabbed the leash as Toby waltzed by and jerked him to a halt. I can still see the look of surprise in the poor dog’s eyes when he realized that things were a-changing in his circle of influence.
When we got Toby back two months later he truly was a changed dog. He walked quietly on a leash beside you and sat instantly on command. He was also a pretty good hunter, though that was a skill that he never did get much formal practice on.
One thing that didn’t change, though, was Toby’s aggression to other dogs. DH had just enough good old boy redneckness that he steadfastly refused to neuter his pet, and as Toby matured his aggressive Chesapeake nature really started to assert itself. The dog loved to go for a ride in the back of the pickup, anytime and anywhere. One day as the duo left our house to head out somewhere, a couple of the neighbor dogs ran up beside the pickup barking as DH slowly cruised past on the dusty gravel road. Toby immediately went on attack, jumping out of the back of the pickup and landing on his right hind leg in such a way that he broke his knee completely through.
After rushing Toby to the emergency clinic, DH was informed that there was only one veterinarian in the state who could do the type of reconstructive surgery required for Toby to maintain mobility. The vet was in Sun Valley, and the surgery was extremely expensive (once again – for a mutt?), but DH loaded Toby up the next Tuesday afternoon, taking him on the long drive to get his leg repaired.
After the knee episode I did talk DH into getting Toby neutered, and that calmed him down somewhat, though he never did lose his tendency to want to fight with other dogs. About six months after Toby fractured his knee, he was bounding through the tall grass to the irrigation pond and somehow landed on a piece of rebar sticking up out of the ground. The metal pipe punctured his abdomen, resulting in yet another costly surgery and hospital stay. This was one expensive mutt!
Toby went through lots of changes with us over the course of his life. When we sold the house on Flicker Lane he moved with us to a rental with a tiny fenced courtyard while we built our next house out in Caldwell. I was sure he would go crazy in the little space, but he accepted the confinement with equanimity.
When we moved to the new house, Toby became a born again hunter. The problem was that he was hunting the neighbor’s chickens. He adapted quickly, though, to the electric dog fence that we installed, and became a reasonably behaved canine citizen once again.
I freely admit that I really only tolerated Toby for the first several years of his life. He was a beautiful dog and a good family pet, but it was obvious that he did not regard me as a being who was superior to himself. He respected and obeyed one person and one person only, and that was Desperate Hubby.
It wasn’t until I gave birth to Annabelle that Toby and I really started to bond. We had spent plenty of time together over the years, sure, and it wasn’t that I disliked him exactly, but I never saw the merit in a dog that completely ignored every command I issued. Once I had baby Annabelle I started walking her daily in her stroller down the labyrinth of dirt ditch banks that surrounded our country home.
Suddenly Toby found me much more interesting.
He and I walked for miles and miles every week, me pushing the stroller through the powdery dust and him running up and down the road beside me, stopping every few yards to jump in the ditch for a swim. We spent hours together, me and that big brown mutt, and a real relationship started to develop.
Toby was one of the first to welcome Baby Batman home, and he accompanied us on Batman’s first stroll when he was just a four-day old baby nestled in a sling across my chest.
Toby was getting older and more mature, and he soon started to develop a quality that I never thought I’d see in him.
He became an awesome kid’s companion.
For a dog that viciously attacked any other canine that encroached upon his space, Toby was amazingly tolerant of our young children. The kids climbed on him, took his ball, rode him, and sometimes used him for a couch.
He went out of his way to just hang out with them.
He patiently refrained from biting eighteen-month old Batman’s hand off when he teased him with a ball.
And allowed himself to be hooked to a sled, then happily pulled the kids all around the neighborhood in the snow.
When we had to move from our large horse property in the country into the small subdivision where we owned a rental home, I was worried that Toby wouldn’t adapt. He had enjoyed the freedom of running in acreage for almost his entire life.
But he didn’t mind at all. He was just happy to be where we were.
From the time he was just tiny, Batman had a special affinity for Toby, and I think the furry brown mutt felt the same. My little boy hugged the dog whenever he got the chance, and no matter what was going on Toby sat as still as a stuffed animal until he was released.
When we moved back to a house in the country about three years back, Toby once again had room to run. He made it a daily ritual to travel the few hundred yards down the gravel lane to our neighbor’s house for a visit. Grandpa Vernon would feed him a biscuit or two and give him a pat on the head, and eventually Toby would meander back toward home.
It was obvious that the old brown dog was slowing down. He trotted rather than ran from place to place. Even when he really wanted to keep up he was often behind the fun.
Even though it took him a little longer to get somewhere, he was always there in the end. He supervised Batman doing chores.
And he definitely never, ever lost his ability to catch an errant scrap of food.
Pizza or chips, he wasn’t picky.
He still loved to play fetch, though it was a very sad day when Winston actually began to beat him to the ball.
Through every occasion life offered up over the past fourteen years, Toby was there. He shared Christmas excitement.
And always loved to accompany us down the road for a jaunt.
He happily welcomed new horses to the family.
And begrudgingly accepted new puppies.
Over the past year or so it became apparent that Toby was beginning to fail. He slept more than he used to, and completely lost his hearing. He sometimes appeared to be confused.
The reconstructed knee started to give out, and some days it was hard for our friend to get up and around. Somehow though, he still managed to participate in all of our family events.
Toby maintained his habit of walking to Grandpa Vernon’s every day while we were outside feeding the horses. His hind feet dragged when he walked, and it started to take him longer and longer to make the round trip. But he still went.
Toby always walked beside us down the gravel road toward the canal when we took the horses around the field, and it was just last fall that he stopped trying to get into the canal for a swim. I think he realized that he couldn’t get back out. I felt awful for him. But he kept going.
The big brown mutt enjoyed a last hunting trip with DH and his best friend Batman in November of last year. Although he required help to get in and out of the SUV and couldn’t hear a single command that my husband gave him, he still managed to retrieve a pheasant and bring the live and furiously fighting bird back to the hunters.
Batman was so proud of him.
As his time got shorter, Toby became much more loving to me, and I guess I was to him as well. We shared a few moments every evening after feeding time; he would lean his head on my leg and I’d pat him and talk about the old days. Toby’s relationship with Batman also grew stronger.
I grew up in a rural agrarian community, and as a child I learned pretty quickly not to become too attached to any single animal, a trait that is not-uncommon for children raised on a farm. My somewhat cavalier attitude toward animals did not mean that I didn’t love them, on the contrary. I was known in our community as an animal collector. Any stray (or unattended, for that matter) dog, cat, chicken, or even the occasional horse within my range would usually find its way to our house. Animals came and went at a regular pace, and I learned to deal with it. I buried more than one dog in the lot behind our house, engaging my best buddy Tami to join me in singing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” as I threw dirt over the blanket wrapped corpse. Then I’d head off in search of a replacement.
It has only been in my later years that I have come to really appreciate the lasting value of a long-time relationship between animal and human. I have loved lots of animals in my life; dogs and horses that died too young; others that I sold out of necessity or convenience. But it has only been recently that I actively mourned the loss of an animal friend. I wrote recently of the sadness I felt after selling my horse Spice. It has taken me weeks to get to the point where I don’t tear up when I think about her.
My beautiful and oh-so-similar-to-me daughter Annabelle views things the way that I always had before. About two hours after delivering Spice to her new owners, she broached this question: “Mom, do you think we might start looking for another horse now that Spice’s pen is empty? Maybe a nice gelding that Zach and Daddy can ride? Or a barrel racing horse for me?” She sees loss not as an empty space, but an opportunity for a new relationship.
Batman is the complete opposite. He, with his tender heart and mature-beyond-his-years understanding of life is certainly an old soul. He tolerates the addition of new animals to the family, but makes it clear that he cherishes the ones he already has. I almost did not respond to the first email about selling Spice because of Batman. He went crazy every time I mentioned the possibility of her leaving us. “Nooooo, mama! Not Spice! I LOVE Spicey. You can’t sell her. I would be so sad!”
He resigned himself to the loss of his horse friend only after I explained about Spice’s new owner, a little girl who so very badly wanted a horse of her very own, who would love Spice just as much as we did. Batman’s empathetic nature won out in the end, and he grudgingly admitted that it would be a nice thing for Spice and her new owner if they could be together.
It was last Thursday night that Annabelle came rushing into the house to tell me that Toby was laying down and couldn’t get up. This was not the first time that had happened. There is a slick, bare patch of concrete on the back porch where the old brown dog liked to lay when it was hot. With his compromised balance and bum back leg he sometimes could not get the purchase to push himself upright from the slippery surface. “Is he on the concrete?” I asked her. I was crazy busy, trying to get ready to leave town the next morning for a horse show in Eastern Idaho. I was taking both Batman and Annabelle on the trip with me and to say I was already a little stressed would be an understatement.
“No, mom! He is in the yard.” I walked out the back door with dread. Toby was lying on the edge of the grass, his hips on a slight downhill slant from the rest of his body and resting in the slender ditch that runs along the edge of the porch. “Hey buddy” I said softly, tears already welling in my eyes. “What’s going on? Do you want to get up?” Toby just looked at me with sad liquid brown eyes. I put my arms under his chest and tried to lift him to his feet. Even with the weight loss he had suffered over the past months he was hard for me to move. I finally succeeded in getting him to his feet, but he tottered a few steps and then fell again.
Now I was really crying. Annabelle looked at me with a bemused look on her face. She didn’t understand the severity of the situation, and I think she was sure I was losing it completely.
I lifted Toby again, and he walked drunkenly around the yard in a circuitous path, stumbling as he tried to step up on the concrete porch and landing in a heap on the hard surface just a few feet from where he started.
I was not prepared to deal with what was happening. Denial ran strong and true through my veins as I sat on the ground and cradled the Toby’s gray muzzle on my lap. “You just need to rest a minute, then you’ll be all right,” I told him. I got a plastic bowl and filled it with water, sure he must be thirsty in the heat of the oppressive summer evening. The old dog didn’t even try to take a sip of the cool drink. He rested his head on my lap sadly for a minute before pulling away to lay flat on the ground again.
Now I really was losing it. I took Annabelle inside and told her to get herself and Batman ready for bed. The wind was picking up outside and rain was beginning to pelt the outside porch area where Toby lay. I wracked my brain trying to think how I could get him under shelter. I was afraid I would hurt him if I tried to pick him up with my arms, but I couldn’t bear to leave him out in the storm. In a sudden flash of inspiration I picked up one of the kids’ discarded beach towels and took it outside. I worked it carefully under the old dog’s limp torso and around his belly. Then I talked to him some more. “We’re going to get you up, Toby. We’re going to walk right up to your bed so you can lay down by the door.”
I lifted gently on both sides of the towel, slowly helping the old brown dog to his feet. Then I half-carried him to the covered area of the porch, laying him on the bed that Annabelle had carefully fluffed. No sooner had I released him then he staggered off again, walking straight off the edge of the porch to fall hard on the small brick surface outside of the porch railing. Again I picked him up. Again I carried him to his bed. This time he stayed.
I went back in the house. Desperate Hubby was gone setting up for a band gig in Kuna, and I knew he wouldn’t be back for a few hours. I had to leave in the morning no matter what, so I texted our friend Dr. Danny. I knew I should have called, but as hard as I was crying I was sure he would not be able to understand me anyway. My text was brief; I told him that Toby was down and couldn’t get up, and we needed his help the next day. I finished with the information that I was leaving town and I’d call before I left.
When DH got home I tried to control myself as I explained the situation, but tears streamed down my face. We walked outside to check on Toby, and I was happy to see that he had moved a little, to a more comfortable position on the bed. Maybe he was improving! DH was pretty practical about the situation. All he would say was not to worry, he’d take care of Toby while we were gone.
When I got up early the next morning to go and work my horse, Toby still lay on his bed. He seemed to be in a more comfortable position and appeared to be sleeping peacefully. I arrived back to the house mid-morning to pick up the kids and leave for Arco. Toby had moved off of his bed and lay just beside the back door. I encouraged the kids to go and spend some time with him before we left “since he wasn’t feeling well,” and they did. Annabelle kept asking when Dr. Danny was going to arrive to look at him, and I said soon.
Batman crouched down beside his friend and Toby lifted his grizzled head. Batman gave him a big hug and petted him for a moment, then asked if he could come back inside. Clearly he didn’t grasp the significance of the moment. I told the kids they could feed their friend some hot dogs, which they did. “He about bit my hand off mom!” Annabelle said. “He must not be feeling that bad.”
I stopped and patted the old dog for a minute as we left. I told him goodbye and that I’d be with him again one day. Tears streamed down my face as I loaded the truck and drove away. I knew I’d never see him again.
The horse show activity didn’t seem very important to me after all that had transpired in the last 24 hours. I went through the motions of getting my horse shown, but tears were never far from my eyes. The kids were having fun, but Annabelle kept worrying about Toby and asking if I had heard from Dr. Danny. I told her I’d let her know as soon as I did. I also reinforced to her each time she mentioned it that we needed to remember Toby was really, really old, and sometimes there is just nothing you can do for an old dog like that. She shrugged me off. “He’ll probably put him on Previcox,” she told me. “That’ll fix him up.” Previcox is an NSAID for animals that we give to Grumpy when he gets a little ouchy. I just said maybe so.
That night Batman, Annabelle and I slept crowded in a queen sized bed in a grungy hotel room. I cried most of the night as I lay awake thinking about writing this blog. DH and I had only texted during the day, but in his last text he had told me that Toby was gone. Danny had examined him and said he was declining fast. The only humane thing was to help him go to sleep.
I decided to wait until we were driving home to tell the kids. That way they would have a few hours to process the information before we got there, but they wouldn’t ruin their whole weekend thinking about it.
Saturday was a busy day, a blur of activity and emotion. Annabelle was getting more persistent about the status of our beloved family pet, and I kept up my mantra. Horse shows are distracting, so it wasn’t too hard to divert her attention from the status of our brown dog by letting her ride Grumpy or watch other contestants show.
We got back to the hotel late Saturday night. I was exhausted from too many nights running on little sleep and overwhelming emotion. I needed to go to bed. As we got ready to slide under the covers, Annabelle asked again if I had heard from Daddy. “What did Danny say?!” she was adamant to know. I sighed, and took the explanation a step further this time. I said that Daddy had finally texted me and he said that Toby was not doing well. Danny had said that most likely one day soon the old brown dog would go to sleep at night and then not wake up in the morning.
Batman was flipping through the Bible on the nightstand looking for horse pictures and he suddenly snapped to attention. “What? What did you say mom?” I repeated what I had said to his sister, and the meltdown happened. I crawled up on the bed and snuggled him against me. He sobbed and sobbed, and he had a million questions.
“Why do dogs have to get old? Why can’t we make them better? Why doesn’t Danny just give him some medicine? What happens to him after he dies? Is Toby’s mama was already in heaven? Would he know her when he saw her? What do you do in heaven anyway?”
Then the discussion took an even more difficult turn. Batman was crying so hard I could hardly understand him.
“Well mom! What if YOU die and we are still little kids? Who will take care of us?” I told him that I wasn’t planning on dying anytime soon, and he paused for a moment. “Because you eat healthy and don’t get around lots of chemicals, right?” I didn’t grasp the chemical part at first, but then he started to cry again. “But why did the company Uncle Lonnie worked for make him work with chemicals that made him sick and he couldn’t get better so HE had to die?” It was a discussion we had had countless times during he past year.
Batman finally switched back to concern about me again. I repeated to my little boy that I planned to be around for a long, long time, but if for some reason something did happen to me there were lots of people who would take care of him. Annabelle spoke up and said that probably Grandma Kay and Grandpa Vernon would take care of them. “But what if THEY died too!?” he wailed.
I answered all of Batman’s questions as best I could, crying so hard at times that it was difficult to keep going. What finally calmed my young son was a change in the direction of the discussion. I told him that even though we would be really, really sad to not have Toby with us, we needed to realize that Toby would be much happier in heaven. He could swim in the river again, and run faster than all the other dogs. He could hunt and go camping and all the other things that he loved to do before he got too old.
Batman got thoughtful. “Mom, do you think that Uncle Lonnie will take Toby hunting up in heaven?” I said definitely. Uncle Lonnie would be so happy to see Toby, and they could go hunting together and Toby could ride around in Uncle Lonnie’s truck.
Finally my little boy got calm enough to go to sleep. It was just before 2:00 am. I couldn’t sleep the rest of the night thinking about the next day, and what would happen when I had to tell him that Toby was already gone. I finally got out of bed at 6:00 and took my journal and a magazine into the anteroom next to where the kids slept. After awhile I showered and sneaked out to go check on my horse and pick up what I need from the fairgrounds to head back home. I left the kids sleeping soundly in one bed, our good friend and adopted big sissie Kristi dozing in the other.
I came back from the fairgrounds to find everyone finally awake. We got loaded up and headed to a convenience store on the way out of town to grab a quick breakfast. Annabelle asked me on the way if I had heard yet from Daddy that morning, but I pretended not to hear her. I was physically and emotionally exhausted from the past few days, and I steeled myself for what was to come.
It wasn’t until the kids had finished their donuts and chocolate milk and we had been on the road for about fifteen minutes that I told them I had spoken to Daddy while I was at the fairgrounds. He had gotten up that morning to check on Toby, and just like Dr. Danny had said would happen, Toby didn’t wake up.
Batman was quiet for a few seconds. “Was he breathing?” he asked. “No, son,” I said with a quavering voice, “he wasn’t breathing. Toby has gone to heaven.” I glanced over to the back passenger-side seat where Batman rode. He was looking out the window quietly, an enigmatic look on his face.
“Well,” he said after a full three minutes of silence. “I guess he’s hunting now.” I answered “Yes, I guess he’s hunting.” There were another few seconds of silence, and Batman grinned. “I bet he’s trying to kill Perry the Pigeon again!” We all cracked up, and the discussion was over. For the rest of the drive the kids asked intermittent questions about what had happened. They wondered if Daddy had buried Toby yet, and where he would be buried. Annabelle lasted almost an hour before she asked if this meant we could get a new dog.
When we got home Batman went outside immediately to see where Toby was buried. He stood over the grave for a minute, then came inside, where he told me that he was sure Toby was really happy in heaven, and that he was probably with Uncle Lonnie and Bid now. (Bid is a horse that died 18 months before Batman was born, but that has heard me speak of often. He knows how much I loved that horse and he always talks about him as though he knew him).
Over the past week he had checked the grave often, and speaks daily of Toby in a happy and nostalgic way. He has processed the event more quickly than I thought he would.
My strong reaction to the loss of Toby surprised me. I had known he was failing for months now, and losing him shouldn’t have been a big shock, yet I was still not at all ready to say goodbye to our loyal friend.
What didn’t surprise me was the despondent grieving period of my five-year old son. At his young age my baby has already figured out that relationships in this lifetime are precious. Whether losing his first pet fish, contemplating a new home for a favorite horse, or dealing with the untimely passing of a beloved uncle, Batman has always fully grasped the magnitude of loss in life. As I said earlier, he is an old soul.
On behalf of Batman, do me this favor. If you have a good dog, a good horse, a good friend…..hold them close. Appreciate every minute you have with them. You never know when that last minute will arrive, and it will always be too soon.