I was 14 when my parents finally agreed to let us get a family dog. We had grown up with two cats in the house, both of whom had passed away within the year. Not that my brother, Cameron, and I were rooting for the cats to die or anything (I swear, we weren’t), but the clause in the unwritten contract stated that no dog could reside in our home until these two aging felines, both in their late-teens, moved on to that litterbox in the sky. When Rover first passed, and then later Butchie — my dad named the cats, so, yeah — Cameron and I diligently dug graves for each of them and stood in solemn vigil throughout the mini-funerals that accompanied their terminal rest. And then sneakily in the weeks that followed, we began dropping hints about that dog we had all talked about one day getting.
My mom began researching breeds (It was 1999 and we had just gotten the internet!) and decided we’d embark on a quest to find a German Shorthaired Pointer, commonly known as a bird-hunting dog. Never mind the fact that my parents didn’t even own a gun, let alone hunt, this was the breed of dog we’d be getting. And so it was that a search began.
My parents did the legwork, perusing the classifieds for the perfect addition to our family. They would occasionally make their way out to the foothills — all dogs, it seems, are bred in the Western Washington foothills — to check out a lead, only to return empty-handed a short time later. The recurring disappointments kept me from joining in on another long car ride to the sticks on the day that my parents, along with my brother, returned home with our very first puppy.
I was both shocked and ecstatic the moment I realized we actually had a dog. He was tiny and chubby and wrapped up in a blanket in my mom’s arms, asleep. He was also anonymous at that very instant, a problem that was solved when I settled on a name that I had been holding in my memory for years: Otis. When I was younger and just starting out in grade school, a black lab named Otis would find its way to our bus stop each morning and keep us company before we headed off to class. That Otis was the first dog I ever befriended. This Otis would be the first dog to whom I became related.
Otis grew up and learned how to do all sorts of cool things: sit, lay down, shake hands (always with the left, a true southpaw), and even fetch newspapers — including the neighbors’, which was hilarious to me, but not as hilarious to my parents. We tried to get him to retrieve tennis balls, but his interest in such a menial activity quickly waned; he preferred to sniff out trails through the bushes and eat grass, instead.
Perhaps his favorite activity of all-time was terrorizing birds, a seemingly inherent trait for a bird-hunting dog, though Otis was not quite as subtle about the pursuit of these winged adversaries as his more refined sporting counterparts. He possessed a knack for spotting birds from hundreds of yards away, instantly going into stealth mode, carefully stalking his prey for minutes on end, then ultimately succumbing to weakness when he could covertly creep no longer, taking off in a full-on sprint for some poor seagull that probably shit itself before hastily taking flight to a safer whereabouts. Naturally, Otis’s favorite place to be was the beach. Seagulls everywhere. Those poor, dumb, unsuspecting overgrown rats with wings brought more joy to that dog than anything else ever did. Bless those ugly creatures.
At home, Otis was a devoted protector of our domain. He stood watch at the living room window, growling at anyone who dared pass along our dead-end street. He barked at garbage trucks as they passed and went into a frenzy upon hearing a car door slam, scaring the living crap out of my mom on countless occasions. He greeted every visitor at our front door, determined to interrogate each entrant with both voice and nose, a trustworthy security screener if there ever was one.
He was there when I went to high school, and there when I graduated. He watched me leave for a year to live in the dorms at the University of Washington, then watched as I trudged back home the following summer, broke and ready to move back in with the family after nine months away. I’d leave and come back twice more after that, each time met by a family that was willing to have me for as long as I needed a roof over my head and a dog that would curl up on my bed and do his best to out-nap me on even my laziest afternoons.
Otis got older and so did I. He was 10; I was 24. I introduced him to a puppy of my own, Dug, the product of my four-year relationship with the girlfriend I now found myself living with — Otis’s nephew, we joked. Otis became Uncle Otis, roughhousing with our hyperactive baby Puggle until his age got the best of him and he fell asleep on the floor, staying idle long enough to coax Dug into snoozing by his side. He protected Dug, he played with Dug, he could track down Dug when we lost sight of Dug, he became Dug’s pseudo-caretaker and he loved it. He loved Dug and Dug loved him. But things changed when my girlfriend and I broke up. I didn’t get to see Dug as much as I had before, and within a year-and-a-half, I didn’t see Dug at all. My ex-girlfriend and I grew apart and that was it, no more Dug. I was heartbroken. But Otis remained, and there was never a day that Otis couldn’t make me feel just a little bit better. And so on those days when I wasn’t feeling so great, Otis lifted my spirits.
He was 12; I was 26. I had been living at home since my breakup and moved out for the last time. Otis could still shake my hand, but he was reluctant. He wasn’t as nimble as he used to be, but with the right motivation (i.e. food) he would occasionally do his tricks. We parted again as I left home, our paths diverging once more. I still came to visit him on my work lunch breaks and on weekends, and each time my parents went on vacation Otis became a temporary resident of my apartment. We were buddies as I cruised through my twenties, even with Otis now an octogenarian (in dog years, of course).
He was 14; I was 28. He was older than the average life expectancy for his breed. He sat around a lot and didn’t do his tricks anymore. His passion for guarding the house had dwindled and it took a great deal of prodding for him to roll over onto his back and wrestle with me the way he always had when we were younger. But his spirit was there, you could see it in his eyes. He was alert, he was happy, he was alive.
Then came today. Everything quickly changed. It started with the text that awoke me at 6:30 in the morning. From my mom:
“Otis is not eating or drinking barely moving…this afternoon if nothing improves we will be taking him to the vet…”
I went to visit him before work. He was laying on the floor, next to a bed he could no longer scramble onto. He heard me coming and looked me in the eye. He was sick. He was hurting. His breath labored and a slight tremble shook his entire body. I brought him a Milkbone, his favorite treat, the one thing he would never, ever, ever refuse. He eyed the Milkbone, then turned his head away. I set the bone down; he ignored it. I pet him on the head and we talked for a bit, about life and other things. I left and told him I’d be back later.
I checked on him again at lunch. He remained in the same place I had left him a few hours earlier. The Milkbone lay by his side, untouched. He looked me in the eye again and I knew that when my parents returned home a short while later, Otis would be going to the vet and not coming back. We talked some more and he looked at me the way all good dogs look at humans, with a tolerance and understanding that begets an undying loyalty we almost take for granted. I told him I loved him and that he was always great to me and that if we didn’t see each other for awhile, I’d miss him a ton. I hugged him. I looked him in the eye and told him goodbye, one last time.
I went back to work. A few hours later, my mom let me know they had taken him to the vet and he was being put down. Otis went peacefully, gracefully. It was the afternoon of July 11th, 2013. We had brought Otis into our home on May 10th, 1999, exactly 5,176 days earlier. He gave us 14 years and then some. He was a friend, a companion, a therapist, a confidant, a great dog. He was everything you’d want in a pet, but more importantly everything you’d want in a family member.
I’m gonna miss you, Otis.