Dogs can play a unique part of how a kid grows up. They can steal a child’s heart and quickly become one of their best friends. That can be both the good news and the bad news – as almost anyone who ever lost a dog will tell you. They don’t live as long as you do, and they don’t go without taking a slice of your soul with them. Learning how to lose a dog is one of the tougher lessons many of us had to endure.
While this story began in Grammar School, it spread across many years and into my early adulthood. My Father’s father was very keen on rites of passage and liked to be the adult who provided his young grandsons with their first <something> – and NO – stop right there. He didn’t give the boys their first girls… Why would you even think such a thing?
I think he didn’t give things to his granddaughters because he simply didn’t understand them. In this, I didn’t blame him because I didn’t understand them either. But no matter. He had his oldest child, my aunt Laura, to carry out that task for all the young girls in our family. I loved Popo. We all called him that, for reasons I never bothered to ask about. It was just the proper way to refer to your grandpa and what do you mean that you didn’t call your grandpa that? What’s wrong with you?
When I was 7, Popo had a German short-hair pointer, a well-known breed of hunting dogs, who had puppies. The litter was large. Popo worked an agreement with my parents to give me one of her pups and I still recall our visit, when we were getting ready to leave that he revealed his surprise; “Gary,” he said as he grabbed a small wiggly ball of cuteness, “this puppy’s name is Pam and she’s all yours.” I – was – ecstatic! That puppy had all the puppy cuteness you would expect. She especially had these dark yellow, hopeful puppy eyes that quickly carved a hole straight into your heart. She and I bonded in less than 15 seconds, and she was my constant companion for the next 15 years.
Pam was almost always with me when the gang and I took on various adventures up on The Hill. She ran beside me if I had cardboard to slide down the hill on. She came to my rescue at every wipe-out to lick my wounds. She sat patiently if we were climbing trees and alerted us to the occasional cow attacks – which were not really attacks, but we acted like they were just for the fun of it. She hiked with me and roamed the streets of Petaluma with me. As a German short hair pointer, she even hunted with me. She was the friend who never let me down and was always there – unless I decided to keep her in her pen and even if I tried – she had those eyes, and no scruples about using them.
She was also quite a looker – to male dogs that is. One afternoon, it became clear to me that something was going on. Every male dog from the surrounding 3 counties were coming by looking for her. It was like she had her own Facebook page and was posting invitations to some kind of antebellum male canine-flash-mob.
Dad laughed at me when I asked him about it. “Yea, it’s about that time. Pam is in heat.”
Seriously? ‘In heat?’ That’s the term we’re supposed to use for a dog coming into her nubile years? I did not approve of either the term or the fact that my Pam had suddenly turned sexually active. It just did not fit our rowdy run-about-the-town way of life. Then Dad told me that I’d have to keep all those dogs away from her or we’d be drowning in puppies because dogs make terrible fathers. They’d gladly get her pregnant but would be gone within minutes and leave us with the pups.
Pam had her own gated area beside our house, with fence or house all the way around, so I was pretty sure these horny neighborhood mutts couldn’t get to her when she was in her pen. She was an outdoors dog so keeping her in the house was not needed or desirable, but I had to let her out sometime and I could not bring myself to keep her on a leash so I did my best, which is to say some mutt got to her when I wasn’t looking.
I sat her down for a serious talk and she offered no excuse for her conduct, just more of those eyes. . .
So, we had puppies; lots and lots of puppies; more puppies than you have ever seen before. . .
And, oh Lord, they all had their mom’s eyes. . .
So, I learned about puppy mobs. To give Pam a break from the pups, we stood up a board half-way through her pen. It was low enough for her to get over, but too high for the pups, so when mom needed a break, she left them behind their board. The pups would cry, but she was resolute. There must be some form of dog union with a contractual maternity clause that mandates nursing breaks because otherwise those pups would have sucked her dry. They were almost never satiated, but they could be distracted – which was really cool. I would go into her pen, kick the board over and run back into the yard and lie on my stomach with my face covered. The horde, each one on four very short legs would run their fastest out to find me and swarm my whole body with puppy play. Can there be any better memory than being buried in squirming puppies? Unless, they were just looking for something to suck on. Ewww – that’s gross and can’t be true; can it?
It was only a matter of weeks before dad announced that next Saturday, we were taking the whole batch down to the animal shelter. “But why?” I asked even though I already knew the answer. Depending on who you asked, there were either 12 or 43 puppies in the litter. Asleep they were 12. Squirming all over you, there were a lot more. Dad rarely backed down from a position, but I made half an effort only to be shut down pretty fast. We simply did not have room for Pam and her mutt horde. They were cute, yes, but financially worthless. It made sense, but I hated leaving them knowing that few would find permanent homes and would be disposed of. I recall thinking, if there’s a lesson here – I don’t want to learn it.
The next time we sensed that Pam was getting in the mood, dad was ready with a friend who had a male German short hair pointer. For all her high qualities, Pam was not picky. Dad and his friend arranged for a nice hotel room for them, and they had their one-night stand together. Then we hoped for a good litter because this time they would all be pure bred hunting dogs. The litter turned out to be 10 strong pups, but a week afterwards, I found one dead in the doghouse. We never determined what happened and I can tell you there are few things as heartbreaking as holding a cold dead puppy. How could the god of small boys allow such a terrible thing?
Then dad told me that on the following Saturday evening, he and my other grandpa would trim the pup’s tails. . . “Say what? What does that mean?” He dug out a picture of his previous German Shepard pointer and showed me the tail. This is what people expect of this type of dog. We’re going to trim them so we can sell them.
I was still pretty young, and it was getting late by the time grandpa arrived to assist with the deed. I decided that I did not have to see this. As it turned out, going to bed was a big mistake. My bed was against the wall, which was also the wall to Pam’s pen and where the tail trimming was done. As a result, I heard each and every scream of each and every puppy as its tail was snipped off and cauterized. It was horrible.
The next morning, I found the big pair of wire cutters used and the bucket of puppy tails. Urk!
They recovered quickly and I didn’t get much time to take care of the pups, but I cleaned and checked each little tail stub to make sure none got infected. As expected, each of them had Pam’s eyes. Clearly there was something genetic at work with this dog. Dad kept one male puppy for himself, and we quickly sold the rest. Such a contrast between the horde of lovable but unwanted mutts and the tail wag-challenged pure-breeds.
Dad named his puppy Skip and trained him, like he had Pam, to be a great bird-hunting dog. Dad also decided that we’d had enough of puppies, so he told me it was time to spay Pam. “You want to what?” I asked. Again, my opinion was not really welcome, but he explained it to my satisfaction, and I learned the downside of this surgery. Pam lost her slim and healthy-looking body and started looking old. No matter, she was still my ever-loyal friend.
Skip grew to be a powerful dog who could run like the wind and jump like you would never believe. I realized how strong a jumper he was and started putting a long rag on a high branch and let him jump to grab it. He was mostly muscle and lived to please us. He would play this game for us all day if we’d let him.
Watching Skip jump became a favorite neighborhood show. The kids from all over would stop by and beg us to let Skip jump so we could all laugh together. I recall times when we had 10-12 kids sitting on the planter box waiting for Skip to do his thing.
Pam grew to be a thoughtful personality, and yes, I know because I was there with her. Skip was more of a screwball and always over-anxious to please.
I had several girlfriends through both Jr. and Sr. High school and Pam was the friend who would hang with me during many late afternoon walks through the nearby hills and console me when a relationship needed to be sorted out. We both knew she had her own relationship issues, but she cared only for me and my adolescent trials and failures. Among other things, those eyes of hers could be downright therapeutic for a love-wounded young boy.
As you may have read elsewhere Dad had a bent sense of humor so when I started nagging him to let us keep the dogs in the house like other people did with their dogs, Dad knew better than to say, “yes”. I had not yet learned how to read his thoughts and nagged for all I was worth. Soon, he made a face and said “yes” but I missed his mischievous grin. “You can have them in your room for just one night, but you have to keep your door completely closed. I was too busy rejoicing at my victory to pay much attention to his condition and just went for it. Both dogs easily crashed on the floor as I crawled into bed and dropped off to sleep. Sometime in the early morning, I became aware that something was wrong – terribly wrong. Something stank.
But I was in bed and everyone else was asleep. Whatever IT was, I’d deal with it in the morning, but boy it smelled really bad. I pulled the blanket over my head and tried to go back to sleep. I was getting close when I heard it. Both dogs were farting like it was a competition.
You’ve got to be kidding me! This is terrible and must be – oh – oh no… This is why Dad didn’t want them in the house and why he gave into my nagging. He’s trying to gas me out!
I should have thought to get up, put on some slippers and drag the dogs back out to their pen, but no, I stoically hung in there, as deep beneath my blankets as possible, but there was no escaping that smell in a contained space.
It was weeks of sleeping in a cold room with the windows left open 24×7 and mom showing me how to use the washing machine to wash all my blankets and clothes that had soaked up that smell. I became a believer that some dogs are just born to be outdoors. God hasn’t made the room that could stand up to their metabolisms.
Dad must have thought he really taught me something that round, but I know Mom did not agree that it was worth the cost. Wow – I can still smell that memory sixty years later.
Pam and Skip gave us years of happy memories and I will forever be thankful for her. As I engaged daily trade school in San Francisco, my first career two hours from home in San Jose and then onto college in Washington State, I saw her less as she got older. She lost her hearing, and we took to calling her “Deaf Dog” which she didn’t seem to mind. She always recognized the look on my face as one of deep love for such a loyal friend. I recall the day at college when I took a call from my dad to let me know that Pam had died last night.
I thanked him for letting me know and felt bad that I was two states away and could not have been there to rub her ears as her 14+ years expired and she went to sleep for the last time. I spent much of the evening remembering and being thankful for her instead of studying. I knew it was coming but that knowledge was of little comfort. The animal who loved me most dearly was gone.
I’ve wished I had captured a photo of one deeply ingrained memory of my Pam. A good photo of her eyes could melt me to this day.