How the family dogs can touch your heart

by Robert Johnson Dr. Robert V. Johnson is a prominent retired orthopaedic surgeon based in Fort Collins, Colorado, USA. Father of four boys, he has kept occupied in retirement with international travel and photography. His experience with his dog Maggie has touched the heart of many readers in the United States, where this story appeared in slightly different form on Dr. Johnson is the brother of Michael Johnson, a regular contributor to Facts and Arts. Michael Johnson edited the column. 10.08.2008

My wife and I have had a succession of lovable dogs in our 52 years together, and all of them left us with great memories. Our latest attachment to a loving half-labrador took a particularly tragic turn, however.

Hildy was the first -- a german shepherd mix obtained from the pound in Colorado Springs while I was at the Air Force Academy as a young doctor. Unfortunately, she had contracted canine distemper at the pound, and she died of the disease shortly after she joined our family.

Hildy was succeeded by Heide, a shepherd-husky mix who grew up with our four sons. A 100-pound ball of fur, she could do most anything: play ball, catch pine cones and Frisbies, herd buffalo, even play tetherball by herself. She lived to a good dog age.

Then along came Mick, an incorrigible Irish setter with boundless energy but apparently no frontal lobe. If he was outside and wanted in; if he was inside he wanted out. To get his way, he simply crashed through the screen of the door or window. One day Mick disappeared, and we never learned his fate. We often wonder how he managed without our patient affection.

Next was Riley, a super-mellow golden retriever, who was with us for more than 10 years-a loyal friend and great hiker. When he developed multiple cancers and we had to put him down, we decided to take a break from dogs for a while.

After a pause of about 15 years, I decided it was time to try again, and Maggie arrived last February as a tiny puppy. Half labrador, half golden retriever, she was the perfect blend -the mellowness of the golden and the webbed feet and swimming talents of the lab. She loved the small lake behind our house in Ft. Collins.

Housebreaking was a chore, but she finally mastered it. She slept in a crate in our bedroom, whimpering to get up at 6 o'clock every morning. I would open the crate's door, and she would immediately jump on the bed and nuzzle my wife awake. Each morning and afternoon Maggie and I walked for about 30 minutes. As she got older and bigger (55 pounds) she developed tremendous strength, like 4-wheel-drive SUV in low range.

As we reached the halfway point of our walk and headed home, she would always put the leash in her mouth, as if to take me for a walk, and lead me home. She had learned to sit and stay nicely, and was beginning to heel as we walked. A good ball-catcher, she was learning the "leave it" on command. She also was still chewing everything within reach, including the last piece of cherry pie on the kitchen counter a few days ago.

Wednesday was a big day. One of my original partners in our local orthopedic clinic had arranged a dinner for the founding five doctors and our wives at 6 p.m. My wife arrived home in her 4-Runner at 3:30 with a load of groceries, and Maggie ran barking happily into the yard to greet us as we were unloading.

A few minutes later she was nowhere to be seen. We presumed she had run off - just as Mick had several years ago, but we didn't seriously worry. Her collar had a tag with our phone number, and she wore an ID chip.

We searched her usual haunts for two hours: the lake (she was an enthusiastic swimmer), the fox den on the hill next to our house, and our morning walk route-but to no avail. None of our neighbors recalled having seen her. Nevertheless, I felt she would turn up soon. She was too big and rowdy to simply disappear.

Out of ideas, I recorded a message on our telephone answering machine instructing anyone who might have found her to call my cell phone. Then we went to dinner, driving our Prius and leaving the 4-Runner behind in the driveway. I received no calls.

When we returned home late that night and glided past the 4-Runner into the garage, we gasped. The windows on the 4-Runner were fogged.

Somehow we both instantly understood.

Although Maggie had never before entered our car without a great deal of coaxing, a treat, or a leash, this time she must have decided to jump in via the tailgate and lie on the floor out of sight, maybe hiding for fun.

We prepared ourselves for the worst, and when my wife worked up the courage to open the 4-Runner door, poor Maggie was lying there collapsed in eternal rest after suffering several agonizing hours in the brutal July heat, finally losing out to dehydration.

We were both stunned. It is hard - no, it is impossible -- to describe in words what a blow this was for both of us and our four grown boys. My wife and I are still depressed and feeling severe guilt for having overlooked her, even though we thought we had done all we could to locate her. "If only …" we keep repeating. "If only …"

We may take another pause before looking for a replacement dog. Maggie was unique -- a fine puppy with lots of personality, character and intelligence. She should have had many great years ahead of her.

To paraphrase Sen. Mike Mansfield's words at President John F. Kennedy's funeral, "Maggie, we hardly knew ye."


Born December 18, 2007

Died July 16, 2008

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