My Dog Max: R.I.P.

July 1, 2009

I know this is usually a crime blog, but I’ve decided I’d like to tell all of you about my dog, Max. We bought him along the side of the road, which could have been a mistake. You know what they say about dogs sold from the backs of trucks: most likely the products of puppy mills. But we were driving along that Sunday, not far from the house, and we saw a sign in a bank parking lot, advertising mini-schnauzer puppies for sale.

The truth is that I’ve always had a soft spot for schnauzers. When I was a kid one of our neighbors had one, silver and white, a funny little dog with cropped ears and a stubbed tail. On my way home from school, the dog sometimes followed me for a few houses, just lopping along, barking. It made me laugh, which wasn’t always easy to do after school, when I was tired and facing homework.

So when we saw the min-schnauzer sign, I convinced my husband to pull over, just so I could hold one. Maybe I really intended to just hold one?

There were two black and silver puppies in crates in the back of the truck, four pounds each. The woman minding the store, who was missing most of her teeth in the front and had a hard time pronouncing schnauzer, handed me Max. He seemed like a laid-back little fellow, mellow and sweet, nuzzling my shirt, with crooked ears and a silver beard. I looked at my husband. He looked at me. A $400 check, and the dog was ours.

From the parking lot, that same afternoon, we took our new addition to a pet store where we stocked up on all the trappings, from food, a collar and leash – a very small collar – to a crate and a book on schnauzers. Then, we brought him home. I guess it must have been about two hours later when whatever drugs the lady missing teeth gave him wore off. Suddenly, our mild-mannered Clark Kent of a dog had Superman delusions. He tore around the yard, gnashing his teeth and trying to bite us when we tried to pet him, and I wondered: Did I really need a dog?

That was the beginning of our odyssey. Empty nesters, my husband and I took our parenting seriously.

That first afternoon, we introduced Max to our backyard. We live in Houston, and we have a swimming pool, so we were understandably concerned about drowning. My husband got in the pool, and I handed him Max, and an hour disappeared while we tried to teach the little guy how to find the steps and get out of the water. It said in our newly purchased book that schnauzers love the water, so we assumed Max would be a great swimmer. Gently, I dropped him into the water. My husband aimed Max at the stairs and let go, but the dog threw a U-turn and paddled back to my husband. After countless attempts, we gave up. We’d try often over the years to get Max to swim. It never worked. The book was wrong. Schnauzers might like swimming, but Max had no use for it.

The thing about small dogs, at least the ones we’ve had, is that they don’t always know they’re small. They tend to think they’re great danes. One of the first indications with Max was his walk. He leaned just a bit to the right and had a gait that resembled John Wayne’s. It made us laugh. When we encountered another dog on the street or in the park, even as a puppy Max snarled with a dangerous look in his eyes. To our astonishment, most of the time, he pulled the bluff off, and the big dogs backed up, veering cautiously away.

Afternoons, he darted through the house fast enough to be on roller skates. He had a particular penchant for pillows, anything soft and stuffed actually, and when he had one in his mouth he shook it with all the vigor one might expect when attacking an enemy. Although neutered, Max adopted one particular living room pillow as his girlfriend, and in between amorous attacks, he spent hours draped over it, with a forlorn look.

His favorite times of day, Max waited eagerly for his morning and afternoon walks. Looking back, we must have been a sight, a middle-aged couple walking a four-pound puppy. Among ourselves we laughed at the old joke: Any alien arriving on earth and seeing us walk behind the dog, waiting for him to poop and lovingly collecting it and carrying it home, would have thought Max was the dominant specie. You know, maybe he was.

I guess Max was about three when he developed the habit that led to our most embarrassing moments. Max could be a terror around the house. His favorite game was playing squeaky. You know the drill: Dog waits with great anticipation for owners to throw a small ball with a squeaker inside. Dog then barrels after the ball, clutches it in his mouth and the ball makes a loud “squeak!” Dog brings ball back to owner, chest puffed out, and then wrestles with the owner who tries to get the ball back. When dog lets go, owner throws ball and the process begins anew.

We played squeaky so often, we wore out balls faster than a toddler outgrows shoes. Max loved them all, and was always excited when a new one made its appearance, probably because new balls had the loudest squeakers. The game became such a part of our lives, hardly a night went by without it. When I was on the road, working on a new book, doing research, I called home and my husband laughed maniacally and said, “Do you know what time it is?”

It was, of course, squeaky time, which he announced by squeezing the ball emitting its high-pitched, mechanical sounding blast. Invariably, I groaned.

As annoying as squeaky time could be, it was another love of Max’s that led to our most embarrassing encounters. I don’t know if this is an unusual situation, you tell me, but Max had an abiding affinity for underwear.

I’m not sure if he had particular favorites. To us, it seemed that he enjoyed my husband’s jockey shorts with as much gusto as my bras. And he didn’t seem to be searching for a particular scent, as guests, too, were often subjected to his stealthy raids.

When we weren’t looking, whenever an undergarment was left unattended and within his reach, as in the laundry, on a closet floor or in a guest’s open suitcase, Max struck. Before long, we’d see him digging in the potted plants, especially the two living room palm trees. The first giveaway was dirt scattered across the floor. When we unearthed the half-buried bra, panties or shorts, we found it if once clean now in need of a wash.

This wasn’t an endearing quality. As you can imagine, guests were often mortified to find their underwear, soggy from being carried around in Max’s mouth and covered with dirt, hanging out the side of a potted plant. There were those times we entertained company, only to have Max prance into the room with one of my bras dangling from his mouth. (For some reason they were never the pretty lace ones. He seemed to prefer my old exercise bras.)

The truth was that at such moments, there seemed little to do but laugh.

It’s hard to explain to folks who don’t have pets how much joy an animal can bring. Just those quiet times, curled up on a chair, petting Max’s soft fur, made my heartbeat calm, my blood pressure slow, my worries fade.

When we walked in the door, Max nearly always waited for us, happy, panting, looking as if he’d been waiting at that door the entire time we were gone. “Where have you been?” he seemed to be saying. “Didn’t you know I was waiting?”

Of course, what he was probably thinking was, “Any interest in playing squeaky?”

When we moved to our new house, we met our neighbors though Max. We’d be out walking him, when our paths crossed. Max jumped up, fighting to get their attention. For a little guy, he really could jump. Come to our door, and Max would greet you as if he had springs on his back paws, catapulting himself up so high he could have turned the doorknob. In his own way, he even had his fifteen minutes of fame. I belong to crime chat rooms and the like, and in more than one, I told Max stories. Some took on mythic qualities, as the participants caught the bug and made up their own stories in which our little schnauzer became “Max the Spy Dog,” a crafty canine crime fighter.

For eight years, Max was our pal and since he was a small dog, even though in dog years he was well into middle age, we continued to think of him as a puppy. It was then, a shock when he grew sick.

It happened on a Saturday night in early June. We’d had a steak for dinner and Max had devoured the bone then tried to smuggle it into the house, to bury it in a flowerpot. (Not surprised, right?) We were watching an action movie on cable. I should know the title, but that part of the evening is fuzzy. What I remember is Max going into a seizure. It was awful. From that point on, it happened every few hours. We bundled him up and first took him to a veterinary emergency care clinic in Houston. When they weren’t giving us clear answers, we drove an hour-and-half to a clinic at Texas A&M, the best vet school in the state.

Sadly, Max’s malady wasn’t hard to diagnose. They ran some tests, and before long we were seated in a room talking to a vet who explained that Max had a brain tumor, so far into his brain that it was inoperable. The entire time the vet talked, Max scurried about the room, licking hands and wanting to be petted. It seemed rather surreal.

We left Max there that night, picking him up the next morning after they’d calmed the seizures with Phenobarbital. We didn’t really know how much time we had with him. The truth was that even if it had been operable, we wouldn’t have prolonged Max’s life. The seizures had already changed him. His lungs were damaged, his balance was off, his John Wayne walk gone, and his effervescence so diminished he appeared profoundly depressed. He no longer had enough stamina to take walks through the neighborhood, and he showed no interest in his beloved squeaky. Max wasn’t Max.

But we hung in there, cooking him his favorite food, fawning over him, cuddling on the couch, and feeling sad every time we looked at him. We were determined that no matter what, we were going to enjoy the time we had left with him. Max had always been there for us, and we were going to be there for him. Then the seizures returned, and we couldn’t stand to see him suffer. It was time, and late in June, Max went to sleep.

There’s so much I’ll always remember about that black and silver schnauzer. But I think what touched me most was his ever-present optimism. Max never woke up to a morning he didn’t embrace. He assumed every person he met was destined to become a great friend. On nights when we didn’t make him an extra hamburger, he gobbled his kibble as if it were a well-marbled fillet. Max lived in the moment, and loved life fully. Today, he’s missed. I hope there are dogs in heaven. If I make it, it’ll be more fun if Max is there.