The best dog I ever knew
By Brad Warthen
Editorial Page Editor
THE “DOG DAYS” are traditionally a time when there’s not much news, and columnists wander far afield. So even though this has been a fairly eventful August, I hope you’ll forgive me if I write about a dog — specifically, our dog Morgan, who died Thursday.
Actually, she was our son Andy’s dog, but he’s grown and has his own place, and Morgan still lived with us. Even though Andy came to see her often, she was the family’s dog, too.
We got her from a shelter 13 years ago for Andy’s 12th birthday. She looked like a full black Lab while she had the rounded features of a puppy, but we knew her mother was an English setter. As she grew, the more delicate, long-legged bone structure of a setter became obvious. She never weighed more than 40 pounds.
She had elegant lines and moved like a gazelle, clearing fallen trees higher than her head as though they weren’t there. She had an instinctive love of hunting, though I didn’t hunt and she never caught anything. Her genes were so good, it seemed a shame to have spayed her.
However delicate her appearance, and gentle her usual demeanor — she had tremendous patience with children, who could climb on her or tug at her fur without fear of even a snort of irritation — she was the toughest dog I ever knew. She expected to be and was the top dog whenever thrown together with others of her species — no matter the size, age or gender.
If other dogs dared to show disrespect — even with a routine, impertinent sniff for identification purposes — she let them know with immediate, terrible clarity just who she was, going from impassive reserve to snarling, fang-baring furball with a suddenness that alarmed human witnesses.
But this was a seldom-seen trait, mostly because other dogs generally treated her with due respect. And her tenderness was something to behold. She understood that I did not wish to be licked — brief contact with her tongue would raise a rash that itched like mad. So she showed her affection by pressing the top of her head gently against me — for minutes at a time if I held still.
When another dog, Guy (right), came to live with us, he never once challenged her authority, though he grew to be thrice her size. So there was peace, except for a brief period when a brash young Great Dane mix (below, left) stayed with us, and she had to put him in his place repeatedly.
She was an outside dog, because of the allergy thing. But we started bringing her in for meals about a year ago. Guy was badly overweight because she would let him eat from her bowl — a gesture of noblesse oblige on her part.
She was slower, but still active, healthy and a formidable watchdog (with Guy running behind, assisting) until this summer. She started wheezing, snuffling and gagging. We thought maybe she had an allergy. But it was inoperable throat cancer. We brought her in for longer periods. Andy visited daily. She ate well, but soon you could count her bones.
Wednesday morning, she came in with no trouble at all, ate in about two minutes, and agreed to go out as soon as she was done. She actually seemed to be feeling better. That evening, I found my wife struggling to help her stand. She couldn’t. She’d teeter, then fall with a crash, her legs limp. My wife had already called the vet and made a Thursday afternoon appointment. We knew this was the end. She spent the night flat on the floor, only occasionally lifting her head to look around for us with dimming eyes, before it dropped heavily back down.
The next morning, she whimpered. We were appalled. (Even when, years ago, a car shattered her left rear leg and she dragged her bloody body home to show us, she never made a self-pitying sound. The people at the pet hospital where she recuperated from surgery were awed by her fortitude, and they loved her for it.)
We tried to get her in to the vet earlier, but there were no openings. Andy got off work at 2, and rushed to her side. Morgan died about one minute later. She had waited all day for him, holding death at bay with the same expectation of obedience with which she had ruled her yard.
I was about to leave work to help take her to the vet when my wife called. I was grateful she had chosen the moment herself. I had never faced anything like this.
Morgan was in charge to the end, protecting her family from a sad duty just as surely as she had protected our home for 13 years. She was the best dog I’ve ever known. I’m glad I told her that Wednesday night.
The best dog I ever knew