Before I proposed to my girlfriend, we had already discussed getting a dog. But what kind? We debated it constantly. We loved Great Danes, but they never seem to live long enough. We loved Newfoundlands, but their back legs go too fast. We loved golden retrievers, but my father had two and we didn't want to copy him. We loved the thought of rescuing a mutt, but we worried about getting one with "I hate kids" DNA, and we wanted to have kids.
The decision ultimately didn't matter. Unwilling to raise a puppy on the concrete streets of Boston, we decided to wait until we moved ... somewhere. By this time, it was the summer of 2002. I was thinking of taking a job writing for a television show. As part of the deal, we had to move to Los Angeles and leave everyone behind: Our friends, our family, my teams, the things we loved, everything. I needed a change. If you write for a living, it's good to keep moving. Keeps you fresh. My fiancée wasn't as crazy about leaving.
"We can get a dog," I kept telling her. "We can take her to the beach. We can take her hiking. It will be 75 degrees every day. The dog will have a good life."
That swung her vote. I moved to California on Nov. 16, 2002. She joined me eight weeks later. As she was packing and settling everything back home, she was frantically searching for a puppy. She wanted one immediately. When I rented an apartment next to a house with a young golden retriever named Zoe, we thought that was a sign. We were getting a golden.
We had our new roommate within two weeks: an 8-week-old puppy named Daisy, or as we ended up calling her, "The Dooze." Her obsession with tennis balls started as soon as she could cram one in her mouth. And, yeah, I know goldens stereotypically love tennis balls ... but The Dooze took it to another level. Within a few months, she could repeatedly bounce them off the ground and catch them like she was dribbling a basketball. Our first apartment had high ceilings, so we'd watch TV and bounce balls off every inch of the wall for her. That's how I spent the 2004 Red Sox season -- sweating out games and dinging balls off that 10-foot wall. Soon she was chasing down ricochets like a four-legged Ozzie Smith. On walks, she sniffed out any stray ball within a 100-yard vicinity, dragged us over to the ball's precise location, somehow locating it even if it was buried inside some 6-foot bush. There was one hill a few blocks away -- the front lawn of someone's house -- that she would race atop, then drop the ball so it would roll down. She loved the way it rolled. We'd throw it back up, she'd chase it down like Jim Edmonds, then she'd drop it back down and watch it roll. She never wanted to leave. Soon we were making trips to Target every few weeks just for more tennis balls.
For that first year or so, I was working long hours and my wife hadn't found a job yet. She was constantly doing things with Dooze: they'd go to the beach, go hiking, go for one-hour walks, you name it. She carried Puppy Dooze around in a little front pack like a baby. We even brought The Dooze on our mini-honeymoon. By the spring of 2004, my wife was working and I was writing full-time for ESPN again, so our roles reversed: I finally got to spend more time with my dog and crammed morning and afternoon ball throws into my daily work routine. When my arm started aching, I bought one of those green ball-thrower sticks and turned into Greg Maddux, circa 1995, with that thing. I had pinpoint aim. I wanted to compete in the Olympics with The Dooze in whatever you would call this category. Nobody could consistently fling balls reminiscent of a perfect golf drive quite like me. What a dumb thing to be proud of ... and yet, The Dooze was the only one who fully appreciated it.
We lived on a street with especially wide sidewalks and little traffic, so we trained her to sprint for balls without ever straying into the street. Eventually, we starting using two balls and taught her how to fetch one, run back at full-speed, drop the first one as she was approaching us, then keep going 40-50 yards the other way for the second one (like a nonstop series of wind sprints). It was amazing to watch. She looked like a race horse. Woooooooosh. We didn't have a single neighbor who wasn't totally and completely impressed. She would never NOT chase a ball, so the sessions usually ended with The Dooze lying on her side and her tongue hanging five feet from her body ... but waiting for the next throw.
I spent that spring and summer writing columns, finishing a book and doing my Maddux routine with Dooze. Then we bought a house, my wife got pregnant and we found Dooze a brother named Rufus. They came from the same breeder and actually had the same father, so they were half-brother/half-sister like "90210" characters. Rufus immediately attached himself to The Dooze, followed her around and pretty much dominated our lives from that point on; he was like Marley crossed with Satan. The first week we had him, he whimpered so loudly that we had to sleep with him every night. He just didn't leave us a choice. He hated being alone.
And since The Dooze was a loner of the highest order -- every time she jumped on the sofa next to us, it was an unexpected treat, like she had graced us with her presence -- she absolutely despised her brother at first. Whenever he lay beside her, you could see her thinking, "I wish he'd go away, I wish he'd go away ..." Knowing that she'd never get the same attention (especially after our daughter was born), The Dooze settled into a new role as protector of our house. She stayed near the front door and barked at anyone suspicious. At night, she scared away a few people in our kinda-sorta-maybe-sketchy-at-night neighborhood. We rewarded her with more ball throws and a few coveted beach trips.
Her biggest save happened in January '07. My wife went out to pick up dinner, and I was watching a basketball game. Somehow our tiny daughter, at that specific moment, decided she would sneak away, open our front door (a brand-new trick, unbeknownst to us) and stroll outside. How does this happen? In the 25 seconds that passed between my realizing the door was open and my sprinting outside like Usain Bolt, she made it all the way to our street. And it was pitch-black. Fortunately, the dogs followed her and shielded her like two offensive linemen. I am convinced to this day that Dooze saved her; had it just been Rufus, he would have followed her out, then skipped away to eat cat poop or something. When I noticed a car stopped in the street and someone carrying my daughter back to our house, I almost had a heart attack. My little girl was fine. The driver said, "If it wasn't for those two dogs, I wouldn't have seen her." Gulp. Everyone with kids knows that you have to catch a few dumb breaks along the way; this was one of ours. Hopefully, it will remain the biggest dumb break. The Dooze saved the day.
We moved again that summer to a bigger house with a pool. Within a week, Dooze was swimming in it. Every time the fence surrounding the pool was open, she brought a tennis ball out there, "mistakenly" dropped it in, looked around a few times, then said, "I gotta save that thing!" and jumped in after it. Rufus was terrified of water and was annoyed that she kept going in, so he'd just stand there and bark, then hump her to reclaim alpha status when she climbed out. Eventually, we just started pushing him in and that's how he learned to swim. The one thing he never stole was the ball-throwing gimmick -- she always outraced him, so he settled on just being her sidekick (his Pippen to her Jordan). He copied everything she did. She guarded the house; he did, too. She was obsessed with tennis balls; he was, too. She loved swimming; suddenly he did, too. They were like Frick and Frack. I even think The Dooze grew to like him. You know, except for the humping. At the end of the night, he came to bed with us and she stayed downstairs to guard the house. And that's how it went. Every morning when we went downstairs, the first thing we heard was her tail happily banging the floor.
Last winter, my wife became convinced something was wrong with The Dooze. She was definitely looking older, but geez, she had just turned 5, and we kept her in phenomenal shape. How could anything be wrong? Was she depressed because we had our second child and weren't giving her enough attention? The only weird part was Rufus was sniffing her a lot. (We realized later he was doing that for a specific reason. Dogs know. They always know.) One night, we noticed The Dooze's eyes looked blue. Blue? We took her in to the animal hospital and they worried it was glaucoma or even something worse. They ran some tests on her. Within a few days, we were on the phone with a doctor who told us grimly that The Dooze had stage-5 lymphoma. That led to this exchange:
Us: "Stage 5? How many stages are there?" Doc: "Five."
Just like that, The Dooze was dying. We were demolished, obviously. Ages 6 through 10 are the best years for a pooch -- that's when they mellow out, when they cease surprising you, when you can guess everything they might do before they do it. You know them as well as you know anything. That's what happens when your dog grows old. We always imagined The Dooze in 2017 as a 15-year-old with creaky hips and a white face and unconscionably bad breath, only every time we came home, her tail would start wagging and she'd roll a ball toward us, and we'd shake our heads and it would be like a cheesy movie scene. That's what we always thought. Now the doctors were saying she might last 10-12 months with chemotherapy injections and a better diet.
My wife took charge and made it her personal mission to get The Dooze to her sixth birthday. By the summer, she was having mostly good days and only a few bad ones (always the day after chemo). She spent her time sleeping, swimming and chasing balls, although she didn't have the same wheels anymore. Ever the wily veteran, she saved her fifth gear only for the longest tosses, cruising at a controlled pace for everything else. Every time we thought she was fading, we'd be watching TV and The Dooze would amble over with a ball, drop it, then crouch and take a few steps back: Her famous, "Hey, how 'bout a few ball throws, whaddya say?" move. (Note: She trademarked this as well as her unique habit of repeatedly walking between our legs any time we returned to our house.) There was one point in early December when she went blind -- out of nowhere -- and we thought that might be it. Special eye drops saved the day. She made it to her sixth birthday, made it on our Christmas card, made it through the holidays and made it to 2009. We couldn't ask for anything more than that. Miracles don't happen with lymphoma and dogs. People, maybe. Not dogs.
Meanwhile, something unexpected was happening, something we hadn't counted on: Our little boy had become enchanted by The Dooze.
The first word he ever said was "Day-zee." Once he started crawling, he'd crawl to the front of our house and smother Dooze. Sometimes we found him lying on her or gently tapping her head. I have never seen a dog who was sweeter with a little kid -- he could pull her ears, sit on her head, poke her in the eye, pull her tail and she didn't care. She just laid there and let him do his thing. Like she knew he didn't know any better.
Once Dooze started visibly declining, our daughter knew something bad was happening, so we told her that Dooze was heading to the moon soon and went through the "it's better on the moon, she'll be happier there" charade. Now she thinks everyone goes to the moon when they die. This will be awkward if she ever meets Neil Armstrong. But that's the part nobody prepares you for -- not just losing your dog, but watching your kids lose their dog. As a parent, you feel obligated to protect your children from the things you don't want them to see, and then suddenly there's your dog slowly dying in the house, and they're seeing it every day. It's not fair.
Right after New Year's, Dooze took a turn for the worse. She looked skinny and frail, just a bag of bones with a beautiful golden coat. She was sleeping all the time. Rufus was sniffing her constantly. We had entered that despicable "How do we know when it's time?" mode. We kept telling ourselves that Dooze would let us know when she was ready -- somehow, someway -- but that's the thing about dogs, you just never know. If we bounced a tennis ball and she didn't respond, we figured that would be it. But every time we bounced the ball, her head popped right up. We couldn't tell how much she was suffering. There was no way to know. Dogs can't speak. Dogs have a huge threshold for pain. You just don't know. You can't know.
Last week, she finally told us. She started limping a little, then a lot, then all the time. Her back legs started failing. There was one walk when she made it only one block before lying down. Her breath stunk like holy hell. Every time we bounced the ball, her head would jostle, but only a little. She planted herself near our front door and wouldn't move. She was 6 years old going on 16. The cancer had rooted itself in her bones and wasn't going away.
It was time. We thought it might happen last Thursday, then Friday. Nope. She wasn't giving us The Sign. On Friday afternoon, my parents were visiting and The Dooze rallied one last time. Even made her way over to the pool and seemed like she wanted to jump in. Just for the hell of it, I tossed a ball in the water knowing that I'd probably have to dive in there to get her. Maybe she wanted one last swim. She looked at it. She looked at it. She looked at it. She didn't go in. Oh, man.
When she could barely stand Saturday morning, that was that. She was officially suffering. We couldn't let it happen. We drove her to the vet's office (bringing along a tennis ball, of course) and stopped at AstroBurger for her last supper; she wolfed down a cheesburger in 4.2 seconds in the back of the car. Even to the bitter end, she couldn't turn down AstroBurger. Upon reaching the veterinary clinic, we carried her inside in her little dog bed, almost like how they use those stretchers for injured football players, then we waited in a little room that smelled like stale pee. We laid down next to her. She licked our faces with her smelly breath and we didn't care. It was like she knew.
And then something crazy happened.
The Dooze fought through the pain, rose to her feet, grabbed the ball, rolled it over to us, took a few wobbly steps backward and dusted off the "Come on, throw it to me" face. We tossed her a few from short range, then a few more. She caught every one of them. This was her last hurrah. She tired quickly and laid down again ... and that was that. The doctor came in a few minutes later and euthanized her, with that same ball resting right next to her mouth. We had her cremated with it. We just thought it seemed fitting. When the time seems right, we're heading to the beach and spreading those ashes in the Pacific Ocean. So much for our first dog. We didn't even have her for six full years. She belongs to the West Coast, and because of her, maybe so do we.
We came home and Rufus was a mess. He knew. I don't know how dogs know, but they know. Dogs always know. Now he spends his days lying in Dooze's spot next to the front door. Like he inherited it.
Our daughter didn't cry. She didn't even seem that upset. When we asked her why, she explained, "It was time for her to go to the moon. I'll see her again some day." Oh.
The day after The Dooze left us, our little boy woke up and my wife carried him downstairs to feed him like she always does. I was still half asleep and could hear her footsteps. Then I heard this: "Day-zee. Day-zee." That part didn't make me sad. The part that made me sad happened three mornings later ... when my wife was carrying him downstairs again and he didn't say anything.