I hadn’t planned on getting a dog. But my friend Candi, who tended bar at the neighborhood watering hole, did a masterful sales job to supply me with one out of a litter of boxers she was attempting to move. “Come and see these dogs,” she said. “You don’t have to buy one; you’ll just have fun seeing them. It’s seven puppies! You can’t find anything cuter than this.”
I’d always been a dog lover, but in the sixteen years since moving away from home for college, I hadn’t taken the plunge and supplied myself with a furry friend. Some of that was due to a complicated breed loyalty. While I was growing up, my parents had in succession a pair of large white standard poodles. Josh and Max were such great dogs that I couldn’t imagine being satisfied with another breed, yet as a single guy I figured that owning a standard poodle wouldn’t exactly send the market signal I was aiming for.
All that changed in Candi’s spare room across town.
I wasn’t dumb enough to believe that I would actually escape the adventure without a new dog, but I told myself I was uncommitted. I’d even considered puppy names, with the favorite in the clubhouse being Wally—in homage to a friend of mine, Wally Pontiff, Jr., a baseball star at Louisiana State University who tragically passed away of heart failure in his sleep just before the start of his senior year.
But this namesake was only in theory until Candi gave me the hard sell. She directed me to have a seat on the floor while she proceeded to put the merchandise on display. “Now, I’m figuring you’ll want a boy dog, and you’re in luck. We have four of them, and they’re adorable. Here we go!” Out came four sleepy six-week-old boxer puppies, with eyes barely open and legs too wobbly to support much more than clumsy, aimless staggering. Three of the four yawned and collapsed, in the typical way puppies do; the fourth, however, spotted the new person in his midst and made a beeline—such as he could—for my lap.
He promptly deposited his chin on my knee, and lifted a pair of pleading eyes to stare up into mine.
I was hooked, and I knew it. So did Candi. As soon as I said, “Oh, man, I guess that makes you Wally,” she closed the sale. “Um, that’ll be $400.”
Thus began a friendship only those who have raised a dog from a puppy can know: the maddening refusal to stop soiling the carpets and rugs, the furious rebellion against collars and leashes, the protestations against late-night silence in kennels, the constant suspicion of unusual silences amid the inevitability of fresh destruction. All of it is sheer misery, yet few would trade it given the bond the experience forms between the tormentor and tormented.
Our case was the same—and yet a little unusual. Wally didn’t do well with the kennel as a means of housetraining; in fact, he was a bedwetter as a puppy. I would wake up to let him out of his kennel in the mornings and more often than not become witness to something unspeakable. Finally, in exasperation, I complained about the problem during a routine visit to the veterinarian and received an unusual bit of advice. “Ditch the kennel,” he said. “Just let him spend the night wherever in the house he wants and see what happens.”
I thought that sounded insane, but as I was at the end of my rope, I followed his advice. A miracle ensued. My dog was, from that point on, housetrained.
Wally was a magnet for attention. He liked people, and he was friendly to all. But he was a master manipulator. Wally would come up to you and sniff your shoes, wag his stub of a tail (and his derriere along with it, as though the tail was wagging the dog), perform an intriguing bit of yoga in which he’d present you with his head and his rear end both, and then deftly step aside as you reached to pet him. He’d give you a look you’d swear was a big, toothy grin and repeat the process until you were insistent on giving him a hug rather than just a quick pat on the head.
Wally was a walker. In the gated community in which we live, he managed to finagle his way into walking off the leash much of the time. This he accomplished by insisting on taking toys with him on walks—a chew toy at first, then later progressing to a tennis ball and, finally, a half-deflated football. Our walks became something of a running game of fetch, making a leash largely unnecessary. The neighbors didn’t mind, or at least most of them didn’t. After all, he’d made himself the mascot of the neighborhood. Most of the neighbors knew Wally’s name; some even knew mine.
But like many boxers, Wally had an enemy within. The vet noticed a slight heart murmur when he was a puppy, and with each visit his concern grew. Finally, at the age of seven, Wally was diagnosed with something called Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Cardiomyopathy, a heart disease the vet warned was going to ultimately end his life. The disease would manifest itself in fainting spells for a time, the vet said, but at some point it would be…more than a fainting spell. It would cause his heart to stop. The best I could hope for, he said, was that Wally would just go to sleep and never wake up.
That’s exactly what happened the night of December 14. Wally took one of his usual sleeping spots, the landing at the top of the stairs, and during the night passed on to the Rainbow Bridge. I found him the next morning, peaceful and gone.
It’s a terrible thing, losing a dog, no matter how inevitable. But I was prepared; I knew precisely what would happen and how. For three years, every morning I didn’t see Wally as soon as I woke up, I had worried whether that was the end. So I had been trained to see each day as a blessing.
While I miss Wally terribly and always will, in the end I’m just grateful to have had nine years and eleven months of a fulfilling, magnificent friendship. In fact, two days after his passing all I wanted to do was start the process again.
And I did. Over the weekend I picked up a new boxer from a breeder in one of southwest Louisiana’s small country towns. The last couple of days has been familiar—sleepless nights amid canine complaints about the kennel, constant “what’s that dog getting into now” suspicion, and a succession of heart-melting looks from a seven-pound ball of fur.
The new guy’s name is Mr. Bingle, owing to his status as this year’s Christmas present to the family. Mr. Bingle is a New Orleans holiday tradition, a mythical snowman Santa Claus recruited from the old Maison Blanche department store chain to help deliver Christmas cheer to the deserving kids. He’s the source of many wonderful memories among grownups throughout Louisiana and elsewhere.
Sure, that’s a lofty standard for a six-week old puppy to uphold. But this guy’s namesake is nothing compared to his predecessor in the McKay household. For one thing, I’m going to have to figure out how to teach him that patented Wally butt-wiggle. Tradition matters, after all.