The best seventh birthday present

“Dogs never lie about love.” — Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson

When Kiddo was six years old his dad and I promised him a new puppy for his seventh birthday.

We were getting ready to move to an old farmhouse with more room and a big yard. Shortly after all the boxes were unpacked, I spotted an ad in the Sunday paper for beagle puppies.

When we arrived at the appointed place, we all tumbled out of the car and puppies encircled us. All but two of the pups were spoken for.

The decision was made that our boy would have a boy puppy. Kiddo chose the little guy with black ears who would come to live with us. The people selling the puppies had dubbed our newest family member Fat Puppy.

Perfectly naughty, perfectly lovable

Fat Puppy became Joey, named after Matt LeBlanc’s Friends character, Joey Tribbiani. It was an apt name, as our Joey loved to eat and sleep, eat and sleep (and I’m sure, given the chance, he’d have been quite the philanderer, just as his namesake was).

To get the baby of the family to settle in at night, Kiddo and I would hop in bed to watch a little TV with Joey tucked between us. We’d offer him a hollowed out bone filled with peanut butter and he’d go after it as if he wouldn’t eat again for days, then he’d pass out for the night.

When Joey was older, he needed no enticement to jump in bed at night. In the winter, he’d burrow under the covers, stretch out against the length of my spine, and keep me warm. Sometimes, in the early hours of the morning, I’d have to drag him out from under the blankets because he was panting so hard he’d wake me.

In the mornings before leaving for work and school, one of us would cover him, head and all. Joey would walk in a half circle, folding the blanket around him, make himself into a tight little Joey ball, and, I assume, sleep happily for several hours.

But Joey’s absolute favorite thing was food. He’d steal a snack right out of your hand or off the kitchen table. No punishment was too great for a stolen morsel. No matter the scolding or the time spent in his crate, he’d still steal food.

This dog was so driven by food Kiddo trained him to play dead, roll over, spin around, sit pretty, and dance because there was a treat awaiting him after each of his performances.

Joey would even brawl with the older and much bigger dogs for food. One fight resulted in a visit to the vet’s office to have one of his fangs pulled because his older, bigger canine brother nailed him on his snout, pushing that tooth sideways.

There was the time I left a chair pulled out from the kitchen table and he used it to make his way to stand on top of the table to eat butter right out of the butter dish. And, the time he nabbed an organic steak, grilled to perfection, off a dinner plate.

Joey once downed a one-pound bag of Hershey’s Kisses, foil wrappers and all. We found small piles of foil around the yard after the snow melted that spring. Oh, and there were the one, two, three times I induced vomiting because he’d eaten grapes and raisins.

Once, Joey even managed to pull a pan of cooling soup off the stove top and I spent the next three days cleaning the broth from the cracks of the kitchen bead board. Eating from the trash — or litter boxes — wasn’t beneath this dog of ours, either.

We loved him anyway.

Then there was one

Soon after Joey came to live with us, our first lab, Bailey, was diagnosed with cancer. On a cold spring night, after taking Bailey for a walk and feeding her a big, bloody steak, a vet came to the house. Kiddo, Kiddo’s dad, and I surrounded our old ailing girl. Petting her and weeping, we were all witness to her last breath, telling her she was a good girl, the best girl.

That left us with the boys, one lovable lab and one lovable beagle. And, man, did we love them. We took them for walks, gave them treats, talked to them, focused all that love we spent on Bailey right on Sam and Joey. It made us feel better — made the hole where Bailey used to be a little less gaping.

Sam was my soul dog. He came to live with us when Bailey was maybe seven or so. The story goes that a neighbor swooped in just as Sam was about to be euthanized. The neighbor adopted him, but he was a single guy, and Sam spent a lot of his time at our house. Eventually, we just adopted Sam.

Sam lived for affection, leaning into my legs, brushing his head against my hand, licking me unsuspectingly. He shed terrifically, and slobbered on everyone’s pants without discrimination. He was fiercely protective, not letting other dogs, except for Joey, get near me. He’d stand between me and strangers, lay in doorways keeping guard, bark at anyone who came to the door.

He, too, was diagnosed with cancer.

On a late summer Friday morning, we all rose early, took Sam for one last walk and fed him a pound of bacon. He was in great spirits that morning, and I felt like a traitor when he barked excitedly and bounced around after I asked him if he wanted to go for a ride.

We drove Sam to the vet. And again, Kiddo, Kiddo’s dad, and I surrounded Sam while the vet tried to get a needle into his vein. We sobbed so loudly the vet told us we were freaking Sam out. We did our best to settle down for the moment, and again, the lethal injection sent another loved family member out of our lives.

New beginnings

Shortly before Sam’s death, Kiddo’s dad and I had separated. It didn’t matter. We all cried and mourned together after Sam was gone. But, that big farmhouse was feeling awfully empty about that time. All of us took all that love that we’d given to Bailey and Sam and channeled it to our one and only Joey.

The summer after we put Sam down, Kiddo and I moved to a smaller house. It was just the right size for Kiddo, Joey, and me. Though we missed the others, we were happy to have our one naughty dog.

Joey continued with his bad ways, stealing food or escaping out the gate and exploring the neighborhood, which always sent me into a panic, though he was never far away.

There was a new Joe in our lives, too. A Joe who would later become my husband. The name thing was a little unfortunate, but we survived it. Our new Joe loved Joey immediately and spoiled him without restraint, no matter how much I scolded human Joe for the extra treats.

About this time, Joey’s big personality hit Facebook as I began posting about all his naughty and loving ways. I always referred to him as Very Bad Dog on Facebook. I laughed this afternoon when an old family friend told me he never knew Joey’s real name, he thought it really was Very Bad Dog.

Human Joe and I were married last June. Just before the wedding we moved into a new house, sending Very Bad Dog into a tail spin. Now 12, Joey was naughtier than ever, seemingly forgetting he was housebroken, still stealing food, still escaping the gate. The “accidents” seemed behavioral because he only had them when we were nearby. He was trying to tell us something. Maybe he was telling us the move was upsetting, or maybe he was telling us something was up with physical being. We’ll never know.

Over the summer and fall, we walked Joey, took him for rides in the convertible, visited the nearby nature center for some hikes, bought him a new bed. His “accidents” became more sporadic. We were all settling in.

A fast four days, followed by a very long fifth day

Earlier this fall, Joey, always prone to benign fatty tumors, sprouted a new one above his fore arm. Kiddo kept telling me it was getting bigger, and I agreed, but was sure it was another one of his fatty tumors, just a bit more unsightly this time. A couple weeks ago I sat down with Joey and really felt the growth. I knew it wasn’t right.

Five days ago, Joey was at the vet and she, too, knew the growth wasn’t good. Being a Friday, she said to bring him back on Tuesday to have the growth removed. She was optimistic she could get it all and we’d buy him some time.

I took Joey home, put him in his crate and ran some errands. When I returned a couple hours later, he was shaking and panting — a pain response. I gave him aspirin and slept with him in the spare room. He threw up the aspirin in the night and continued to shake and pant.

He was no better the next morning, or in the afternoon. In fact, that afternoon, the poor guy’s arm began to swell, and fluid was collecting around his neck and chest. A call to the vet resulted in meds and instructions to bring him in first thing Monday morning.

Joey, jacked on prednisone, ate his way through Sunday afternoon and evening, and, with happy tail and quick, sure steps, made his way through a hike at our favorite park. We knew it wasn’t going to last, but Kiddo and I were so thankful to have that Sunday with Joey. And, we hoped for some more good weeks with him…maybe even months, if we were really lucky.

Monday morning, Joey was at the vet as soon as they opened. An emergency surgery on another dog way laid Joey’s tumor removal. The afternoon crawled by. When the vet called she informed me it was a nasty tumor and it didn’t look good, but surely the surgery gave us more time with Joey.

That same evening, Kiddo and I picked up our stoned puppy and brought him home. He was lame and lethargic, wobbling to get outside. He didn’t eat, but he drank some. No young man, we knew it might take some time for him to come around.

The next day, Very Bad Dog remained lethargic. He didn’t eat, didn’t move, fluid collected, he stopped drinking water, and we grew more concerned and scared with each passing moment. Again, I slept with our dog in the spare room, waking every couple hours hoping he’d turned a corner, would take some water or a bite of food. At 5am, I knew. I just knew. Joey wouldn’t be getting better.

So, I got dressed, brushed my teeth, lay on the floor with this Very Bad, but Very Lovable, Dog. I whispered to him that I loved him and thanked him for giving me and Kiddo so much.

After awhile, I woke Joe. I woke Kiddo. We all lay on the floor with Joey, channeling our love to him, waiting for the vet’s office to open.

The vet offered options. More aggressive treatment. But no outcome was a good one. And our dog was in pain, so uncomfortable. He lay — as he never had before — on the vet’s table, not moving, just breathing. In and out, in and out.

I believe he knew, too, he wouldn’t come back to us in any way that resembled his old bad, goofy, loving self.

Again Kiddo, Kiddo’s dad, I, and this time Joe, surrounded our dog, weeping and petting him, telling him he was a good boy, the best boy. We whispered that we loved him and we were sorry he was sick. Told him we will miss him fiercely.

We walked out of the vet’s office not looking at anyone in the waiting room, taking deep breaths, wiping away tears, and worst of all, empty handed.


Here we are, Kiddo and me, on the couch, not eating, not drinking, not moving. We made a little shrine out of Joey’s things, put his picture by his stuff, lit a candle.

Joey and I spent a lot of time together. I walked him and fed him. The days I worked at home, Joey dozed at my feet, and begged pretzels and popcorn from me throughout those afternoons. At night, Joey slept in my and Joe’s room. He pestered us at dawn for breakfast then would snuggle back in bed for several hours.

Dogs have a lot of love to go around, too. Alive for most of Kiddo’s life, Kiddo is bereft. When bored, Kiddo would pick on Joey, rile him up, get him barking and growling, chase him around, play guitar for him, sing to him, pick him up and carry him around. In fact, Joey only seemed to trust Kiddo to pick him up, I think because he did it so often. Now that Kiddo is in college, he’s home more and he and Joey hung out more.

Neither Kiddo or I are sure what to do with ourselves at the moment. As we sit on the couch, Kiddo flipping channels, me writing, we look over at the Joey shrine, confused and teary-eyed, wondering how it all went to hell so quickly. Sunday, Joey was pretty good. Tuesday, Joey is gone.

No regrets

When you adopt a dog, or any pet for that matter, you go into knowing you’ll most likely outlive him or her. It’s the deal we make for having that unconditional love, that joy and energy, that happiness that a dog brings to your life and home. In my book, it’s so worth it.

I love having a dog. I love having a dog be underfoot and in the way. I love having a walking companion, love having company in an otherwise empty house. I love having someone always happy to see me, love that he never cares if I’ve washed my hair and that he never judges me for my unusual choices in breakfast foods. I love having a dog to snuggle up with when I feel sick or sad.

My pal Laurie said to me once a long time ago, “If I ever come back to life as a dog, I want to be Sandra’s dog.” It was a sweet thing to say. Me and mine, we’re good at having a dog. And we’ll have one again.

Obviously, tomorrow will come and we’ll need to get on with things. I have to get back to work, Kiddo has a final. Tomorrow afternoon, for the first time in more than 20 years for me, and for the first time in Kiddo’s life, we will arrive home to an empty, dog-less house. That very thought makes me feel hollowed out inside. But I have no regrets even as my heart aches.

So, that dog Joey, the very bad one, the one we gave to Kiddo as his seventh birthday present…it’s the best seventh birthday gift there ever was. And, at the time of it, I didn’t even know Joey was a gift for me, too. Thank you, Kiddo, for picking out a Fat Puppy and bringing him for all of us to love.

Rest peacefully, Joey Jay. I hope you can feel our love from wherever you are.