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Old Wolf

Pete and I moved from Butte, Montana to Palmer Alaska in August, 2003. We came north in a recently-purchased school bus, and brought ourt old dog Bootleg with us. She was then 17. Shortly thereafter, we had to make a much-dreaded decision. Her having to be euthanized brought back quite a few memories, which are recounted in the following essay.

“It’s time,” Pete said.

“Time for what?” I asked.

“To take Bootleg outside.”

We lay in bed, listening, as the dog’s claws scrabbled against the linoleum. I looked at the alarm clock. It was 6 a.m. I jammed the pillow over my head. Pete arose, dressed, and headed downstairs. The scrabbling stopped, as he picked Bootleg up off the floor and carried her outside.

We’d agreed that the day in which Bootleg could no longer walk to the door without assistance was the day in which we’d have her . . . euthanized, put to sleep, destroyed, put of her misery. These terms were as evasive as our attitude. Terminate your beloved dog’s life? We couldn’t utter these words, much less picture ourselves carrying them out. Bootleg was seventeen. Pete and I had been told by many that twelve was old for a dog. This was hard to believe because we had no basis for comparison. Bootleg was our first dog and a healthy one at that. She accompanied us on cross-country ski treks until she was in her mid-teens. When she was fourteen, she began to have a hard time breathing. On the first day of that year’s cross-country ski season she lifted her head up off her blanket, looked at us both, sighed, and set her head back down. This was her way of saying that she wasn’t up for going with us.

Her veterinarian also refused to believe that Bootleg was on her way out. He said that she was suffering from laryngeal paralysis, a condition that could be surgically remedied. He added that the operation would have to be done by a specialist from Billings and that this would be costly. Pete and I agreed to go through with this procedure because we knew that after, Bootleg would again be her same old self. We were right. Before long she was again accompanying us on ski trips, hikes, and bicycle rides. The bicycle rides—Pete had while doing graduate work in Michigan been dubbed dog boy because he would often be seen around town with Bootleg, who ran alongside his bicycle.

Bootleg’s recovery left me thinking that her living into her mid-twenties was within the realm of possibility. It also enabled me to ignore the signs of advancing age, some of which included cataracts, deafness, and stiffening joints. However, it was hard to ignore the other signs, some of which included incontinence, pacing, and the loss of strength in her hindquarters.

Pete brought Bootleg back in the house and set her on her blanket near the woodstove. We ate our breakfast and once in a while looked over at her. She was the same old Bootleg except for the fact her once brown muzzle was now white and her once shiny black-brown coat was matted and dull. It had just been in the past two weeks that she’d stopped cleaning herself.

“I can’t do it,” I said. “Can you call around and find a veterinarian?”

“I’ll do it,” Pete said.

I thanked Pete, well knowing that he too had been hoping that Bootleg would rise, walk to her water bowl, and then ask to be let outside. The clichéd phrase, this dog is family was a truism. We got her when she was six-weeks old. Pete and I had been together for two months. It was October, 1986. I was working on my MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. I was on my way to class when I saw a sign that read part Wolf Puppies, $15.00. I wrote down the phone number and later suggested to Pete that we check this out. We didn’t know that such animals usually don’t make good pets. Rather, we surmised that a wolf pup would mature into a large, smart, and extremely loyal dog. I made an appointment to see the litter. On the way to North Pole, I tried to teach Pete to whistle. This, I said, was something that every dog owner should know how to do. There are, I further explained, two ways in which one calls a dog. You purse your lips and blow softly, or put your thumb and forefinger on the edge of your lips and blow hard. Neither method worked for Pete. I suggested he get a dog whistle, but I agreed with him that because such devices are silent that it would be hard to know if was working. I added that he ought not to feel discouraged, that a strong whistle would come if he kept working at it.

We found the place we were seeking, a single story brown house surrounded by a flimsy chest-high fence. On the far side of the fence was a large female dog that looked like a cross between a wolf and a German shepherd. She was dark-brown and had a black muzzle and tail. I approached the fence and did the nice doggie thing, but leapt back when she growled and showed her canines. This was a bad sign. Mothers pass their dispositions on to their offspring. Her pups would probably take down moose and chase caribou. We weren’t looking to own a wild animal. Rather, we were looking for a companion. This dog’s offspring wouldn’t fit the bill.

“This is the wrong place,” I said.

Pete pointed at the dog’s underside. Large pink teats swayed from side to side when she walked.

“This is the place all right,” he said.

“Well then let’s get out of here.”

The front door opened as we turned to leave.

“She’s okay, just being protective,” a figure in the doorway yelled.

“Erik!” Pete shouted.

“Pete!” Erik responded.

Pete told me that Erik was in his Spanish class. Erik beckoned to us to come in the side door, and Pete and I followed. The mother dog raised her hackles and barked. She was behind a fence, but just to make sure that she didn’t follow, I shut the door firmly behind me. The interior of the house appeared to be inhabited by college students. There were two boxes of beer bottles in the kitchen, and a sink full of dirty dishes. The living room furniture consisted of a couch with springs popping through the upholstery and a car seat. On top of a coffee table, on an overturned crate, were the remains of a joint and a pile of textbooks. The sound of puppies, rustling on papers and making small yips, caught my attention. The noises were emanating from the back porch. The six pups were the size of guinea pigs. Erik held them up one-by-one and set them on the floor. Pete and I knelt down and watched them squirm about. The smallest, a non-descript brown pup with a white chest, crawled up into Pete’s lap, laid down, yawned, and closed her eyes.

“This is the one,” Pete said.

“You think?” I said, holding up a large black-and-white male.

“Pete, the one you’re holding, she’s the runt,” Erik said.

“Runts are prone to health problems,” I declared.

“She’s healthy,” Pete said.

I voiced a second reservation, which was that this dog might grow up to be overly territorial. However, Erik assured me that Lobo was just concerned about her pups. As if to prove this, he opened the front door and let Lobo into the house. She rushed over to her puppies and put each one back in the whelping box. She then hopped in, laid down and encouraged them to nurse. Erik reached in the box, pet her, and encouraged us to do the same. Pete and I backed off. If Lobo was, as the For Sale sign claimed, half-wolf, then the pups were either one, two, or three-quarters wolf. I asked Erik about the father’s parentage; he said that he didn’t know for sure what it was. Lobo had escaped from the yard one night when she was in heat and returned pregnant. Pete sat back on his heels and pointed to the brown pup. Lobo growled as Erik set the wriggling critter in Pete’s open hands. Pete pulled his wallet out of his jeans pocket and pulled forth $15.00. Erik refused the money, explaining that the pup’s going to a good home was payment enough.

“Got any ideas in mind for names?” Erik asked.

“Bootleg,” I said.

Erik looked puzzled. I explained that this was a name that Pete and I had come up with on our first date. We were sitting in front of the stage at the Carlos Creek Music Festival and talking about bootleg music; that is, music that’s pirated from a concert by tape and passed on to others. Pete agreed with me that this, the term bootleg, was a good dog name. I tried it out – B-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-t Leg. The long o sound lent itself to name calling. We’d later discover that the pre-determined moniker had a drawback. Bootleg’s physical description bore no relation to her name, so acquaintances called her (among other things) Bootjack, Whiskey, and (my favorite) Booters.

On the drive home we began doing the surrogate child thing. This wasn’t a conscious gesture; rather, it was an unconscious way of our attempting to determine if we’d make good parents. On the drive home we stopped at a feed store in order to purchase a collar, a leash, and a bag of puppy chow. And every so often one or the other of us rushed back out to the car to see if Bootleg was okay. As we shopped, we conversed about how we’d raise our dog. We both advocated taking a non-violent approach—there was to be no rubbing Bootleg’s nose in it if she pooped or piddled in the house. Rather, we’d keep a close eye on her and take her outside immediately after she ate or before she pooped.

Bootleg was far easier to deal with than a child; this was why we soon dismissed the idea of having kids. She was easily housebroken, quick to learn basic commands, and content to be in our company. And we didn’t, as do new parents, have to monitor her every move. We were living in a quasi communal area, one in which many of the inhabitants were dog owners. The dozen-or-so cabins were well off the road, so we didn’t have to worry about Bootleg’s wandering out into the traffic. Her best friend was our friend Sean’s German shepherd pup. Little Anne and Bootleg spent a great deal of time play wrestling, stopping only when the other tired. Then after a rest, they’d go at it again. Her second-best friend was our friend Jock’s Golden Retriever/Great Pyranees cross. Cider taught Bootleg some of the more important things in life, like how to get at frozen water (you break it with your paws, step back, and then move in) and how to steal moose steaks off the grill (you grab at the one closest to the edge with your front teeth, pull it to the ground, pick it up gently, run to the driveway’s edge, and devour it).

We didn’t consider ourselves to be parents or parents-in-training. When the similarity was brought to our attention, we stated that we were dog owners, the difference being that we weren’t raising a human being, but rather, an animal that slept at the foot of the bed, ate out of a bowl off the floor, and pooped outside. We also pointed out that we’d never spent money on playthings. Bootleg had just one toy, a cotton sock with a knot in it. It was used for playing keep away, catch, and tug of war. There was one unspoken similarity to parenting, and this was that Bootleg was a shared interest. We became more adept negotiators, an attribute which stood us in good stead in the years ahead.

The first instance of this occurred when Bootleg was twelve weeks old. I’d told Pete when we met that I’d be spending that winter in New Zealand. I’d write about my trip, and upon my return I would write a series of essays that, when complete, would take the form of my MFA thesis. Pete expressed his one reservation about this prior to my departure. He didn’t want to be Bootleg’s sole keeper. I loved Pete, and for this reason I felt like staying put. However, I’d always been a traveler and was loathe to give up this part of my life. My going to New Zealand won out since my writing about this trip would be good for my career.

Pete and I kept in touch via letters. His were always brief and to the point. He wrote that he missed me, and then he included a few sentences about Bootleg. She went with him when he went to the mailbox or to town for food, and she was a good companion. Homesick eventually got the best of me, and so I returned home earlier than planned. I presumed that once I got back to Fairbanks that I’d be greeted by a large wolf that weighed about a hundred pounds. I was instead met at the door by a smaller dog who weighed about 35 pounds. Bootleg said hello and raced over to Pete. I noted that in my absence that the pair had bonded. Pete laughed and asked Bootleg if she agreed. She responded by begging him to play with the sock. The two played and I began dealing with what would be a more emotionally-related tug of war. I’d hoped that Bootleg would like me as much as Pete, but I glad that she’d taken to him. We’d both care for her, which meant that our individual dog-caring workload would be halved.

Bootleg was an adaptable traveler. This was fortuitous because Pete and I were to become a mobile couple. When we weren’t traveling, we were moving. And when we weren’t moving, we were traveling. Milestones were marked by Bootleg’s age. I graduated from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks and we moved to Minnesota when she was two. We then moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin where for the next four years I worked on my Ph.D. Pete moved to Clemson, South Carolina in order to work on his Master’s in Professional Writing when Bootleg was six. Shortly thereafter, I joined them both and there finished my dissertation. Ten-year old Bootleg remained with Pete when he moved to Hancock, Michigan and began work on his Ph.D. In the meantime I did short teaching stints in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina. We moved en-mass, to Plymouth, New Hampshire, and there spent Bootleg’s twelfth and thirteenth years of life.

We deliberated about what we’d do with Bootleg before each move. If Bootleg had her day, she’d have chosen to go with Pete. She had no say; however, our decisions were always in her best interest. She went with the one who lived closest to a park, furthest from the roadway, and had the most time to spend with her. There were times, though, when we had to leave her in the care of others. Bootleg hated boarding kennels, so they were soon out. Bicycle trips were sandwiched in between moves. Bootleg stayed with family members and friends who lived in South Carolina, Wisconsin, California, New Hampshire, and Michigan. She was a good house guest, although upon our return she let us know that she was glad to see us. And so, while we were remained resistant to the notion that we surrogate parents, we felt something kin to pride when we were given rave reviews about her behavior.

For example, there was our visit with Donald Murray and his wife Minnie Mae. Don was my journalism teacher in the 1970s, and after, we kept in touch. We pulled into their driveway and Bootleg, then thirteen, hopped out of the car, walked over to Don and sat quietly at his size ten feet. Don had an imposing air about him, which was enhanced by a full head of white hair and back horn rimmed glasses. Even so, our small dog scared him. He stepped back and explained that he and Minnie Mae weren’t dog people.

“She’s not all dog. She’s also a quarter wolf” I said.

“You don’t say!”

“Yes. She was born in North Pole, Alaska. She’s the daughter of Lobo, who was half-wolf.”

“And her father?”

“He was a wanderer,” Pete said.

“Has she shown any wolf tendencies?” Minnie Mae asked.

“She pounces on chipmunks, the same way a wolf does,” I said, adding that this was what she did when we took her with on our Minnesota Boundary Waters trip.

“You took her on a canoe trip?” Minnie queried.

“She rode on the bow of the boat and carried her own pack.”

“Goodness,” Minne Mae said.

I put Bootleg back in the truck and said that the vehicle was her home away from home.

“Bring the old wolf in the house!” Donald said.

The next morning we awoke to find that Bootleg was gone. We found Minnie Mae, who was in the kitchen, making breakfast. I asked her where Bootleg was and was told that she was with Don. Pete and I were prepared to apologize for our dog’s having wandered off into his study. We entered the well-lit room and Don looked up from his computer screen. Before either of us could speak, he said that Old Wolf was under his desk; she’d joined him at 5 a.m., the time that in which he usually began his writing day. Don pushed back his chair and Bootleg stood up, stretched, and walked over to Pete. The pair returned to the kitchen and I continued to talk with Don.

“She’s a wonderful wolf, a truly wonderful wolf,” he said.

“Why don’t you get a dog of your own?” I queried.

“Because there’s no guarantee that she’d be as smart and obedient as yours,” he said.

I later mentioned this to Pete and, together, we once again gave ourselves a pat on the back for having done such a wonderful job raising Bootleg. She not only behaved for us, she behaved for others. Proof of this had again made itself apparent. All who dog sat Bootleg told us that she was welcome back. This included Don, who via email always asked how Old Wolf was doing.

We’d done a good job raising Bootleg. Our job was made easier by the fact that we’d lucked out when the genetic dice were tossed out onto the table. She’d inherited the more dog-like traits of kindliness, friendliness, and companionability, and the more wolf-like traits of reserve, common sense, and adaptability. This became most apparent when we took on Rainbow, who was much harder to work with. Rainbow appeared on the scene when we were living in Butte, Montana. It was March, 2002. I met up with the stray while on a bike ride in the Silverbow Creek area. The Australian Cattle dog- Border Collie mix bounded alongside my bicycle, and then bounded off in order to chase away the curious cattle.

Pete would say that our taking on another dog wouldn’t be fair to Bootleg. And he was right. I’d seen it happen repeatedly; an older dog’s becoming second-in-importance to a newer dog. Our old pal didn’t need this. So I ditched the younger dog, by going in one door of a local hot springs and out the other. Rainbow resurfaced a few days later. A friend had me go with her to the Butte Animal Shelter where she was going to find a cat. I entered the door and saw Rainbow in a cage on my left. She looked up at me expectantly, as if to say “What took you so long to get here?” Now that she was confined, I was able to take a closer look at her. She, unlike Bootleg, had “all the markings.” She weighed about fifty pounds and was black with white legs, tail tip, and chest. A three-quarters ruff and two gold eye dots gave her a rakish appearance. The desk clerk said that she’d be euthanized unless someone claimed her in the next week. I subsequently put all my time and energy into finding this dog a home, but nothing materialized. After considerable agonizing, I conceded that she was meant to be ours. Convincing Pete of this turned out to be easier than I’d thought it would be. His one reservation was that he’d thought that after Bootleg passed on, that we’d be able to travel and not have to worry about animal care. But the prospect of a good dog being euthanized bothered him as much as did me.

I had moments when I regretted our decision. Rainbow was more of a challenge than Bootleg—both because of her genetic makeup and her age when we got her. (She was six-months old.) Since she’d been running free, she’d come to believe that this was acceptable behavior. There was also a training-related difference. We didn’t take Bootleg to obedience school because she responded readily to verbal cues and body language. Rainbow reminded us that Bootleg’s exemplary behavior had been shaped over the course of a seventeen-year lifetime. Sit, stay, come down, it all fell on deaf ears with Rainbow. Heel was the worst. She’d pull so hard that my wrists would hurt after I walked her. Friends who witnessed this suggested that we enroll Rainbow in an obedience class. I dismissed this bit of advice because I thought that this would set our attention deficit disorder dog up for failure. I instead signed her for agility training. This too was too taxing for Rainbow. She repeatedly ran away and encouraged the other dogs to join her.

Pete often reminded me that Rainbow had several good traits. She was, he said, enthusiastic, gentle, and got along well with other dogs. The latter was her best attribute. Bootleg, who by now was in the throes of dementia, was unaware that there was another dog in the house. For example, when Rainbow sniffed butt, Bootleg stood staring out into space. Rainbow then backed off and begged us to play tug of war with her. Thus, I had to agree with Pete—her good traits outweighed her bad ones.

Bootleg’s deterioration was so slow that we both adjusted to it. Pete cleaned up vomit and I cleaned up diarrhea. And when she wandered off and was lost, Pete went one way and I went the other. The bus trip from Butte to Palmer was unexpectedly difficult because we had to do on the road double-dog duty. We ended up doing what most couples who’ve been together for seventeen years do, which was to divide the workload up in an equitable fashion. I was Rainbow’s, and Pete was Bootleg’s primary caretaker. It was hard to say who had the more difficult job—neither one of us could turn our back on our respective charges.

It was true in this instance that hardship is quickly forgotten. We made more trip plans before we’d even finished unpacking. We’d left Fairbanks fifteen years before and were eager to see old friends. So why not head up there? Bootleg and Rainbow had just survived a two-week long bus trip. In comparison, a six-hour truck drive would be nothing for them. We were right. Bootleg slept on my lap the entire time. And Rainbow, sitting between Pete and me, watched the roadside sights.

There had been many changes in the Cloudberry community in our absence. Many of the former inhabitants had left, and others had come to take their place. This was also true of the dog population. Cider had passed on many years before, and Little Anne had died shortly after being attacked by a moose. However, Rainbow enjoyed playing with Sean’s new dog, Lito, a Belgian shepherd. He was surprised to see us and even more surprised to see Bootleg, who tottered over to him and wagged her tail. Sean looked in disbelief at her. “Bootleg!? This is classic!” he finally said.

Our walk around the old neighborhood was bittersweet. Bootleg disproved our belief that she didn’t know where she was. She stopped in front of our old cabin, turned left, walked up the steps, and stood by the door. This, her acknowledgement that she’d previously lived here, was for both dog and owners, the completion of a circle. We who had all been many places and done different things had returned, this time a quite bit older and infinitely wiser. Before leaving, Suzi, Sean’s partner, gave us a gift, a lilac bush. This then cemented the resumption of a life-long friendship.

We avoided talking about having Bootleg put down on the way to and from Fairbanks. Both Pete and I hoped that she’d die peacefully in her sleep. This was not to be. Her internal organs must have been in good shape because she hung in there. She still had all her teeth, and therefore she could eat. And she’d had no problem breathing since the surgery. However, her being deaf, blind, senile, and incontinent was more problematic. Our decision to end Bootleg’s life was not based on inconvenience, but rather the knowledge that she’d want to be remembered as a healthy, self-ambulatory dog.

We choked down our oatmeal, and exchanged a few perfunctory remarks. Pete got up and moved Bootleg a ways back from the woodstove. She either didn’t feel the heat or didn’t feel like moving. After breakfast Pete scheduled an appointment with the Wasilla Veterinary Clinic. We put Bootleg’s blanket on the truck bed and Pete set her down top of it.

It was a crisp, sunny autumn day, a good day for a hike. Pete’s mentioning this on the drive to the clinic brought tears to my eyes, for if Bootleg was younger, this is what we would have done. I glanced at Pete and noticed that his eyes were watery. We were both in tears by the time we entered the veterinary office. The receptionist immediately offered her condolences. Much to our surprise, Mike Cull was standing by the front desk. Gus, his dog was by our side. Our sad expressions enabled him to put two-and-two together. Pete paid the bill and Mike commiserated with me. I said between sobs that that this wasn’t fair; Bootleg was still a very young dog at heart.

We’d decided to have her put down in the rear of the truck, the place where she was most comfortable. Pete, the receptionist, the veterinarian, Mike, and I walked in single file, out of the office and into the parking lot. I thought it was sadly ironic that the receptionist was wearing a smock that was festooned with images of kittens and puppies; however, I didn’t say anything. Rather, I stepped aside and let her make a clay image of Bootleg’s left paw. She handed to Pete, who after saying thanks put it in the glove compartment. She stepped back and the veterinarian took her place. He had a full head of gray hair and was stoop shouldered. He’d thrown a lab coat over his flannel shirt. I grew woozy as he withdrew a needle, syringe, and bottle out of his white shirt pocket. Both Pete and I looked the other way, as he first gave one and then a second injection. I held onto Bootleg tight, and was surprised to feel her heart pounding strongly. It gradually slowed down then finally stopped.

“She’s dead, isn’t she?” I said, between sobs.

Just to make sure, the veterinarian hooked his stethoscope in his ears, leaned forward, and touched the round metal part to Bootleg’s chest. Pete wrapped Bootleg in her yellow blanket. We thanked the veterinarian, climbed back in the truck, and drove home. Pete pointed to a license plate of a truck that passed us shortly after leaving the clinic. It read “Old Wolf.” This was no coincidence. The message that higher powers were sending us was that Bootleg’s spirit would live on forever. We buried her on the knoll to the right of the guest cabin. Pete dug her grave, and together we placed the dog and her bone in the hole. We then planted the lilac bush that Suzi had given us on top of the dirt mound.

Bootleg’s passing was hard on both Pete and I because she was a mutually-shared responsibility. Her dependence upon us had been good for us because we’d had to take into consideration the feelings, thoughts, and wishes of the other party. Yes, the seemingly endless discussions about the how, when, why, what, and where of ongoing dog-care had been to all our benefit.

Patron Saint of the Unenthusiastic Ego (oil on wood) by Jacqueline Welch