A Dog’s Life

[Originally posted July, 2007]

Dogs can smell death; you can see it in their eyes at the pound. Tolstoy could, for sure, and he was thankful as all hell when a familiar face came to get him at the San Francisco animal shelter.

Tolstoy

The year was 1994, and I had just driven across the heat of the Sacramento valley in my beat-up Toyota pickup truck on the hunch that Tolstoy was on death row. I had met Tol once before, at a friend of my then-girlfriend ’s house. She had insisted that her buddy had the dog I’d been pining for – a beautiful Akita-Husky with a wicked sense of humor.

Tolstoy had been found on Ocean Beach in San Francisco by a couple who took him in and put up signs all over their neighborhood. “Found: Husky Mix Puppy: Pick Up In Two Weeks Or We Shall Find a Loving Home” The friend, Randy, had immediately gone over and told them that if no-one stepped up, he’d take the puppy.

Weeks later, hen I met Tolstoy for the first time at Randy’s house, my first thought was how incredibly pretty a dog he was. And he knew it. He’d just been given a bath when we rolled up, and he was preening.

Inside, Tolstoy was all to happy to show off his dominance, and promptly dug into the trash in Randy’s bedroom once we were all seated. I told Randy he had better train that dog or he’d walk all over him – I had no idea how right I was.

Tolstoy was an Akita – Husky mix. Two of the most stubborn and independent breeds you are ever likely to find in a dog. Mixed together, he was a wildebeest. Within a month or so, Randy’s upstairs neighbors were complaining, and his landlord was making rumblings.

Randy called me to see what I could do, and I jumped at the opportunity. I wanted that dog, and knew he and I would get along. My first move was to stupidly call the property manager on our South Lake Tahoe Barrio rental to see if I could please, please add a dog to our lease. Of course he said no, and so I started trying to find ways to make the whole thing work. I remember it all very clearly. It’s all been coming back in waves over the past 36 hours.

The last cordial conversation I had with Randy, I told him not to do anything stupid, that I was on the verge of a solution. The next thing I heard, he’d dumped Tolstoy at the dog run in Golden Gate Park with a note on his neck that read, “My name is Tolstoy, I’m a good dog, and I need a home.”

That was on a Monday. My first day off that week was a Wednesday, and I gambled that Tolstoy would be in the pound in San Francisco. I drove straight to the pound on Wednesday, walked into the pound, and there was Tolstoy: Day three on death row, hours away from becoming one of the 500,000 unwanted pets who are put to sleep every year in California alone.

I took him back to Tahoe the next day.  The first thing he did, after peeing on our kitchen table and freaking out my roommate, Welly, who was convinced we’d be evicted for having a dog, was leap over the fence in the back yard and run. Tolstoy wasn’t used to rules like, “don’t pee on the kitchen table,” or “don’t hump my girlfriend’s leg.” He wanted nothing to do with me and my totalitarian regime, so he split. It may have been the first time he took off on me, but it most certainly would not be the last.

I hopped on my bike and went looking for him, to no avail. The next morning I called the local pound to see if they had any leads, and a woman had seen him get hit by a car the night before, and had taken him to her house. Day two with Tolstoy, and he’s off to the vet for a collapsed lung and an X-ray to make sure his hind left leg wasn’t damaged in the hit and run. The diagnosis was to not let him run full steam for three months, and give the lung time to re-inflate.

Three months in the middle of summer, no running full steam. He hated me. Absolutely hated me. I’d be donning my roller blades off to play hockey, and he’d be running back and forth in the house, from the window in my bedroom to the window in the living room. Without fail, upon my return I would find “dookies of vengeance” on the carpet.

I’d walk him and walk him until I was sure his bowels were empty, and he’d hang on to just enough to give me the old “eff you” if I went somewhere without him. Oh, he and I had fun, to be sure. I bought an all terrain skateboard and a dog harness, and would take Tol on controlled runs around our neighborhood, two or three blocks at a time. Give his lungs a workout, but not let him over-tax them.

It was on these little runs that I discovered that Tolstoy’s disobedience wasn’t out of stupidity, but sheer stubbornity. If he couldn’t see how it would immediately benefit him, he wanted nothing to do with it. Case in point: when using a leash and a harness to “surf” on a skateboard with a dog, poles, stop signs and other stationary objects can be downright dangerous. I’d see them coming, jump off of the board and brace myself. Tolstoy would continue full speed until the leash wrapped on the pole, and he’d get flung sideways.

Once, just once, I yelled “this side!” of an oncoming pole, and Tolstoy got it. Once. Every time after that, when a pole was coming I’d yell, he’d get on the same side as me, and we’d have smooth sailing. It was as brilliant as it was revealing: he was very smart, he just didn’t want to listen.

Tolstoy didn’t buy in to our relationship 100% until that first winter we had together. Ask any die hard powder hound and they’ll tell you, the winter of ’94 – ’95 was epic. Kirkwood was open by November 5th, with an incredible base. I remember it very clearly, because it started snowing as we were moving from one side of South Tahoe to another.

Welly, Crotzer and I had found a house off of Pioneer Trail, in a great neighborhood with lots of National Forest nearby. The yard was huge, with a fence Toli would never be able to jump, and we were all stoked.

This was about the time they were filming Showgirls in our casino. Yes, that Showgirls. We all signed up to be extras, and took a week off of work to do it. Early November was slow, and we were looking forward to being on the big screen. The first day of shooting we spent 13 hours in a holding pen before going in for 20 minutes of shooting. When we got home that night I discovered that Tolstoy’s limit for holding it was 13 hours.

The next day I was trying to leave him with access to the yard and garage while we went back for Showgirls and Tolstoy saw his chance: he bolted into the street and took off into the distance. There was a good foot and a half of snow on the ground, and my truck was the only one with chains on it, so I sent Welly and Crotzer off without me to go sit in the holding pen while I searched for Tolstoy. I spent 45 minutes combing the neighborhood before giving up and going back to shovel the driveway.

I was worried mainly because we’d just moved in, and I hadn’t had a chance to give Tol a tour yet. I wasn’t sure he’d be able to find his way home, and in that snowstorm I didn’t know what would happen. Over an hour after he’d split to the North he came back from the South, bounding through the snow. He was grinning ear to ear, tongue flapping and eyes wide open, plunging through snow as tall as he was.

He was so excited, and he’d come home to share it with me. He jumped all around, and leaned against my leg panting, while he “let” me pet him. It was at that moment that he’d decided that life with me was going to be alright, and after that we started getting along a lot better. Our walks in the woods started happening off leash, and he started staying closer, and not running off for hours at a time.

Still, life with Tol was a never-ending process of training. And love. He would give me tongue baths for as long as my skin could take it. I tried to time how long he would do it on numerous occasions, and gave up after seven minutes. Once Tolstoy had bought into our relationship, it was 100%.

Thirteen years, that dog and I spent together. The longest continuous relationship I’ve had outside of blood relatives. Tolstoy slept in my bed for over ten years: a record that my wife, Michele, still has a few years to go to beat.

He and I both went through incredible transformations in his lifetime. In 1994, when I first got Tol, I was 25 years old, with one vicious partying lifestyle. My patience with life was starting to wear thin, and I was perfecting my alcoholic lifestyle. Tolstoy wanted nothing to do with anyone, and sought to simply run an play on the beach.

When I got sober, and spent months dealing with all of the issues I’d been trying to bury all of those years, it was my daily walks on Chrissy Field with Tolstoy that helped get me through. At a time when I was most alone in the world, and learning to be completely cool with that, Tolstoy was the one constant.

It was on a walk with Tolstoy that the idea to found the San Francisco Disc Golf Club came to me – a decision that would benefit the both of us, as we spent the next 10 years playing lots of disc golf. Once Tolstoy discovered that gophers were good eating, he started spending hours digging for them whenever we were in the park together.

He developed a system for hunting gophers that was quite impressive: when a gopher showed itself he’d pounce beyond the mouth of the hole, collapsing the tunnel behind the gopher. We’d gleefully yell, “Get the mouse!” as the hunt began, and sometimes recoil in shock when it was successful.

The official count stands at 25 confirmed kills, and Tolstoy ate all but one of them. Judging, however, by the stink that came out of his butt some nights, I’d say that kill count is extremely conservative.

Tolstoy loved to swim, an Akita trait most people don’t know about. He liked swimming because it gave him the chance to hunt ducks, and he would swim after ducks until he was on the verge of drowning. Aquatic Park, in Berkeley, has a fun disc golf course that runs along a wildlife preserve – mostly ducks and waterfowl. Tolstoy was in heaven, and would spend 40 minutes at a time chasing after ducks. I would run up and down the shore, desperately trying to get him to come back to land.

Once, after being in the water for over an hour and twenty minutes in a ninety minute span, Tolstoy finally came back to shore with just his eyes, ears and nose above the water. After that, I started using the doggie life vest a friend of Miriam’s gave me. Many disc golfers first got to know “that crazy dog with water wings” before they ever met me.

 By the time Tolstoy and I were taking walks on Chrissy Field, I was used to his swimming antics, and would simply sit on the beach and wait for him. Often times all I could see would be the yellow of his life jacket, as he swam out into the shipping lane, chasing some duck that was having a grand old time leading him on.

Once, a fishing boat stopped to pick him up – that’s how far he went out. I used to cringe, and fret, and worry – I didn’t want to watch my dog drown, after all. But he taught me how to let go, and trust him, and give in to the belief that if he did die chasing ducks in the San Francisco Bay, at least he would die utterly, completely happy.

Michele and I met in 2001, and by then Tolstoy and I had been hanging out together for seven years. He was a good dog…well, that’s misleading. He was always a good dog, but after seven years he had also become a relatively obedient dog. She and he hit it off right away, and when a stint of unemployment left her with free days for eight months, she and Tol got to forge a very special bond.

On our wedding night we drove home from Oakland, picked Tolstoy up, and took him to our hotel to spend the night with us before we set off on our honeymoon. We were a very tight-knit pack.

From the very beginning of our relationship, Michele and I talked about what we would do when Tolstoy got old, when his time came. We hoped it would be obvious, what course of action to take. We hoped it could be quick, and that we wouldn’t be tempted to draw it out selfishly.

And slowly, surely, Tol started to get old. He started having trouble getting in and out of my truck, and then our car. He slept more between walks, and spent less time running hard at the beach. He charged up to other dogs in the park with less frequency, and eventually stopped butt-whipping other dogs entirely. Somewhere around 2003, he started going deaf.

Through it all, he was a wonderful companion. He would take a protective stance whenever any stranger came to the house, to his very last day. He would spin and “woo-woo!” any time we came home from a trip and picked him up from camp. Until last Sunday.

Returning from a work trip Sunday, we swung by Joel & Amanda’s to pick up Tolstoy on our way home. We had known Tolstoy wasn’t feeling well when we dropped him off, but we’d been having issues with his food for months anyway. When Joel threw open the door, there was Tolstoy laying on the floor of the living room. He looked right at us, and…just laid there. He hadn’t eaten in days, and was literally starving to death.

He couldn’t walk on his own, and needed help down the two steps at Joel and Amanda’s, let alone the 29 back at our house. A trip the vet the next day revealed the undeniable truth: Tolstoy had liver cancer, and the tumor was as wide as he was. Not only that, but he had severe arthritis of the spine, and it was a miracle that he’d been walking without visible signs of pain for the past few months.

Not wanting his last day to be spent at the vet, I asked for a regimen of drugs that would buy us a couple of days, and took my dog home one last time.

Dogs can smell death, and Tolstoy was no different. When I came back to get him from the vet after four hours of sitting there, he had thought that was it. He was ecstatic to go home, and tried to jump out of the car when I parked in our drive. The pain killers and steroids worked wonders, and for one last day, we had out Tol. But he wasn’t eating, and he didn’t have any fight left in him.

We called a vet who made house calls, and scheduled an appointment to put Tolstoy to sleep the next day at 4:30pm.

He woke me up at 4am to go to the bathroom, and I happily carried him downstairs so he could pee and poop.

I tried to tell him how much I loved him. I tried to tell him what a good dog he was. I tried to tell him how thankful I was for the 13 years we spent together. I don’t know if he could hear me. I hope he could feel me. I cried a lot that day. I lay on the ground with him, stroking his fur and weeping. I hope I didn’t make him feel guilty for being sick, that’s the kind of companion he was.

The next morning  Ryder, Michele and I joined Tolstoy downstairs to watch him pee on the tree out front, and he surprised us all when he insisted on setting off on a morning walk. It was a far cry from just nine days before, when we would hike up to the top of Kite Hill every morning on our family walk, but it was a family walk all the same. We got to the top of the hill at 19th and Yukon, and Tol wanted to keep going up.

I knew his muscle mass wasn’t there after six days of starvation, and convinced him to settle for going around the block. Between meeting and appointments all day I would run home to carry him downstairs, and spend just a few last minutes with him. I cried my eyes out between appointments, and wept at the thought of life without Tolstoy.

But when I set my eyes upon him, I knew he was done. 4:30pm started seeming both extremely close and too far off.

The plumber came to fix our toilet while I was at one meeting, and Tolstoy immediately got up to go make sure Michele and Ryder were safe. Ever the protector, ever the faithful member of the pack.

Moments ticked by that day with a very odd sense of import. Every second took me one moment closer to the loss of one of the most faithful companions I’ve had in this lifetime. I still know that Tolstoy was done, and there was nothing I could do, and easing his suffering was the right thing to do. That doesn’t make it any easier.

I massaged Tolstoy’s jaw and head, and whispered in his ear as the vet slowly killed him, “Good dog. You are a good dog.” And then, struck by inspiration, “Get the mouse!

“You are a good dog!” I tried to assure him, as his breathing picked up pace, he opened his left eye, and took in one final, shallow breath.

Two strangers carried away my dog, and in a week or so they’ll mail me his ashes. He’ll arrive by registered mail. Surreal.

There are so many great moments I shared with Tolstoy, and they all have been coming up to the surface in the past few days:

• The one duck he actually caught, and Tolstoy’s look of utter surprise as he brought it back to shore

• At the beach, getting ready to go home after hours of laying out in the sun. I pull out his leash to keep him under control when we pass the horse stables, and he starts jumping up and down like, “Ooh! Ooh! The leash! The leash! Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!” As if there were anywhere better than the beach we were on.

• At Michele’s mom’s house, in the kitchen: Michele’s mom is reaching for doggie snacks, and her two Goldens are a frenzy of activity. In the eye of this storm is Tolstoy, sitting perfectly frozen, willing her to feed him first.

“I am the bestest boy, give me noms?”

• Waking up to Tolstoy licking my face in the morning.

• Taking long walks in the park or at the beach six or seven days a week, and watching the boundless enthusiasm of a dog having fun.

• Me: “Are you a wookie?” Tol: “Woooo-woooo, Rrraawwww!”

• On a walk with Michele: Tolstoy gets distracted by some potential scrap of food on the sidewalk, and walks headlong into a bus stop. He quickly puts on an “I meant to do that” look.

• His complete cunning: Tolstoy knew the disc golf course in Golden Gate Park so well, he knew exactly when to bail out on me and cross JFK to forage for cat food in the bushes along Speedway Meadow. If I would leash him up on #6, the next time he’d bail out on #5, and so on. Somehow he always managed to not get hit by a car, which was my gravest concern. But boy did he love him some cat food.

• “Hello? Do you have a dog named Tolstoy? We’re down by (insert park location here) and he just came trotting up to us?” Tolstoy came to understand that if he got lost, he just needed to find someone who was nice, and somehow I’d show up. He relied on it. On the unofficial opening day of the disc golf course, he pulled this stunt. After 13 years, he had me trained to not pop blood vessels and let it be. Or leash him.

• Coming home to a wagging tail and a smiling face, no matter what kind of day I had.

I am going to miss that guy. He was the perfect dog for me: disobedient, fiercely loyal, stubborn, and endlessly loving. I hope I reflected all of those qualities right back at him. Go on buddy, get the mouse! I hope you have an endless supply, and an eternity to hunt them.

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