Story and photo submitted by Steve
My name is Steve and I am the “friend beast” of a 10-year-old mutt named Pete. Pete is gray in the face and several steps slower than he used to be, but still wrestles me for the ball when I return after week-long business trips and begs to go for rides. This is our story…
I moved to Denver from Kuwait City, Kuwait in 2008 after almost 6 years of working as a private defense contractor in Iraq and various other locations in South East Asia. I was anxious to close that chapter and move on to the next phase of my life. I thought I was “normal” and my same old self that I had been before working overseas. Through a series of events, I came to understand that I was far from “normal”…
While speaking with someone about my struggle to adjust to life back in the United States, I admitted that I hadn’t left my apartment for two weeks prior to that appointment. After giving it some thought and asking some questions, she asked if there was anyone or anything else living in my apartment. Plants? Fish? A cat? Nothing. Her recommendation was that I get a pet so that I could care for something other than myself.
In March of 2009, I adopted “Charlie”. He was listed as a Plott Hound/Lab mix. With his big boxy head and lean, muscular body, I don’t think the Dumb Friends League got that right. I paid my $75, and put him in the truck, where he proceeded to hump my arm. He still does that when I let him think he’s winning during our wrestling matches…
I have two in-laws named “Chuck”. So I changed his name to “Pete”.
Learning to Trust Each Other
I think in my first few months back home, one of my biggest issues was trusting people. Pete had the same problem. When he was in the shelter, his back was to the viewing glass, head down on his paws. He was one sad dog! Looking at his paperwork, I could see this was his third time at the shelter. He had been adopted (and then returned) two times previously. Under behavioral issues, it was noted that he had separation anxiety. It also said that he would try to run out of open doors, although he had been “broken” of that habit. Seeing that made me sad. But I didn’t trust him, and he didn’t trust me. For two weeks, we lived in uneasiness. He didn’t seem to like me. He wouldn’t play. He never asked to go outside. He wasn’t very hungry. I thought maybe he would be happier with someone else and considered our options.
One day in mid-April, Colorado was hit with a huge snowstorm. Our routine was to take an hour long walk every morning, and I figured he would enjoy the snow. But it was tough-going and the drifts were up to his neck. I had never taken him off-leash before, but the walk was impossible with him tethered to me. I figured if he ran off, he wasn’t meant to be my dog anyway. So I unsnapped the leash, and continued walking back home. I turned around to see Pete confused, blinking at me. Not knowing what else to do with his new-found freedom (in a raging blizzard), he followed me home.
Becoming Friends (and Pete's Unusual Habits)
Our relationship blossomed from there. I was unemployed, and didn’t start work until late September of that year. That gave us 6 months of bonding. Camping, fly fishing, mountain biking, and daily dog park visits became our routine. Other than my occasional motorcycle rides into the mountains, he went EVERYWHERE with me. In the process, I discovered Pete had some unusual habits.
Pete wasn’t a very confident dog. He was intimidating to people, but got picked-on mercilessly at the dog park by a Portuguese Water Dog that would have him trembling and hiding under a park bench (that was sooo embarrassing). He wasn’t affectionate. He didn’t like to be petted, he wouldn’t lick your hand, and preferred sniffing and exploring the dog park to playing with me (or other dogs).
Pete is also very “handy”, and by that I mean he would open cabinets and drawers looking for anything that would fit in his mouth. His most notable achievements in that department include vomiting up a brand new Brillo scouring pad and opening-and eating-the contents of a brand new jar of Old El Paso Hot Salsa. That happened while I was at church just before a 7-hour-long ride to Wyoming in my truck after the a/c had just stopped working. In July. In 90 degree heat. Everyone was miserable…
For a 90lb dog, Pete was fast. Actually, he was fast period. At the dog park, he could beat Murphy the Border Collie to the ball on the first two attempts. Each race to the ball would begin with him sprinting ahead of the 6 or 7 other dogs and letting out a loud and deep “woof-woof-woof”. I think Pete knew he had to have an advantage with all the border collies, Viszlas, and long-legged Labradoodles he was racing. I think he thought the barking gave him an advantage.
Pete could also jump! One day after a spirited mountain bike ride, he mistook the hood of a brand new black Lexus SUV for the bed of my black Toyota pickup. He didn’t climb on the hood, but sprang from the ground with all four paws landing neatly on the hood. The hiker in her Cadillac Escalade that observed the whole thing had never seen anything like that before. I certainly hadn’t. And the woman who “borrowed” the new car from her husband was having a tough time explaining how these huge paw marks ended up on his hood. I was angry and concerned about the repair bill I was going to get. But I was also impressed. Kobe Bryant would’ve been impressed! For his part, Pete shrugged his shoulders and took a nap.
As non-confrontational as he was at the dog-park, he hated coyotes with a passion. I had fallen in the routine of walking him without a leash. I knew coyotes were in the area, but had never seen one. One night on our stroll, Pete hunched over to relieve himself. Right in the middle of it, I noticed his body stiffen and his nostrils flare. I looked up in time to see a male coyote about 50 yards away watching us. And then they were off to the races! I raced to keep them in my site as they faded away. The stories about coyotes devouring dogs larger than Pete ran through my mind as I raced on two injured legs to the fight. Expecting to see Pete laying on the ground half-eaten, I got there in time to see Pete standing his ground, teeth bared, as a second coyote began to back out of the unsuccessful ambush. They bit off a bit more than they could chew that time…
Years passed, and as my responsibilities at work increased, our “guy time” together decreased. I worked a brutal schedule that had me leaving and coming home at odd hours. I was too tired for mountain bike rides. We rarely went fishing anymore. I stopped going to the gym. We both started getting a little soft around the middle. The gray creeped on to our faces—his much more rapidly than mine. We were “maturing”. Yet, we were comfortable. We knew each other. More importantly, we trusted each other. I knew what Pete was going to do or how he would react before he did it. He knew that no matter what, I would come home every day (or now every week) and I wouldn’t hit him for opening the cabinets and eating out of the trash. He always got the last bit of an ice cream cone. He figured out that his permanent home was with me.
On my days off, we would still walk to the Starbucks for coffee. I would take him to the dog park where we would visit old friends (I had to have a “conversation” with the owner of the Portuguese Water Dog). We would go for long rides in the mountains in the old Land Cruiser I was fixing up. I gave Pete his own last name at the vet’s office (officially Pete R. Johnson), because I wasn’t his “daddy”, I stopped being Pete’s owner, and started being his friend. And like all friends, we accepted each other—faults and all—because life was better with him in it than without him.
Gradually, memories of that harsh environment in Southwest Asia faded. My sharp edges softened. I became more forgiving and tolerant of others shortcomings. I even learned to forgive myself. Pete, a glass-half-full dog if there ever was one, has helped me to have a more positive outlook. When we thought a mountain lion was trailing us on that camping trip in Wyoming, he stayed close to me—and a little ahead actually. He didn’t have to be faster than the lion, just faster than me...He loses every wrestling match, but still counts it as a win if he humps me as I hold on to the ball. He doesn’t hear me come home at midnight, but goes to investigate when the refrigerator door opens in the middle of one of his naps.
Earlier this year, on a cold, gray Sunday, I got a call to come home immediately. Pete was having a seizure. It was the first time that had happened (that we knew of). The years had been kind to Pete. Other than emergency surgery to remove a sharp piece of plastic from his stomach (an unfortunate and dangerous lesson he never learned about eating things out of the cabinet), there had been no health issues. Like me, he would drop weight and “get in to shape” for a while, but would backslide into sleeping in and eating anything he could get his paws on. Other than that, he was settling very well into “senior-dog” status.
He’s had three more seizures in the 5 months since then, but I’ve only been home for one. It happened in the middle of the night, and I could hear the loud thud of him hitting the ground and knew instantly what it was. It’s so hard watching your best friend in that helpless state, body spasming uncontrollably, lips curled in a fearful grimace. It lasted about 2 minutes. I held him while it happened, talking to him the whole time, letting him know that I was there. I prayed to God to not let him be in pain. This big, rugged, lug of a dog whose official fighting record is 7 wins and 3 losses (including two more skirmishes with coyotes I counted as wins and a loss with a tougher-than expected Labradoodle that wanted his squeaky ball back) was too young to go out like this. When he came out of it, I helped him to his feet. He got his internet-prescribed bowl of ice cream. I hand fed him his food. He looked exhausted, and fell into a deep slumber, snoring merrily.
Blood tests have come back negative. The diagnosis is a likely brain-tumor, common among bully breeds, but especially boxers. My instructions before each business trip have always been the same: “Don’t let him suffer”. Before I left for my last trip, Pete assumed his usual position (my spot on the bed). I told him what he already knows. That I love him. And that even though he’s a good dog, he’s a bad boy. And to please TRY to be a good boy. I apologized for travelling so much. For not going fishing more. For having the old Land Cruiser parked in the garage for two years now with no progress and no rides planned in the immediate future. And then, like always, I kiss him on the side of his big, fat jowls, scratch his ear, and walk out the door hoping he’ll be home when I return.
My Friend Pete
One of the things that came out of my counseling sessions years ago was that my default emotion—whether appropriate or not—is anger. I rarely show sadness. And I hadn’t cried in years. The tears came when my mother-in-law passed away unexpectedly a couple of years ago. And surprisingly, they feel like they want to come now.
Pete has helped me to show a wide-range of emotions. Fear when he’s off racing coyotes in the middle of the night. Humor and laughter during a spirited wrestling match. Anger that I STILL can’t trust him to keep his fat head out of the trash. Sadness at the truth that our time together is getting shorter by the day.
My friend will be there when I get home tonight. He’ll wag his tail and demand dinner in his usual way of howling his demands. We’ll wrestle for the ball. He’ll wait patiently (if not politely) for me to toss him scraps from the dinner table. Later tonight, he’ll beat me to my spot in the bed and make me push him out of the way so I can go to sleep. I’ll wake up several times, hearing him yip and tremble, dog tags shaking, as he dreams of chasing giant bunnies. I’m vigilant for that loud thud of him hitting the floor. I’m fearful that one morning, he will have left this world without one more time on the river or another wrestling match.
Pete is a dog, but he is my friend. And I am his. And that’s all I have to say about it…