In the spring of 2009, we had a year-old Labrador puppy. This was a good and a bad thing. London was everything that Labradors are supposed to be at that age – including having seemingly-boundless energy. Kellyann and I found ourselves having difficulty tiring him out.  So we talked about the idea of getting another dog – one who could be a companion and playmate to him, and drain him of the vigor that we couldn’t.  Since I had chosen London’s breed, it was Kellyann’s turn to pick, and she wanted to go to the animal shelter in Columbiana.

I remember a few things about Austen from that trip. The first was that her “shelter name” was Beth. We’d already picked out her family name, though – London comes from Jack London, one of my favorite authors, so Kellyann chose Austen after Jane Austen, one of hers.  The second was that the shelter workers told us that she’d had a litter at some point. And finally, at the time we got her, she was the longest-tenured dog in the shelter – almost four months, I believe. And to this day, knowing what I know now after almost 12 years with her, I wonder how in the world that could have been the case.

We had narrowed our choices down to her and a springer spaniel mix, and she won the tiebreaker in Kellyann’s mind when she showed more interest in other dogs (remember, she was intended as a playmate for a Lab; this was a definite requirement).  A few documents, $90 or so later, and we had a new family member.

Adopting a shelter dog comes with a free mystery. You don’t know what they’ve gone through. You’ll never learn the details of any prior homes. You can’t even know their age (the shelter guessed around 3, but that’s just what it was – a guess), their birthday, or anything. In some ways, for them, I have to imagine that it’s like being born again and starting a new life. You wish they could tell you the stories, but all you can do is make this chapter of their life the best it can be.

Austen, all things considered, was a great complement (and opposite, in many ways) to London. She quickly established herself as the alpha between the two of them, and London treated her kind of like a cross between a mom and a big sister.  He’d try to get away with something – snatching food, climbing all over her – and it was funny to see how quickly she’d put him in his place.  But there was no doubt the two of them loved each other from the very start.

She also proved herself a friend to people as well. I used to joke that God made her back straight as an arrow so that she could lay on it and expose her belly for maximum rub potential.  Once she flipped over on that back, you knew you were in with her. Our veterinary staff told us that while she was staying with them at the clinic, they’d often take her out of the kennel and keep her behind the counter with them, they liked her so much.  She had a herding instinct from one of her breeds that extended to people as well – if everyone was sitting down in a room and someone got up, she’d start barking until they sat back down or left the room. In her own way, she wanted everyone to stay together.

She wasn’t perfect, mind you. We’re pretty sure she taught London about eating poop. That herding instinct I mentioned had her nipping at his heels whenever London ran after a ball, and took away any hope of the Retriever part of London’s breed being applicable to him.  She would come right up to a lawn mower and bark herself hoarse, but was scared to death of vacuum cleaners. How she discerned any difference between the two, I’ll never know. But these were mostly easily overlooked, and in the grand scheme of things, I think the positives far outweighed any drawbacks.

As Austen grew older, we kept realizing just how blessed we were from a health standpoint. The only health scare we ever had with her was a positive heartworm test just after we got her. I guess that she had contracted it just before being picked up by the shelter, and they had not seen it in their tests.  Once we got her past that, other than her annual checkups, it was smooth sailing. We moved her to a “senior adult” type of food when she was 8 or so, and she took a medicine for arthritis starting around 12, but that was it.

Until the limping began.

At first, it was barely noticeable. She was getting around fine, for the most part. But you could tell that she was favoring her front right paw. We thought of different reasons for this: maybe she pulled a muscle racing back and forth alongside the fence with the neighbors’ Chihuahuas. Or maybe it was just her arthritis beginning to manifest itself further. A trip to the vet seemed to point in that direction. They gave us a different medicine to try.  It had no effect – in fact, it seemed to get worse.  Finally, she got to the point where she didn’t want to put any weight on that leg at all, and her right front shoulder ballooned in size.  Walks outside became fewer and fewer. Most of the time she didn’t want to leave the couch. When she did, she started going to the bathroom in places she’d never gone before – to that point she had very much been a creature of habit.  Fearing the worst, we took her back to the vet, and got the diagnosis that we’d been dreading: cancer.

They told us there wasn’t much that could be done. The cancer was in a place that wasn’t conducive to surgery (and her age made that a risky proposition anyway), and extremely aggressive. While radiation therapy might extend her life a little bit, there was no way they’d be able to get all of it. They gave us more medicine to hopefully manage her pain and make her comfortable.

That was only a couple of weeks ago.

A few days ago, I noticed a tell-tale sign that I couldn’t explain away. I was taking her outside just before going to bed. Slowly, achingly, we made our way to the backyard through the bone-chilling cold, as we’d done hundreds of times before. Except that once she got to the backyard and off the leash, she took an immediate left and lay down under the azaleas. I had a feeling I knew what this meant.  But that selfish person inside me that doesn’t want to let go required more proof. I coaxed her back up and put her back on the leash, and led her toward the middle of the yard. Then I took her off her leash.

Almost immediately, she hopped on her three good legs to another garden bed and lay down there under the awning of the cast-iron plants and nandina. She stared up at me, her eyes cutting into my soul. And I knew it was time.

Today is our last full day. I worked from home today. Most of the time when I wasn’t typing, I had a hand on my little girl, letting her soak up all of the love she could. Tonight, we’re going to get her a cheeseburger and let her go to town. We’ll probably stay down here in the room together all night – maybe the boys will even get their sleeping bags out and stay with us.

And then morning will come. And we’ll make that awful fifteen-minute drive over to the vet. A few more words, a few more hugs, scratches and belly rubs, many more tears, a couple of needles, and after almost twelve years of being part of our family, that will be it.

I’d like to think we gave her a good life – one that was at least better than the one she was experiencing out on her own or waiting in a shelter. But she gave us so much love and joy over that time, that I’m pretty sure we got the better end of the deal.  Dogs are like that. They don’t need much for them to give you everything they have in return. And for almost twelve years, we were the beneficiaries.

Requiescat in pace, Austen.

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