All dogs go to heaven. An ode to the very best of dogs.

“All dogs go to heaven.”  A friend told me this last night.  She is not a dog person, but I think she meant it.  Today I hope she is right.  In a few hours we will escort our big red friend of 14 years into the beyond.  His hour is near.  I listened to his deep breathing all night.  It was unhurried and content to meet what comes next, same as it ever was.

ImageI tried to match both his breath and his contentment.  Now it is morning.  As the birds came alive in the canopy of trees outside our window, Ranger grew restless, drank water, and then emptied his bladder beside the bed.  My husband gently gathered him up and carried him outside.  He rests at  my side  while I write, on my grandmothers Persian rug which he prefers to the expensive pet boutique bed we bought for his old hips.  His breath is still even.   He is not suffering, but he has dropped dramatically since our last trip down the path to the lake Monday.  It was a routine walk for us.  No swim, but all the familiar steps and smells we’ve worn together over the 12 years we’ve lived in this ‘hood.  By yesterday he was weaving like a drunk.  It is his time, my husband called my office to warn me.

Ranger reflects the family who has grown up with him: big personality and big counter surfer.  Santa Claus brought him 13 Christmas Eves ago.  There no military dignity or great outdoors tradition behind the name “Ranger.”  We had young boys.  “Ranger” is simply and unfortunately short for “Power Ranger.”

There were always headlines with Ranger.  As recently as last month he got out one night during a family birthday.  In the chaos, we did not notice him missing until early the next morning.  Ranger spent the night trapped in a koi pond.  He had apparently tumbled in and patiently waited, up to his neck in green slime and fat carp, for us to rescue him.  His hips were too old to make the leap out.  A year ago on Memorial Day he took himself on a walk down to the lake where he was found by a runner who took him home.  We located him several hours later via the miracle of Craigslist, but not before he’d enjoyed a nice brunch and a sunbath on a deck with several young couples.  It was never a surprise when the phone rang and we heard a neighbor say,  “I just saw Ranger head down to Sandy’s pool AGAIN.”

For most of his life he was a lean 75 lb. package of muscle.  And he stood very tall and proud until the day he could not stand any more (yesterday).  It is not  sentimentality to say he had the good looks of a Hollywood leading man and those looks scarcely faded.  He was good natured to most, but very protective of us, especially of Betty, the small black lab who came home with us 5 years ago.   I have never had a better, more true running partner than Ranger.  A well meaning newly-graduated vet once advised me that it wasn’t fair to run so far and often with a dog as large as Ranger.  But Ranger didn’t think it was fair to leave him at home.  There were many miles along the lake; there were many more miles on sidewalks and roads.  But the  most memorable miles were in the winter in the shadow of Mt. Rainier.  After my shoulder surgery, when I had to miss the first half of a ski season, Mark and the boys would dump Ranger and me ten miles up a snowy Forest Service road before they left for the lifts.  Alone in the woods, seeing only the occasional kook living off the grid with his shotguns in a rusty trailer, Ranger and I would run our way back to the cabin.  The story of his first encounter with a mother elk is family legend.  It was a stand-off in the end, but Ranger came close to having his forehead branded by her hoof and never tried that again.

Having a dog like Ranger brought out the gentleness in our sons.  Those words sound like a cliche, but sometimes cliches work because they are true.  Ranger was a very accessible dog, though never an unconditional lover.  He was never a lap dog.  But our sons gave to him and he loved back.  He was their first freedom – at the end of a leash, he walked them around the block.  He was their first responsibility – at the end of the school day, he awaited.

Ranger is not perfect.  Unlike other dogs, for instance, he  is not unfailingly loyal.  When Betty was young they took off into the woods along the White River.  He quickly abandoned Betty, who could not keep up.  In fact, he left her baying pitifully in the middle of a patch of trees where I located her by her cries ten minutes later.  He came home sweaty and foul and deliriously happy with himself two hours after that.

In addition to disappearing whenever he wanted to, did I mention that he never met a garbage can he didn’t fall in love with – or couldn’t open?  Or that Mark claims he was never truly housebroken? Or that I am actually allergic to dogs, even Ranger?  Or that one year during Christmas dinner he ate a lot of the new Legos and we were never sure whether he passed them all  through his digestive tract or not because during that holiday season we were too busy and mostly  too grossed out to check?

 Maybe all those miles on trails and road created a bond between me and the old boy – or more likely because I was the only reliable food source.  In recent years, once everyone was in for the night, he slept close by my side of the bed, always trotting downstairs beside me and reporting to the espresso machine in the morning, but sleeping protectively beside me if I wasn’t the first to rise.  One of his most endearing qualities developed when the boys became teenagers with later-night social lives.  He would lie on the landing where he could he could hear the sound of their cars rolling home and see all of our bedroom doors.  Once everyone was tucked in bed, he would sink into his place on the floor beside me.

We once had a dog named Nakiska, who went chasing rainbows over a swollen waterfall one Easter morning in the North Cascades.  We never saw him again.  “He was the best of dogs, he was the worst of dogs.  G#damn ‘im, g#bless him,” Mark exclaimed over and over in our grief.  We won’t say that about Ranger.  About Ranger we  can only say that in our lives filled with dogs, he has  been the very best..