The Perfect Dog

She was the perfect dog.

Of course, not everyone thought so. The people who had her before me, who stuffed her into the night deposit locker at the Humane Society, I guess they didn’t think she was so perfect.

She was two years old and didn’t know the word “sit,” and freaked out completely the first time she had to walk on a carpeted surface. I guess there weren’t a lot of carpets in her life before, or much house time at all, as she happily peed and pooped in the living room her first night there.

But she was perfect for me.

“I don’t think you should get a dog, Christie,” my mom told me. “You have no idea how they’ll change your life.” My mom knew, because when my brother left for college she inherited his dog, and suddenly her life wasn’t her own anymore. Too many long walks and too much unconditional love. Next thing you knew, she was out in all weather, making new dog friends, getting healthier. Change is tough.

“Hey, mom,” I said. “I want my life to change.”

I had six cats and I loved them, and we had a good life, I guess, but I was working sixty-hour weeks and didn’t even own a pair of jeans. I got up every morning and put on makeup and nylons and high heels. I worked in downtown San Francisco and most days it seemed that half the people I knew were dying of AIDS. I had gotten shell-shocked at too many deathbeds, and was hiding out from everyone, even my old friends. I got pneumonia and stayed in bed for seven weeks, before the doctor figured out it wasn’t really my respiratory system but my heart and soul that were sick.

I planned it all out very carefully. I had a lot of books on dogs, and I was going to get a good one. I was going to do everything right. And unpredictably, that’s just what happened.

I woke up that morning feeling all strange. It was the Monday before Thanksgiving, and I’d arranged to take Wednesday off so I could get my dog, and have five days with him or her before I had to go back to work. (I didn’t work Mondays.) So it was two days before I had intended to go to the shelter. Still, today felt like the day.

So I went to the shelter and asked to see a medium sized dog. They took me into the section of the shelter with dogs about the size of a Springer, and I said, no, medium-sized, like a Golden Retriever.

“That’s a large dog,” the shelter worker said. (Tell that to someone used to Scottish Deerhounds.)

So we went into the Big Dog kennel, where black labs and lab mixes filled the runs, barking and bouncing on the chain link. I stopped to look into one run, inhabited by a tail-wagging, hyper lab mix. I glanced toward the dog door to the outside part of the run, and suddenly, silhouetted against the light, she appeared.

Her coat was a dark red mixed with black. Her eyes were the same mahogany as her fur. She had a full ruff standing around her face, and her eyes were rimmed with black. I felt my heart give a strange lurch, and she looked right at me.

They brought her to me in the “Get Acquainted” room, where I was sitting cross-legged on the floor. She walked right up to me in her straight-legged little way, planting her front legs inside the circle of mine and putting her head on my shoulder. “Take me home,” she said, as plain as if she’d spoken.

The adoption counselor laughed. “Well, I guess that’s settled,” he said.

I took her to my mom’s, where she got treated to a home cooked meal and a long walk in Golden Gate Park with her new grandma and her new deerhound cousin. I decided to name her Colleen, because she was my redheaded girl.

She walked up to my mom and butted her in the knees, butt wagging while her long, plumed tail swayed in the air with it. My mom got a funny look on her face and petted her. “You got a good one,” she said.

Oh, I suppose some other folks didn’t think Colleen was perfect, like the guy in the park who tried to attack me and found I had a fiery red defender at the end of that flexi-lead. And the guys at the local bar who didn’t want to come do work at my new house (that was after Colleen got me to move to the country and buy her a farm) because “That’s the place with That Red Dog.”

Not that any of that stopped her from getting her Canine Good Citizen certificate, because one thing Colleen was absolutely sure of, is that good citizens take care of their families. Since I decided that I felt a lot safer and freer with 75 pounds of red protection at my side, I guess she was right.

So, 12 years go by and I’m living in the country and have gone back to being a writer and given up the stressed-out life in the city and things are, well… nearly perfect. I have a houseful of dogs now, but Colleen rules the roost, chin up and tail pluming over her back, mahogany eyes still rimmed in her black Cleopatra eye liner. Her muzzle’s grey and it turned out she had really bad hip dysplasia, so she has a hard time getting up and about these days. But when I look at her and that tail starts thumping, I know everything’s the same.

I’m sipping a cup of tea a few days before Christmas and I hear her give a funny little gasp. Then her breath starts rasping, and I get down on my knees and hold her. Her gums are icy cold. She’s moving her bowels lying right there. And in a few moments, she’s gone.

So I didn’t have to go through the agony of a long illness or face that moment when I gave her the last great gift and sent her out of her pain and suffering. She didn’t slip away when I was out or distracted, but when I was there to hold her and to know enough to say goodbye.

She even looked right into my eyes before she went.

It was perfect. Just like her.

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