Beth and I adopted Poozle from a pound in Kirksville, Missouri, shortly after we were married. When we showed up at this rural shelter, the scene was chaotic. People and puppies were walking around the gravelly parking lot and weedy grounds, while some groups of dogs were caged up in freestanding cylinders of chicken wire about 3 feet tall. The permanent cages were being cleaned, but we were welcome to walk around and browse the dogs.
I wanted a dog with a distinct coat, so I grabbed a puppy with a brown and white pattern and tried to get it to play. He seemed bored and lethargic, despite my prodding. Then I heard Beth call, "Rob, check this out!" She was standing next to one of the chicken wire cylinders, pointing at one of the six or so puppies flopping around like fish in a shallow pan of water. "He can climb!"
I watched. This little guy with hopeful eyes looked at us. He stood up on his back feet and put his front paws on the fence. Pretty normal so far. But then he stuck one of his back paws in the fence. Then his other back paw. Then he moved his front paws to a higher link in the fence, one at a time. Then he pulled with his front paws, pushed with his back, and started the whole process over again. My eyes got buggy. This crazy dog can climb fences!
He got to the top, but couldn't pull himself over the edge. He teetered for a moment with his front elbows over the top of the fence, but the weight of his body was pulling him back into the cylinder. His eyes looked at ours, desperate for help. Not to be heartless, but I wanted to see how this would end apart from outside intervention. He rocked, then wobbled, then flopped backwards, five squirming puppies cushioning his fall back into captivity.
It was darned near the cutest thing I'd ever seen. Beth was already in love, and I was certainly impressed, but not quite sold. I told Beth, "How about if he makes it to the top again, we'll grab him and he'll be the one?" She agreed.
It wasn't long before we realized there were drawbacks to owning a dog that could climb fences. Beth was in class and I was at the off-campus house for the college ministry I was working at. The office phone rang. "Hey, Rob. This is Jim. I'm in the office at Baldwin Hall, and I've got Poozle. He was running around inside the building when I recognized him and grabbed him."
So much for our fenced-in yard being a perfect place to keep Poozle while we weren't home. Baldwin Hall was the fine arts building. Maybe Poozle was just looking for an adventure (probably) and maybe he was looking for me or Beth (doubtful). But I like to pretend that he was drawn to a place where eccentricities were commonplace. Artists and dancers and singers--often regarded as "weird" or "different"--they fit right in at Baldwin Hall. And yes, Poozle was a little odd. Quirky, if you prefer.
There was the climbing fences thing. There was his insistence that he was a lap-dog, even after growing to 45 pounds. There was his desire to "walk himself"--holding his leash in his mouth sometimes for the duration of a walk. Of course, one end was hooked to him, and the other end was held by me or Beth. But he'd just grab the middle, in his mouth, and casually trot along the sidewalk.
As an aside: On one of his first walks, I hoped to wear him out so he'd be less inclined to get in to trouble when I had to leave him alone. My plan worked a little too well. I didn't realize that tiny little puppies had a limited supply of strength and energy, especially on hot and humid summer days in the midwest. Maybe his feet hurt, or maybe his head was too close to the hot sidewalk. But after walking him a couple of miles, and nearly dragging him a hundred yards, he just sat down in the shade of a small tree. He wasn't being stubborn. He even looked pretty happy. He just couldn't go on. I, however, needed to go on. Since at the time he didn't weigh much more than a gallon of milk, I scooped him up and cradled him like a baby the last few blocks to our air conditioned abode.
But Poozle's quirkiest quirk and favorite pastime was chasing lights. Shine a flashlight on the floor in front of him, and he would go ballistic trying to catch that little circle of light. If Beth and I ever used a flashlight, we couldn't just put it back on a shelf--Poozle would sit there, staring at the flashlight, whining. Eventually, we figured out that one of us needed to distract him while the other one stealthily put the flashlight away.
Poozle eventually discovered that CD's also reflect light, and every time I reached for the CD stand Poozle would jump into "ready position", anxious to pounce at any fleeting reflection.
Once, we were walking him at night, when he looked up in the sky, stopped suddenly, and started whining. It took us a few seconds to realize that he was whining at the full moon. No, not howling. Whining. Longing to catch it like any old flashlight beam. Our crazy dog wanted to catch the moon.
Poozle was soft and fluffy and affectionate. He was big enough to wrestle with but small enough to cuddle. He made two cross-country moves with us, once riding shotgun in a moving truck as my sole companion for more than 30 hours. He never seemed to mind losing his yard to move to a 600 square foot townhouse. He was just happy to be with us. A half-a-dozen or so different residences also didn't faze him.
When he was 7 years old, Beth and I had our first daughter and 18 months later, our second. He seemed to understand that there was a new order in the pack. And he stayed loyal and mellow. Even when his personal space got violated by our rambunctious little crumbsnatchers--and even when he got stepped on or tripped over more times to count--he kept his cool.
A little over a year ago, we brought another dog into pack, one that nearly doubled Poozle in size. Loblaw was always eager to play with his new friend. Poozle tried his best, even when Loblaw got a little rough for him. Poozle wavered between welcoming and tolerant, but was never hostile.
This past year was tough for Poozle. His feet didn't get very good traction on our hardwood floors. It became harder and harder for him to make it up stairs. His body couldn't quite do what his spirit wanted it to. In his eyes, though, there was life and desire. Whether he was looking up at us from the bottom of an insurmountable staircase, or eagerly hovering while I was taking a meatloaf from the oven, his eyes revealed a spirit more hopeful than his arthritic body warranted.
We always teased him about the meatloaf. Every time one of us made a meatloaf, he'd dutifully sit watching our every move, not just hoping but actually expecting that we'd just set it on the floor for him to devour. "Poozle," we'd ask. "When have we EVER made a meatloaf, taken it out of the oven, and given it to you?" He was always undeterred, and always seemed a little surprised and confused when we'd slice it up and eat it as though we had made it not for him, but for us.
A couple of years ago, Beth and I half-jokingly decided that when Poozle was on his last leg, we'd make a meatloaf just for him. It seemed like it would be a long time before we'd have to worry about it.
But Monday of this past week, I looked in his eyes, and I knew. Yes, standing was a nearly impossible task. More significantly, though, his eyes showed that he was ready.
I made the appointment for Wednesday morning. Tuesday morning, I thawed some ground beef and tried to make his last full day as pleasant as possible. I spent some time snuggling with him on the couch and carried him outside for potty breaks. He had eaten almost nothing but treats since the weekend, and was pretty worn down, but could still--with great care--put one foot in front of the other and walk to his water bowl. I decided to take him out for a last walk, figuring it would do him good to get his legs moving. I helped him off his bed then waved a treat in front of him to lure him to the door. He surged towards the treat, but when his nose touched it, he turned his head away. He didn't want a treat.
He still wagged his tail ever-so-slightly when I hooked him to his leash. He even waved his mouth at it, like he remembered when he used to walk himself. I got him down the steps to the sidewalk, barely holding it together. We walked for two houses. Then he sat down on the sidewalk. He couldn't go anymore. And I saw in his eyes that he didn't want to. I told him it was OK, and then started sobbing. I sat down next to him, legs out in front of me. My left hand covered my slumped-over face while my right hand scratched his scruffy but still-soft neck. We were both broken, in different ways.
He didn't seem sad, though. Eventually, I looked over at him and saw a satisfied and reassuring expression. I really, really believe that he knew what was going on, and wanted me to know that he was OK with it. He seemed to be enjoying the moment, just sitting on the sidewalk together, and he wanted me to, as well.
We sat there, like two old men on a porch, and appreciated the times we'd shared. After a few minutes, for the second time ever, I carried him home at the end of walk.
I laid him on his bed and got working on the meatloaf. I used a square, 4-inch pan, and just a pound of ground beef. I added enough ingredients that I could, in good conscience, actually call what I was making a "meatloaf" and not just "a baked hunk of ground beef."
A couple of hours later, after the dish was baked and cooled, I cut it into slices and put it in a bowl. From his bed, Poozle perked up. There was that familiar look of, "Oh, you a made a meatloaf? For ME?" Only this time, I had. I put it in front of him. He aggressively leaned his head in, sniffed it, then nothing. He didn't want it. I lost it again. Why didn't I just make it for him a few days ago when he would have enjoyed it? Then I thought about telling Beth when she got home from work. When she got home, and I told her, she broke down just as I had. "Did we wait too long?" she asked. I shrugged, with tears of my own rolling down my face. "He did seem to enjoy smelling it," was the only answer I had.
I am very glad that later that night, Poozle did eat most of the meatloaf. We rented a mindless movie and lifted Poozle up on the couch, his head in Beth's lap. She held the meatloaf like a bowl of popcorn and, throughout the movie, broke off pieces to feed to Poozle, which he happily chewed and swallowed.
The next morning, we all loaded up in the car. Beth and I dropped the girls off at school, then drove to the vet.
Every time we'd ever taken him to the vet, or the kennel, or to get his nails clipped, he was always scared. Sometimes he would just tremble as though we were leaving him to be tortured. But on Wednesday, not once did he seem scared. He never trembled or squirmed. He "climbed out of his cage." He was very peaceful.
Honestly, I don't know what to make of the sadness I'm feeling. Dogs--and this I am sure of--are not people. They are dogs. They are animals. Some animals I step on and squish. Other animals I make hamburgers out of. But this animal... He was my friend. He had a consciousness. He would try to cheer me up when I was sad. Maybe more significantly to me, I knew that I could always, always make him happy. It was easy. I just had to scratch his ears or rub his belly or give him a treat. He would purr if you scratched his ears just right. It was nice to be able to always have that effect on someone, even if that someone is an animal.
It was nice to walk out the front door, look back at the house, and see someone looking out the window at me.
Once, I put a pancake on Poozle's nose and made him hold it there until I said he could eat it. To my surprise, he flipped it off his nose into his mouth faster than I could even tell what happened. I kept meaning to try to get him to do it again so I could film it. Tuesday of this past week, I tried it. To my surprise, he pulled it off. Honestly, he probably hadn't moved that fast in nearly a year. And shortly after I filmed this, he wasn't even able to walk, let alone sit upright with a pancake on his nose. But he pulled it off. It was a nice favor. I'm glad I won't have to tell people about it and say, "I always meant to film him doing it, but never got around to it." He was a good friend.
The Bible doesn't say if dogs go to heaven. Most of the teaching in the Bible is about God and Jesus and people. People have souls, and need salvation, and are invited to follow Jesus as an assurance that they, like him, will some day be resurrected. Dogs? Well, they don't need salvation, per se, in the same way that people do. My opinion, though, is that dogs--at least as a rule--do go to heaven, or at least some place close enough to heaven that they can't tell the difference.
Romans 8:20-21 reads, "Against its will, all creation was subjected to God's curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God's children in glorious freedom from death and decay." In the absence of specific teaching on the eternal destiny of dogs, this verse provides some non-specific hope--but hope nonetheless. "Creation" in this verse does NOT appear to be another word for "people." And this death and decay that Paul mentions certainly fit as a description of what animals in general and Poozle in particular go through as they age, fighting through disease and peril.
Nothing in the Bible or my faith would be scandalized if dogs do, indeed, go to heaven. And there are suggestions, both biblical and experiential, that they do. Christian scholars more revered than I--R.C. Sproul and C.S. Lewis, to name a couple--have taken a similar stance.
I am comforted by this. I do believe that my friend is in a better place. But if heaven is as full of light as the Bible indicates, I'm not sure Poozle will be able to control himself. I'm sure his creator will figure out something. Maybe, just maybe, heaven will be a place where Poozle can finally catch the moon, and all the joy, life, and wholeness that comes with it.