Lessons From Otter - A Beagle-ish Dog

There has been a lot written about the love of a dog. You know, how they love us without limits or conditions and all that. Lots of folks use that as a launch pad to tell us that we need to love each other in the manner in which dogs love us. Nothing wrong with that message at all, but that is not the one I received shortly after Otter left the planet.

As is the storyteller's wont, how about we back up to make some sense of the opening paragraph?
Otter was a mostly beagle brown dog of the first water. She joined our family back in 2001, when our youngest Amy decided she wanted a dog of her own. She would NOT have been my first pick of a dog on account of my being 6'3" and feeling kind of silly walking such a short unit. You have probably figured out that Otter grew on me. Big time.

Why did we call a dog "Otter"? Well, originally Amy started calling her "Jewel". Then I saw her in the water and at the time her tail was longer than her body and I said, "She looks like an Otter." Done deal - stuck to her like 2 part epoxy. There were no end to the names Otter had to endure from me. She was "Big Husky" for several years after I realized that she still expected a good long walk even when the temperature was single digit with the cold augmented by a blistering breeze. (No, she did NOT wear a coat or sweater - she was a husky, dammit.) One minute I would call her Big Husky and moments later she was "The Littlest Beagle" or to compromise "Medium Dog". There were scores more; "Stubby", "Dirty Business", "Mole Killer", "Puppinator", "Otto", etc. etc. She did what I asked, no matter what name I used.

You can theorize that she was just responding to the tone of my voice, but I know better. Ottie was so smart that she could function in spite of the seemingly endless supply coming from my roulette wheel of names for her. She knew that my constant invention and use of various names bore witness to the fact that she was my Buddy.

Otter was a Truly Great One from the beginning. Amy did a good job of training and taking care of her as a puppy. I think she pooped in the house one time during training.

Yes, I mean Otter and not Amy.

Fast forward to Amy's Graduation when she delivered the news that she was taking off to live in Tucson, AZ. Once the shock wore off, we became fine with that - but, there was NO way she was going to take Otter 2,000 miles West to live in some apartment with a couple young people. NOPE.

Otter became Julie's and mine. Mostly mine. Julie Claire self-identifies as a "Cat Person."

I used Otter. By that I mean she provided a great excuse for me to get daily exercise under the mantle of walking the dog. We would go for at least a mile every day. If I went a mile, then Otter went 2.375 miles because once we made it over to Quiggle, the dirt road a quarter mile east of the house, I would let her off the leash and she could go Beagling after rabbits, squirrels and what not. "Beagling" involves not only chasing said animals, but doing a howl/bark at the same time. Thank God she never caught anything. Except moles, but we will get to that. Oh, and chickens. Bitch was a straight up Chikken Killa. She once reached around the chicken wire, snagged a couple week old chick, killed it with a couple blood producing chomps and spit it out in less than 60 seconds as I went into the pole barn to fetch a tool. That was her final victim - we gave away all of our chickens within days of that terror.

To put it in a polite manner, Otter was Oddly Built - what ever else was in her mostly beagle DNA, she had kind of a chubby body on some skinny little legs. When she was running flat out after prey she ended up just a wee bit sideways in her stride. It was a wonder to watch. The other wonder she performed was "Pronghorning" in which she would launch straight up in the air, especially in deeper field grass, to look around for the bunny du jour. Alas, my one regret is that I never captured said maneuver on video.

About the moles. If you take a look at our "country yard" mid-summer, you might suspect that we are running the West Michigan Mole Sanctuary. The large amount of visible evidence of Moles At Work would suggest that passersby were bringing moles from their yard to leave in ours. I have yet to catch anyone in the act. The first time Otter unearthed and dispatched a mole she did it at the end of the leash in the time it took me to get my headphones and MP3 player properly situated before we set off down the road. Blew my mind. I felt this tugging on the leash, turned around and there she was with the poor little dirt digger in her mouth. It was a quick and merciful death, just like the several others she got over the years. Otter did dispatch a few moles to their Maker, but her hunting of them mainly consisted of her trenching around the yard. Mind you, some of said trenches were pretty impressive in their length and depth.

Here we see Otter in hot pursuit of a mole.

Otter At Work
You might have the impression that Otter was constantly on the hunt. That she lived some rough and tumble outdoor life. Ha! While she did impress me with her ability to insist on her daily walk even in sub-zero temps, the Pupinator spent most of her time riding in the back of our car and then spending the day lounging at the mom and pop jewelry store Julie and I opened in 2002. She had a rather thick pillow upon which she lay in repose, always ready to receive visitors and/or Milk Bones.

Otter was a smash hit in downtown Lowell. Her presence at our store for more than a decade made her many a friend. People would stop in just to give Otter a pat and a treat. When she was a pup, she was constantly walking around the store and getting underfoot. As she aged, the people she would rise up from her throne and bless with a visit became fewer in number. (You privileged ones know who you are.) She was uber casual at the store - customers and delivery people could come and go all day and there was never a peep from her. This was in sharp contrast to when she was at home and would commence to barking at one of the doors or windows the second a vehicle crossed the invisible line between the public road and our driveway.

One of the toughest things about her passing was the following two or three weeks when some of her hard core fans stopped in to see her only to find out the news. I still cannot get used to NOT seeing her little brown head in the rear view during my commute. I have realized how often I chattered to her during the ride even when I was pretty darn sure she could not hear a thing.

Otter on a throne at her store in downtown Lowell, MI.

Otter The Nurse
My relationship to The Brown Dog ratcheted up to a new level when I was diagnosed and treated for throat cancer. As the seven weeks of daily radiation took its toll on me, she would hang out at my side at 3 am as I retched up a bunch of nothing and cried out from the pain. Not going to bore you with a repetition of my cancer treatment; suffice to say Otter was a welcome friend in the middle of the night when sleep eluded me. She would putter around the yard with me post treatment as I worked to regain strength. She gradually got me walking around a block, then two, then all the way back up to a mile or so. About the time I returned to full strength is when she started her very gentle downward slide and she was able to walk for shorter and shorter distances. She was willing to try, but she was no longer able to jump into and out of the back of my car.

I could go on for a couple more days about the attributes of our Humble Little Beagle, but I think you are getting the picture here. Cliff was dog dependent. Even Julie, the aforementioned Cat Person, grew to really love Ottie. The Beagle was considerate even to the end - she arranged her passing on a Monday - our day off. On her last Sunday she and I walked around the yard on a lovely, sunny fall day. Our walks consisted of making a lap or two of our property with plenty of nose to ground time for my little buddy. She was careful to keep me in sight since her hearing was pretty much gone. She even ran a little in the yard that day and I shook my head in amazement.

A few hours later when I attempted to get her up for the late night pee, she could not stand and had "that look" in her eyes that made Julie and I realize the end was zooming at us. I carried her outside and she peed and took a few tottering steps before I carried her back inside. I slept on the couch by her bed in case she needed something in the night. I kept waking up to check on her, taking some solace in the rise and fall of her chest or her snoring.

Halloween morning dawned and she was not able to stand. I carried her outside, stood her up and once again, she did her business (both kinds) and walked just a little before I scooped her up and toted her back in. Julie and I knew. You could see the pain in her eyes and her breathing was ragged. We made arrangements at the vet. The two shots were fast and effective - we were both glad that we could be there holding her while she made the transition to the bunny filled mole sanctuary in the sky.
I buried her in the yard with a cement chicken as her headstone.

The Otter Challenge

The day after we buried Otter in the yard, I began to appreciate and absorb the lessons that were being imparted to me from The Second Best Dog on The Planet. (She gets this ranking because I am ever hesitant to say something is The Best.) The instructions that she sent me were that I was supposed to sign up for The Otter Challenge.

Many folks get challenged to love everyone like a dog loves them, but Otter, the little sideways runner that she was, had just a wee bit of a twist in mind for me: She challenged me to love everyone, including myself, in the same way I had loved her. Hmmm. Not an easy thing - not for me anyway.

The first thing that came to mind was to love warts n all. As she aged, Otter began to get some fairly large warts on her face in a several places. In fact, there were two that came in and made her look like she was growing horns! She would rub them with her paws, making them bleed and break them off - only to have them return. She also had three or four fatty tumors that appeared after a midnight bout of pancreatitis. She was still really cute, but then I was seeing her with the eyes of love that made the warts and fatty deposits invisible.

Secondly, I loved her despite her behavior. For a period of many weeks, Otter, who had never ever peed or pooped in the house, started peeing on the carpet. I have zero tolerance for this kind of thing, but I adapted. First, I brought home a carpet cleaner from the store and would just deal with her accidents as they happened. Then I started getting up at 6 am so I would be up BEFORE she was in order to get her outside. (Hmmm, in retrospect, once Otter trained me to rise at 6 the peeing became a thing of the past.) If you had ever seen how upset I could get at my dogs over the years if they peed in the house, you would appreciate the change Otter help bring about in me regarding this issue.

The whole "sickness and health" aspect of enduring love was the final piece of The Challenge. With her, I went the extra mile - when she got pancreatitis, I started making her dog food every week and did so for the last 4 years of her life. It took about 60-90 minutes every week and was more expensive than bags of premium kibble, but I did it. (Shoot, she hung with me through cancer, right?) I also lifted her in and out of my car at least twice a day for the last 18-24 months of her life.

Trust me when I tell you that the Three Virtues of The Otter Challenge are tough ones for me to apply Universally. (Dang dog is insistent on it - what am I going to do??) You can rest assured that while I might have done well at one or two parts of The Challenge at certain points in my life, for me to try to live up to All The Parts All The Time For All The People will take work.

Hmmm, maybe that is why she called it The Otter Challenge.

How about you - you up for taking on The Otter Challenge?

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