The puppies were each temporarily named for the colored ribbons tied loosely around their necks. There was Big Blue; a male, Peppy Pink; a female; and another male named Mellow Yellow. This sleepy fellow was the one the breeder decided was the right fit for us: A mellow puppy for a bustling household with two rambunctious little kids. But the mellowness seemed to wear off the minute the ribbon came off, and when we rechristened him Riley, a new personality emerged that was anything but mellow.
I truly believe God makes puppies so cute so you don’t kill them when they destroy your house. In his first few weeks with us, Riley gnawed the legs off our kitchen table and the edges off our pantry cabinets. He refused to be housebroken and peed in every possible spot on every rug we owned. He broke through a dog-proof gate, ran through a wet cement subfloor, and then tracked the cement across the entire house. While I was still cleaning up bits of dried cement, he somehow found a ball of yarn from a hidden knitting bag, devoured the yarn and then had to have it surgically removed from his stomach.
Eventually he outgrew his puppy stage, was housebroken and even, reluctantly, learned to sit on command. But he never stopped reminding us that his favorite place was in the middle of everything, and if he couldn’t be a part of our party, than he would make his own party. Whenever the kids would have friends over to swim, he would swim with them. When we played a family board game, he would sit next to us, or more typically, on the board game itself. When I would announce that it was time to go to school, he would be the first one in the car.
We kept thinking he would get mellower as he got older, but it never happened. He had no time for mellow. There were too many Frisbees to catch, too many squirrels to chase, too many people to meet. He had friends and fans everywhere … from the groomer to the pet store owner to his “other” mommy who cared for him when we went away. Even the teller at the bank drive-thru knew him by name and would give him a treat along with my money when we stopped by. It was hard to ignore him. Wherever he would go he would announce his arrival with a barrage of barks to let everyone know he was there. No matter where he went, as he walked in the door, a chorus of “Hey, Riley!” would always greet him. The old friends knew the exact spot just above his tail where he liked to be scratched. The new friends figured it out as he pushed his way between their legs and then stopped halfway through so he would be in perfect scratching position.
I knew he was friendly, to be sure, but I’d had my doubts about how smart he was. He failed puppy kindergarten, tripped up steps and would routinely run into the glass door leading to the backyard before stopping to see if it was actually open. But then I realized he was merely his own dog who didn’t have time for rules like “stay” or closed doors that got in his way. When he heard the garage door go up at the end of the day, he knew Dad was home and he would go get the Frisbee and wait impatiently by the door. He knew the word “school” meant a ride in the car and “bath” was something to avoid at all costs. The day I came downstairs and saw him step on the peddle of the new garbage can to raise the lid so he could get a snack, I knew the dog might actually qualify for membership in Mensa.
A couple of months ago when we went to the vet for a routine physical, she asked me, “How old is Riley?”
“He’s 10,” I told her.
“Hey, you’re almost an old man,” she commented to him.
“Sssh,” I said. “Don’t say that. He doesn’t know!”
Riley was young at heart and his own dog, right up until the end. It came suddenly and dramatically, but when it did come, it was clear that it was time. For 10 years he had called the shots, but now it was our turn to make the last call, and it was heartbreaking to do. But he left us with so many gifts and so many truly wonderful memories that we know the pain of losing him will mellow over time, even though the dog, thankfully, never did.
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