THANKSGIVING 2012 by Ken Keckler DVM
What am I thankful for this holiday? Of course, my family, my (relative) good health, my co-workers, and the grace to have been born in this country of freedom. But today, I wanted to express my appreciation for our dog Otter.
Thirteen years ago, my wife Stephanie brought home a small sandy haired bundle; a Cairn Terrier puppy already tagged with the moniker “Otter”. Apparently, he had nursed lying on his back, like an otter cracking clams on the surface of the ocean. The same breed as Toto in “The Wizard Of Oz”, although several shades lighter. “I’ll get you, my pretty! And your little dog, too!”. (In fact, one Halloween Stephanie made a very convincing Dorothy, in the blue gingham dress, a picnic basket on her arm and Otter by her side.)
I didn’t want a dog. They are high maintenance, tying you to routines (feeding, trips outside) and responsibility. We already had five year old twin boys and I was working ridiculous, inconsistent hours. Besides, I like big dogs. St. Bernards are REAL dogs. Bernese Mountain dogs are beautiful. Little, fidgety, yappy, dogs have never been my style.
Well, Otter wasn’t yappy. While he was very friendly, he would approach timidly, head lowered, tail wagging cautiously. He was energetic, but not obnoxious, playing with the boys in our backyard, but then happy to take a long snooze on the couch or in his bed. He was never aggressive. There was never a fear that he would bite. Stephanie took him to work everyday, her constant friend and companion, where he good naturedly roamed the backside of the hospital and stayed out of trouble.
The trouble he got into usually was gastro-intestinal related. Stephanie joked that he should have a zipper on his belly, as she had to do abdominal exploratory surgery on him twice, once removing the plastic hair from a Lego person that he had eaten. Plastic Lego person hair is apparently not digestible and will cause a significant disturbance! He also had an episode of pancreatitis, and developed inflammatory bowel disease. Otter would have GI upset from almost anything. This limited his food choices, his medications, and his “treats”. I was occasionally chastised for purchasing some wonderful bacon flavored, marrow filled, high fat product that he wasn’t allowed to have. He did thoroughly enjoy the occasional pig ear or good quality, not made in China, snack.
We had invisible fence installed at our first house, and although we did the “training”, Otter never quite figured out that he was free to roam to the flags. He would cling very close to the house when he had that collar on, not willing to take any chance.
In that house, his stainless steel food dish was in the kitchen, near the door from the garage. Right after the fence was installed, he wouldn’t go near his food, or that side of the kitchen. We figured out that the invisible fence line somehow had linked through the rebar in the concrete and was buzzing or zapping him when he went to eat. We had that corrected quickly!
He was smart enough to know that any other collar allowed him free range, and he would spend hours nosing through the ivy, pouncing on real or imagined critters he might find
Otter rarely barked or growled. He would walk to the carpet by the front door and sit patiently there until someone noticed him. That was his signal to us that he needed to “do his business” outside. Then he would bark to be let back in, especially if it was cold, or if we were busy and “forgot” him a little too long. It was almost as if he really didn’t want to bother us too much…
Stephanie taught him to sit and shake hands, and lay down and roll over. Then I tried to teach him to spin in a circle. He learned that well, but always “confused” the sign for “spin around” with “roll over”. He’d spin repeatedly when asked to roll, and look up expectantly for his reward. Spinning was easier for him, I think. I started calling him NMOAD (pronounced “enmode”) for Not Much Of A Dog! When I would call him “useless” (which I also call our cat- I mean, really. It’s not like these are working animals!) Stephanie would say “He’s not useless- He makes me happy!”
His long, coarse, light brown hair stuck out in all directions from his head, and waking up from a nap, he would frequently have a severe case of “bed face” which always reminded me of a Jim Henson Puppet. Hence my other nickname for him… Muppet Dog.
As he aged, he developed a wide, dark brown stripe down his back. This wasn’t obvious with his normal coat, but when “groomed” it looked like someone used a paint roller to add a racing stripe. He looked comical, but, since he couldn’t see his back, he didn’t care. By then, there wasn’t much racing going on. He was happy to go on walks, stopping to mark anything he could, pretending long after his bladder was empty. An arthritic right elbow slowed him a little and gave him a slight drag of his nails on the pavement, so you’d hear a quick “pad scrape, pad scrape, pad scrape” as he trotted along.
Otter stopped going up stairs and jumping into chairs as his arthritis progressed. He had significant calcification in his back, and would occasionally have a “stiff neck”. He began to whine to be lifted onto the couch with us, but when you’d reach for him, he’d back away. Strange dog. Sometimes, if we were all in the living room, we’d hear him whining in the den. It seems we were at his beck and call to come and lift him onto that couch. He’d root around the pillows and blankets, (one good turn deserves another, as they say) and create a mound to climb onto for his nap. Fairly often he’d end up on my lap, until the cat would move in. When Padfoot bumped Otter, he’d immediately flinch away, and give him a look of irritation. It was a rare experience to see Otter and Padfoot playing around and under the diningroom table, until the cat would feign disinterest, or Otter would tire.
I didn’t want a dog, but Otter wasn’t just any dog. His laid back attitude and quirky behavior were endearing. He was a part of the family.
What we will all miss the most was his unique behavior at dinnertime. We say a simple “grace” before dinner, all joining hands and reciting “God is great”, or “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest”, and for as long as I can remember, Otter was a part of it. In fact, he demanded that we pray! He would anticipate, hovering around the table, whining until we would touch hands and speak in unison. At that point he would enthusiastically bark and run. In his younger days he’d tear down the stairs to the basement, barking the entire time, before scrambling back upstairs. It was a ritual repeated anytime we sat down at the table, even if we were playing cards, or having breakfast: Otter getting excited, hopping around, whimpering, only to explode into happy barking. As he aged he would fly off to grab his favorite toy, a stuffed orange octopus, and gallop through the house. At times, he would forget that we’d already said the prayer, and demand that we at least say an emphatic “AMEN!” before his abbreviated happy display. Stephanie decided that he was a religious dog. It was a behavior that amused and bemused everyone who saw it: a tradition for family on holidays, and a good laugh for new friends.