Last week I took my dog to the vet for the last time. He and I made that trip many times over his life, more often in the past year. This time, I was pretty sure that he wouldn’t be coming home with me because he was so sick. He struggled with sores on his skin that would pop up mysteriously. They could be painful at times, to be sure, but they’d never laid him low like this.
Angus was born August 28, 1993 in Bear River City, Utah. You might be thinking I’m putting you on, but I know this and remember it well. Angus was a purebred American Black and Tan Coonhound registered with the United Kennel Club. I was 23 and looking for a dog. I did a little research and settled on a coonhound for a couple of reasons. My first reason was that I prefer hounds. Growing up, my mom bred elkhounds, although there were plenty of other dogs around, too. Now, I can get along with just about any dog just like I can get along with just about any kind of person, but I always like how intelligent hounds seemed to be. My second reason came from the description of the bread I found in an ancient hunting dog book I found. The traits of this breed sounded like a hound to the extreme. And I’ve always been attracted to extremes.
My first dog was an elkhound who was tough as nails, a bitch named Pepper. It had been about three years since she had passed. Unfortunately for me, my mom put her down while I was away. Anyway, I wasn’t in the mood for taking care of another dog after that, and it was convenient not to have to while I was dealing with college. But in the last year of college, suddenly I was ready.
Although you might think of Where the Red Fern Grows, and therefore the South, when you think of a Coonhound, there are plenty of enthusiasts everywhere, including Utah and California. The guy I bought Angus from used his dogs to hunt mountain lion and bear. I remember that day well. I had a 1979 GMC pickup with a V8 and a stick that we called Shannon. The girl I bought the truck from was a rodeo queen who included a dashmat with her name embroidered on it. The guy I bought Angus from had a whole litter to get rid of, and he had his stud in one pen and the bitch with the puppies in another. Both of them whined pretty loudly for each other.
I knew I wanted a male puppy, so that narrowed the choice down to three pups. We pulled them out on the grass and I picked the pup who was neither the smallest nor the largest. We took him inside to wash him off since the pups were all covered in mud. As he washed off Angus in the sink he asked me, “you aren’t going to make this dog a pet are you?” The implication was that it was a waste of a good hunting dog. Angus’s grandfather was a champion hunter. But the breeder clearly needed to get this litter out the door. I paid $100, put Gus in a box on the front seat and drove home.
He was talking to me in little puppy whines, probably missing him mom. I told him not to worry, that he was going to have a good life because he was with me now. His entire life I did everything I could to keep that promise. My wife recently wrote that she’s never known someone to love a dog more than I loved Gus. She’s right.
My last year of college, I lived in a little house in downtown Ogden with my childhood friend, Ricky. My senior year at Weber State University was low stress and included lots of free time. With few responsibilities and a low cost of living, there was ample time to loaf for both of us, and we enjoyed having the little dog running around. We called him a shark back then because he would run up to you and nip you, not hard though.
Taking care of Gus was a great learning experience. He was stubborn as hell. And for the first night I had him, I somehow thought he could sleep in the kitchen by himself. That was a miserable night! My mom gave me great advice on how to approach the problem. She explained that he’d just been taken from his mother, and he was probably used to cuddling up with the pack at night. Why not take him into bed with me, she asked. I did, and that solved the howling at night.
So, for most of his life, Gus was accustomed to sleeping on a human bed. At first, he slept on my neck, which wasn’t half bad during a Utah winter. He soon preferred the foot of the bed, probably to avoid being thrown around when I slept. Even after my wife and I were married, he continued to expect a spot on the bed, and we made room for him with a king size mattress.
Other than sleeping in the sun, there were a few things that Gus loved. He loved butter, coconut and chocolate. If he smelled any of those, he’d run faster than if he smelled meat. Yeah, I gave him chocolate to eat sometimes but not much in later life. They say it’s poisonous for dogs, but alcohol is poisonous to humans, too. If he was too wound up, it seemed to calm him down. He also loved running free. It seemed to be a great game for him to figure out how to get out of the house. He would dash through the front door if you gave him any opening. He would check the gates in the yard often to make sure they were latched, and he could get them open with his paw if they weren’t.
He didn’t care too much for cats, squirrels or raccoons. You can bet that until he got too old that any critters that came in the yard left quickly after his howling. He also didn’t like the taste of mint at all. It might have come from a time when I caught him eating cat shit and I brushed his teeth with human toothpaste. Sometimes I used to open up a bottle of methol rub to get his attention and to see his lips curl in a funny way.
When he was young, he like squeaking toys and tearing up carboard boxes. I used to empty a box of coke cans and stick it on his head. He’d toss the box in the air and eventually tear it to shreds. That was a lot of fun to watch. I also used to take him to open fields to watch him run. That was a thing of beauty, one thing his body was built for. There’s a Neil Young song called Long May You Run that’s about a car, but I used to sing it to Gus because that’s what I always wished for him.
There’s nothing a dog wants more than the attention of his master, and lots of it. It was rough for Gus to accept that when I met my wife, I wanted to spend a lot of time with her instead. It wasn’t long, though, that he started loving her as much as I do. Gus was big, 70 pounds and all muscle, but he insisted on jumping up on the couch to cuddle against your legs. After Vicky won him over with daily walks, he’d just as soon cuddle with her than me.
All hail the dog
Lover of friends
Hater of enemies
Persistent, even stubborn
Curious, even mischievous
You never fail to greet with a smile
You wait anxiously for my return
And celebrate upon that event
You beg for attention, and food
Playful if any moment requires
Yet serious if that need arises
Let enemies beware while you breathe
But until they come, let us play
When my first son came home, Gus had another adjustment to accept. By that time he was getting a bit old, showing some gray on his jowls. He wasn’t interested in playing anymore, but he was always gentle and tolerant of the craziness a toddler can bring. Likewise, when Henry was born two years ago he had to tolerate a baby all over again. Gus got progressively slower and sleepier, but he let the kids pull on his tail and never growled at them. He might walk off and let a boy flop on the floor. He never tried to hurt them.
Gus lived to be a little bit more than 15 years old. That’s probably more than I could have hoped for in a big dog. Moreover, he was more enjoyable and loving than I had any right to expect. It’s damn right I loved that dog because he loved me. And in those last days of his life, I stayed with him. I held him in my lap and told him it would be OK. There was literally nothing left for us except the end and a goodbye. The moment he passed wasn’t as hard as the anticipation or the grief afterward. I’m thankful that I was reminded that I had the courage to stay and that it was the right thing.
Long ago, I wrote a poem for Gus. It’s been here on the site forever, but I’ll stick it here again. These are my feelings about the dog, meaning both the species and a particular pal I called Angus.