Must Love Dogs. Till The End.

I was 17 when my first dog found me.  I had just finished high school and was arriving for my first job of the day (I had three).  I was starting my morning with a little before-school nanny service at my former Biology teacher’s home.  Every morning I would get her kids up and off to school before heading to my college classes.  This particular morning was different and definitely one I’ll never forget.

As I pulled up in front of the house and parked in the street, a giant wolf started approaching my car.  He had one blue eye, stood tall enough to peer straight through the driver’s side window of my gold ’87 volvo, and he stood there just looking at me.  I turned the car off and contemplated what to do.  He was clearly a dog of the Husky variety but with Cujo/bear proportions.  Having zero dog experience, I wasn’t overly familiar with the multitude of dog breeds and didn’t know about the gentle giant that is the Alaskan Malamute.   I was in for the treat of a lifetime – but not just yet.  I still had a wolf outside my car door at 5AM.

I honked the horn quickly and he didn’t flinch.  I needed to get inside to let Mrs. Horton leave for work so I decided that I’d open the door and if he did anything weird, I’d retreat.  I cracked the door and he took a step back so I flung it open.  As he stood back looking at me, his calm demeanor emanated so I stepped out of the car.  Before I could reach to lock the door he shoved the crown of his giant head into my leg and snuzzled me.  He was sweet but he smelled horrid and had obviously been on the lam for some time.  He followed me as I walked to the door and waited on the doorstep as I went inside to ask Mrs. Horton about the beast outside.

Even though he was smelly and covered in filth, we thought he was amazingly beautiful and with beauty like that, he must be a girl.  No one was interested in digging through the double coat in violation of his privacy to check so we assumed he was a female for the better part of three days.  No one knew where he came from but he hung out in the neighborhood when the kids got off the bus and played with them until dinner and then disappeared into the night until the next morning when he would meet me at my car, follow me to the door, and wait there until I left for school.  He did this for a week and during that week, the kids made signs, I called all the vets and shelters, no one was missing him.  I had already grown so attached to this dog, I had to do something.

In college, working three jobs and still living at home, I wasn’t able to keep him.  I talked about him to my parents and at work every day and finally worked out a plan to get him a home.  The head chef at the resort I worked at, Hank, was looking for a dog for his kids, this one was awesome and needed a home.  I wanted to make sure he was totally taken care of and Hank didn’t have the money to cover vet bills so I volunteered to collect him, take him to the vet and get a clean bill of health before bringing him out to their house.  My parents agreed to let him stay until his appointment.  To this day my mom still thinks it was all a ploy for me to keep him, but I know she wouldn’t have had it any other way.

The vet diagnosed him with heart worms and the treatment would be a six week process where he would have to have multiple appointments and be kept calm at all times – any excess of activity could kill him, even his own excitement.  By the time of the first appointment, my mom was already in love with him, she was secretly excited that he was going to have to stay for another 6 weeks.  He truly is a kindred spirit to all with kind spirits.  It was probably within the next 48 hours that my mom turned to me, sitting on the couch with his paw on her lap (he pets you back when you stop petting him) and said “you know he’s not leaving here, right?”.  That was it.  The dog and I had each other forever.  He needed a name.

He seemed so spiritual and sacred that I immediately went to Native American names, maybe it was the wolf-like appearance but he seemed like he should have a dreamcatcher draped around his neck at all times and that he would shift into a raven at any moment and fly away.  On some list somewhere, the name Merlin said it meant “sea fortress” or “from a place by the sea”.  Well, when he found me he smelled of foul seawater, we live at the beach and his one blue eye made him ultra wizardy so that was it.  I looked no further.  Merlin and I were soulmates and it was the beginning of an incredible journey.

In 2001 the vet estimated that Merlin was about a year old.  He could have been older, but we called it a year.  He had a bb in his ear and on the top of his snout.  My heart breaks to think about what my gentle bear-dog went through before he found me.  I can only hope that now, 12 years later, he’s completely forgotten.  Loud bangs still make him run inside to cower though.  I long to know what it was like to hold him as a puppy.  Whoever gave up this wonderful soul and allowed him to be subjected to whatever got bb’s embedded in his face really missed out on the lesson of a lifetime.

After spending more than a decade with Merlin, we’ve grown into one on a soul level.  Like twins with a secret language, inflections in his voice mean different things, he’s at my side with his gentle breath when I’m upset just before I even realize I need his love, and so many other little special moments that we share, just knowing that we know.  For more than a decade he’s always been there, like my mom, always there with endless gentle kindness to ease pain, teach lessons and guide the way.  Over the years he has followed me everywhere.  We’ve hiked and partied, camped and beached, and moved – a LOT.  I think for the better part of this relationship I’ve depended on him much more than he depended on me.

Now that he’s getting older, I cherish every bit of our special moments more than ever.  I get choked up when I see posts about elderly dogs needing homes, I can’t imagine Merlin being homeless now, at the end of his run, after giving so much unconditional love.  I’m finding out now, for the first time, how much things change when your dog ages.  He’s slower – at everything.  He has a harder time hearing me and doesn’t always jump up when I enter a room or something sounding like a leash jingles.  He used to drag me down the street and now he strolls around, in circles sometimes!  Getting to know the old man Merlin is a completely different journey full of more love than I ever knew I’d feel.

We have a younger dog, Goober, he’s a three year old Shar Pei and Boxer mix.  He runs around like Merlin used to and Merlin has taken to sensing when he’s barreling down the same path from behind and hunkering down until Goober flies by so he doesn’t get knocked over.  Because he’s kind of unsteady with his steps these days, Merlin lets me know with a special voice that he’s waiting for me to escort him up the three steps from the living room to the rest of the house or outside past the porch.  He’ll wait until I’m there to put a hand on his back and let him know that I’m there if he stumbles, and I’ve had to catch him about 20% of the time, the number grows as time goes on.  However much it saddens me that he’s aging, I treasure the opportunities I have to baby him and attend to his needs like he has done for me for so many years.

Now I’m almost 30 and he’s pushing 13…or more.  I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to him not hearing me come in the door.  My heart stops every time I have to go find him.  But when I see him sleeping sweetly and catch my breath, I love being able to softly stroke his head and whisper sweet things to him until he wakes.  The flutter in his eyes when he realizes I’m there and it’s time to do something exciting is a feeling I’ll never stop reliving – just like the day he found me.  He’s getting old and our time is running short but no matter what changes we’ve lived through together, the moment our eyes meet is still the same as it was on the first day.  It’s always time for an adventure.