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22nd of June 2018

Pria



Rare Photo of a Good Dog - The Good Men Project

Our dog Phoebe died, and all I can do is howl at the moon.

The photo of her is the only one that does her justice.

She was part of our family for more than 15 years until, after a precipitous decline in health and quality of life, she passed peacefully in the arms of our youngest daughter, Maddy.

Despite Phoebe’s regal beauty in real life, she was eerily unphotogenic.

Perhaps it was her monotone coloring… black on black, save for a white chest patch. With her head down, she was impossible to see in the darkness. My Mom accidentally stepped on her twice when they first met.

Or perhaps, like Greta Garbo, Phoebe was simply camera shy and valued her privacy. She ran from me when I approached holding any device with a lens, but Maddy managed to snap this photo during a car-ride to a local Dunkin’ Donuts in the days before Phoebe realized phones also had front-facing cameras.

As soon as this was taken, she learned to duck out of the way of all cell phones too.

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Phoebe was intelligent, but untrainable. These were two qualities she shared with my two daughters as they all grew up together. (One exception: as smart as she was, Phoebe never truly learned the concept of “screen door.”)

She was the runt of the litter, chosen by our daughters at an adoption fair at the Petco in Ramsey, NJ, in early 2003. She was a mutt or – more charitably – a “Labradollie” of “Borador,” which is part Labrador, part Border Collie. The girls had every intention of naming a pet after Joey, a character on the TV show “Friends.” Since their new puppy was female, they improvised.

Phoebe became their enthusiastic playmate. She galloped when she ran, and I often imagined the background music as Miss Gulch rode her bicycle in “The Wizard of Oz” when I watched our puppy take off on her various backyard adventures.

True to her Border Collie roots, Phoebe’s favorite backyard game was herding.

Our oldest daughter, Cathy (who Phoebe once locked out of our house), used to convince Maddy and her friends to run around the yard pretending to be sheep. They’d shout, “Baa! Baa! Baa!” and Phoebe would gallop in circles to keep them together in the same place.

Phoebe herded her toys too. She’d arrange them all into one neat pile. Her favorite toys were stuffed squirrels, bears and sheep – and, grotesquely, she would mark them by chewing off their eyes.

Besides herding, she was also exceptional at guarding.

Usually even-tempered and sweet-natured (except when encountering bicyclists, other dogs, old women, babies or squirrels during her walks), Phoebe judged anyone who approached our front door using an instinctive litmus test. Most visitors and tradespeople gained her immediate approval. Our usual UPS deliveryman had witnessed the arrival of the vet at our house, and the next day he knocked at our door not to deliver a package, but because he wanted to express condolences to my wife, Nancy (Phoebe’s constant companion). “She was a good dog,” the two dog-lovers agreed, their highest compliment.

But some few callers – such as one unfortunate PSEG meter reader, and just about anyone who sought entry when the family wasn’t nearby — feared for their lives when they approached our front door.

The girls always felt safe around Phoebe. More than safe: protected. Phoebe even protected them from me, since for years I mercilessly teased and joked at the dog’s expense, rather than at my daughters’.

In return, we accepted Phoebe for who she was – with all her quirks and allergies… the way her legs twitched when she dreamt… her love of snowfall and licking dirty dishes before we could close the dishwasher door… her primordial fear of fireworks and lightning.

We treated her as family:The girls took care in planning her Halloween costumes: a “bad dog” prisoner outfit from Party City; a pink Little Bo Peep costume, hand-sewn by Maddy; a hotdog.We included her in our family’s made-up rap-star names: I was jogging “Run Daddy,” Nancy “Big M” (for Mom), Maddy “Little M,” Cathy “Cagey C,” and Phoebe was “Notorious P.”Maddy baked biscuits using a dog-friendly recipe, and Phoebe especially loved these. She didn’t want to eat them right away and would stuff them between sofa cushions or run around the house whimpering with a treat in her mouth when she couldn’t find a suitable hiding place.Phoebe would randomly run up to Maddy excitedly, as if wanting to tell her something. “What is it, Lassie?” she’d playfully respond. “Is Timmy trapped in the well again?”

We took Phoebe on family vacations to Cape Cod. Since she looked just like the logo for the local “Black Dog” brand, she strutted – and was treated — like a celebrity when we took her for walks on the streets of Chatham.

I happen to have this photo too, but truthfully I don’t need a distant image to recall how Cathy and Maddy took her for a walk to a landing off Oyster Pond, and how Phoebe waded out to romp joyously in the shallow water.

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I realize, now that sweet Phoebe is gone, what she and I truly had in common: The instinct to herd and protect.

She was much better at both than I’ve ever been.

I wonder if she held on to life as long as she did simply because she didn’t trust me to do these things on my own.

Just like me, Phoebe was always at her absolute happiest when my wife, two daughters and I were all together – which, now that my daughters are grown, happens rarely. Whenever we’ve all been at home lately, we’d praise Phoebe lavishly because she had once again herded the four of us together. We’d all gather around her, pet her, and praise her for doing such a good job and for being such a good dog.

Earlier this week, when I left for work the first morning after Phoebe was gone, I realized that I no longer had to step over her as she tried to block my exit from our house.

This has long been my morning routine. Upstairs, I’d say goodbye to my wife and tell her I love her, then I’d stop at each of the two other bedroom doors and tell each of my daughters the same – whether they’re there or not.

Finally, I’d go downstairs and awkwardly step over the dog on my way out the door. “Goodbye, Phoebe,” I’d say, and pat her head, “Good Dog!”

Phoebe was always at that door, always protecting us, always trying to keep us near, always worrying about the ones who weren’t there. When I walked over that empty space where Phoebe used to sprawl, I realized she still needs me to carry on and help her protect us.

And now it’s time to say goodbye.

In this endeavor, I feel like I’m in over my head, treading water. Still, I find comfort in the image of Phoebe frolicking in a shallow boat basin. I’ll try to follow her lead and maybe blast through a screen door or two. Life is short, and we should all spend more time pretending we’re celebrities, enjoying some extra cheese, bacon and peanut butter, and playing in the snow.

In the end, Phoebe, I know I never appreciated you enough. Forgive me for teasing you, and for posting your photo.

I promise to do my best to keep our family together without you, and to try to keep our lives from being overrun by all the squirrels.

Goodbye, Phoebe. You were a good dog.

Originally posted on Blogspot.

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Photos courtesy of the author.

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