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Finding Love in Furry, Doggone Places

By Donna Britt
Friday, December 23, 2005

Christmas is no time for your dog to die.

Even if you despise him.

Thirteen years ago, I wrote a controversial column about Silverado, the American Eskimo whom my son Darrell, then 7, chose as a pet from owners who swore that the bouncy 6-month-old was "mostly housebroken." White and bubbly as a tub of suds and with eyes like shiny black marbles, Silverado was utterly beautiful -- and half as bright as any of the fleas that soon infested our house and left no inch of me unbitten.

The column's controversy? I admitted that I hated him.

Silverado had shredded my every piece of expensive lingerie, defecated repeatedly on my white carpet and eaten an entire bottle of Flintstones vitamins before barfing in Technicolor. Despite his placid, beauty-queen face, Silver was, as I wrote in 1992, a 25-pound roller coaster ride:

"Give him the slightest provocation -- like breathing -- and he becomes Tasmanian Devil Dog: panting, jumping, licking, spinning, nipping, whining and slobbering all at once." The mailman quaked before his snapping jaws; casual friends reconsidered their ties to us. Silverado was peaceful for the few weeks that he convalesced after being hit by a car he'd been chasing.

Weeks after the accident, Silver looked so forlorn that I knelt beside him, placing my face next to his.

He threw up on me.

But my elementary-age sons loved him. So did my boyfriend, whom I married the next year despite his having purchased my four-legged nemesis.

As the years passed, my resentment toward Silver mellowed into grudging acceptance. My boys became teenagers, then young men. We moved to a house with a yard perfect for Silver to spend hours cavorting inside an electric fence. I gave birth to another son, who of course adored the gorgeous white dog whose energy, resistance to training and propensity for purposeless yapping never waned.

But this year, after scampering good-naturedly past an age that my vet said many American Eskimos live to, Silverado, 14, began to sputter. He started limping intermittently, looking confused, soiling his sleeping quarters. A serious heart murmur would eventually kill him, the vet explained; severe arthritis was making movement difficult. The dog who couldn't stop moving stayed huddled in a corner.

Deep in the night, he barked us awake so he could relieve himself. On a recent morning at 3 a.m., I stood shivering in the dark. Silver peed as I pondered: The boys whose adoration ensured that an inappropriate pet became part of the family had grown up and gone. Somewhere they were sleeping, toasty and unaware.

Yet the woman who'd "hated" Silverado, who'd dreamed of freedom from his antics -- and who wasn't a middle-of-the-night dog-walking type -- couldn't bear to have him euthanized. It wasn't until Darrell, whose affection for Silverado never abated, arrived home from college, looked at him and said, "We should do it -- he isn't happy," that I agreed.

With my husband leaving town, Darrell bravely offered to be present during the euthanasia. Phoning for an appointment, he froze when asked if he would stay in the room while Silverado was put to sleep. Realizing why he hesitated, I whispered, "Don't worry."

Silverado wouldn't die alone.

As the sad day neared, my son Skye, 10, was surprisingly stoic -- until the day he blurted, "But what if heaven isn't real? Then I'll never see Silverado again." Nothing I said helped. Going online, I found Oldies But Goodies Cocker Spaniel Rescue of Northern Virginia, which provides care and homes to abandoned dogs and was the next day showing available cockers at a nearby PetSmart.

Pet adoptions, the site explained, could take months. But the idea of seeing the dogs whose pictures we'd perused made Skye smile. We checked it out.

First to catch our eye: "Woofer," a tar-black 2-year-old cocker whose tail constantly wagged and who -- bummer -- was in the process of being adopted. We also were drawn to calm, chubby Penny and to Milly, an elegant blonde whose bearing reminded me of an aging movie star's. By the time we left, Skye and I both felt better.

Until Saturday. At noon, Darrell and I sat in a room at Kindness Animal Hospital in Wheaton, staring mutely at each other. In the next room, veterinarian Winnie Neunzig was placing a tiny catheter on Silverado's front right leg to ease the injection of a powerful barbiturate solution. Then she left him alone with us to say goodbye.

Darrell held Silver, rubbed his head, thanked him for being such a good friend. Then he rushed to the car, his tough-young-black-man cover forever blown.

Lifting Silverado onto the metal table where he'd for years received checkups, I took his face in both hands. Cooing "it's okay," Dr. Neunzig injected him. Silverado's black-marble eyes fastened onto mine; quite unexpectedly, I whispered, "I love you. I love you. I love you," until they closed.

With Neunzig patting my shoulder, I sobbed, lost in the puzzle that is love. Sometimes it's a warm wave that we gladly give ourselves over to. And sometimes it's a sneak-thief that corrals our hearts, seeping into our unconscious even as we're cursing its object.

Eight hours after Silver left us, a knock sent Skye to the door. Outside stood his surprise Christmas present: A dog whose would-be adopter, I'd learned the previous day, owned a cat that hissed at the notion of sharing its home with a curious cocker. "Woofer!" Skye yelled.

It was meant to be: Our last gift to Silver, a bowl, had "WOOF" inscribed in the base.

A self-possessed charmer, Woofer loves being brushed, does his business outdoors, and at 3 a.m. is fast asleep in a delighted 10-year-old's bedroom. He's perfect.

Maybe someday I'll love him as much as Silverado.

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