There are many ways to share a quiet moment with your pet. I recommend using your Labrador retriever as a pillow. Flop down next to him on the kitchen floor, nestle your head on one of his broad haunches and just … be.
This is how I communed with Dexter.
Our family’s beloved black Lab had a slightly exotic origin story. In the late 1990s my wife, Carla, and I promised a retriever to our daughters. But we lived in Tokyo, where I was a Tribune correspondent, and the logistics were impossible. For one thing, a big American dog was as rare in Japan as a big American car. In 2000, though, we moved to Beijing, where the tight-knit expatriate community included Julie, an American veterinarian. She helped us through several tragic experiments with local bunnies and chicks. She also cared for Liu Liu, a pint-sized Tibetan spaniel who found his way to us.
Still, we pined for a big, friendly companion for the girls. I wanted a dog I could run with and wrestle without crushing. Besides, Liu Liu made it clear he belonged to Carla by following her around like a personal mop. Then in early 2002 came word that Julie had played matchmaker. An American-bred Labrador retriever from Texas, owned by an expat, had given birth to a litter of puppies sired by a British-bred Lab whose master was the Serbian ambassador to China. British Labs are stockier than their American counterparts, with big, square heads and longer tails. Dexter was the last available pup of the litter. He had enormous paws and grew to full British size.
Life in Beijing was an adventure in which we tried to balance embracing Chinese culture while raising three American daughters. We ate local food and explored the city, but the girls attended international school. They communicated in simple English and Chinese with Xiaoyen, our housekeeper, whose most polished English phrase became "No, Dexter!"
Labradors are demonstrative creatures. Dexter took it up a notch. His tail didn’t wag, it whooshed back and forth with the energy of a swashbuckling fencer. We learned to protect drinking glasses and fragile curios at higher elevation or Dexter's tail would send them flying. At the front end, he led with his enormous pink tongue, licking everyone in reach. We learned to protect visitors from getting slobbered in the crotch.
Dexter became my running buddy, galloping alongside me. He’d get so worn out that we'd stop at a decorative fountain outside our housing compound, where he'd plop down joyously under cascading water. Once after a run I had a phone call from an editor in Chicago, who interrupted our conversation to wonder, from 6,000 miles away: “What’s that sawing sound?” That's not a saw, I said. It’s my 95-pound Labrador retriever. He’s panting.
We returned to Chicago in 2005 with our three girls, two dogs and a Chinese cat. Dexter remained a dangerously exuberant presence. In Beijing he gave our housekeeper a black eye by pulling her down the front stairs. In Highland Park, he ran up a hospital bill by yanking a dog walker to the ground. He sent me to the chiropractor with a strained back. He also sneaked off on neighborhood jaunts. If he didn’t return in an hour, we knew to expect a phone call from someone in the neighborhood who’d found him. Otherwise the police probably had him, requiring a trip to the pound. We wondered what life would have been like if there’d been a good dog trainer in Beijing.
One of my favorite activities was taking Dexter to a sprawling dog park where he’d ramble over hills as if on some private hunt. I'd catch sight of his distant profile, tail fully alert like the conning tower of a furry submarine. He'd return happy, tongue wagging. His temperament was remarkable. He got along with cats. He barked at visitors, a trick Liu Liu taught him, but never once growled at anyone.
As he began to slow, Dexter kept his joie de vivre — through a cancer diagnosis, a permanent wheeze, hip arthritis, deafness. Even at 15 years old, ancient for his breed and too worn out to do much but lie on the cool hallway floor, he’d offer a whack-whack-whack of his tail on the ground when I came home.
By this summer, Dexter's walks were confined to our yard. He'd lost so much weight he was too bony to be my pillow. Still, he embraced each day. Gallows humor helped us. “He’s not dead yet,” I’d say, referencing a scene from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Soon he struggled just to lift his body. We agonized over the decision to let go. We talked it through with our daughters.
Vets advise animal owners to think about the behavior that makes your pet your companion. When those activities are no longer possible, it’s time. Carla and I took Dexter to the vet's office on a Friday afternoon. We spent our last quiet minutes alone with him in a private room. It felt serene, like those moments I’d lie with him on the kitchen floor. He was resting comfortably on a gurney, under a blanket. His head was on a pillow. The vet joined us. Carla kissed Dexter's forehead. I held his paw. We thanked Dexter for being part of our family. Then we said goodbye.
Michael Lev is a member of the Tribune's Editorial Board....Read more