Soft Pointer Ears

My job as an instructional designer for Amtrak sometimes involves me teaching courses for our employees away from my home base in Washington, D.C. In late summer 2012, I was preparing for a series of electrical and HVAC classes I would be teaching at New York’s Penn Station.

My daughter Fiona, who had just graduated from high school and was in her first semester of college, was aware that I would be spending some time away from home teaching courses that fall. She approached me at the end of September and explained that she would feel safer when I was away if there was a dog in the house.

The area where we live in Montgomery County, Md., near the Frederick County line, is surrounded by farms, parkland and estate homes. Deer are abundant, wild turkeys are commonly seen, and the quiet nights are occasionally interrupted by the sounds of howling coyotes and screeching male foxes on the prowl for a mate. I understood her concern.

This wasn’t the first time Fiona had asked about getting a dog. I had resisted bringing yet another animal into the house because we already had three rescue cats and keeping up with them was an undertaking in itself. Her argument was a good one, though, and to be honest, I missed having a dog around. I love dogs and value the relationships that often develop between dog and human. So this time I relented … with some provisions.

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First, in the interest of safety, it had to be a medium- to large-sized dog. Second, she would be primarily responsible for its care. I would take care of the vet costs, etc., but the day-to-day care would be mostly on her. Fiona agreed and started looking online for suitable candidates. I left the house and headed to my neighbor John’s hunting hangout a mile up the road.

When I arrived, I found John getting ready for the early muzzleloader deer season. I sat down and we made small talk. I happened to mention my conversation with Fiona and that we were looking for a dog. John replied that he might have a lead for me. He texted me the phone number of Patty, a vet tech he knew in Frederick. He said she had a dog she was trying to find a home for.

I forwarded the number to my daughter and told her that she should call Patty right away. Ten minutes later, my daughter called me and said she was just leaving the house to go meet Patty and her dog. I could hear the excitement in her voice, and was pleased that she was so happy.

An hour later, I received another call from Fiona. She was heading home with her new furry friend, Emmylou, a rambunctious, one-year old German Shorthaired Pointer. She said that Emmylou had been rescued from a puppy mill in 2011, and that her favorite thing to do was cuddle. It sounded like a perfect match, and I told Fiona I would be home later that evening to meet her.

When I got home, I went upstairs and opened the door to Fiona’s room. Fiona was in bed and Emmylou was nestled with her, buried in the covers half asleep, obviously enjoying her new human and her warm bed.

Emmylou was beautiful: about 45 to 50 pounds, black patched with gray/white ticking, and long floppy ears that looked soft as velvet cake. When I poked my head in, Emmylou lifted her head and began to softly growl. Fiona stroked Emmylou’s head and told her it was all right, that I wouldn’t hurt them. I sat on the edge of the bed and gently patted Emmylou as I introduced myself.

I’d never owned a GSP (I could never afford one), but had hunted over them many times, and I knew people who owned them. I had found them to be gentle, energetic and personable dogs, ready to work and never confrontational with their humans, and I was puzzled and slightly concerned by the behavior.

Emmylou was clearly uncomfortable with the situation, so rather than push the issue, I backed off and asked Fiona if she was pleased. She hugged Emmylou and thanked me for allowing her to come into our home. When I closed the door, I could hear Fiona talking softly to Emmylou, telling her that I was a good boy and that she didn’t need to be afraid of me. I went to bed that night wondering how long it would take for her to get used to my presence in the house. That was October 7, 2012.

The rest of the month of October passed. November came and went. Emmylou always alerted us whenever a stranger came on the property. However, despite my efforts to make friends with her, Emmylou still did not fully trust me. Fiona said to give it time, but I was resigned to the situation, telling myself that as long as Fiona was happy, and Emmylou was happy with Fiona, I wouldn’t mind.

The second week of December arrived, and Emmylou was still wary of me. I had made plans to purchase a muzzleloader that Sunday from someone near Wardensville, W.V., about two-and-a-half hours from my home. Sunday morning arrived and as I got ready to leave, Fiona appeared in the kitchen with Emmylou on a leash. She told me this would be the perfect opportunity for Emmylou to get some one-on-one time with me. I was skeptical, but yielded.

Fiona led her out to my pickup and opened the driver’s side door. Emmylou jumped in and sat on the driver’s side, waiting for Fiona to get in. When I approached the door instead of Fiona, she immediately scooted to the passenger side of the cab and plastered herself to the door. I sat behind the wheel and my daughter smiled. As Fiona closed the truck door, she assured me that it was “going to be just fine.” I had my doubts.

Seven miles from Maryland Route 27 to Interstate 270, then south toward the Capital Beltway; Emmylou stared straight ahead. On occasion, I would catch her looking at me, but she would quickly turn her head away so as not to maintain eye contact.

By the time we got to the exit for I-66 West, Emmylou had inched her way toward me in the cab and now was in the middle of the bench seat. She was up to something … I wasn’t sure what … but I was amused and intrigued. I kept driving.

It had started to lightly snow when we got to the low mountains where Route 66 crosses Broad Run. By now, Emmylou was next to me on my right side. She was no longer staring straight ahead, but rather, was steadily looking at my face, her nose just inches from my right ear. I held the steering wheel with my left hand and slowly eased my right arm over the back of the seat behind Emmylou. I placed my hand on her shoulder and very softly stroked her side.

Something changed in that moment in the cab of my truck, heading toward West Virginia with the snow flying … and it was magical. When my hand touched her shoulder, Emmylou let out a large sigh and put her head on my right shoulder. She leaned in against me, as though a huge burden had been lifted from her.

The sudden change in her comportment caught me off guard, but it felt incredible, so I pulled her in tighter. She moved her head to my chest and left it there for a few miles. At that moment, any reservations I had about her melted away, and I fell in love with her. It was the moment she chose to bond with me.

After a few more miles, Emmylou lifted her head from my chest and stared at me for a few moments, like she was contemplating her next move. Then she quickly stood up and, in one fluid motion, stepped behind the steering wheel and into my lap! I pulled the truck over to the side of the road, stopped and put it in park. She continued, stepping towards the driver’s side window, turning herself around so that she was now facing the passenger side of the truck, sat down in my lap, leaned back onto my chest, and hooked her head over my left shoulder. She closed her eyes, sighed again and went to sleep.

Try as I might to move her, she wouldn’t budge. She actually started to gently snore! Truthfully, I really liked it. I put the truck in gear and eased back onto the highway, unsure of the legality or safeness of it all. But I was in the moment and she wasn’t blocking my view or control, so I left her alone. She stayed there, asleep, all the way to my destination. On the way home, she snuggled up against me, sitting close to me on my right.

When we got home, Fiona noticed a different dynamic between the two of us. I recounted in detail what had happened on the way there and back. My daughter laughed and said something to the effect of, “I told you it would be good for her.” She went upstairs to her room and Emmylou followed.

That evening, I turned in around nine. As I lay in bed reading, I heard the door to Fiona’s room open, heard Fiona talking to Emmylou, then listened to the clicking of dog nails on the hardwood floor in the hallway, followed by a very gentle scratching on my bedroom door. I got up and opened the door.

Fiona said that Emmylou had indicated she wanted out of her room. I looked down. Emmylou was sitting in front of me looking up, her undocked tail steadily sweeping the floor. I opened the door wider and invited her in. She pranced into my bedroom, hopped onto my bed, and claimed the left side and the pillow. Fiona followed her, looked at her lying on my bed, laughed and said good night.

For the next eight years, unless I was out of town teaching, Emmylou slept with me. She accompanied me on trips, hunted and fished with me, and was my shadow and constant companion. My friends joked that I had a second daughter. Some called her my girlfriend. Others said that Emmylou thought she was married to me. She was always very gentle, an unapologetic, unrepentant snuggler. The bond she felt was mutual.

As she got older, her muzzle grayed and she developed gray eyeliner, becoming more beautiful to me every year that passed.

Six years ago, one of my neighbors watched as Emmylou lay down next to me on the couch and gently rested her head over my knee. He looked at me and said, “You know that she’s going to break your heart one of these days, right?” I remember vaguely acknowledging what he said, stowing it away in the back of my mind. Those words would come back to haunt me.

When Covid-19 struck our region in early February 2020, I began to work from home. If it could ever be said that anything good came from lockdown, it’s that all of us were able to spend more time with our animal companions. In 2020, I had a tremendous amount of one-on-one time with Emmylou and we both relished it. If possible, it made us closer.

About the second week of January 2021, I began to notice that Emmylou, normally an exuberant eater, wasn’t eating all of her morning food in one sitting as usual. The same was happening in the evening. Within a few days, she had stopped eating altogether.

Occasionally over the years, she had been picky about her food; it would last a few days and then she would be back to being a furry vacuum cleaner with teeth, so I expected her to follow this pattern. I bought a few different brands of dry dog food and some canned food for her to try. She ate the new dry food for a day or two and then turned her nose up, again refusing to eat.

I made an appointment with the vet for a check-up that Friday. Unfortunately, later that same day, I was informed that someone I had been in contact with a few days previous had tested positive for Covid-19. I cancelled the vet visit and arranged to be tested for the virus. I had to wait five days for the rapid test … tested negative … and then had to wait a further seven days to be clear.

While this was going on, I switched Emmylou’s food from dry to canned, which she ate with enthusiasm for a few days, then again refused to eat. I switched to ground raw venison. She ate it for a day or two, then refused it. The same with boiled chicken. When she did eat, it was in increasingly smaller quantities. As soon as my quarantine was over, I brought her to the vet.

After her exam, her vet, Melissa Birken, asked me what was going on. I told her about her decreased appetite and how she was refusing to eat all the things she normally enjoyed, even her favorite treat, Beggin’ Strips. Melissa said Emmylou had lost seven pounds and had developed a heart murmur, and that she wanted to perform some blood tests. She asked me if I could wait for an hour or so for the results. In a little over an hour, the results showed extremely elevated liver values, which alarmed Melissa. She sent me home with medication and an appetite stimulant that I was to give her daily. I was to bring her back in a few days for another check and a sonogram. That was on Tuesday.

The stimulant worked for the first day or two, and her appetite seemed to be returning, although diminished. However, by Friday, it was clear that she had no appetite again and was spending a lot of time resting, highly unusual for a GSP, even an older girl like Emmylou. I called the vet and arranged for a sonogram on Saturday, which was performed by Melissa’s partner, Dr. Katie Spaniol.

By Saturday afternoon, I had a preliminary diagnosis: liver cancer. Her liver was highly inflamed and nodules appeared to spread across the organ; her lack of interest in food was likely due to nausea from the inflammation. They gave her something for the nausea and some fluids.

Katie broke the news to me as softly as she possibly could. The initial prognosis was that the cancer was inoperable and would be fatal. I was devastated. I asked for a second opinion, and Katie provided me with the name of a radiologist she recommended. She made the arrangements and I waited.

On Tuesday, the radiologist confirmed what Katie had suspected. My stomach was sick. I texted my daughter and broke down; my neighbor’s words from years ago came back to me clear as a bell. I resigned myself to the last course of action I knew I would have to take, and with my stomach in knots, made the call to Peaceful Passage in Baltimore and arranged for a vet to come to my house that coming Friday to release my sweet girl from her discomfort.

Within a few hours of that call, I became greatly troubled by the arrangements I had made and began to second-guess my decision. I wanted to be sure, beyond a doubt, that I had done the right thing, so I spoke to Melissa again. She was kind and sympathetic and offered to send the sonogram to a regionally recognized expert she knew down-county who worked in a large veterinary hospital.

On Wednesday evening, once again, the worst was confirmed. In fact, the expert who reviewed the sonogram said that he could clearly see two types of cancer, and that it would progress rapidly. I left the arrangements in place and took the next two days off work, preparing myself the best I could.

My daughter called me many times between Wednesday and Friday morning, reassuring me that I had made the right call. I found her words comforting, but my conscience still troubled me.

Emmylou didn’t seem to be in obvious pain, but the look in her eyes told the whole story. By now, she had stopped eating altogether, and what normally would have taken all day to tire her was accomplished with a simple walk around my field. She was starting to get thin and I noticed the development of an occasional slight tremor.

On Thursday morning, I gently loaded her into my truck and took her for our last ride together. She rode next to me on my right, my arm around her, her head on my shoulder as usual. There were flurries, and I thought to myself, How appropriate … a day like that day back in 2012, when Emmylou decided I was her pet human.

We stopped in Damascus at Hyatt Building Supply. As was her custom, Emmylou went behind the counter and sat down, waiting for some attention. The counterman offered her a doggy treat as he’d been doing for years, except this time, she turned her nose up. I explained that she was dying and why she was refusing to eat. All of the guys on the floor came over to say their goodbyes, and then we left.

We stopped at my neighbor’s hunting camp and another neighbor’s place nearby in Browningsville, then we headed home. That evening, we took a stroll around my property in the new snow. She pointed some birds, contemplated chasing some squirrels that dared appear, took a drink from the creek and headed back to the house.

Emmylou had a fitful night, finally falling asleep at 2:30 Friday morning. We woke together at first light and took a short walk together. When we got back to the house, she climbed into her favorite chair and got comfortable. I covered her with a purple knit blanket she loved and waited for the vet.

Dr. Kaplan arrived at noon and was very gentle. He put both Emmylou and I at ease. My daughter, who had left for Florida the week before, tied in via Zoom. Emmylou, wrapped in her knit blanket, lay in my lap while the initial sedative was given. My daughter sang a little song to her and I whispered in her ear that I loved her, while I gently rubbed her ears. On February 12, at 12:15 pm, she let out a gentle sigh and snuggled her head into my lap for the last time and into my memory forever. She left this world knowing that she was loved.

From the time I first noticed her diminished appetite to the time she left me, barely four weeks had passed. I hadn’t realized how deeply those few weeks had affected me until I put on a pair of jeans the next day and found the waist loose. I weighed myself and discovered I had lost 10 pounds.

I wish I had something profound to say. I know I’m not the first person to experience this, but the overwhelming emotion I’ve had to deal with is guilt. Not that I neglected Emmylou, because I didn’t. She was loved and well cared for.

Rather, it’s the guilt I felt … still feel … because I asked someone to end the life of my trusted friend, a friend who would have never harmed me in any way and who always went out of her way to please me. I was her whole life and she depended on me. My brain and logic tell me I made the right call, that she left this world with her dignity intact, in her own home, cradled in the arms of her pet human. My heart says, “Jeff, you’re a bastard.”

It was easy being her human when she was healthy and happy. It was difficult being her human in death.

Our loving relationships with our animal friends make us better people and are, in the end, bittersweet, and I wouldn’t trade them for the whole world … and I’ll do it again.

I miss waking up with her head on my chest every morning, looking at me with her beautiful brown eyes. I miss how she was always genuinely happy to see me. I miss the way her whole body shook when she spotted a squirrel. I miss her gentle way with me.

I miss her soft Pointer ears.

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