Lately, my favorite hashtag is #olddogsrule. And they do. When you’ve had a dog for ten years, you forget life before. He is the furry body at the foot of your bed every single night. He is the nuzzle on your arm while you watch Better Call Saul. He is the quiet woof reminding you to share your spaghetti. Then he stops eating–dog food, cheese, chicken, nothing tastes good. So, you head to the vet and find out he has lymphoma. And then you think, old dogs are hard.
Nikko was the first Golden Retriever I ever loved. Before him, I didn’t know dogs could smile. My heart would sing when, after not seeing each other for awhile, he’d greet me with a grin. That soul in there was always so happy to see me.
His owner Tim loved it when Nikko climbed a ladder, so I will tell you that dog could climb a ladder like no other. Fearless. When we laddered the second floor of a building up in Northern California, I couldn’t watch. Tim encouraged him. Nikko did it. Even now, when I think of it, I hold my breath.
Often, when I took care of him for a weekend, I would get into trouble. My house backs up to a trail which, in the Inland Empire, we call the wash. The wash is filled with rabbits, ground squirrels and the occasional coyote. Nikko had a thing for small furry creatures. So, we’d go on a couple of walks a day, and he’d run as hard as he could after the rabbits up and down the rocks, across the hard packed soil. When it was time for him to go home, his pads were torn and his muscles were sore. He limped for days. Tim wasn’t pleased. But that thrill that comes along with the chase, how could I possibly leash him? His joy was worth a few days of muscle aches.
Tim took Nikko everywhere, and he always rode shotgun. When I passed my first search dog test in Los Angeles, Tim and Nikko came to watch. I remember after I tested I hopped into an empty metal trash container so that Nikko could get in a search. He found me in seconds. And his ability to search a building! The best I’ve ever seen. Once three dogs ran right past the room where the victim was hidden. They didn’t get a whiff of scent. When Nikko barreled down that same hallway, he whipped his head and barked. Easy.
During his last week, Nikko would lay on the tile floor, head down, breathing labored. He would only eat roast beef cold cuts, and he’d gotten so thin. But, he would still come along for a walk on the wash. I had to help him stand up, and wait for him as he limped to the back fence. His right leg had swollen to double the size of his left leg. I don’t know why, except to say that his body was failing him. The Superdog could only make it halfway to our usual turn around spot that day, and we took breaks together while Kinsey and Sherlock sprinted down to the water for a swim. But, he still loved it, still kept a lookout for rabbits.
The week didn’t get any easier. Every night, when laid in bed and tried to drift off to sleep, I couldn’t decide what was worse. Was it waking up in the middle of the night to see if he was still breathing, or waking up and knowing I’d never hear him breathe again?
The last morning, I had to carry Nikko out to the backyard, and when he tried to take a step on his own, he collapsed. I helped him up, and after a minute he could manage a step or two. A few hours later, when I took the other dogs out to the wash, Nikko wouldn’t leave the patio. That dog always left the patio. That dog loved rabbits. I walked out to the wash without him, blinking back tears. Life had become more suffering than joy.
Tim and I planned to take him to Dog Beach in Huntington that afternoon, and as I walked along the wash without him, I was afraid we’d waited too long. I’d wanted Nikko to be able to enjoy his last beach trip. It was one of our favorite spots. I’d even gotten a wagon so that we could pull him down to the ocean. It was a steep walk, and we all wanted a good day.
We went, me hoping the whole way that it was the right decision.
When Tim and I pulled into the parking lot at the beach, Nikko lifted his head up. There was a renewed vigor, an energy he lacked at my house. Tim loaded him into the wagon and wheeled him down to the beach. We set up a spot for him where he could lay on a blanket, rest his head on a towel, and look out over the ocean. When he saw a ball fly through the air he got up on his own and tried to join in on a game of retrieve. Tim followed close behind as he ventured into the ocean. When the waves knocked him off his feet, Tim lifted him up. After a couple of trots through the cold salty water, Tim carried him back to his spot on the blanket. They sat as close together as they could. Nikko with his head on Tim’s chest, Tim with his hand scratching beneath Nikko’s chin.
That afternoon dogs ran by rumble, tumble, happy, joyful. I took more than 700 pictures. When I look at them, I see the light in Nikko’s eyes. Even on his last day, as sick as he was, he found joy in the little terrier kept that coming back for a sniff, the smell of salt in the air. I wish we could have stayed on that beach forever.
There’s been a lot of tears since then, but tears come with a loving a dog. It’s worth the trade, a little bit of sadness for ten years of joy. That sweet boy brought nothing but love to everyone he met.
We miss you Nikko.