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A Loyal Companion



I just said good night to my dog Barley for the last time. We’re going to have to put him down tomorrow. I’ve cried on and off all day. Barley’s been with us for over fourteen years, a crazy, loyal companion who's been part of our lives ever since the day my son Thomas took his first steps. It’s not at all clear to me how I’m going to get along without him.

Barley was nothing I wanted. I didn’t want a dog, and I certainly didn’t want a springer spaniel. But my brother-in-law Chris showed up with him on that Labor Day weekend, and my wife loved him, and I was stuck with him. He was a purebred, and Chris had named him Barley. Okay, we made out the AKC papers and named him Old Peculier Barley Malt. Barley he became.

He was a handful from the first day, a little black and white psycho who picked a fight with a full-grown golden retriever and leaped off the dock into six feet of water because we were in there. He had a strong bond with Chris from those very early days, and though he would only see Chris a couple of times a year, he would immediately abandon us for his company. Not disloyal, but true to an earlier loyalty.

Barley’s loyalty made us crazy. All he wanted was to be with us. ‘Train him to a crate,’ our dog friends told us, ‘the crate will be his den, he’ll like it there.’ Not Barley. One berserk little puppy hurled himself at that first crate until he broke a weld, then crawled through the gap and made his way to us. When that wouldn’t work on a more sturdy crate, he went frantic and crapped in all directions, apparently while running in high-speed circles inside the crate. We took apart the crate and put it in our storage shed, and it never came out again. Barley wanted to be right with us, and that was the only place he was ever happy.

He was a disaster at toilet training. You couldn’t scold him; he pissed at the first sign of rebuke, often rolling on his back and spraying all over himself. He would crap as a means of expressing anger; if we did something that upset him, you could count on finding evidence of his displeasure. Our house smelled. He barked constantly, he was untrainable – at least by us – and eventually we reached the point where we decided we were not the right owners for him. I contacted a springer rescue service and set up a time to meet with them.

Then Cathy and I were standing in the kitchen one late spring day, watching him run in the sunlight, and he was just so handsome, and so free, and so fun to watch… that we couldn’t let him go. We canceled with the rescue service, and we did our best. And Barley calmed down. A little. With the help of doggie downers: we got a prescription from the vet for meds to calm his separation anxiety, and it worked just well enough.

Barley loved the snow. He would get excited when it fell, and he’d go out and charge about in it, throwing clouds of snow as he raced through the drifts. He loved the rain, too, and would splash happily in the mud, getting filthy and stinking and deliriously doggy. He hated thunderstorms, and would bark and bark and bark. One time he got out in a thunderstorm, and ran in furious figure-8s in the backyard, barking at the storm.

Like all dogs, he was underfoot, being friendly, and always hoping for scraps in the kitchen. He had an absolute gift for finding the high-traffic areas in the house, and lying down in them for a nap. Lie down out of the way? Not Barley. We got used to stepping over him.

As he calmed with age, he became my constant companion while I wrote. Barley traveled with me when I drove around the local area, curled up on the passenger seat of the Jetta, his head sometimes coming over to rest on my lap. Move, I’d tell him, I’ve got to shift. He’d look at me resentfully, and curl up again.

But it was at home that he was my shadow. I’d sit down at my desk to start a day of e-mail, phone interviews, and keyboard pounding, and Barley would be at my feet. He was as happy as he could be: he was right with his people, he had a soft rug to lie on, and the gentle heat of the AC converters plugged into the power strips kept him warm. He’d sleep for hours, only coming out to lay his head in my lap and get petted and scratched.

Barley got old. He got deaf. His eyesight started to go. 14 is very old for a springer, and he was plagued by arthritis. We handled it with medication, for a while, but in the past two weeks he went into a steep decline. How will we know when it’s time, we asked the vet. ‘One of these days,’ he said, ‘he just won’t be able to get up, and then you’ll know.’

The day finally came today. He struggled, but he couldn’t even stay up when I got him up on four feet. The last time he got up was when I brought him in and laid him down in front of the television. There you go, buddy, I said, and petted him. I left the room, and came running back when I heard him scrabbling to get up. But he gave me a hurt look, and I stood back as he struggled eight feet to collapse in his favorite spot: the passageway between the living room and dining room.

That’s where he stayed until I took him outside. I held him while he peed, and I cried at the indignity of it – for him. I held him while he drank. Then I put him down in his spot, where he slept until it was time for bed. And then I picked him up – he snapped at me, and cried from the pain, and then calmed down and relaxed – and carried him upstairs to our room, where he’s slept since the night he broke the crate. I laid him down on his old familiar blanket and pad, and patted his head. ‘It’s all right, buddy,’ I said. ‘Good night.’ Cathy and I cried and remembered all his crazy stunts.

And when he lifted his head and looked at us, I could almost believe that he was really okay, that we were rushing things. But then I remembered having to hold him up in the backyard, and how he struggled to move eight feet, and I knew that it was time. Keeping Barley any longer would be selfish. I’ve said to myself for weeks now that it just wasn’t fair. But it wouldn’t be fair to keep him in pain so that we could continue to watch him when he slept and tell ourselves that our loyal companion, our faithful buddy, our good dog was still with us.

I don’t know about an afterlife for dogs. My faith doesn’t address it. I’ve heard people say things like ‘All dogs go to heaven,’ and ‘If they don’t have dogs in heaven, I’m not going.’ I don’t know. I just like to think that if there’s any justice, tomorrow, after he falls asleep in our arms one very last time, Barley will wake up in a warm, safe place with plenty of meaty treats, cool clean water, and good kind friends who will make him feel at home, and secure, and happy. I hope so. He’s been a very good dog, for all his flaws, and he deserves it.

I’m gonna miss you, Barley. You were a companion more loyal than I ever deserved.

Copyright © 2008 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
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Revised: December 15, 2006