Journal Entry 090210: What I learned from a good dog

“Do you think we get the dogs we need?” was the question writer Jon Katz asked on his Facebook page this past week. In our case, regarding Lady the Running Labrador, we got exactly who we needed. She lived with us 12-1/2 years, ran thousands of miles with us, and in her own fashion wriggled her way into the hearts of two non-dog-people in the most subtle ways. To paraphrase John Grogan: “She was one of those dogs that give dogs a good name.”

Lady is gone now. She died last Saturday afternoon, August 28, on the table at the vet’s office. But her influence on Cyndi and me will last a long time. Maybe the rest of our lives.

When Lady joined our family in 1998 she immediately fit in, partly because she was so un-demanding. She lived very lightly among us. She entertained herself and didn’t want much attention.

That was perfect, since we have never been overly-accommodating people. Not that we are stubborn or mean or always insist on our own way, but we expect everyone in the house to make their own way, pick up their own stuff, take care of their own clothes, eat what everyone else eats, carry their own stuff in from the car, and heal themselves when sick. We have been accused of being the no-mercy family, and it is true that when Cyndi and I have taken those spiritual gifts surveys mercy ends up at the bottom of both our lists, but we try not to be mean or judgmental. We just expect each person to pull up their pants and take care of their own stuff. Lady fit right in with us.

But more importantly, Lady loved running even more than we did. She never complained if we asked her to run twice in a day, or if it was raining, or cold, or if the spring wind was howling. She was always ready to go. Lady ran almost daily with one or more members of our family for 10 years; literally, thousands of miles.

My earliest documented run with her was a five-miler through Grasslands on May 13, 1998. I don’t know if Cyndi or Katie ran with her before I did (they didn’t keep detailed running logs of their own). For years I ran with her two or three times a week during the evenings. For even more years and more miles, Cyndi ran with Lady in the early mornings and on weekend long runs. In her prime it was nothing for Lady to go 10 or 12 miles with Cyndi every Saturday morning.

About three years ago Lady had aged to the point she couldn’t run more than a few blocks, however she still loved to go and she would get so excited when she knew either of us – me or Cyndi – was getting dressed to run. We felt guilty leaving her behind because she wanted to go so badly, but she was no longer capable. There were times when we would carry our running gear out into the garage to change where she couldn’t see us so we could sneak out the garage door and go running without her, guilt free.

As Lady got older she also got more and more “in the way.” She wanted to lie on the floor at our feet all the time. She wanted to sleep on the floor of our bedroom right next to one of us, right where we put our feet if we got up at night, making a big target for tripping in the middle of the night. We adjusted to her being underfoot, and in fact, we liked it. She still didn’t care much to be petted or rubbed, but she wanted to be close to us. It was sweet and tender to watch her follow us around the house.

She had a knack for camping out directly in the path of the most traffic. For example last month at our Cornfest she flopped on the floor sound asleep in the kitchen directly in the path of people who were navigating the food line and filling their plates and balancing drinks and babies. You might conclude that she did it on purpose in order to get attention from people except that she didn’t pay attention to any of us. She was happy to lie on the floor and ignore any humans in the house.

She was always independent and self-contained, and content with minimal attention from us. To pet her you had to be the one to cross the room, and you had to get your rubbing in before she got tired of the whole thing and wandered off to be by herself. It felt like she was giving us a turn instead of wanting one for herself. There were many occasions when I know she saw me drop my hands and encourage her to come over so I could rub her ears; yet I could tell she was weighing in her mind whether it was worth the walk across the room, only to decide it wasn’t worth it and she would lay down on the floor looking off in the other direction. My brother Carroll once described her during a late-night telephone conversation about our dogs, “Lady is a working dog, not a lap dog.”

She wouldn’t push herself on anyone. She wouldn’t beg for attention (although she might beg for an occasional pizza crust) or jump in your lap or expect you to play with her. Sometimes I wished she were more aggressive in seeking my affection, so I wouldn’t feel guilty about ignoring her or taking her for granted.

I remember one time during the holidays when I was at home by myself putting books on the shelves, carrying boxes from the garage, and putting stuff in my closet. Every time I changed rooms Lady would follow me and curl up on the floor. But I was moving from room to room a lot and she had to get up to follow and then curl up again, and then get up to follow again, over and over. I started feeling guilty that she was moving so often and I tried to bunch my trips more. I even tried to sneak out of the room one time. I realized what a strange situation that I was worried about inconveniencing her and all she wanted to do was hang out with me. There was a measure of grace in that.

She wanted to be in the same room but she typically laid down facing away. Her eyes might be open but she showed no interest in watching the people in the room. One day I said to Cyndi, “It’s as if she wants to be with us but she’s too cool to act like she needs us. So she lays down close and then stares the other direction. It’s like having a teenager in the house again.”

Cyndi disagreed. “No, she’s being part of our family without placing demands on us. She’s doing what she’s always done.”

And then Cyndi said, “But she’s taught us to be more accommodating and gentle around her.”

Cyndi was correct. We were more careful when we opened doors, or scooted back in our chairs, or lowered the foot rest to the recliner. Instead of getting mad that she was always in the way, we were happy for her gentleness and happy to step around her.

I can’t count how many times she laid down against the back legs of my chair so I couldn’t scoot back to go refill my drink but had to crawl out of the chair sideways, or against the shower door so Cyndi couldn’t open it to get her towel, or against the door to the garage so we bumped into her when we got home and came inside. She would lay down under the library table so there was not enough room for our feet. Maybe this was her way of interacting with us. She wouldn’t play, so she got in the way.

Lady used to lie down directly under the elevated footrest when I was sitting in my recliner, so close that I couldn’t lower the chair without mashing her. I would have to crawl over the arms of the chair to keep from disturbing her. To be honest I was surprised at my own tolerance of Lady. I guess I loved the whole package of her, good and bad, easy or inconvenient. In fact, not only did I tolerate her under my chair, I missed her if she was in the other room.

I remember one night when I woke up about 1:30 AM and couldn’t go back to sleep, so I grabbed my book and glasses and moved to the living room couch. Lady came along with me (she had been sleeping at the foot of our bed). She curled up on the floor beside the couch near my head and went back to sleep. About every 20 minutes she sat up and laid her chin on the couch and on my book to see what was going on. Maybe she was getting a closer look at me, or maybe she was checking in, or maybe she knew I had been restless and not sleeping and she was offering the best comfort she had without intruding.

By the time we moved to our current house in Woodland Park about 1-1/2 years ago, Lady was too weak to run at all. By then, she knew it, too. She didn’t press to go along. But she loved her twice-daily walks through the park. Toward the end her back legs were so weak and frail she would hobble along, often sitting to rest a couple of time before finishing the walk.

There has been some dispute regarding Lady’s actual age, as if she were a Chinese gymnast in the 2008 summer Olympics. She was a full-sized dog when we first got her in the spring of 1998. At her first visit the vet guessed her birthday to be 1993 based on her teeth; however, that means she was 17 years old when she died, or 50% older than her expected life span. A month before her death, we were at our annual vet visit, and Dr. Sheele said she was the oldest dog in his practice. He also said she had great heart and lungs.

The last time I took her on a walk was Friday morning before she died, and she was barely mobile. She looked like a loose bag of bones. I remember sitting on one of the park benches and staring into her eyes, and she seemed to be telling me she was tired and ready to quit. Enough was enough.

In his book, “Have a Little Faith,” Mitch Albom wrote about a dying friend whose declining health “was like a slow leak from a balloon.” By Friday morning the balloon that had been Lady had leaked down to skin and bones, and by Saturday it was deflated and limp.

Through the years my relationship with Lady often reminded me of my relationship with God. Like God, Lady wasn’t pushy and wasn’t aggressive even when I wanted her to be. She waited for me to make the first move, but even then she was always nearby. All she wanted to do was hang out with us and love on us in her fashion. And the longer our time together the more I valued our walks outside. I guess I just wanted to take care of her in my own fashion, as she had taken care of me all these years.

Cyndi and I have never been true dog lovers, but Lady ran her way into our lives. It is impossible to imagine the past twelve years without her, and impossible to share so many miles with anyone – dog or person – without growing affection. In her final years she taught us about grace and how important it was to make room in our hearts for each other. The inconveniences weren’t meant to be inconvenient; they were questions – do you still have room for me?

Lady was on my mind one morning when I read from my Daily Bible. Psalm 27:4 says, “One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.” The Message says, “I’ll study at his feet.” Isn’t that sweet?

I thought of Lady, who just wanted to be in our house lying at our feet, very close. I want to live with God that same way. I want to live my life just like Lady.




“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32


Several months ago I wrote a whole string of stories about Lady; I guess I knew in my bones that this moment was coming and I wanted to tell the stories while I could still think clearly. If you’re interested in reading more, here they are:


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