Why we get a dog

I never wanted a dog that much.  I knew they were fun, loyal pets.  But then I'd see people trailing them around and carrying bags.  Which one owned which? 

But my wife wanted one.  Sent me emails with the subject line "Can we get one?" and pictures of a golden retriever puppy.  So I decided to get her one for Christmas and told her she could pick it out.  It was in the weeks after 9/11.  I was a little vulnerable.

We visited a breeder that lived in a double-wide trailer off a dirt road.  There were three new litters penned into their living room, another in the dining room.  No fewer than 50 golden retriever pups in that little space where they lived. 

There were only two unclaimed puppies left.  One was rolling around the breeder's couch with his belly and legs in the air.  This is the one, my wife said.  They taped a collar around him with my name.  We couldn't take him home then.  He had to be seven weeks old.

It was drizzly when we went to pick him up.  The Christmas lights were out.  We shook hands with the breeders and I put the puppy under my jacket so he wouldn't get wet.  We started driving.  He got sick all over the back seat within a few minutes, and I had buyer's remorse.  This was why I never wanted a dog.

A puppy can be like a baby.  They go to the bathroom when they want to, where they want to.  I had to get up at 3 a.m. and then 5 a.m. and who knows when else to let him out.  It was December, very cold.  I carried him out to the yard and set him loose.  Watched him explore.  I would stand out in the middle of the night and watch him and my breath and then when I couldn't stand the cold I'd take him inside.  Then he would go to the bathroom on the carpet.

I thought of the life I'd left behind.  Why had we gotten this dog?

We couldn't come up with a name.  It's harder than you think.  In the middle of the night a few weeks later, I thought of Bud Grant, the legendary coach of the Minnesota Vikings, who took four teams to the Super Bowl but never won.  But his players loved him. 

Perfect.  This dog was friendly no matter what.  His certificate said:  Bud Grant Bieter.  Buddy.

I told a work friend we'd decided to name him Buddy.  "It took you three weeks to come up with 'Buddy'?"

Buddy ate and grew.  He was almost blonde and then started to turn darker.  Almost red.

I got the ball and started to throw it around with him.  He never took to it.  I don't really feel like chasing your damn ball, he seemed to say.  Turned out we had a golden retriever who wasn't really golden and didn't like to retrieve. 

That was fine with me.  I didn't care that he wouldn't chase a downed duck.  I don't hunt. 

What I did love was that every time I came in the door, whether it was at the end of a weeklong vacation, a long day at work, or a 15-minute trip to the grocery store, his snout was in the door and he was chomping at the bit to see me.

The next fall, I let him out one morning.  When he came back in, I petted his coat and felt the cold.  Smelled the wood smoke.  From then on, that was the way I could tell what the day would be like.

Our daughter was born a few years later.  We were a little nervous about bringing a little baby around, but he just licked her a little and then slumped in the corner when he realized he wasn't our baby anymore. 

We went to the beach for the week.  He slumped on the floor when he watched us carry the suitcases down.  When we got back, his snout was in the door.

There was a man who walked a pitbull unleashed throughout our neighborhood.   One day we rounded a corner and there they were.  The pitbull charged at us.  Buddy took him head on and the fought until we could pull them off.  After all the heavy breathing died down we walked away and I kneeled on the ground and put my hands on Buddy.  Thank you, Buddy. 

My wife told me once that every day when I left the house to head for the subway, Buddy stood at the window and watched me walk away until I rounded the corner and was out of sight. 

I had a bad day.  Or I had a good day.  Or everyone in the house was mad at me.  Or somebody died.  His snout was in the door and he licked me.  Those eyes. 

Friday I came home and he was on the landing.  He'd thrown up.  Heavy breathing.  I knew right away that this time was different.

His breathing got heavier and he got sicker.  It was a long night.  Saturday evening, he picked himself up and waddled to the other room like dogs do when they are going to die.  This was it.  His breathing fogged up the floor.

I got down on my knees and put my face to his, looked right into his eys.  I'm here, I told him.  I'm not going anywhere.  I put my finger between his teeth and he held it.  The breaths got smaller and then they stopped.

I was ready to walk Buddy this morning and even reached for his leash.  There are echoes around the house of his paws and his tags jingling. 

I remember when there was a thunderstorm, he would get scared and come find me, put his face on my lap.  A big joy of having a dog is realizing how much they need you.  When they're gone, you realize how much you needed them too.

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