Some years ago, I innocently attended a family celebration for friends. I had just lost my aged Siberian husky and envisioned a German shepherd puppy as my next pet. My friends called me over to the cake for photos and placed a 12-week-old Shi Tzu puppy in my arms. She looked more like a guinea pig than a dog.
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I am not a lifelong fan of small dogs. Small dogs are prone to be relentlessly yappy. Surprisingly, this puppy produced one bell-toned bark when someone came to the door. Then she left it to my common sense on what to do next.
Don't small dogs fawn and cling? This puppy refused to be a lap dog. Instead, she followed at a respectful distance from my feet if I were busy, or close to my side if I were ill.
Aren't small dogs nervous ninnies? In our hectic household, this puppy radiated the serenity of a Buddhist nun. When people were upset, she was attentive. When people were emotional, she was present.
As the puppy's hair grew long, I fully expected a daily grooming nightmare involving bows and perfumed sprays. In reality, it was a few trips to the groomer a year to maintain her soft golden fur and flag tail in a puppy cut. My unsentimental neighbor pronounced that my dog was "cute on both ends."
Through these experiences, I gained a certain begrudging respect for the dog. I learned she was whistle-trained. Amusingly, she responded to voice commands in English and Spanish. My husband fell in line, too. At first, he refused to walk a "foo foo" dog, declaring it was an affront to his manhood. Over time, he acknowledged that real men walk Shi Tzu, too.
Watching our young son, I realized what a tactical error it might be for his mother to prefer large dog breeds weighing more than the boy. The Shi Tzu was more to scale. He read to her or wrote short stories in her honor. As he grew into the middle school years and determined that his parents would never understand him, the Shi Tzu always understood. He would pick her up, bring her to his room, close the door and then sleep with her on his bed.
The dog's name is Mu Lan and her days are numbered. I heard the warning bell two years ago when the cell phone rang while I was traveling for work. It was my husband and he did not sound good. He carefully reported the alarming results of expensive veterinary tests. He then explained that Mu Lan required surgery. In the silence on both sides of the phone connection, I wondered if we had become the kind of people who spend ridiculous sums on their dog.
Mu Lan recovered from surgery nicely, but later developed a hitched walk slowly over time. Now, her spine is deteriorating into paralysis. She has no peripheral vision and limited hearing. But her courage propels her forward.
She has taken on the demeanor of a dowager empress. When there are needs we should meet, she offers one bell-toned bark. She no longer suffers fools lightly, producing a snappy mouth if offered unwanted help or interference. Her nom de guerre at the veterinary clinic is the "Golden Snapper."
I still love big dogs. Nevertheless, we have taken in another Shi Tzu. He is a scallywag who sleeps late and begs like a prairie dog for treats or a back rub. Mu Lan has sized him up and determined that this household really did not need another Shi Tzu.
The last time our son visited home from across the state, he spent a long time sitting next to her on the floor saying goodbye. As Mu Lan fails in health, I too feel an incredible loyalty to this dog. But I wonder what a loyal friend should do.
We have turned our back room into a canine nursing home. There are medications, prescription dog food and frequent cleanup. Every morning I rush to her side to see if she is still breathing. I keep hoping she will spare me from having to ask the veterinarian for one final service.
When she goes, it is going to be very sad. I know exactly how I am going to feel. I am going to feel very grateful for the gift of this small dog.
Mary Ruiz, chief executive officer of Centerstone of Florida, a behavioral health hospital and outpatient practice, can be reached at email@example.com.