THE BLOG
04/07/2012 11:52 EDT | Updated 06/07/2012 05:12 EDT

My Life With Dogs

It may sound silly, but there's not a day goes by that I don't miss Murphy, or think about all the Jack Russells who've owned us -- each with its own personality, each distinctly different, each with similar characteristics, each valued as full family members. Anna Quindlen is right: "The life of a good dog is the life of a good person, only shorter and more compressed."

This column is going to be about dogs, so if dogs don't interest you it's safe to stop reading now.

After listening to an hour-long CD tribute narrated by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anna Quindlen about her black Labrador, Beau, who died at age 15 -- three years beyond a Lab's average life-expectancy -- I thought of my own life with dogs.

We don't have a dog at the moment -- our Jack Russell, Murphy, died in 2009 as she pushed 16, the last of a succession of JRs that have owned our affections over the last 30-plus years.

Dog-less these days, my wife Yvonne and I (mostly Yvonne) periodically look after son Guy's rescue Bijon Frise, Diesel, who is furry, cute, friendly, smart and yappy but is no Jack Russell.

In the summer we also host daughter Danielle's dogs -- stately Cobber, a huge yellow Lab who, amazingly, is pushing 15, is deaf, blind in one eye, and is rather mindful of a Florida manatee as he sleeps in doorways and becomes animated only when food is available.

There is also a five-year-old yellow Lab, Chester, who is all bounce and energy, and who resents anyone being patted except himself. And Jumble, an aging Cavalier King Charles spaniel, who spins in circles when excited, and has lost all his teeth so his tongue hangs out the side of his mouth like a necktie.

They're all good company -- but they also aren't Jack Russells.

When I was about 10 years old living in Camp Borden prior to the war, I was given a puppy by a soldier that we thought at the time was a Fox Terrier. Year later, in retrospect, and looking at photos, we realized she was a Jack Russell before we knew what Jack Russells were.

Soapy survive WWII and the Korean war, and my sister Robin and I growing older and leaving home. Soapy died on Christmas day, 1955, when my parents in Ottawa took her for a walk (no leash in those days) and she was hit by a car. My father, who pretended to dislike Soapy, grieved the most.

In the early 1970s, after visiting my sister and her family in Montreal, we were struck by her gritty Jack Russell, Gussie, and got one on return to Toronto. We called her Ajax (where we bought her), but instead of being eight weeks old as we were told, I think she was closer to four-months old.

Ajax was a delight, but impossible to catch if off a leash. We had her only a few months when on a Saturday afternoon she eluded the kids who were taking her for a walk, and got hit by a car. The kids, the woman driver and her child, were all in tears. Ajax died as we clustered around her.

We quickly got another Jack Russell -- Fido, a lovely, broken-haired JR who was alarmingly smart, eager to learn, and ready for anything. Fido would put his head under water and try to catch fish -- especially sunfish caught by the kids at our cottage and put in a washtub.

Yvonne and I would take Fido to a nearby park where we played tennis. Tied to the fence he'd refuse to watch us play, which made me realize he considered himself a tennis expert and our game embarrassed him.

When I'd go to work in the morning, Fido would bare his teeth and try to block the door. At age three, Fido escaped the backyard and raced towards the tennis court -- and was hit by a car. No one's fault, but a gate left accidentally open.

We realized two Jack Russells were easier to keep than one. We got the noble Felix -- short legs, handsome black head, friendly with everyone and in love with our friend Anna Porter, at whom he'd gaze longingly to make her feel important.

My sister's JR, Gussie, had puppies, and Robin gave us one -- Lucy, the runt of the litter, with a personality as big as she was small. Felix and Lucy were inseparable, he at 18 pounds, Lucy at six. She was the boss who'd get Felix mock-raging and growling, eyes rolling and teeth flashing in the car whenever he saw a cyclist, motorcycle or the headlights of other cars. Felix looked menacing, unless one noticed his tail wagging like a propeller.

At age 12, Felix got an abscessed tooth which the vet extracted, but Felix died on the operating table. I blamed the vet. We changed vets immediately. After Felix died, Lucy never barked again.

That winter Yvonne, Lucy and I drove across America 11,000 miles to the west coast of Mexico. Lucy was becoming a bit addled and lost her appetite. On the road she liked "people food." The only hamburgers she relished were from Burger King. Ever since, I've followed Lucy's preference. Dogs know a good hamburger!

Mexico revitalized Lucy, but on return to Toronto she really began to slow down. One night she had hallucinations -- terrified at what she was seeing behind her eyes. I spent the night on the floor trying to console her. The next day we took the tormented little dog to the vet who put her down.

Yvonne was adamant. No more dogs. They inhibited travel, and parting was so painful. Then in Costa Rica I had a heart attack. In hospital, Yvonne was solicitous. "Perhaps we should get another dog," she said sitting beside my hospital bed.

I held up two fingers. "Two," I said in a deliberately frail voice. "Two dogs."

"Oh, very well," she said. Being sick has certain advantages.

At a breeder in Deseronto, Ontario, we looked at Jack Russell puppies -- and were chosen by Murphy: long-haired, white, with half her face black, long straight legs, hardly any body, patchy fur at the elbows, ears too thin to stick up, and insistent that we belonged to her.

To join her we got Molly, a big JR, a beautiful dog, lovely personality, easy going, friendly -- but female. That was a fatal error. Two females are bad news. Until age three Murphy and Molly were inseparable, then they began to fight for supremacy. Murphy started all the fights -- Molly won them all.

Murphy refused to share. She was prepared to die rather than play second-fiddle. Jack Russells will fight to the death, so we had to get rid of one. By most standards, Molly was a nicer dog, so we persuaded my sister in Montreal to take her -- one of the most painful decisions of my life.

Molly knew she was being sent away, didn't understand why, pleaded not to go. But she went, and was adored by my sister and family. Twelve years later, when Robin was in the throes of terminal cancer, she was concerned about Molly. Daughter Danielle nobly offered to take her in (she already had three dogs). But we tentatively took Molly back, hoping after 12 years apart, the two dogs would forgive or at least had forgotten past differences.

Both elderly ladies, they sniffed each other, then ignored each other, and were perfectly compatible. Relief all round. But Molly was going downhill faster than Murphy. We nursed and catered to her. In 2008, Molly died. Her ashes are in a cairn on our property in Prince Edward Country, Ontario.

A year later Murphy was running down. She was old-dog thin, sleeping a lot, not much interested in food. One summer Saturday, sleeping on the couch in the back yard while I read, Murphy suddenly roused and walked to one side of the garden; she then walked slowly around the fence, sniffing all the way, methodically covering the area, as if impressing everything familiar into her memory. Then she returned to the couch and continued to sleep. I felt sad and puzzled. It was if she was saying good-bye.

That evening, as she slept on her beanbag bed in the kitchen, I knelt and stroked her head, knowing she didn't have much time left. Murphy opened an eye, looked at me, then gave a deep sigh . . . and breathed no more.

Yvonne was already in bed. I said nothing until morning. I went downstairs. Murphy was cold, stiff and dead. I told Yvonne.

It's odd. I doubt any dog had a better life than Murphy. She was funny, independent, unpredictable, vibrant. Her resume as a Jack Russell was considerable: During her life she had killed a young fox, a groundhog, chipmunk, a skunk, a feral cat, and been beaten up by a pit-bull. The kind of record to make any Jack Russell proud.

It may sound silly, but there's not a day goes by that I don't miss Murphy, or think about all the Jack Russells who've owned us -- each with its own personality, each distinctly different, each with similar characteristics, each valued as full family members. Anna Quindlen is right: "The life of a good dog is the life of a good person, only shorter and more compressed."