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  Bilbo

Bilbo
1972-1990

breed:
     mutt, mostly Scottish terrier

died:
     at age 17, due to lymphosarcoma (cancer)

I was a quirky child, I admit. I wanted to grow up to be a Great Dane. While most kids were playing dress-up or house, I was on all fours, barking. I'm sure it was some relief to my parents when I learned to read and put it to use by harassing them with a daily recitation of the "Dogs for Sale" classified ads. I'd drag them into puppy stores, plead, torment, and generally make it clear that well, I really wanted to have a dog. That is better than aspiring to be one.

Underestimating the pig-headedness of a small child, they dismissed me by telling me that I could have a dog when I was 7 and old enough to assume some responsibility for its care. I counted the days. I turned 7, no dog. Undeterred, I continued to be the colossal pain in the neck that my friends will assure you I still am. Four days before I turned 8, they came through. I got my puppy.

I had been smitten with big, active, athletic dogs like Irish setters, but there is a reason why 7 year olds have parents to make sensible decisions for them. My mother's primary criterion was that the dog be small. Her secondary criterion was that it be cute, so she was looking for a terrier. She was in luck, as an area animal shelter had a brother-sister Scottie-mixed duo. She adopted the male.

I am a great believer that one's childhood experience with the family dog leaves an indelible impression on an individual. Most of my clients tell me that they got a particular breed as an adult directly due to their experience as a child. Bilbo And so Bilbo shaped me. I will always have in my home a dark terrier with a big snout and strong ego. Bilbo was no boot-licker. He was an independent dog who preferred to sleep in a doorway than on a bed or in a lap. He was a tough little guy, but he was endlessly patient, kind, and devoted to me as I grew up.

Bilbo was not an easy dog. He had strikes against him before we ever brought him home, among them a dearth of socialization. He also had an extremely independent character and minimal interest in biding anyone's wishes. He lived to sniff the universe and hike his leg on it. My parents were of a generation where neutering was considered unnecessary, as was training.

As a result, he barked; he dug; he pulled on leash. He wouldn't hesitate to fight with another dog, no matter how large. And yet, through it all, he never once demonstrated any resentment or impatience towards my childish mishandling of him. I could clumsily brush him, dress him up, take away food or toys, carry him around, and do the well intentioned but wearying things that kids to do a family dog. It was never abusive, but it was probably tiresome. And yet this spitfire little dog never protested. He was a good dog - tremendously patient, understanding, and forgiving.

Training him was a different matter. I developed a desire to teach him things when I was a little older, and I was perplexed that the stuff I read in a dusty old Koehler book didn't do the trick. The dog was willing to endure whatever I wanted to inflict on him, but he wasn't going to change his behavior. He kept pulling on leash, sniffing the ground, running the other way, or whatever it was I was trying to change at the time.

And so he forced me to become creative. He taught me to use rewards like the opportunity to go outside or eat exceptional treats. I read Patricia Gail Burnham and was intrigued. I developed a deep appreciation for harder to train dogs. I still maintain that respect for more difficult dogs. Lo and behold, I managed to teach my crusty old mutt a repertoire of tricks that included retrieving, dropping on recall, and rolling over. He enjoyed himself, and I was quite pleased with myself. Bilbo taught me well.

As Bilbo and I got older, I became more conscientious about grooming and walking, and he got a lot of the enrichment that he had missed out on in his earliest years. Into his teens, he was taking 3-mile walks with ease. Bilbo, Kate and Toasty He was a tough, hearty little dog who lived well for 17 years. Aside from a few seasonal hot spots, a testicular tumor that could have been prevented if he'd been neutered, surgery to removed a swallowed squeak toy, and a cruciate ligament tear when he was an old codger, he was pretty impervious to ailments.

And then the day came when I felt swollen lymph nodes and knew viscerally that it would be grave news. He had lymphosarcoma. Although he became very slow and weak in his last few days, he had been a little diehard up until then. When I told my father that I was taking the dog to be euthanized, it is one of the few times I can remember him becoming teary. Living with my mother, sister and I, he and Bilbo were the "men of the house" and had enjoyed a special camaraderie (sealed with deli meats and roast beef).

In retrospect, I am aware of the mistakes we made along the way with Bilbo. If you're looking for a moral to the story, I suggest neutering, training, and active socialization from an early age. It is said that one's first dog is the one that you make all of your mistakes with. I suppose another way to view it is that each dog in our lives teaches us something unique. Bilbo taught me to cherish independence and to think creatively to seduce cooperation. He also showed me how unfailingly loyal and patient a good dog will be with those he loves, the truest essence of "dog."

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