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COLUMNIST: Eulogy for Scout

Scout was an unlikely flag-bearer for dogkind. He was human-oriented. Yellow and soft. Muzzle covered with pink warts. His head came up to my waist, and he was often known to head butt a person for attention, occasionally spilling my coffee when my arm happened to be holding a coffee mug. My kitten Bear adored him. She would curl up between his front paws while he turned his head warily away from her claws, pretending to be particularly interested in something happening on the other side of the room. Whenever he was happy--which was often--his tail would wag with a force that could fell a small child. Bear would bat at his wagging tail, sometimes curling her entire body around it so that she moved right along with it. Scout's tail was always trying frantically to express the overpowering awesomeness of Scout's exuberant joy at just being around you.

I am an unlikely dog lover. I am a longtime cat owner from a long line of cat-people. My grandmother used to feed the dozen stray cats outside her porch with scraps from her meals. I convinced my parents to get me my first kitten when I was nine, and from then on there was always at least one cat in my parents' house. As an adult, I took on my first cats as soon as I knew that my address would be relatively permanent. When I was sure I was ready, I made a ceremonial trek to visit New York City's many humane societies. Two black, half-grown brother cats captured my heart with their pacing and clowning and sneezing. Sander and Tree were my roommates for seven years in my tiny Brooklyn apartment that was barely large enough for me, and they're still with me in New York Mills. They traveled across the country with me and my belongings in a rented Pennske moving truck, yowling all the way.

I had a chip on my shoulder about dogs. Dogs were too friendly and too needy, especially compared to cats. They had bad breath and would push their snouts in my personal space, slobber on me, and most of the time they'd jump up on me, throwing their immense weight at me and scratching up my clothing. So, when my husband informed me that his friend was moving to Montana and needed someone to take care of her dog, and that someone was him, I was not thrilled. As his partner though, I was willing to make the best of it. Chris insisted that this dog, an old friend of his, was the best dog that ever was. I was skeptical. Chris insisted that everyone who met Scout agreed that Scout was an extraordinary dog. I knew I wouldn't be able to tell the difference. One snorting, drooling canine was much the same as another to me, but at least Scout wasn't one of those yippy dogs whose incessant yapping drove me crazy.

Scout arrived in all his golden, bounding, tail-wagging glory. He was a yellow Labrador retriever of some ten and a half years. His hips were going bad. His large brown eyes had the most heart-rending pathos in them when he wanted something from you. When he wanted a treat, he'd lift up his ears, widen his eyes, and look for all the world like an overgrown puppy. He'd sit down and hand you a front paw, sure that if he performed his hand-shaking trick he'd earn his treat. He almost never barked--except when he thought there was someone at the front door. Unfortunately, his sense of impending visitors was flawed. He heard the doorbell every time the kitchen timer or toaster went off, so cooking in our house was an exciting, bark-filled activity.

Scout never had accidents in the house, and he could hold his bladder for twelve hours of your absence without a hint of distress. When Scout wanted to tell you he needed something, he'd come up to you and huff softly until you attended to him. Then he'd show you what he needed, whether it was going to the door to go out, gesturing towards an empty water bowl, or insisting that dinnertime was now upon us. His dinnertime huffing would start as early as 3pm, because Scout loved his food. He'd race for his food bowl and gobble the entire bowlful up in one swallow.

My most vivid experience of Scout was his unbounded, uncompromising, unyielding love for his human masters. This love could be misinterpreted. Scout's first owner had given him up because he was too needy. His second owner, Chris's friend, was more amenable to Scout's love. She was heart-broken to give him up, only doing so because she had a new baby, a new home, and no yard where Scout could live out his retirement. Her loss was our gain, as her move gifted Chris and me with the most loving creature I have ever met.

It very quickly became apparent that, though caretaking Scout was Chris's choice, it was going to be my responsibility. Chris was out of the house for upwards of twelve hours a day, and I was the one who worked in the house. Scout became my ever constant companion. I'd move from one room to another--even for a minute--and Scout would be right behind me. Scout loved human company. If given the choice between romping around in a large yard or laying by the door waiting for his master to let him in, Scout was going to be waiting by the door. No matter how long it took me to get back to him, his joy at seeing me was not tainted by frustration or anger. His love for my company was unconditional and passionate. His eyes spoke this articulately. Thus, I felt absolutely horrible for leaving him alone even for an extra minute.

I noticed Scout's affect on me slowly. First, I got used to having him around. Then, I started wanting him around. Soon, I found myself going up to other dogs and finding affection in my heart for them, by virtue of the dog nature that they shared with Scout. I knew that Scout had changed me. But, it wasn't until we lost Scout last week that I realized just how much he'd given me.

Two weeks ago, after he had been with me for a year and a half, Scout was diagnosed with fluid around his heart and lungs. It was shocking--and a testament to Scout's affection for us--that he had gotten so ill with so few symptoms. He had remained the most loving dog on the planet. The only tell of his illness--and the reason I took him to the vet--was his heavy breathing. It was easy to write that off as a simple lack of fitness. The X-ray told a very different--and much more serious--story. Scout was dying.

The vet prescribed water pills to reduce the liquid in his body and, hopefully, the fluid around his heart and lungs. For a few days, Scout seemed to improve. Then, one morning, he was unable to get up. After a difficult outing to relieve his bladder, he collapsed on the hallway floor, eschewing his daily custom of bounding to the kitchen to gobble up his food. I tried to lure him up with food and treats, but he wouldn't--or couldn't--lift his head unaided. I brought the food to him. I hand fed him, putting pellets of food in his mouth, and letting him slurp them up off my hand, his head still on the ground.

It was the end. I knew it, and my tears wouldn't stop. I called Chris and told him to come home, as I knew he would want to be there. I called the vet and made an appointment. Scout lay on the ground, eyes frightened, chest heaving as he tried to catch his breath. I lay down behind him and curled up to him. I pet his soft fur. Sometimes he'd give a soft tail flop of appreciation, even through his pain. Why had I never noticed just how soft he was? Why hadn't I cuddled with him enough? Why hadn't I realized until that moment just how much I loved him? I cried and cried and tried to stifle my tears as I praised him. I thanked him for all he had done for me.

Scout was put down last Thursday, and my heart broke.

Chris and I returned home with Scout's lifeless body wrapped in blankets. We pulled spades and shovels out of our garage, and searched our property for a spot that Scout would like. We worked out our mourning with the physical labor of digging a grave for our beloved pet. We showed Scout our love and respect through our muscles. We eased our grief with the physical ache of working muscles and musty dirt smells. We communed with the earth as we created a resting place for Scout. It took a long time and many turns with the shovel. Finally we had dug a two by three foot trench three feet deep, and we carried Scout's body to his grave. We unwrapped him, and there was the lifeless form of the beautiful creature I'd come to love deeply in the scant time I'd had with him. We held a small private funeral service there in our yard, just Chris, myself, and the bodily form of our dear Scout. We thanked Scout for what he had given us, and gave him back to the earth. As we covered his body with dirt, I couldn't help but feel that we were making him uncomfortable, surrounding him with dirt and leaving him away from the people whom he loved so well.

There's a Scout-shaped hole in my life since Scout died. I had no idea that Scout's presence had become such an important part of my life. I love my three cats, but they can't make up for Scout's absence. I miss him wholeheartedly. I know that no dog will ever take Scout's place for me, but, thanks to Scout, my life now feels incomplete without a canine companion. I've started looking for purebred Labrador puppies. If I am going to get another dog, I figure I ought to look for one that may have some of the qualities I loved in Scout.

The best eulogy that I can give for my dear departed Scout is that he managed to transform this card-carrying cat person into a dog lover, and I am so grateful. Thank you, Scout. May you rest in peace, dreaming of bunnies you can chase forever more.