I grew up with dogs in the house, but Niko was my first dog as an adult. My wife was afraid of dogs growing up, then became used to them, from being at my family's house. But never what you would call a “dog person.” She remained reluctant to give in to the kids...
Years later, we inherited half-a-house when my mother-in-law passed. My wife wanted to see if we could swing a mortgage and buy the other half from her sibling. It all worked out and in a few months, we moved into our home, after installing new carpets, painting, treating the wood floors and getting new furniture. Within a week our kids reminded us of our promise. These are kids who couldn't remember to do their homework or take out the trash, but this they remembered.
We started at the local shelters. On Staten Island, there are nothing but pit bulls up for adoption. I have nothing against them, but not the kind of dog for a family that never had a dog before. Certain people were VERY disappointed we didn't get a dog on day one. A few days later we headed out to the North Shore Animal League. We walked in. It's a large facility. The first dogs presented are the true rescue dogs, older dogs that were saved from puppy mills and such. I feel for them, but we wanted a puppy. We were directed to the puppy room.
We had to be vetted, with two references. We actually saw two people ahead of us turned down! But we passed. We had a dog. And a 60 minute drive home. Across the street was a pet store (How convenient!) and we bought some supplies; food, chew toys, a collar and leash, crate, bowls and water bottle. The shelter gave us a donation blanket, which would become the dog's.
We were hungry and stopped for sandwiches to go. Here's where we realized how unprepared we were. We didn't have anything to take him home in, except a cardboard box lid that happened to be in the back of the car. We ate, but had nothing for the puppy. The tried to give him water from a water bottle. We didn't dare feed him part of a sandwich, not a 6 week-old puppy with a warning from the shelter that he could only eat dog food.
Once home, I laid out some newspaper in the kitchen and Niko walked over and peed on it. I was stunned and excited. The rest of the family didn't understand why I was so excited, but Niko was paper-trained! Right out of the box (lid)! I remember trying to train the dogs when I was younger. They peed all over! My mother was finding pee-stains for years.
My wife wasn't working at the time, so they got to seriously bond over the next few weeks. He won her heart. I knew this, especially after one morning months later, Niko pooped on the living room rug! And her reaction? "Oh, poor Niko, we didn't get him outside fast enough!" That's when I knew he was golden.
Finally, we were able to take him out into the world! We could now take him for walks and teach him to do his business outside. That proved harder than you'd think. We would walk and walk and walk and he wouldn't go. He held it in until we got home so he could pee and poop at home on the newspaper. Finally one day we stayed out so long that he pooped outside. He looked ashamed and embarrassed as if he had made a mistake. I had to go "good boy, good boy" over and over. But after that, he got it.
It's not like he romped and frolicked. He was just happy to walk alongside them. If there was too much commotion with the dogs, he would wind up hiding behind me. He was very much a dog that enjoyed the calm. Too many kids on bikes or scooters, and he got nervous and wanted to head home.
We realized he enjoyed sitting at the front door and looking out, so for 12 years, when we were home, the front door was opened--summer, spring, winter and fall for him to keep an eye on the neighborhood.
He would go nuts when the mailman came. Crazed attack-dog mode. Then we met the mailman one day on our walk. Niko recognized the mail truck. However, when the mailman stepped over, Niko ducked behind me. The mailman couldn't believe this was the same dog. Turned out, the mailman carried dog treats with him and gave Niko one. So, from then on in, we would often find a treat in the mailbox with our mail. And he would talk to Niko through the glass door, even though Niko still when into full crazed attack-dog mode whenever he approached.
When we were originally deciding what kind of dog we would try to get, I said "A real dog." Everyone we knew had small lap dogs. I saw these guys try to deal with stairs and such. That's what I would say, I wanted a dog that could handle steps. Naturally, Niko developed a fear of stairs for a while. He wouldn't do up or down unless I "spotted" him, standing behind him, urging him on. Then my wife began a new job. He'd be left alone during the day and get really excited when she came home. When she would go upstairs to change, Niko had a choice; stay downstairs by himself or get over his fear of stairs. His separation anxiety got him over his bathmophobia. I suspect his fear developed from possibly have a seizure on the stairs when were weren't home. Oh, right, he had canine epilepsy.
I thought getting a "mutt" meant you were getting a good, healthy dog, the best of any breed. Not so much. Shots cost more because normal shots might cause a reaction from his collie side. And epilepsy is common in shepherds. So we got the worse of both. He developed it when he was two and after realizing they were coming closer together and were getting stronger, the vet put him on medication, which he had to take the rest of his life. Which now meant annual blood tests, to make sure the liver wasn't be effected by the meds. Which is how they found the tumor eventually.
He did, once, get hold of my youngest’s cell phone and chewed that up when he was a few months old. She was mad at him for a long time about that.
The pandemic years altered a lot of our behavior. Once he saw I was home in the beginning, he simply assumed he was getting a walk after every meal, not just dinner. He was getting three walks a day at one point. Then about a year into the shut-down his age started to catch up to him. He was having trouble getting up. Not terrible (certainly not worse than me trying to get up out of a chair) but his joints were starting to go. When the summer came with the heat, he had less interest in walks, just waiting until the evening when it would get a little cooler. There was a new generation of dogs out there now, all high-energy puppies. While his romping days were passed him, he still like to hang with them, sniff some butts, and learned who was carrying extra treats. I gave him some supplements and as the weather cooled, he was more receptive to walking.
The day and night went poorly. He was vomiting up bile during the course of the night. He would get up to go out. It was diarrhea. Finally the vet's office opened. He gave us the last appointment of the day, four hours off. My two daughters came over to simply sit with him as he tried to rest. He didn't move. He licked some ice only to throw up again.
The vet examined him. His liver was hard and enlarged. It had gotten bad a lot faster than anyone thought it would. He confirmed it was time and we got to stay with Niko as the vet put him to sleep. It was gut-wrenching. I hope he knew how much we cared for him, but it's hard to tell, what with him being a dog and all.
As time passes, the pain recedes. But then something happens and it all floods back. When I'm making lunch and open the can of tuna, no one comes trotting in to get his share. We don't have to leave the door open. We're not stepping over anyone to get to the bathroom in the middle of the night. All these things that we got used to because we had an animal in the house are now simply gone. He was a good dog. He was the perfect dog for this family and I'm glad we found each other.
We're still dealing with the lost. He was my pandemic pal while working from home. In the evenings, I’m no longer dictated to by Niko. I consider the money we'll now save; medication, food, shots, grooming. But I miss him. I miss the walks. The playfulness. His attention. Coming home to a Niko-less house is deafeningly quiet.
We picked up his ashes from the vet. So our man is home. Farewell, good man, farewell.