It was late 1997, and we'd just come back from Germany. The Air Force, in her infinite wisdom, decided that Cheyenne, Wyoming was the right place for me and my family.
While waiting for base housing to come available, we rented a cheap little house in a relatively decent neighborhood. And after seven years of apartment life in Germany, it was time to get a dog. (Plus, it gave the Trophy Wife and the Horde something to concentrate on other than what a miserable wanna-be-Wild-West shithole we'd been planted in - hey, any state that spawned Dick Cheney must at least be a suburb of Hades, right?)
We went to the animal shelter (because that's how we roll - of course, when I was a kid, we called it "the pound"), and we found Tasha. Just shy of a year old, pure black Labrador/German Shepherd mix. Even as a young bitch, she had distinct wolf-like cast to her, which only became more pronounced as she got older.
She was one of the gentlest, most even-tempered dogs in the world. She also turned out to be the smartest dog I have ever had: we've never been much for tricks, but the few we tried to teach her, she would catch on to it right away.
And she was built for speed: you'd throw a tennis ball for her, she'd be there to grab it almost before it hit the ground. And as impressive as that was to watch, the show wasn't even half over. Because once she had the ball, she'd turn around, lower her head into her ruff so that it was even with her spine, and come charging straight back toward you like a freight train.
It was an impressive sight: somehow, even though she was bringing back a tennis ball, you had a rough idea what a deer might have seen moments before it turned into dinner.
Except that was where the metaphor broke down. Because that was only her second favorite game. F.E. Warren AFB may have been a cesspool, but they had more nature than they knew what to do with, to include a herd of deer running wild on the base. And once, we'd gotten home with Tasha in the car, and the deer came trotting out between two buildings. Unknowingly, we opened the door to put the leash on her, and suddenly there was a black stripe leading from the car and down the street, with the sound of claws on blacktop dopplering past.
The deer on F.E. Warren are a protected species, so it's probably good that Tasha only wanted to play. Because there would have been nothing but a red spot and a pair of horns left if she'd been serious about it. She put them through their paces, accompanied by the sound of us, somewhere in the distance, shouting "Tasha! Come!"
That was the only thing we ever told her that she just ignored: she was having entirely too much fun.
We never figured out why she was skittish around water at first, but once we taught her to swim, she loved it. She may have looked like a pure-black Shepherd, but she had a Labrador undercoat: basically, she was a seal in a bearskin coat. We'd take her down to the various ponds on base, and she wouldn't care if she had to break through a layer of ice - by god, she was swimming out there to fetch that stick.
Our house on base didn't have a fence, so we tried a dog run for a while. But another bit of the wildlife on base caught up with us - a pack of feral dogs decided to fuck with her before the Trophy Wife could get out there and run them off.
That didn't make her skittish, though: just made her hate all other dogs. She decided she didn't have time for her own kind any more. She would usually ignore them, but god help the mutt who looked crosseyed at her or her humans.
I've always known that a dog was the only perfect burglar alarm, and Tasha was the poster child for that theory: she was always hyper-aware of her environment, and knew exactly what was going on around her. As soon as she knew that we approved of someone, she was the friendliest dog in the world.
But she could transform into the Spectre of Death in the blink of an eye, anytime anybody in her family felt threatened. Very protective, but also smart enough to shift gears in a heartbeat. Nobody ever got hurt by Tasha: a couple of Jehovah's Witnesses got a vision of hell, though.
She accepted a lot from us, and never complained. Then again, she had to, with three rowdy kids and... well, and me, with my somewhat off-kilter sense of humor.
We tried to socialize her to other dogs - we broke down a few years ago and got a puppy, Boris. Who turned out to be, in fact, literally brain-damaged: head trauma as a pup, that kept him a mental pup in a sixty-pound body. But Tasha loved him.
German Shepherds are prone to hip dysplasia, and as she got older, it turned out that she'd definitely inherited that problem. In recent years, it became harder and harder to walk; one of her hind legs just stopped doing what her brain told it to. But she never complained, never whined: she stolidly accepted everything that life threw at her. She moved slower, but she never stopped moving. Her hearing started failing, but she still perked up when you called her name. Usually. Cataracts started to cloud her eyes, but she could always see me.
It happened very suddenly. Or maybe it built up over the last several years, and I was just too damned stupid to notice.
Last week, I started noticing that she wasn't eating much. Then, Saturday morning, she went out to the backyard, but didn't come back. I found her lying in the snow. She looked up at me, almost embarrassed: she couldn't stand up, and she'd messed herself a little. She was always a very clean dog.
I coaxed her up. She limped slowly inside, and we got her cleaned up. We got her a blanket, and she lay down on it, and refused to move for the rest of the day. She barely drank anything, and ate nothing until I went out and bought some "easy to digest" cans of dog food.
We didn't think it would be long, but then she rallied. I got up at about two in the morning, and she'd walked to the other end of the house, and laid down in front of my door. She was better! She'd just been sick!
Annette had managed to get to a fitful sleep, so I didn't wake her. I woke up first on Sunday, and Tasha was fine. She limped out to the backyard again. And then, for the second day in a row, she didn't come back.
I found her under a bush, where she'd set up a burrow. I tried to get her to come inside, and she actually snapped at me - the gentlest dog in the world, and if I hadn't pulled my hand back fast enough, she'd have bitten me.
Her instincts were telling her what I didn't want to hear.
I came back a little later, and her teeth were chattering; this time, she let me lever her out of the hole and limped slowly inside. She collapsed on the blanket again, shivering, and we covered her with a blanket and stayed with her. She hardly moved for the rest of the day.
Last night, she lost all control of her bladder and bowels. I got her cleaned up as best I could before I went to work. My daughter and my wife were with her all day.
We took her to the animal clinic this evening. The vet confirmed that it was time. She said that the shot was a massive dose of barbiturates, and Tasha wouldn't feel anything. "Sometimes, there's some vocalization, or a little twitching."
I was there as the light went out of her slightly clouded eyes; as she relaxed, there was a high-pitched keening sound. And I realized it was coming from me.
Tonight, I killed my dog.
It was the right thing to do. She's been in pain for a long time, and now her organs were beginning to fail. But I can't get to sleep, and I can't get drunk enough to make it feel like it was right.
If Tasha were here, she'd shove her nose under my hand. She'd quietly but forcefully insinuate her head into my lap and force me to pet her. Until I paid attention to her, instead of whatever was bothering me.
But she can't do that any more.