It was over a year ago the first time Bert went down and it freaked me out. He was an old dog at age ten, really, and was having problems with his hip, as many old dogs do. But he finally got up again, staggered and weak, but standing, walking, limping, moving forward again, and I held his head in my arms and whispered into his ear, “Stay with me.”
Bert was a fuzzy puppy in a pen at the dog pound and when he saw me he pushed the other puppy away from me, and reached forward, upwards towards me, and I picked him up. That was over twelve years ago. I was thirty-nine, the year was 1999, and that puppy was going to be more than a match for me. He dug holes as deep as bunkers and he ate an overstuffed chair after dragging it off the porch and into the yard. He took my ATM card and chewed it up, too. For the first year of his life, Bert was demonic. I was married at the time and she despaired over the fact she was the one who wanted a puppy, but Bert, from the beginning, was my dog.
Bert, like some mutts you meet, was of a dubious heritage. He looked like some Husky and some Chow, maybe some GSD in there with him, but he was all dog. When we moved out into the woods I decided to let him roam free and he did for about two weeks. In those two weeks he would leave the house and be gone for hours only to return soaking wet from swimming and exhausted. One day he returned with his right foreleg broken beneath the elbow, and his right from paw sticking out at a sickening angle. In a time when I could not pay my electric bill I put fifty dollars down and paid the vet a little each month.
Maybe the broken leg will slow him down, I thought, but it didn’t. Bert would hold his leg straight up in the air and run like hell. He never slowed down a bit. One day he tried to leap up on the porch at speed and the broken leg ruined his aim. Bert crashed into the front step so hard I thought it was going to break some other bone, but no, Bert was indestructible and unstoppable. There was no way to keep this one down at all.
But Bert was always a loving dog and in his own way, he tried to do well. There was far too much energy in him for my wife to contain or control him, so Bert and I would roll around and play, making wild dog noises at one another like we were killing. He never hurt me when we were playing but twice he tried to pin me down. The last time was when he tackled me while I was mowing, knocked me down between the house and the mower, and I knew he had seen that as a damn good tactic. It was bad strategy in the end because I would still pick him up, and I just lifted him straight up and dropped him hard. That ended Bert’s attempts at domination but there was things that happened that changed everything about that time; Bert found a puppy.
I was walking Bert on a leash on day and he really lost his mind trying to get to something in the woods. I put him in the house and found a little black puppy, starved, abused, and dying near the fence line. I thought Bert might accidentally kill the poor thing but Bert changed overnight. From the wild and reckless teenager, rebellious and impossible to control, Bert turned into a big brother. Bert took Sam in and sheltered him, played gently with him, and allowed Sam to crawl all over him, and chew on Bert’s face without mercy. I nicknamed Bert “Bertalina Jolie” because his lips were so read and swollen.
Bert carried quite a few nicknames. He was my Muttibeasti. I have no idea, really, where that came from, but it became a term that mean the best dog ever. Bert did become the best dog ever, even when he did things he knew would anger me, I knew there were things Bert did because he was Bert. Bert knew what the term “Wet Mutt” meant and that usually meant Bert had found a way to soak himself in water. The dog loved playing in the water and would try to bite the stream if you sprayed him in the face. When the backyard flood he would get into water up to his chest and roll over in it, and nothing would show but the tips of his toes above water. Bert would roll in mud until he looked like some science fiction creature that was once a dog but the radioactive Zombie dust turned him into the mud monster. Bert became known as The Hammer because of his voice. When Bert laid it down, I knew there was a stranger near. When the lost deputy spoke with me after the light were on and guns were put away, he told me he thought that brown dog was going to tear the door down to get to him. That was Bert. Bert had a voice hung on him, and of the three, Bert’s fury at some threat to me was the least controllable. He was My Dog. He loved other people but first and foremost, Bert was My Dog. He never accepted anyone, lover or friend, into his life, the way he trusted me.
Bert’s partnership with Sam was extraordinary. The two were inseparable and they taught me more about pack hunting tactics than anything I have ever seen or read. You cannot imagine how well canines hunt together until to see if for yourself. Small mammals who go into the backyard never returned to the woods, except via shovel. To watch those two go after small game as an exercise on nonverbal communication; Sam was a laser, and shook his prey to death, but Bert was brawler using brute force to overcome anything in his way.
I remember the first time Bert fell. He was trying to climb over the giant log in the back and he slipped. I have a photo of that. The look on his face is priceless, or it was, but it was so funny. Bert fell, ha ha, but that wasn’t to be the last time, and it took me a while to understand Bert, the furry demon who never surrendered to anything, was aging. When Lucas arrived Bert took over raising him too, but it was clear Bert wasn’t going to be the match for Lucas he had been for Sam. The comparison between the puppy and the old man was stark, and I realized Bert was getting old fast. I started giving him medication for his joints, and then medication for his pain. Bert slowed down. His daily trips around the perimeter of the property once took a matter of minutes, and suddenly he was gone for half an hour, limping around the fenceline, picking his way over the small limb and having to detour around the big stuff. Sometimes at night I would wait for him on the deck, and he would limp out of the woods and see me there, and that moment of realization that I was waiting for him, would make him wag his tail. He would come up to the deck and greet me and I would pet him without the other two there, and I would ask him “Stay with me”
Bert was walking toward me yesterday and he fell, yelping. I thought he had been shot. But there were no wounds, no sign of trauma. Bert struggled to his feet, regain his balance, but he limped over to the old kennel where I keep a large tub of water for them. It’s a place with water, and it is easy to defend. Bert knew he would never leave that place. It took me a while to understand what he was doing. I couldn’t get him back upright. He fought me hard, but didn’t bite, didn’t try to bite, and I knew, really knew, this was the day I would lose him.
I began digging a grave for Bert. I dug a hole in the ground so I could put the best dog ever into the earth, and really, Bert loved this sort of thing. But he didn’t stand up and come to help or watch. I called an old friend and when she arrived he didn’t react at all to her being there. When the vet came I was sitting next to Bert, getting puppy kisses, and he never reacted to her at all. He tried to stand, got up on his front legs finally, and growled. I held his muzzle and Bert told us he wasn’t going to take this quietly, he was the Muttibeasti, he was the Hammer, he was the best dog ever, and he tried to stand, and tried to stand, and finally sank down into my lap, and my dog, my dog, My Dog, died.
Forces in the Universe, if there be any, please hear me. If loyalty, unconditional love, devotion, play, and protection of loved ones mean anything to you, please hear me. I returned to the earth the dog I love. To the universe I return his energy. To you, if you be there, I ask that you honor him as he honored those things that in life, mean everything to us.
Please take care of My Dog. I still love Bert.