Stories are always better when you start from the beginning.
There is only one breed of dog in existence bred for the sole elite purpose of providing personal protection for their humans. Selectively bred by a German tax collector, the Doberman Pinscher is the secret service agent of the canine world - not an attack dog, but a protector. If a Doberman attacks you, it's because you messed with the wrong human. Most people don't know this. Even fewer know that within their families, these dogs are the most loyal, loving, affectionate, goofballs. They are happy clowns. They want to be at your side, or at your feet, 24/7. It's their attachment that makes them protective. That insane loyalty. They are load-and-go, take everywhere dogs. The official dog of the US Marine Corps. Family pets. An intruder's worst nightmare.
Eight years ago, on a blustery March day, I rode shotgun with my dad the five hours to Valdosta, Georgia, with an envelope of cash and three very important instructions from my mom:
1) Pick a friendly puppy who wants to come to you.
2) Look closely at his parents to ensure they have proper conformation.
3) Make sure he's pretty.
The Doberman Ranch, set behind an overgrown fence, would have been easy to miss. The sound of the dogs when we climbed out of the car, though, was not. Standing at the gate, listening to the din of barking, the bottom of my stomach dropped out. What was I doing here? I wasn't even brave enough to go through the gate! But then...that's what I wanted a Dobie for. I didn't want strangers to be willing to come through my gate.
The breeder came out of the house, welcomed us in, and the barking turned off, like a switch had been flipped. The females, heavy from pregnancy and floppy-eared, watched from the yard, intense, silent, watchful. The studs and the puppies were in the kennel - a barn with long chain link, covered runs leading out the sides. It was a nice setup - indoor and outdoor areas for each dog, food, water, beds, toys. And the dogs...
Riddick's grandfather, a massive red, leapt up and put his paws to the chain link, licking at my fingers through the fence, happy, nub wagging. A good first impression.
And then there were the puppies, separated by litter. A little female with the daintiest face ran to the fence, wiggling and barking and the very essence of friendly. I'd had my heart set on a male, but she checked off two items on my list: she was gorgeous, and she was personable. "She's not for sale," the breeder told me. I didn't blame him. I'd never seen a dog that beautiful.
So I got back on track. "I'd really prefer a male," I said. "A black one. A big one."
A litter with three black males left, their ears all cropped and up in tape, their feet bigger than their little heads. He opened the gate to their run and they tumbled out into the yard, making a break for it, ignoring us completely.
"Where are their parents?" I asked. "Can I see the sire and dam?"
He informed me that, though he'd bred the sire and dam himself, he'd sold them, and didn't have them there. The new owners had brought the puppies to him to sell.
As Dad reminded me, the grandsire was very impressive. Still...
Okay, back to the friendly test.
I couldn't get near any of them.
They were out, and running like mad, playing with each other. They wanted nothing to do with me at all. Fear is a bad sign, I reminded myself as I got close enough to one, finally, and hemmed him up against the fence. He crouched down, and I snatched him up before he could get away. Awesome. I'd just snagged the scaredy-cat of the bunch. He didn't try to get away, but immediately began to whine.
Then I took a look at him...and realized that I had no idea if he was pretty or not. His feet were huge. He had popsicle sticks holding his ears up. And he needed a bath in the worst way.
We'd come five hours, though. Going home empty-handed would have made me too guilty for words.
"Is this the one you want?" Dad asked.
I whispered back, "He's the only one I can catch."
So with a sinking feeling, we paid the man, took the papers and health certs, and off I went with a dog who may or may not have been the worst possible choice.
The moment we hit the interstate, he got carsick, and proceeded to puke puppy chow all over me.
Ten minutes later, he peed on me.
This is what happens when you name your dog after a fictional uncatchable convict.
What I didn't know during that five hour car ride home, was that no one could have hand-picked a more perfect dog for me. Within the first week, he was following at my heels, thirteen weeks with no leash, while I turned out horses, cleaned stalls. The bond was instant, and it only strengthened with time. Sometimes I was anxious, sometimes he was; sometimes it was more like having a little brother than a dog. He was too damn smart for his own good. A gesture, a word, just a sense of wanting him along, and he would follow - lead, mostly, turning back now and then to take directions, blazing ahead again. In a lot of ways, he was too aggressive for most people's taste - he was a true alpha male, in the canine sense of the term. Hard-headed and strong. Like my Markus. One of those big beasts who responds only to love and that unspoken energy, never to force. And he was beautiful. So beautiful. Here I was this plain girl no one noticed, and suddenly this big, sleek dog was turning all kinds of heads. I wasn't used to people stopping me to ask questions, but ask they always did.
I had to say goodbye to Riddick Monday night, at seven-thirty. As it does so commonly with Dobermans, his heart enlarged with age. Last Thursday, he went in for his regular annual checkup, and the vet detected an arrhythmia - a mild one. Blood was drawn to check for heart stretch, but he went home that night, ate his hot dog table scraps and was his normal self. Monday morning, he started coughing. Mildly, at first. I split a Chick-fil-A grilled chicken breast with him for lunch. After, the coughing intensified. He began coughing up white foam. I knew, then. Dread had plagued me for days, ever since that blood was drawn, and that awful certainty hit me in the stomach, like it did with Cosmo, and with Skip. That moment of understanding, despite all your hope, that this is the last few minutes you have. In four hours, he'd gone from fine, to critical.
On the way to the vet, they called with his blood test results. They were dangerously high. I said I was on the way, and they cleared a room for me. As I walked in with him, they sent me straight to the back. He no longer had an arrhythmia. He had no rhythm. Not one halfway normal beat. It was a miracle he was still breathing.
When all drugs failed to bring back a normal cardio rhythm, the outcome became obvious. He would die, suddenly, a fast drop and instant death. It might be minutes. Hours. Even the next day. But it would happen, and it would be traumatic for everyone involved. This is the third time I've had to make the decision to have an animal put down, and it never breaks your heart any less. It doesn't become easier. But that was the best, most humane option for Riddick. His poor heart was done. He'd lived life at ninety, non-stop, for eight years. And suddenly, this was the end.
But he'd had one HELL of a life. And he was so spoiled, so loved. And his vet, she loved him too. I was so glad she was the one there.
Dogs, man. We have less than a decade with them, and they tear us to bits. It would be easier not to have them, to give our love away only if it can be long-lasting. But the thing is, as bad as the bad is, the good is worlds better. Dogs know nothing of human treachery. They do nothing in half-measures, they love you every second, give you 100 percent, and in return, our time with them is short.
I keep waiting to hear his toenails clicking across the hardwood floor. I keep seeing him from the corner of my eye. When I wake up, I expect him to be standing beside my bed, wanting to go outside. He was my constant companion, my shadow, my wing man, for eight and a half years. It's so quiet without him. The house is so empty.
Goodbye, baby boy. You left some giant paw prints to fill.