Note:  This is a re-post about my dog Simon from last year.  After more than 15 years, Simon passed away last night.  This is in honor of my best friend and hiking buddy.  

A Special Relationship

Eleven years ago today, I fell in love.  I don’t know whether it was his beautiful brown eyes or his smile.  Simon was his name.  He won my heart over one February night in Hagerstown, Maryland.  But it was not so easy at the beginning of our relationship, as we got off to a bit of a rocky start that cold and dark night of February 2, 2006.

I went to meet him at around 6 p.m.  I was so excited.   I had gone through the interviews, the reference checks, and now it was time.  Time for me to pick him up and take him home.

Growing up with dogs, I had looked forward to the moment in my adult life when I would once again become a dog owner. Sitting with the Humane Society employee, I filled out the remaining paperwork.  She asked me one final question, “One of the worst things that can happen to a dog is bringing him back to the shelter after he’s been adopted.  What would make you bring him back?”

I thought carefully.  “The only thing that would make me bring him back is I felt my own personal safety was threatened.”

This seemed to satisfy her.

“Did you bring a collar with you?”

Oh my gosh.  In my excitement I had completely forgotten to purchase a dog collar.

“It’s okay, we have a spare we can give you.”

It is light blue with ducks etched into it, one swimming right behind the other.  She fastened it around his neck.

I am ready.  Leash in hand, I attach it carefully to his duck collar.  Like a new mother bringing her baby home for the first time, I had thoughtfully bought some things to get ready for my new “baby.” Food bowl, water bowl, toys, treats, and a crate. Reading how important it was to “crate train” your dog, I went to PetSmart and purchased a large black wire frame crate — big enough to fit this black furry 60-pound animal.  I carefully assembled it and put it in the back of my Subaru Forester.

I bring Simon out to the car.  Mine is the last one in the parking lot as the dark envelops us.  I pop open the hatch and open the door to the crate.

Instead of happily leaping into the car and the crate as I had envisioned, he balks.  Much like a race horse being loaded into the racing chute, he is having none of it.  In fact, he jerks so aggressively, he slips right out of his spanking new duck collar.

Suddenly he is darting all over the parking lot with me frantically chasing after him.  I try to sneak up on him and he jumps out of my way, running between the bushes.  I panic.  What if the woman from the shelter looks out the window and sees me chasing around trying to catch the dog?  She will think me unfit, and take him away from me, before I’d even had the chance to take him home for one night!

My main problem capturing him is I have nothing to grab on to.  He’s got no collar, no harness, no leash.  Finally, in a fit of desperation, I grab at his tail — his long, pluming tail standing up like the feathers of a peacock.  I manage to hold onto him with him looking back at me as if to say “What the heck are you doing, crazy lady?”

I slip the collar around him one more time, leading him back to my car.  He’s still having none of the back of the car, so I try opening the passenger door.  He leaps in — success!

Closing the door quickly, I go around and climb into the driver’s seat, starting up the engine.  Finally, at least we’re out of the parking lot.  But it’s thirty miles to my home in western Maryland.  Simon seems scared, burrowing his head and front paws into my lap.  I know this isn’t safe, but it seems the only way I can possibly get us home.  I hope I don’t get stopped by the Highway Patrol.

I struggle to shift gears as his belly is pressed right up against the gear shift knob.  But every time I look down at the furry black head, my heart melts a little bit — he’s mine.

Finally, we arrive at my 100-year old house, and I lead him into the back door.  He sniffs around the kitchen, and with tail held high, making his way into the living room.  He goes to one corner, up goes the leg, a stream of yellow liquid spurts onto the floor.  I run to go get the leash to get him outside, and he’s made it to the next corner — another squirt.  Chasing him, he goes to the third corner, marking yet another wall, before I finally capture him, escorting him outside. So begins our first night…

The two other companions I share my home with are not too sure about this bounding happy creature.  Zuni and Maya, my two cats quickly scurry out of the way, frantic to find a place to sequester themselves from him.  They settle on the space underneath my bed, not coming out for two full days.  Simon, on the other hand is oblivious to the feline species, and ignores them completely.

I soon realize within a month, that Simon is a “special needs” dog.  He’d been a stray when Animal Control picked him up. When new people approached him to pet him, he’d startle and then even growl or even snap.  But not once did he ever do this with me.  He must have had a sixth sense, knowing that would be the one thing that would get him sent back to the shelter.

Taking him to a trainer, she deduces he is afraid of stranger’s hands coming at him.  We never knew why — he could have been hit by someone as a puppy.  She told me to make sure new people gave him treats and didn’t try to reach out their hands to him.

It’s been hard because he looks so friendly and soft, people instinctively want to touch him.  He’s gotten much better over the years, but much like myself, he’s flawed and isn’t perfect in correcting his character defects.

During our journey together, Simon ended up living in the mountains of Colorado.  Much as I had hoped, he is the perfect outdoors dog — loving nothing more than going for a hike through the forest or a snowshoe walk.  During our time together, he’s hiked eight Fourteeners and numerous other peaks around Colorado.

When I adopted Simon, I knew nothing about Flat-Coated Retrievers.  I had never heard of that breed.  Googling for more information, I became horrified to read they are prone to osteosarcoma, cancer of the bones.  In fact, it said that most Flat Coats don’t live past the age of 9.  The shelter had thought he was 3-5 years old when I got him.  Good gosh, I would only have 4-6 years with him!

But Simon would once again defeat the odds, living a grand old life.  As I visited the vet the other day, I found a chart about a dog’s “real” age, converting doggy years to human years based on size.  According to this chart, Simon is now a centenarian – around 104 years of age in human years.

Two years ago, a local vet made a house call for our cat.  He looked at Simon with intrigue.

“Is he a Flat-Coated Retriever?  How old is he?”

“Yes he is, and he’s at least 12 years old.”

“Wow, he should be dead by now!”

I honestly believe his life in the mountains is what has led to such a long life for him.  Simon is (at least) 14 years old now, and though he can’t get up those Fourteeners anymore, he still loves going for walks in the forest and around the neighborhood as much as ever.  With the exception of a small gray patch on his chin, which my friend refers to as his “soul patch”, he looks much the same as he did that frosty night in Maryland.

I knew when I adopted him that night back in 2006 I made a huge commitment in rescuing him from the shelter – to feed him, exercise him, take him to the vet, care for him, and love him.  But eleven years later, I feel it is I who was rescued.  He taught me about the value of unconditional love – always greeting me each day at the door with a tail wag and doggy grin.  No matter my mood – angry, happy, sad — he’s been utterly devoted to me, as I am to him after 11 years of unconditional love and steadfast companionship.  Here’s to you, Mr. Simon!