Friday, February 5, 2016

Forever Chasing Butterflies

Aaaaaah, those butterflies...  Here's the story behind that story...

At 10-years old, my grandson wasn't giving up on his want for a dog.  His grandma and I had been through that before, and we were looking for every way possible to get around all the responsibilities that come with such a move.  So, over most of a late-winter, spring and early-summer, the conversations with my grandson went something like this...
"Grampa, after the tropical fish die, can I have a puppy?"
"Gramps, after the finches die, can I have a puppy?"
 "Gramps, after... "
Okay, it was getting to be late-summer -- actually, Labor Day Weekend in '99, and we were running out of other pet options, as well as the warmer weather when it would be easiest to house-train a new puppy.  So, off we headed, early on a Sunday morning -- August 29, 1999, to be exact, with a list of pet shops, a cell phone and the classified ads in hand.  Hours upon hours passed as we three rejected just about every sickly looking pup we saw in stores -- from our home area around Whitman, MA to the outskirts of Boston.  So were we running out of places to call, with most puppies sold or whatever.

It was getting late -- and we had one half-excited, half-disappointed young guy sitting in the backseat, when we connected with a small-dog breeder some 2-hours away in Western Massachusetts.  She had three cockerpoos remaining from a recent litter, although we hadn't a clue what a cockerpoo was.

Man, we were in for a treat...  Before the days of GPSs, we wound our way through unmarked mountain roads until finding a small farm as rustic as ones I'd grown up around in Eastern Mass during the 1950's.  Talk about rural...  As I recall, the owner didn't have electricity or cable, and her kids were home-schooled.  Roaming around the yard were typical barnyard animals, including a cow and at least one goat.

Following the usual niceties, the lady left and then rejoined us in the yard with three adorable little balls of fur.  As I discovered, the cocker spaniel we saw nearby was the litter's dad, but we never did get to see the (toy?) poodle mom.

Two of the pups sat cutely and calmly where the breeder placed them, but that wasn't the case with the third little rascal.  No, he was off to chasing the cow, then the goat, and then a butterfly or three that dared violate his space.  Ya, and he didn't give up on those butterflies like most pups would.

"Oh, no!" I thought to myself, as my grandson said he wanted the butterfly chaser.  "Are you really sure?" I asked more than once.  He was sure, of course, and our lives were never to be the same from that day forward.  ("Did we pick that pup, or did he pick us?"   That I've asked myself often over 16-plus years.)

A couple of interesting things that happened on our way to the pup's new home...
The three of us seem to have different stories about how that pup came by his name.  I swear it was my grandson's idea, because I was looking for hints on signs along the highway.  I mean, I saw a sign to one town, and thought that a beauty -- as in "Lincoln" or "Linc"   I also thought that "Hobart" sounded like a noble name, and one suitable for the stately looking little rascal staring back at me through the rearview mirror.  Somehow it became "Raggamuffin", though, with the nickname "Raggs" -- ya, and it had to be with two gees.
I figured it would be neat if we grabbed some burgers and such at a highway take-out window, and stop somewhere for a roadside picnic.  And that coincided with the pup's sudden crying in the backseat.  Huh?  "Could it be -- that this only-weeks-old pup was crying because he needed to pee or poop?"  Yup!  Quite amazingly, he was already house-trained, and he held a poop until we found a place to stop!  Unbelievable!  (Mentioning this little thing still being a mere baby, I just checked to see that our new pup was born on a Sunday, June 20th, and this day was August 29 of '99, or something like 9-weeks later.)
If there was a problem with stopping, we'd left that morning not exactly prepared to bring home a new puppy.  I mean, we didn't pack a leash, and there was nothing to be found in the car to use as a substitute.  So, my grandson carried the new "Raggs" to a spot where we could arrange our picnic, right at the edge of a small pond.  And, while Raggs ate a little, he was most interested in wading in that pond.  "Ya," I thought, "that's the cocker in him."  If there was a problem, Raggs refused to be corralled.  I mean, we couldn't catch him.  So, I suggested we try a game, and make our way to our distant car without him.  Thank God, because that hot little potato didn't want to lose us; he just wanted to go along under his own terms.
Hours later, when we finally arrived at home, my grandson and his grandmother went inside to prepare and puppy-proof things, while I watched Raggs in the backyard.  Looking to pass some time, I grabbed a twig, rubbed it under Raggs' nose, and then tossed it about 10' away.  I motioned for him to get it, and get it he did.  Oh, man, this little guy was as sharp as a tack, and he was going to continue to amaze us for years to come.  (If there's anything we had to learn about Raggs, it was that he had a short attention span.  In other words, he'd amaze you with a trick, and then let you know he was done.  Ya, two or three fetches -- or whatever, and he was done.)
Thinking about his stubbornness and smarts...  We used to offer Raggs about three or four different kinds of treats at a time.  Offer him one, and he'd push it aside with his snout.  Offer him another, and he'd push it or peck at it, also to signify he didn't want it.  He might even go through all of them more than once, finally settling on the treat of his choice.
A Funny thing...  Growing up around farms, I was more into collies and sheepdogs, and not very much into what I considered "sissy dogs".  Actually, I always thought cocker spaniels were cute, but I definitely didn't care for the sissy-est dogs of all, the poodles.  Yet, I learned to appreciate (at least my own interpretation of) Raggs' unusual lineage.  For sure, the noble look and a little surliness came from the cocker side, while the smarts were all-poodle.  I've shared these feelings with other cockerpoo and poodle owners, with all of them agreeing on the latter.

I kid you not, that we had to spell upwards of 20 words within ear-shot of Raggs -- just like you'd have to do with a toddler.  Mention going out for a "walk", and he'd take off like a shot for where his leash hung in the back hall.  Ask someone if we had any "cookies", and you were in BIG trouble.  I'm not talking about us overtly saying those words in front of him, but I'm talking about him overhearing conversations from a room away and his coming peeling in to say he wanted in.  And I'm also telling you that he acted like a little toddler when he knew you were tied up with something important -- you know, like when a little kid gets into the pots and pans because he or she knows you're trapped on the phone.  Ya, that was Raggs, knowing exactly when he could get into stuff.

I have to laugh now, that he perceived himself as our watchdog.  And he'd somehow, when the need arose, make his bark -- coming from all of his 25-pounds -- sound just like a big dog...
There was a TV commercial that used a digital bell in it, and the sound was exactly the same as our front doorbell.  So, don't you know, that he'd go tearing towards the front door -- growling and barking all the way, every time that commercial aired.
He'd watch our body language, too...  Like, I could be standing in the middle of our front livingroom, glance to see something outside, and Raggs would spring to the top of a sofa or loveseat to see what I was seeing.  I wouldn't have to move much, either, because he'd often just react to my eyes.  
One thing I think is sad -- at least for the moment, is that I recall more of his first days with us, and then his last.  Like all our human lives, I guess, it seems the many, many years in the middle are just a blur.  That's not right, of course, because little Raggs brought us to smile or laugh from the belly nearly every day he was with us.
Oh, another beauty of a thought...  It was hard to explain our Raggamuffin's intelligence to anyone who didn't live with him.  I mean, he did instinctively all the things you see dogs in the TV programs and movies doing.  If there was a difference, the cinema stars were trained to do something they didn't have a clue about, while Raggs knew exactly what he was doing.
Case in point...  Late at night, he would go to his grandmother and try to pull her, because it was time to go upstairs to bed.  I'm not kidding here...  At first, he'd just stare.  However, if that didn't work, he'd next grab her by the blouse sleeve and try to tug her off the sofa.  And if that didn't work, he'd bark at her until he got his way.  Again, I used to watch Lassie do things like that on TV, but those trained dogs were just doing what they were told for the treat they'd later get.  Raggs actually lived those thing daily with us, he knew exactly what he was doing, and he knew exactly how to communicate with us.  
Actually, there's something I feel terribly about...  I don't know whether I caused or worsened our little buddy's fear of thunder and lightening or not but, in my attempts to integrate him into all we did, I several times made him go to fireworks displays where there was nowhere for him to hide.  Anyway, as smart as he was, he always associated any kind of flash with the thunder that should soon follow...
The nearby photo most folks in social media are quite familiar with actually had to be staged -- big time.  In other words, you couldn't raise a camera to your eye, because someone had once used a flash when taking his picture.  You couldn't even pretend with empty hands, without him scurrying for cover.  So, in order to get the pic I ultimately did, I arranged a small video camera and tripod on the diningroom table, and then teased Raggs to sit for one of his favorite treats, an Oreo cookie.
Oh, boy, did Raggs also love Chicken McNuggets.  And he'd get pretty psyched when he saw us pull up to the drive-thru window at a local fastfood place.
That's nothing, though, because he'd also start to salivate and run all over the car before he learned the difference between a MacDonald's and my bank's drive-thru window.  The girls at my bank thought he was a doll, and they used to call him "Funny Face".  He wasn't accepting their stale old biscuits, though, and he'd push my hand aside just like he did with other treats he didn't want.
Something I noticed about Raggs, that I'll never quite understand.  He seemed to warm quickly to any female who stopped at our house, while he wasn't nearly as welcoming to the males.  He even growled at my brother until we welcomed him in, and I noticed he was the same with a nephew.  It wasn't just relatives, though, but those were the males who would visit most often, and the ones I noticed drew that kind of reaction.

Anyone we'd tell Raggs stories to would always give us the old, "Ya, sure" thing as a typical response.  No, they weren't believing the stunts he'd perform -- I guess you had to be there to really appreciate them.  My son discovered the truth, though, once he visited Raggs and me down here in Florida.  Raggs drove him crazy, he bossed him around most of the time, and my son could never have a snack without having to share -- like in, "Grrrrrrrr...  I want mine!"  Little wonder, the stories about Raggs spread further once my son left.  And, every time he'd call thereafter, he'd end the conversation with, "Oh, and kick that dog for me, will you!" 

Speaking of Florida...  I guess that's our final chapter together, but it's as significant or meaningful as all the years prior...
God must have told me to build a special seatbelt arrangement for Raggs.  I did it initially for my sake, because he wouldn't stay in the backseat of my SUV, and once up front, he wanted to be halfway across my lap.  So I devised a very nice configuration that kept him in the passenger seat, with just enough play that he could touch me if he wished (and he usually did), or he could fall asleep if he wished.  Oh, and Raggs also told me when he wanted the window down or up.  Anyway, that seatbelt probably saved his life on the long drive down Route 95 from Whitman to Kissimmee.  We experienced what was nearly a fatal brush with the guardrail somewhere in Northern Florida -- at 70mph, and I'll never forget the look on Raggs' face as we got back to the pavement and under control.  It was much like the pose in the above photo, except his mouth was wide open, as if to ask, "Are we okay, Grampa?"  Honest to God -- and thanks to God, I never ever will forget that look -- just Raggs and me together, on a long mission, and suddenly scared to death.
As far as Raggs was concerned, Brenda was the "Ginny Come Lately" when she joined him and me in Kissimmee.  In other words, he wasn't about to let her sit next to me or anything like that.  If he saw her heading to join me on the sofa, he'd jump up first, and growl for her to stay away.  If he missed her sitting down, he'd jump up between us after the fact, and start his growling act.  The funny thing was, while he seemed indifferent sometimes, whenever he sensed any kind of intimacy between Brenda and me, he was right back to pushing himself in between.
Of course, Florida is the thunder and lightening capital of the world, which meant that Raggs spent many a restless nights since arriving.  That might have also been a blessing, though, because Brenda was the answer to our little man's prayers.  In fact, I'll never forget one night when I awoke to a sweet voice singing a lullaby in our master bathroom.  It was about 3am, I think, and Brenda had brought Raggs into the darkness of that room to shelter him from seeing the lightening.  She was hugging him, and calming him by singing that lullaby.  Man, talk about my two favorite two people in the world.  And, talk about Raggs' newfound friend and protector.
From about that point on -- or from about 3-years ago, Raggs saw her as his mom.  And he looked to her for everything thereafter.  Even when we moved to be with my aging mom in Tampa, Raggs went to Brenda for everything.  Where he used to come to me and whack me with a paw to get my attention, it was "his Brenda" he went to these last few years.

Another interesting thing about my little buddy...  I've heard this about other dogs, and Brenda says that one of her dogs did the same.  But Raggs was often able to notice your aches and pains just by sniffing.  I'd come home from a rink some nights, and he'd know right where I'd sustained my latest ding.  And he'd several times per week sit next to me on the sofa and sniff my left eye, which has been slowly failing me for probably 25-years.  He'd never do that to my right eye, but he would sniff all around that left cheek, up and around toward the brow, and right on the eye, itself.  Hmmm...

About the only thing he couldn't tell us about was the way his little body was eventually failing him.

Where he was able to jump all the way from the ground to my SUV's passenger seat before we left for Florida, it wasn't long before he'd have to get up there in stages.  In other words, I'd have to coax him to the floor, and then up to the seat.  Oh, he looked and acted as energetic as ever, but at about 13-years old, he was beginning to lose his strength.  By the time we arrived in Tampa, he was having good and not-so-good days climbing the long flight of stairs to mom's second floor apartment.  Just last year -- when he was 15, I decided not to push him to climb the stairs anymore, but instead let him use the elevator.  He'd begun limping a bit with a front paw, which I know was from being dropped as a young pup.

About 6-months ago, Raggs' testicles seemed to be enlarging, and a visit to a vet gave us news we didn't want to hear...  First, he had a tumor there.  Secondly, at his advancing age, an operation wasn't really recommended.

Although no one ever wants to face up to it, Brenda and I kinda knew that our little buddy's time with us was waning.  The worst of it, though, was this past week, when Raggs ate little, and then stopped drinking.  He'd always been an incessant water drinker -- going through three and four pretty large bowls per day.  But only once in the past few days were we even able to force him to drink a little...
Another funny story that just came to mind...  No matter where you were in our huge house back in Massachusetts, in our two story townhouse in Kissimmee, or in mom's apartment in Tampa, you always knew if Raggs was out of water or dry food.  He'd always begin with a little tap of his bowls.  But, if no one reacted to that quickly enough, he'd pick up one bowl -- or the whole arrangement, and toss it up in the air.  "Crash!"  Yup, Raggs was out of water (or food), and he knew how to communicate that.
Oh, and Raggs also talked to himself -- or whomever...  There would be times when I'd awake and hear him standing near me, grunting this and that.  Ya, it's hard to explain, but it was usually some grunts, but strung together with rising and lowering pitches.  Again, there's no doubt he would be talking, with that up and down mumbling.  Sometimes he did seem like he was talking to himself, but a lot of times it was purely a prelude to his yapping to me or someone else.  In other words, he might start by grumbling quietly, but then he'd bark to let someone nearby know he was really talking to them.
Anyway, yesterday our vet suggested keeping Raggs overnight for a slow intravenous feed.  Our collective hope was that he might regain some strength, maybe regain an appetite and thirst, and maybe come home again.  Of course, late news that the vets had found yet another tumor should have forewarned us that such chances were moving between slim and none.
Now, I've had a ton of great words of comfort from social media friends from around the world, and I wish I could do more than just thank them all here.  However, a conversation last night with a fellow hockey coach from Canada echoed in my mind while we were at the vet's office today...  "Ya," I told Doug S in a Facebook message, something to the effect that, "we hockey guys might seem tough, but we're pretty soft when it comes to our pets."
Well, we got to the vet's office this morning, shortly after 11am, and we were ushered down to visit with Raggs in the cage where they'd placed him the night before.  He was still on the intravenous drip, but he wasn't up and around as we'd prayed.  No, there would be no miracle cure or storybook ending to this visit.

Before the doctor was able to break away and meet with us, Brenda and I took a walk outside.  One thing we hashed over was whether our keeping little Raggs going was for our sake or for his.  And, we kinda knew the answer to that without much discussion.  Truly, I wanted "my Raggy" for purely selfish reasons, and I wasn't taking his needs into account at all.

Minutes later, the doctor raised the exact same question -- not about us, personally, but about the average pet lover keeping his or her best little friend going for selfish reasons.  Of course, we knew it was time.  And, with that, the vet very nicely explained our options.

At about noon today -- Friday, February 5, 2016, the vet brought Raggs to us in a side room.  He replaced the intravenous with a needle, and asked Brenda and me if we were ready.  "Ya," we said, between tears.  And for probably less than a minute, we took turns patting the Raggamuffin, rubbing him behind the ears like he always loved, and I kissed him on the nose and on his little head as he also liked.  In time, that was it.  Little Raggs was in pain no more.


Not much of a consolation, we expect Raggs' ashes to be put in an urn for us sometime early next week, and we'll at least have a little piece of him to go along with all the great memories.

Reviewing little Raggs' records again, he was born on a Sunday, June 20, 1999, I bought him weeks later on a Sunday, August 29, and he passed on a Friday, February 5, 2016.  


After we got home today, I noticed Brenda crying as she looked at her laptop.  In due time, I discovered she was reading some nice sayings about losing a pet.  One she sent me said, "Dogs' lives are too short; the only fault they have, really." ~ Agnes Sligh Turnbull  (That's making me think that I'll pray our next pet -- if there ever is one -- will have to out-live me!)

Yet another great one Brenda pointed out to me was,  "Dogs have a way of finding people who really need them, filling an emptiness we don't even know we have." ~ Thom Jones
And, man, did that one hit home with me...   I actually broke up too much to tell that to our vet this morning, about growing up in my "Lassie World" as a kid, with my own loving, Lassie-look-alike collie, and about losing her when I was just 10-years old.  She'd taught me a lot in the short time we grew up together, though, and I swear up and down that she's a major reason I am who I am today.
My son grew up with an Old English Sheepdog named "Bilbo Baggins".  And Bilbo stuck around long enough to see my son off to play Junior hockey in Canada, before disappearing in a snowstorm one night.  I looked for Bilbo's tracks in the snow several times that night, and again in the morning, but...  The dog office later told me that pets don't want their family to see them die, so they often go off to where they can't be found.
Then, while Raggs might have been brought to our home for my grandson, it seems his job wasn't done when the young man went off to college.  No, as the above message suggests, Raggy might have known all along that he'd be with me in my late-life transition and move to Florida.  He might have even planned to ease Brenda's better than smooth move into my life.
Growing up mainly through the 50's and 60's, I was on the edge of my seat watching "Lassie Come Home", I cried my eyes out over "Old Yeller", and I later got at least a little choked up watching "Marley & Me" and "Hachi: A Dog's Tale". 
Still, the movie that tells the best story of all, as far as I'm concerned, is "My Dog Skip".  Like in most other dog movies, Skip seems to know what his job on earth is, and he also seems to know when his job down here is done.  Anyway, as I begin choking up all over again, I'm thinking that Raggs somehow realized his job was done here, and in the classiest way I've ever seen.
As I wind down here, I sense I'll remember a million more stories about my little buddy as the days, months and years go by.  As a matter of fact, my Facebook flashback page seems to remind me often about some antic he was pulling -- last year, or on the same day several years ago.  In other words, I sense I might add to this over time.  I'm hoping Brenda might also have an urge to talk about "her little Raggs" here -- he and she deserve it.
Paul S, an old friend from back in MA, left me something to truly ponder, saying, "I hope the happy memories will bring you many smiles."  Hmmmmm...  That's pretty interesting, because I'm thinking that the hurt will disappear with each passing day, and I'll be able to smile and laugh all the more at the crazy Raggs stories.
Then, two more friends tried to lift my spirits...
Mary M suggested that, "He was the best loyal companion. Over the rainbow bridge he goes." 
Bonnie H added as neat a vision, suggesting that, "He is probably romping around looking down on you, your 4 legged angel."
Ya, my little Raggamuffin is probably "chasing butterflies" right this minute, and we should all live our lives the way he did.

I love you, little buddy, and I'll talk to you in my prayers -- tonight, and for many more days and nights to come -- I feel I owe you a lot.

PS:  My professional video studio is in storage right now, and there are tons of great pics and videos of Raggs stored with that.  So do I have some other nice videos I think I can add here soon from some CDs.

PPS:   I don't want to editorialize here, but I do have some strong feelings when it comes to pets...  And in Raggs' case, I don't think he got to be 16-years old by accident.  No, I believe in God's will, I believe in genetics, and I also believe our treating him most of his life as a little junkyard dog had some bearing, too.  I mean, Raggs was pampered and then he wasn't.  We watched his diet, but we also let him have plenty of table scraps.  He was in and out constantly in a yard that was big to his little body, and he tore up and down backyard and inside stairs like crazy.  He wouldn't allow a bird or a squirrel hit the ground in his backyard, and he killed two possums that I know of.  He climbed lots of snowbanks, and he dug plenty of holes under my shrubs (grrrrrrrrr).

For sure, Raggs didn't come from a so-called "puppy mill", and I'll suggest that his being born and even raised briefly on that Western Mass farm had a lot to do with his strong constitution.  Oh, man, would I love to someday chase down the lady who sold him to me.  I'll bet that Raggs' mom or dad and a number of siblings experienced similar long, healthy lives.

Anyway, while I'm not sure Brenda and I will ever take on the responsibilities of owning another dog, I'll suggest a couple of things if we do...  I can't see getting anything but a cockerpoo, and I think it will have to come from similar, rural circumstances, just like our One And Only Raggamuffin.