Eight years ago when my five-year-old-son picked a dog named Pippa out at the Atlanta Humane Society it was love at first lick. She didn’t quite look like the beagle that my son was searching for but from the straw filled pen of puppies she was in that dog made it her mission to be the highest jumper with the most licks and that was all it took to win the day.
Pippa was my son’s first dog. His first act as the new owner was to change her name. He was learning about the Solar System at the time and decided Pluto was the right fit. Mom and Dad shared with him that Pippa doesn’t look like the Disney character. She’s not a male dog. To a five-year-old these things meant nothing. So we thought harder and realized that there is a piece of produce nicknamed the Pluto-fruit that when peeled looks just like her skin tone. Pippa became Pluto. I don’t have any photos of that day, but I remember it being a day of pure joy.
Pluto brought the kind of joy that only a puppy can introduce into a failing marriage. My son needed the love and support to hold on to. I know he sensed something was wrong with his mom and dad, but we made it a point to stay civil with each other and only late into the night after he was safely asleep did we discuss the future of our marriage. I think kids feel the unspoken tension. The sadness. The hurt. They just don’t know how to express it verbally until later in life. My marriage ended less than a year later in divorce. Pluto was there for my son when I could not be.
I found out recently that the motivation why Pluto came into our life was that my son’s mom decided that since her life was miserable, the least she could do was give in to my son’s frequent begging for a puppy. My son’s mom is not a pet-person, but she wanted him to have a joy in life that she did not have. Back then I fully supported and often echoed the desire for a puppy. In my opinion every child needs a puppy. Especially if the child is an only child. If I had any control over it, my son was going to be a dog person like me. Dog-people are awesome.
I was equally nagging about when we were bringing a dog into the house. To me there was not an “if” but only a “when.” When my son and I got the nod of approval, the terms defined were simple: our son takes care of the puppy, Mom does not. Oh, and the dog needs to be small but not the size of a rat. We all knew what that really meant is that Dad takes care of the puppy. It was a good set of terms under one roof, but divorce breaks all kinds of terms.
The end result of the divorce agreement was that my son and Pluto would live mostly with his mom. Adjusting to living in two homes and joint parenting with a child and a puppy was hard during the first few years of the divorce. When visitation switched to me, Pluto made the trip as well. I took comfort in knowing my son and Pluto would be curled up together each night in bed and keeping each other comfortable. He needed stability and Pluto gave him something that was stable and something that wasn’t changing like everything else in his life.
When I began visitation weekends by showing up to pick up my son, Pluto’s heart would beat so fast her whole body would be shaking. Her 1-10 energy dial would be tuned up to 25. Eight years later and her behavior never changed. It became a running joke that Pluto was going to die of a heart attack caused by the excitement of seeing me at the front door. I got a similar reaction from my son during those first few years, but as he began approaching the teenage years the excitement and hugs gave way to curt nods and grunts. The challenges of those first few years faded into the new normal and through the process Pluto found a balance with my son’s mom. There was never love between Pluto and my son’s mom, but there was mutual tolerance and all of Pluto’s basic needs were tended to, including walks and vet visits and the like.
It’s hard to pinpoint when Pluto’s behavior changed, but with time she became territorial and aggressive. We thought it was cute that she protected us from strangers by barking as loud as she could muster, but when it graduated to rushing to the door to get right up to people and jumping on them, we moved to stop the behavior with training. While most of our friends and family are dog people our philosophy is that few people enjoy being attacked at the front door by a dog that doesn’t belong to them. Pluto was always good at the “sit” command, but she was terrible with the “stay” command. Through a heavy regiment of treats she learned to “stay” and her standard method of greeting was to sit, stay, and wait for the person coming into the house to come to her. At least that was how it worked at my son’s house. When Pluto came to visit with me or my son’s grandmother’s Pluto gave way to the dog behavior to figure out who the “master of the pack” is and she adjusted her behavior accordingly. In hindsight I wish I had enforced the “sit and stay” behavior in all three homes.
In a number of incidents, the barking and jumping turned to attacks involving scratching and biting. No one was mauled, but some family was frightened, a few did get bit and in one instance blood was drawn. We began actively trying to find her trigger point and stop it. Pluto received a good number of spankings and firm yells to reinforce that biting was not acceptable. The behavior came in spurts, but we eventually came to understand that Pluto was not to be allowed near small animals or small children. On the surface that seems like it would be simple, but with weekly visits across three households that involved other dogs, grandchildren, cousins, extended family it took a lot more effort and Pluto found herself left behind more than before.
Looking backward it’s easy to see now that the aggression was a bigger problem than we gave it credit for. We had blinders on because the good behavior outweighed the occasional bad. When Pluto’s aggressive behavior graduated to almost any dog, for any reason, and she had a few successful attacks on both humans and dogs we knew something was wrong. The last thing any of us needed was a trip to the hospital, a lawsuit, or something worse.
Sometime around July of 2020 we noticed a bump growing out from under Pluto’s main footpad on her back-right paw. By August it had doubled in size and a trip to the vet confirmed it was a tumor. Cancerous? Not sure, tests were inconclusive. Could it be removed? No, because there is not enough skin tissue in that part of the foot to close it back up. While Pluto never seemed to miss a beat, we knew we were in for some tough times ahead and we began the wait-and-see game. I would like to say it was this bump that was the source of aggression. We will never know for sure, but the aggression started earlier than the tumor. The tumor certainly didn’t help the situation. The compromise we found was that Pluto was prevented from joining my son on weekends with us and was sent to stay at my parents house where Pluto had the company of another dog; one that she never tried to eat.
By January 2021 the tumor doubled again in size. While grotesque to look at, Pluto seemed to be dealing with it by mostly ignoring it, so we continued to do the same. The tumor continued to grow. Last week she scraped the tumor while walking and it started bleeding. We rushed her to the vet fearing the worse but was told it was just a minor scratch.
By this point the vet had confirmed surgery on the tumor was not an option. Visions of amputation of the leg were off the table due to costs and quality of life, but the vet proposed a temporary solution of covering her foot with a dog boot. The thought was that as long as she can’t physically touch the tumor and as long as the tumor doesn’t continue to scrape the ground as she moves, the chances of it bleeding again were reduced. We gave it a try. Dogs are not supposed to wear shoes and the comedic herculean efforts Pluto exhibited trying to get it off of her foot will forever be etched in our memories of her. The boot lasted just under a week. The tumor had other plans.
On the evening of Monday March 29th whatever feeling Pluto was experiencing with wearing the boot came to a head. We woke up on March 30th to a destroyed boot, a bloody bandage, and a trail of bloody footprints leading from one bedroom to the next. We knew then that it was time for Pluto to make the move to Dog Heaven.
I grew up with dogs and the trip to Dog Heaven is hard for the people left behind. The tragedy of life is death. Growing up my dad spared me from the details of this trip, often unexpected and due to accidents beyond our control. My earliest memories of this process involve digging small graves in the back yard and saying tearful good-byes. Pluto would be the first time I was the adult trying to do the same for my son. I won’t go into the details of the process except to say that our decision to keep my son from being at the vet when it was done was the correct decision.
We scheduled the appointment for the afternoon of Tuesday March 30th so that the family could mentally prepare and spend a final day with Pluto. There’s a cloud of sadness knowing that the end is near, but we tried to make the most of it. Pluto has never feasted like she feasted that morning. Dog treats were doled out in spades. Chew toys that were in the closet waiting to be gifted were unwrapped and belly rubs were aplenty that day. As the time drew closer Pluto got one final walk around the neighborhood lead by my son. My son took a few minutes alone with Pluto to say his goodbyes and the tears began to fall on both of our faces. It’s been 24 hours since Pluto moved on and I haven’t seen my son cry like this since he was a baby. His north star is gone and he’s going through the stages of grief that come with it. We miss you Pluto. Thank you for 8 years of joy.