If Dogs Have A HeavenЙ

New Year’s Eve was not a good day for me or my family. I had to do one of the hardest things I’ve ever done; I had to put my dog down.

She had contracted lymphoma and it was killing her.

Leah was a beautiful dog, part Chocolate Lab, part Irish Setter and I think a bit of hound dog, too. Her medium short coat was bright reddish-brown, and her eyes matched.

I didn’t really deserve such a great dog. She found me.

My wife and I were in Pine Mountain, Georgia, one cold November day. We went into an antique store and were greeted by this beautiful dog. As soon as she heard my voice, she attached herself to my side and followed me all through the store.

She had a special grace about her. She didn’t walk so much as she glided. She was very dignified, very regal. She carried herself with the poise of a show dog.

“This is a great dog you have,” I said to the lady running the store.

“Oh, she’s not ours, she’s a stray,” she said. “We just let her in here out of the cold and so the pack dogs don’t attack her.”

“You mean someone dumped her off?” I asked incredulously.

“As far as we can tell,” said the lady. “She’s been wandering around here for a week now and we try to feed her, but we can’t keep her here at night, so we don’t know where she goes.”

The whole time we were talking, Leah (our son named her after Princess Leia of Star Wars fame) sat politely at my side, looking up at me with those big, brown eyes.

I am generally more of a cat person than a dog person, even though I had plenty of both growing up on a farm in Wisconsin. I like dogs but always felt more kinship with cats.

But this dog had something very special about her. She was only about 2 years old, but those eyes held wisdom and knowledge and feelings far beyond her age, or even her species.

My wife and I left the store. Leah just sat by the window and watched me walk away. My wife and I were both very quiet as we drove away.

“That was a beautiful dog,” I said to her. She agreed.

“It is a crime for someone to just dump a dog like that. It’s criminal,” I said. She agreed.

Here is where my wife and I have different memories of what happened next.

I recall that I said, “I think we should go back and get her and take her home.” She agreed, and we turned our truck around and did it.

She recalls that I did say that but insists we didn’t go back until the next day. I’m pretty sure I’m right, because I don’t think I could have tolerated the dog being another night on the street in the cold with packs of dogs after her.

Since I’m writing this, we’ll go with my version. Either way, we went back to the store and walked in to tell the owner we’d take the dog off her hands. I swear Leah was sitting in the same place I’d seen her when I left. The lady was overjoyed.

When I opened the truck door, Leah did not hesitate to jump right up onto the middle fold-down console and sat regally, almost in a pose, just like she had done that every day of her life. She pivoted her head towards me and grinned as if to say, “I knew you’d come back.”

The rest is, as they say, history. She blended into our family of two teens, one tween, a Peek A Poo and a half-Siamese/half Tabby cat we had also adopted on another cold November day.

Part of my justification in bringing Leah home was for our 11-year-old son, Alex. The Peek-A-Poo was dedicated to our teenage daughter; the cat was attached to whomever he pleased, whenever he wanted, as cats will do.

I remembered growing up, having larger dogs like Leah, and I knew how much it means for a boy to have a dog.

Of course, nobody had asked Leah, and we soon found out that her opinion made a difference. She had chosen me as her person, and though she befriended my son and made him feel safe, if I was in the room she would constantly be at my side.

We discovered Leah was a great tracker. Once she got her nose on a trail she stayed on it like glue.

We used to play a game where Alex would hide outside and she would have to find him. He could run, but he could never hide. She always sniffed him out.

She loved to run and she was fast as lightning. About a month or so after we got her, Alex and I had her on a walk one very cold December day. There wasn’t anyone else out, so I let her go off leash.

She saw a deer and took chase. She was right on the deer’s heels until he jumped a 10-foot-wide creek. She tried the jump, and all Alex and I saw was her hitting the far bank, hard, and sliding back into the water. She disappeared.

We ran to the creek. No Leah. I thought she’d knocked herself out and went under. I jumped into the 30-degree water up to my chest reaching under to find her. No Leah. I turned around and there, under an overhang on the opposite bank, was a shivering, scared Leah grasping the mud for dear life.

She looked at me with big, fearful eyes as if to say, “Sorry boss, guess we won’t be eating venison today.”

She was a very independent soul. The first time I tossed her a treat, she just let it bounce off her nose, then slowly picked it up and ate it. No matter how hard I tried, she would not catch a treat.

Then one day, weeks later, I tossed her one and she snapped it out of the air like a shortstop. I was elated. I tossed her another. It bounced off her nose.

She looked down at the treat, then up at me and I swear she said, “I can catch it, but I choose not to, it is degrading.”

I never tossed her a treat again; I handed them to her.

We discovered she was deathly afraid of any loud noise that sounded like a gun.

She was terrified of thunder. We could predict a front moving in hours before it got there because she would stay right with me or whoever was in the house.

Leah was a great dog. She should have been doing something more than just being a house pet.

With her nose, she could have been a rescue dog. She could have been a drug-detection dog.

With her sweet personality, she could have been a therapy dog. When she was happy, her tail never stopped gyrating.

Maybe she was one of these things in another life. Her past remains a mystery. Maybe she’ll be doing one of those things in her next life.

Elvis Presley sang a song in 1956 called, “Old Shep.” I remember listening to that song as a kid, and crying. It was the saddest song. Beware if you listen to it, tears will fall.

The last words of the song went something like, “If dogs have a heaven, there’s one thing I know. Old Shep has a wonderful home.”

Ditto for Leah.

Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine, who also served until recently in municipal parks and recreation, lives in Peachtree City, Ga., and can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email cwo4usmc@comcast.net.