To Onyx: A Gem of a Dog

It all started with a dinner table conversation one night when Jonathan was 14. He began telling us about the puppy he had been visiting at the nearby pet store where he walked several times a week to buy crickets to feed to his gecko. He told us she had been abandoned along with seven other littermates and brought to the pet store by the owner, who put them up for adoption. She was one of only two left from the litter and she had been there for several weeks.

“She’s just really sweet,” he told us. “And I feel so sorry for her—she seems so sad now that she’s almost alone. I don’t know why no one has wanted her. She’s been my favorite all along.”

I shut him down quickly. “I do NOT want a puppy! We already have Porter and I have to do most of the work taking care of him. I’m just trying to get my editing business going, and since I’m home all day, I know who will be dealing with the puppy all day! It’s hard work to train a puppy!”

I was getting pretty fired up, indignant that Jonathan would even think about getting another dog when Michael broke in. “Let’s hear him out,” he told me. “Don’t shut him down so quickly!”

I sheepishly remembered all my vows to not jump to conclusions and to try to give Jonathan more decision-making power now that he was getting older. So I reluctantly cut short my “puppies are hard work!” lecture and asked Jonathan to tell me more about the dog and how he thought this might be possible. I even agreed to go to the pet store with him in the next few days to see her. Of course, I was secretly hoping that someone else would claim her before we visited.

They Made Me Hold Her

But she was still there when we made our visit, and I was sad that she was in such a small cage. She was now more than five months old and had lived in a cage for most of her life. The pet store employee took her from the cage and handed her to me—and I was a goner. The puppy was alert and curious but quite calm for a dog her age. She seemed very sweet and playful when they let us take her into a small pen to get some exercise.

I called Michael. “Well, the puppy would only cost a little over a hundred dollars and they will arrange for her first shots and to have her spayed …”

Michael cut me off abruptly. “I don’t want another dog!”

“But you told me to listen to Jonathan!”

“Yeah, but I thought you would just say no!”

“Too late. They made me hold her. She is really sweet.”

Jonathan made all sorts of promises about how much of the puppy-caring burden he would shoulder and before long I found myself filling out the paperwork to place a hold on the dog, who would probably be ready in a few days. We went home and started thinking about how we would introduce this puppy to Porter, our 100-pound behemoth who didn’t always tolerate other dogs. And started obsessively tossing around potential names. Chelsea was the initial frontrunner.

We were told the puppy would be ready for us the next Monday—they needed to get her spayed and all her shots. But on Friday afternoon, the store called and said we could pick her up that day! It was a bit of a shock and we had to scramble to pull it all together. But we managed.

Thrilled by the World

So we brought home this 35-pound, half-grown, still-nameless pup who had spent her entire life in a cage and introduced her to the world. She was fascinated by everything and wanted to explore every corner of our house and yard, sniffing under chairs and in corners and zooming around in the back yard. And she was also fascinated by Porter, our aging boxer mix (I always said he was mixed with something big and dumb), who was none too happy about this new intruder. He growled and snapped at her when she tried to get a little too friendly, and the puppy wisely backed away and showed her submissive side. We watched and schemed for how to protect the puppy from the beast.

Within a few days, we were trying to figure out how to protect the beast from the puppy, who had quickly made herself at home on his pillows and with his toys and was always pouncing on him and trying to entice him into a game of chase or tug of war or a play fight. I think she wormed her way into his big heart the same way she did into ours—by showing just the right mix of submission and independence and affection. The dogs were soon napping side by side and sharing treats and toys and us.

We continued trying out new names for the puppy for a few days. Shadow became a contender because the puppy had this unnerving knack for appearing at your feet with no warning. But as I was reading through the puppy’s paperwork, I discovered that she had been abandoned in a small community in Kern County named Onyx. Clearly, that was a good name for a puppy who was mostly black with brown highlights and a white tummy and paws. Jonathan liked the name, too, because Onyx was a planet in Halo and a Pokemon.

As predicted, the bulk of the house-breaking training and feeding and walking and caretaking fell to me because I was home more than anyone else. But I was soon so completely smitten by this puppy that the biggest threat to my work was not taking care of her but just watching her in action. Housebreaking was painful for a while, but she was never as destructive or as high-energy as some puppies can be. And Jonathan did keep his promises to help with all aspects of her care.

An Only Dog

We had Onyx only a few months when we discovered that Porter had a debilitating and terminal nerve condition that was slowly paralyzing him. He became slower and slower and less and less steady on his feet and Onyx often inadvertently knocked him over during their playtimes. But Porter rarely seemed to mind too much and they remained the best of pals until the day Porter woke up in extreme pain, unable to get to his feet at all. Suddenly, Onyx became an only dog.

She seemed to take the transition in stride, though she clearly missed Porter and their playtimes. But she didn’t mind being the focus of all our attention and she got to have lots of play time with Flora, our friends’ basset hound puppy, who became her new BFF. And she made a whole bunch of new friends when they opened a small dog park in our neighborhood when she was a few years old.

I used to joke that Onyx would love for us to get her a dog. She was always very interested in other dogs and friendly with almost all of them—dropping her front legs into a “wanna play” invitation whenever she got close to another dog. But the time never seemed right—or maybe we just didn’t look hard enough for an opportunity like the one that brought us Onyx. Another reason it became hard to think about adding a dog to the mix: Onyx was too good! I knew the chances of getting another dog who was so obedient and needed so little from us in time or exercise or training was very small. She spoiled us.

Loving—on Her Own Terms

Onyx was very independent even though she clearly loved us and wanted our approval. Although she loved walks and our attention and the leftovers off our plates, she rarely demanded anything. She didn’t beg for scraps or bark to get our attention if it was walk time. Instead, she would just lay nearby and stare at us – especially me because she knew I was a sucker and could not ignore her as well as everyone else in the family could.

Onyx also loved belly rubs and would hang out in the hall until she saw someone approaching. Then she would flip to her back and lay there tummy up – just daring you to step over her without pausing to accommodate her. When Onyx wanted attention, she would press up against your leg and put her head under your hand—she wanted to make it easy as possible to pet her, I guess.

But when she got her fill of affection, she moved away. She would snuggle up near you on the couch until she got sleepy and then she would head to her own space. And if you tried to follow her or keep petting her after she had given you the “enough” signal, she would give you a withering look and move further away or get up and leave the room altogether. She was never a “kisser” either—with one exception: the woman that Tyler brought into our family shortly after Onyx joined us. Onyx loved Cubbie with a slobbery intensity that was different from the way she loved any of her other humans, and she rewarded Cubbie with nose licks and cheek washes that she never offered to anyone else. I tried not to be jealous.

Onyx was the only dog I’ve ever owned who did not want to sleep near her humans. We made plenty of arrangements for her—Jonathan frequently invited her onto his bed and kept one of her pillows in his bedroom. But she rarely spent the night there, preferring one of her pillows in an isolated part of the house.

When Jonathan left for college and Tyler moved to DC, I converted Tyler’s empty bedroom into my office / guestroom. I went out and bought a lovely white and floral bedspread to cover the daybed and make the room seem brighter and more inviting. And apparently it looked quite inviting to Onyx because she moved in and claimed the bed as her own. She would hang out with me there during the day as I worked and sleep there at night instead of using one of her dog pillows. I guess she reasoned that there were plenty of unused beds in the house now, so why should she sleep on the floor?!

My Editorial Assistant

I didn’t mind really; I enjoyed her company while I worked and I couldn’t argue with her rationale about the sleeping arrangements. I also couldn’t keep the pretty white floral bedspread clean of dog hair or dog dirt, so I eventually gave in and draped old, dark comforters over the bed most of the time, only pulling out my pretty floral spread if we were expecting actual guests for the guest room.

My new office looked out over the front yard and Onyx loved to sit on the bed and keep an eye on the neighborhood. She kept tabs on the rabbits that live under the cedar bush and the cats that wandered into the yard as they hunted the rabbits. She took note of which dogs went by on their walks at specific times and would sometimes make a mad dash for the back yard to either greet or bark at certain dogs and/or their owners. I never knew exactly which.

In the mornings, I would walk into my office and prepare to open the curtains, and she would eagerly jump onto the bed and sit expectantly, waiting for what I came to call “the reveal.” As soon as I pulled back the curtains, she began scanning the scene. Were there rabbits in the yard? Dogs on the sidewalk? Kids heading to school? She wanted to see it all, and I loved trying to figure out what she would notice. It became one of my favorite parts of the day.

Slowing Down

I’ve missed that start-the-day moment over the last couple of years as it became harder and harder for Onyx to hop up on the bed. Our walking paths got shorter and shorter, too, as her arthritis limited her more and more. But she didn’t seem to mind walking the same two blocks repeatedly—there was always something to sniff. Because she couldn’t walk very far at a time, we started trying to take her out for short walks in the mornings and afternoons, and those times were clearly her most favorite moments of the day. As she got slower, she also got grayer, until her name no longer described her as well as it once had.

Onyx had some health challenges in the past few years, including a couple of surgeries and the week she totally stopped eating for no reason that we could ever determine. But her vet kept her going and she didn’t seem to mind living a little slower, a little more limited life. She still perked up when any of us came home and gave us plenty of chances to rub her belly and watched us closely when we finished our plates to see if there was anything left for her.

Until this Monday, when she seemed to change literally overnight. The vet said it was a huge malignant mass in her abdomen and told me to “take her home and say your good-byes.” He didn’t tell us to take her home and cry every time we looked at her for three straight days, but that’s pretty much what we did. And we tried to make sure that we showered her with as much love and happiness as we could provide. She got visits from as many of her dog and people friends as we could arrange, and she got all the walks and treats that she could handle.

We arranged for a vet service to visit the house for the final good-bye, which allowed Michael, Jonathan, and I to sit with her to the end. It was peaceful and we know she felt loved and comfortable—which is what she made us feel for so many years.

It’s odd how the absence of one 75-pound creature can make the whole house seem empty, but it’s a reality, nevertheless. I guess it’s because the love Onyx brought to us was so much bigger than she was.

So very reluctantly, very tearfully, we say, “Good-bye, Onyx. Thank you for all the ways you made our lives richer, fuller, better over the past 11 years. You really were the perfect dog and we will be forever grateful that Jonathan inspired us to take a chance on you.”

December 16, 2022

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