I was in the third grade when I got my first dog. The golden retriever my mother regularly looked after had puppies, and I was offered one. I can still remember the thrill of bringing him home. He was small enough to fit in a tote bag, and that’s how we transported him on the train from Connecticut and then on the subway. So young we still counted his age in weeks, he was just a cuddly puff of golden fur and totally dependent on me. I fell in love with him instantly. Upon arriving at our house, he inspected the premises with his nose and seemed content to be “home.” And although I was prepared to soothe his separation anxiety, he never whined or cried at all.
I had intentionally chosen the runt of the litter because of my love for the Clifford the Big Red Dog books. Clifford was also a runt, but he grew to be bigger than a house. Though my ambitions were less extreme, I secretly hoped that my dog would also grow to be very big. Perhaps that is why he was given such an immense name: Timothy Saint Hillaire Ferry Fifer Francis. His first name had to be biblical. His last name had to be our family name. And the rest of his names honored the couple who gave him to me and his mother. And perhaps because I took the moral of the book Tikki Tikki Tembo to heart, we simply called him Timothy or Timmy for short.
Being a young dog owner, one of the things I had to learn was what “praise” meant in the context of canine conditioning. Growing up in a faith-based family, I had only one definition for the word. Praise is what we did in church: Praise Jesus! Praise the Lord! Praise Him, Hallelujah! So when I came to the section in my dog training book that told me to praise my pet whenever he correctly followed a command, I’m sure you can imagine what I thought I had to do. I passionately (though perhaps blasphemously) praised my dog using the full depth of my Christian vocabulary. Timothy, sit! Timothy, sit! Praise you, Timothy! Hallelujah, Timothy! Praise you! Now since dogs understand tone and affection as much as (if not more than) specific words, my form of praising my dog worked quite well. But that didn’t stop my mother from, in a fit of laughter, enlightening me as to what “praise your dog” really meant.
In a few years Timothy got a canine companion, my sister’s dog, a precocious cocker spaniel named Joey. They became fast friends, and I credit Joey’s youth and spunk with keeping Timothy young at heart even as his body aged. They loved each other, but were an odd couple indeed.
Timothy was polite almost to a fault (only entering through an ajar door if you called him insistently). Joey, on the other hand, was always full speed ahead. He slid more than ran down stairs, and even if a door was open to the very slightest degree, he’d push his way right in.
Timothy loved crackers. The sound of a rustling plastic wrapper was his second name. Joey loved poultry. We made the mistake of leaving a rotisserie chicken unattended on the kitchen table one day, and he ate the entire thing.
Timothy loved to chew on and chase tennis balls. He never tired of fetching. Joey was content to run with Timothy, but he never seemed interested in bringing the ball back to me.
Timothy loved the water. If I felt him tugging on the leash it was usually because he’d spotted a puddle he wanted to wallow in. He also loved baths. Joey, on the other hand, viewed water with skepticism and hated every aspect of grooming.
For all their differences in personality (and size) Timothy and Joey did have a number of things in common: They were both beautifully golden, extremely intelligent, and impossible not to love. They also both had me convinced that within the confines of their canine frames lived the mind of a person.
I was in college when Timothy died. My mother called to tell me that his arthritic hip had taken a turn for the worse and he’d stopped eating. She believed he was near death, but holding on to life a little bit longer just for me. I drove the four and a half hours from Massachusetts to Brooklyn and burst into tears as soon as I saw him. His golden fur had thinned, long ago turned white around his nose. He was skeleton thin. He greeted me with a look of loving recognition and wagged his tail once, but he didn’t have the strength to lift his head. I offered him a cracker, but he wouldn’t take it. That’s when I knew this was serious—that this was really the end. I sat softly stroking his head and telling him I loved him. I lay with him. I held him. Heavy hearted, I watched as his life slipped away, his body becoming less and less animated with each labored breath.
Timothy was the best dog in the world—so smart, so loyal, so polite, so full of love. To this day I’m convinced that he willed himself to live long enough for me to come home. He simply refused to die until we could have a proper goodbye. What a good boy he was.