The Best Worst Dog
“Oh, cool. Like the baseball card magazine?”
No. Not like the baseball card magazine. Not like the Irish playwright, either.
It’s Becket. Like the Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry II, the man who was brutally murdered at Canterbury Cathedral by the king’s men, who fought the overbearing reach of the crown and turned his back on his friend, who wore a hairshirt, who fought to overcome his background, who for some reason became one of my favorite characters in English history and then became one of my favorite characters in 60s films and then became the name of my dog.
Officially, the AKC knows Becket as Sir Thomas A’ Becket Vilhauer, a silky terrier who was never shown, who was never up to official AKC code, and who I’m not convinced we actually ever registered.
Becket’s just a dog. A dog that’s been in our family for 15-and-a-half years. He’s small. He’s a pain in the ass, and he always has been.
Well. He was.
Because now Becket is gone. And I thought I’d be okay with it.
But I’m not.
I’m not convinced Becket and I were ever friends, in as much as a human and a dog can be friends.
Part of it was a bit of an act: a little bit of sarcastic fun; a bit of “Marley and Me” banter that made for good television. But part of it was real. Becket wasn’t as much a nemesis as he was a disinterested acquaintance. We lived in the same house, and our food came from the same general Costco budget, but otherwise we weren’t friends.
Becket wasn’t a lap dog. He wasn’t a dog really, I believe. Despite his excited dog energy, amidst his head tilting and carpet digging, hidden deep inside of his genetic need to find small rodents and kill them with small teeth, his relationships with humans were fickle. The longer you spent in his life, the less he cared.
His body and instincts were canine. His personality and human connection were all feline.
So, we circled each other in the house. And I grumbled about him, and even as he got older and I knew that things might just be a little easier when he wasn’t adding another level of annoyance in my life, Kerrie would remind me that I would miss him when he was gone.
There was no doubt about this. Even when my writing was dormant, I knew that I’d end up writing something for our dog when he was no longer our dog. That I’d miss him. Just not like this.
Becket ran away. A lot.
We rigged a set of walls and traps — a three-tiered protection plan against the dog who would escape, and our neighbors got so used to it that they’d fall into a routine. Every few weeks. A knock at the door, a dog in their arms. Becket got out again.
He was always looking for something. I don’t know what.
That’s just what he did. He was a terrier. He was predisposed to get the hell out of wherever he was. Bred to hunt rodents, long before the breed turned into a long-haired dog show darling, Becket was ready to dig and run and do the things that a very small dog thought it would be good at.
So he would run. And we would sigh. And we would go find him.
Once, we were convinced he was gone forever. In the middle of the night, during a crazy branch-removing thunderstorm, Becket ended up outside of the fence. He wandered the neighborhood and was rooting around a neighbor’s garage when the garage door closed. I was at work, Kerrie was frantic looking for him, and we both imagined this was the end, despite the fact that he was actually safer in that garage than he would have been out in the storm.
We found him. We were happy, for a bit. And then we started over the next day. Affixing more chicken wire, shoring up more holes. Protecting him from the outside he wanted to experience, keeping him from running away yet another time.
Until he couldn’t. Until age caught up, and he had no choice but to settle. His running slowed down. And the fight to escape slowly gave way. He raided the chicken coop for chicken food. He chased a rabbit every few weeks. But he no longer ran.
I’m not sure he ever found what he was looking for. I’m not convinced it was ever us.
Of the friends that I hung out with in grade school, I rarely speak to any of them. Some of them parted ways early, or we moved to different schools, or we circled around different friends. This isn’t a unique practice: we all shift and move and grow away from our childhood friends. But that doesn’t mean it’s not weird. Doesn’t mean we don’t wonder what could have been.
With Becket and me, it was never quite that complicated. Because Becket was still always around. Becket was my dog, and I was his human. We provided him food, and he cleaned up the crumbs from the floor. We provided him shelter, and he protected our backyard from the things that might endanger us. Like the garbage truck, or other dogs, or, I dunno. Squirrels? Plastic bags, definitely.
(We were never attacked by any plastic bags while he was on watch. I have to give him credit for that.)
As with those friends who move on, Becket and I did the same. On his first birthday, we threw a birthday party — a party with all of his dog friends, all of which we realized last night have been gone for years. For the next few years we acknowledged his birthday — the day after mine, the same day as my grandparents’ anniversary — and then it became another date on the calendar.
Becket did not care, I always told myself. If he did — if he cared about his birthday, or if he even cared that I was a human in any way connected to him — he never showed it. So we grew apart, living our lives parallel to each other: living in the same house, treating each others presence as necessary and crucial, without ever completing a circle of friendship.
This is ridiculous, of course, assigning these kinds of human qualities to a human/dog relationship. But there are times when I look at the directions my kids are going — their beliefs, their hobbies, their devotion — and I think that we’re doing it right. That we’re doing all we can to make sure they have the life we want them to have, that they will stay with us. Forever. They won’t grow out of our love, and they won’t disappear and try to run away, and they won’t circle us in the house as non-committed living acquaintances. They will be our kids, and we will be family, and nothing will change that.
And then I think of Becket. I think of how he became second fiddle. Then third. I think about how annoyed I’d get when he’d bark bark bark or run away. About how I ran out of time. Out of patience. I think about how I gave him a good life in terms of necessities, but never tried hard enough to be anything more.
Today, as we stood over him at the vet, Kerrie, with tears in her eyes, apologized to him. “Sorry we were jerks,” she said.
I couldn’t do it. She said she felt guilty, and I said I didn’t. I said I didn’t feel guilty because we were releasing him from this pain.
But that’s not what we were talking about. Because I do feel guilty. And for that, Becket … I’m sorry.
Becket could no longer get up the stairs. That’s when we saw it.
It had been there for the past year. As he gave up his rawhides, his teeth began to go. His eyes clouded, a splotch of white forming in one. His breed is pre-disposed with hip dysplasia and his walking became more pained. He struggled to eat, to see, to walk, to climb, to be anything more than a shell of the dog we once fought with; once took camping and grew exasperated with and loved and hated and fought and cuddled.
And so we made the call.
We talked through things with the kids. We made a cement paver with Becket’s paw print. We held him. We told stories.
We talked about the running away, but we also talked about the birthday party. We talked about everything he was a part of. We talked about our endless battle against his nipping, how we trained him to stop nipping at us for attention, how he took the energy from these mini-attacks and put them full forward into licking, how he would climb up guests and kiss them and lick them and we were always horrified but everyone else was perfectly fine with it.
We talked about how good he was with the kids, even if he was largely distant from them. If he loved them, he didn’t show it. But he was always there, and he was always safe with them.
And they loved him.
I did too. Despite our relationship, it’s all I could think about at the vet during the last few minutes. All we could do was tell him that we loved him. That he was the best worst dog. That he could lie down now, without pain. Zoned out, quiet and at ease, resigned. The pads of his feet soft like when we brought him home, when they smelled like a puppy, a smell that never really went away. A life of stubbornness and frustration and distance shored up for just a few minutes, as he floated off into a sleep and he was released from his duty, ready to run away again, to finally find what he was always looking for.