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A Celebration of Riley

                      by Joni Kearn

I’ve often heard people say, “I won’t adopt a senior pet because I’ll lose them too soon”.  I must admit that I used to feel that way, too.  A puppy or kitten, I would think, would be more trainable and I would have them in my life longer.  These things may be true.  And then there was Riley.

When I brought Riley home, he was a 9 ½ year old yellow lab with droopy eyes and a bloody tail.  The eyes were droopy because of some corrective surgery he had when he was younger and the bloody tail tip was because his tail NEVER QUIT WAGGING.  He was hitting it on the sides of the kennel he was in (a 4’ x 8’ area).  For a long time, we had a stripe down our walls about Riley-tail high where the blood smeared.  His tail did finally heal but it took months.  And the walls were eventually washed.  And I smiled.

We already had 2 dogs, both yellow lab/retriever mixes.  When I talked to my husband about bringing Riley home, he asked what he looked like and I said “do you see our two?”    He groaned.  We had a hard enough time – in the dark and from a distance – to tell ours apart.  How on earth were we going to distinguish another yellow lab?


I brought my husband to the Humane Society of Waupaca County the next day to meet Riley and we brought him home.  And I smiled.

The great things about bringing home a senior dog, I found out, are that Riley was potty trained and he knew basic commands.  I found out later when I brought out an air rifle that he must have been a hunting dog at one time because he went nuts with excitement when he saw the gun.  Then, when I shot at something he would run to fetch it.  He would come back to me with this “can’t you aim” look on his face because there was nothing for him to fetch.  And I laughed.

I bring the dogs for a walk almost every night and Riley loved them.  As fall became winter, Riley started wanting to stay home instead and we figured out that he was cold.  I went to a seamstress friend of mine with an old sweatshirt and Riley and she made him a coat that fit him perfectly and was easy to get on and off.  He loved it.  I would stand at the door and he would stop and step in to it if he was cold and walk right past me if he wasn’t.  When there is a lot of snow, I snowshoe in the woods.  Riley loved that because he had these huge foot prints to walk in.  I fell face first in the snow more than once because he was so close to me that he stepped on the ends of the shoes.  He would come up and get his face right next to mine – wondering why on earth I was laying in the snow.  And I laughed.

At night – especially during the winter – he would disappear and we would find him under the covers on my side of the bed.  If I beat him to bed, he would jump up on the bed and stare down at me until I brought the covers back just a little so he could wiggle in.  He would sleep stretched out next to me with his head tucked by my feet until he got too warm and then would twist and turn and grunt and groan until he got his 90 pound body out from the cave of covers he was in and sleep on top of them.  And I laughed.

We have a small pond on our property and he loved to swim and fetch sticks!  He would run ahead of me and then wait on the shore until I told him to go swimming.  And that long-legged, lanky boy would bound in to the water and watch for the stick to fetch.  And I laughed.

The beginning of July, he had been a part of our family for 1 ½ years.  We noticed a bump by his tail.  The next day it seemed to have doubled in size.  Our vet told us that it was cancer and already wrapped around his spine.  Because of where it was, it was almost impossible to operate on and it had started affecting his ability to go to the bathroom.  The tumor was growing so fast that we only had a few days left with him.  We didn’t want him to suffer.  He was too full of joy.  And I cried.

We went for a final walk in the woods and I let him choose which trails we walked on.  My husband brought him for a rare treat of McDonalds.  He held up the cheeseburger for Riley to take a bite and in a second it was gone and Riley was smiling.  We played a little fetch, we watched him run and gave him love.  Then we let him go where he could run and fetch and play and swim and snuggle without pain and sickness.  And I cried.  And I cried.

“See?” they say, “You didn’t have him for very long and now you have the pain”.  To which I say I had him the perfect amount of time.  Eighteen and a half whole, wonderful, happy, glorious months of walking and swimming and snuggling and laughing and playing.  Eighteen and a half incredible months of the unconditional love that only animal-kids can give. Eighteen and a half months of memories that I will treasure for the rest of my life.  

Why would I share my heart and home with another senior animal?  They have a special understanding of love and life.  There are no guarantees in life.  We are here to give and receive love for the time we have.  This is the same whether you are human or animal.  Sometimes the greatest of gifts come in the smallest of packages of time.

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