Wolfgang, then Docker, at just a few months old in 2002.
When I saw that little ball of gray fur crawling around Tom’s* bare chest, I didn’t know what to think. After he’d lost his older dog just a few days earlier, I honestly didn’t expect him to jump back into pet ownership mode. My friendship with Tom soured by the end of that year, 2002, as his health apparently started to wane. I never knew if he was being honest about that, but we had to part ways in January of 2003. He left me with some $700 in debt. But he also left me with the new puppy, a miniature schnauzer he named Docker. I had grown attached to him since that day in August, when I first saw him. We had agreed I’d take custody of him. I renamed him Wolfgang.
If Wolfgang was still alive, today would be his 20th birthday. He passed away in October of 2016, following a months-long battle with heart trouble. But I maintain my father came out from the Great Beyond and snagged him.
By the end of 2002, Tom had decided he needed to return to his family home in far Northeast Texas to recuperate from whatever ailments were plaguing. He had wanted to put up the puppy for sale, since he knew he couldn’t care for him. I looked at that tiny ball of gray fur one evening, and his large dark brown eyes told me we belonged together. I had started a new job with an engineering company in November 2002 and when I arrived home from work that Friday evening in January 2003, Wolfgang came bouncing out of Tom’s empty bedroom. The dog was truly mine.
And I was concerned, almost frightened. I wasn’t accustomed to having a dog around. I hadn’t had an animal since 1985, when my parents and I put down our sick German shepherd, Josh. We could never bring ourselves to get another dog again. I’d seen so many residents of that apartment complex with small dogs and longed to have one of my own. Now, here – I was an almost accidental pet owner.
We had a rough start. I wasn’t used to dogs anymore. I forgot, for example, that animal babies are like human babies in that they can’t control their bladders or bowels. So I’d get mad at Wolfgang for messing on the floor. And instantly regretted it. He’s just a dog, I’d remind myself.
And that’s what I came to love and appreciate about him – he was a dog. I eventually realized how comforting he could be; simply caressing his downy ears soothed whatever tensions had flooded my body and mind. Any pet owner can empathize with me. When I lived alone, his rambunctious greetings were an end-of-day highlight. After I’d take him out for a brief walk and changed his water, we’d return to the apartment, where I’d strip down to my underwear and roll around on the floor with him. His claw marks on my arms and back could testify to that. But I also understood I was pretty much all he had. I had my small collection of friends and my coworkers, but he spent most of his time alone. Thus, I strongly considered getting another dog. Dogs are pack animals and generally prefer the company of other canines. I’d also come to feel that – in my 40s by this point – I didn’t need to be around other people.
I grew so attached to Wolfgang I considered him my child; an adopted child, but a kid nonetheless. My love and devotion were so intense I seriously considered getting him a social security number to register him as a dependent. I also realized something else: he was the meanest little critter on four legs I’d ever known in my life!
Any concept I had about small dogs being little more than adorable playthings was shattered with Wolfgang. He was almost fearless. The name I’d bestowed upon him truly fit his boisterous personality. At most he weighed about 26 pounds (18 kg), but I know he viewed himself as the same size as that German shepherd. Strangely he had a voice to match. People who heard, but didn’t see him, thought Wolfgang was a monstrous canine. Every vocalization that came out of him was loud – even his yawns! You know you’re loud when someone can hear your yawns in the next room.
By 2007, my father’s health had started to decline. He and my mother were in their late 70s. That fall I made the decision to move back in with them; into this house where I had grown up. It was a difficult time, as I’m such an introvert and was used to living alone. I enjoy my privacy and personal space. But it turned out to be for the best.
Shortly after moving in, I underwent foot surgery. I placed Wolfgang in a room next to my bedroom and behind a dog gate. As attached as he was to me, I knew he’d want to accost me in his usual manner when I returned from the hospital. But hobbling in on crutches would have me too vulnerable. After I got settled into bed, I told my parents to let Wolfgang come into the room. Once he entered he slammed his front paws into the side of the bed, as if trying to ensure I was alright, before turning to my parents and unleashing a vociferous round of barks and growls. His lips were pulled back as far as they could go; something dog owners know is a troubling sign. I’d never seen him so angry. But I knew that was also a gesture of how much he cared about me.
As time progressed, I became more ensconced in this house, and Wolfgang grew into a central figure in the lives of me and my parents. That little dog somehow unified the household. No matter the issue, he always brought things into focus. My father developed a special bond with him; announcing Wolfgang was all the therapy he needed. Indeed, as he’d already done with me, Wolfgang provided a heartening degree of therapeutic consolation.
In early 2016, Wolfgang began experiencing strange – and frightening – seizure-like episodes. He’d struggle to breathe, as he’d squirm on the floor. The vet diagnosed him with a heart murmur and placed him on medication, which stopped the seizures.
Shortly afterwards, my father’s health took a turn for the worst and he was hospitalized in May of that year. He had suffered from gastrointestinal illnesses for his entire adult life and had major abdominal surgery in January 2008. He was relatively fine for a few years, before he started getting sick again.
By Memorial Day weekend 2016, I told his doctors it was time for him to come home. My father had said repeatedly he wanted to die in this house; the home he and my mother had worked so hard to get and keep. And I wanted to honor that wish.
Over the next two weeks, Wolfgang would wander into my parents’ bedroom and start to climb onto the bed on my father’s side. In his weakened state, I saw my father lift his left hand up and stroke Wolfgang’s head. And both would sigh.
On Monday, June 6, 2016, I had sat down to watch the local noon news. Wolfgang lay quietly beside the coffee table. Then the lights flickered, and I felt a strange drop in air pressure. I noticed Wolfgang lift his head and turn to his left. He then rose slowly and sauntered down the hall; he stopped in front of my parents’ closed bedroom door and looked at me. I knew then my father was gone.
Throughout that summer and into the fall of that year, Wolfgang’s behavior changed. He became more subdued and less rambunctious – something I attributed to his age. But I noticed he’d often look off into the distance and occasionally wander into my parents’ empty bedroom. And stare. I’d stare at him, knowing he was seeing my father. In the last couple of years before his death, my father would run his fingers through Wolfgang’s fur and tell him “we’re going to go together.” A secret, I realized – one he was relaying quietly to the dog, yet loud enough for me to hear. In my father’s formal obituary in the “Dallas Morning News”, I mentioned Wolfgang – describing him as a canine “grandson”.
During the last weekend in October 2016, Wolfgang became especially lethargic – and cantankerous. I became annoyed with him, but reminded myself again he was just a dog. Then, by Wednesday morning, I realized I had to take him to the vet; he was critical. As I rushed to the office less than two miles away, I begged him to stay with me; that I loved him more than most anyone else. But it was too late. The doctor couldn’t save him. I leaned over him and whispered again that I loved him and to go with his “granddad”, my father. The vet receptionist stood in the room with us and was already tearing up.
Then she looked up and seemed to sniff the air. “What’s that?”
I smelled it, too. It was the scent of Chaps – my father’s favorite cologne.
As tough as it was dealing with the deaths of my father and Wolfgang within a five month period, I’m glad I didn’t have to worry about either in the following years. My mother’s health continued to worsen, as her descent into dementia intensified. She finally passed away in June of 2020.
In the years since, I’ve realized how lonely it is without a dog. I miss my parents, but I also miss Wolfgang. During some down moments, I often see shadows of a small figure trotting down the hallway and think I need to limit my alcohol intake. But I’ve also seen that tiny character in my dreams; virtual somnambulations I know are messages from my father. Animals, it seems, are conduits for hope and love.
In the 1970s and 80s, Josh provided a unique brand of emotional support for various levels of my anxiety – from childhood into young adulthood. Losing him traumatized me more than I could imagine at the time and ranks as one of the worst events of my life. Losing Wolfgang wasn’t nearly as traumatic, since I knew he was old and suffering health problems that come with age. When he turned 10 in 2012, I told my parents we needed to start preparing ourselves for his death. We hadn’t done the same with Josh.
Stupid animals! They wrap our hearts around them, make us fall in love with them – and then go off and die. But they leave that stamp on our souls that we can never eliminate. But who would?
A generation ago people grieved the loss of pets in solitude. Yet we now view animals with a greater sense of appreciation. Wolfgang’s veterinarian cremated him and returned the ashes to me in a small wooden box that I now keep on the same dresser my parents used. A photo of him hangs beneath a photo of my father and me at a family Christmas gathering in the 1990s. Another photo of him sits between my parents’ urns on the fireplace hearth. A photo of Josh sits off to the left, looking towards all of them.
Happy 20th Birthday, Wolfgang!