Me at age 9 with my new puppy in the summer of 1973
Today, May 31, marks the 50th anniversary of the birth of my first dog, Joshua or Josh. When my parents bought this house in suburban Dallas in 1971, they promised to get me a dog. From the time I was very young, I realized I liked dogs and I wanted one of my own. My folks decided on a German shepherd. My mother had to swallow her phobia of big dogs. Around the age of 6, she and her older sister saw a man in their México City neighborhood be attacked by a Doberman. It was a sight neither of them could ever forget.
In June of 1973, after we got settled into our new house, my mother called a local group that dealt with German shepherds. (I can’t remember the name.) They put her in contact with a nearby breeder. About a month later my father and I visited the home of the family who had German shepherd puppies for sale. They were a relatively young couple who had children about my age. They had five puppies for sale. As we surveyed the litter, one stepped forward towards me.
“This one,” I told my father. And that was it. I had my puppy – or I would in a few weeks, after he’d been fully weaned. He cost $100, and my father gave the man an extra $50 for the kids.
Naming the puppy was a different task. Both my parents were trying to determine what would be the best name for the dog. We had a book entitled “Name Your Baby”, first published in 1963 by Lareina Rule, and after scouring through it, I finally came upon Joshua – an ancient Hebrew name meaning “God of salvation.” And, just as I’d selected the puppy, I had selected his name.
Josh grew quickly. By the end of 1973, he had reached his full adult size. Topping out at roughly 100 pounds, we often didn’t realize how big he was until we brought him inside the house; especially during the hot summer months.
I have too many stories about Josh to recount here, but as with most pets, he became a treasured member of our family. My father would eventually describe him as majestic. Josh developed the perfect markings of a German shepherd: solid black fur with an auburn glaze on his back; triangular ears that seemed to move of their own accord when he heard something; and a bark that could echo through the air. A neighbor said she knew something was different in the area when she heard Josh barking. And he would only bark if something was awry in the neighborhood. Ironically Josh was practically scared of my mother, as she only had to roll up the TV guide for him to drop to the floor. “If he only knew that all he had to do was bark at me, and I’d faint,” she often joked.
In his later years, the hairs around Josh’s face began to gray, and we could tell arthritis was settling into his frame. He was moving slower, and we often brought him inside during cold weather. In March of 1985, Josh’s health began to worsen. His hind legs would periodically collapse, and by April he was pretty much dragging those legs.
On Saturday, April 6, we took him to his local veterinarian. We had doped him up on tranquilizers, and my father and I had to carry him into the office. As we slowly ambled across the parking lot, I noticed a man standing several feet away with a young girl who held a leash attached to a small white dog. I will never forget the look of absolute horror on that girl’s face; her eyes widened, as they locked onto my father and I carrying Josh into the building.
The news wasn’t good. Spurs had developed beneath the latter half of his spine, which the doctor could dissolve with medication. But Josh’s hips had deteriorated too badly to be saved. We had to put him to sleep.
I stared at him lying on the floor in an exam room, drowsy and sad-looking; a strap around his jaw. Even tranquilized Josh was still able to snap at the staff. One of them, a young woman, escorted out through a side door with moistened eyes. The veterinarian looked as if he was using all his strength to prevent himself from bursting into tears.
Josh in the fall of 1983
That year, 1985, was already turning out badly. Almost from the start, everything went wrong in my life. Josh’s death was just one part of it all, but it was the worst part.
My father was a gardening enthusiast. Buying this house with so much space for flower beds and lawns created a slice of heaven on Earth for him. He almost always wore gloves while digging around in the dirt – and Josh seemed to have a disdain for them. When my father wasn’t looking or wasn’t around, he’d snatch them away and bury them somewhere in the back yard. One Saturday about a year after Josh’s death, my father was busy in the back yard when he suddenly uncovered one of his gloves entrenched in the dirt. He stopped for a moment, he said, and had to compose himself.
Recently I began rummaging through some old documents my father had compiled and came upon batches of photographs we had taken of Josh, starting from the time he was a puppy. I had been through those documents before, so I was surprised I just now found those photos. In the process of scanning them, I’ve had to stop and gather my thoughts. Looking at old pictures always awakens a variety of emotions in people.
That dog meant so much to my parents and me, and losing him was incredibly painful. That’s why, when my last dog, Wolfgang, turned 10 in 2012, I began preparing myself for his inevitable demise. Thus, when he did pass four years later, I was able to handle it better.
Another difference in the deaths of both dogs is that I was able to get Wolfgang’s cremated remains in a small wooden box. In 1985 people just had to leave their deceased pets in the care of the vet who would incinerate and then dispose of them. Either that or you buried the animal in the back yard somewhere, which some people actually did. I kept Josh’s collar and tags, which I still have. And I have these old photos. One of them sits on the fireplace hearth, on the far left, looking towards my parents’ urns – still guarding them in a way.
Happy 50th Birthday, Josh!
Several months after Josh died, my father bought this status of St. Francis of Assisi to place in our back yard. St. Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of animals in the Roman Catholic faith.