Friday, March 18, 2011

The Best Dog...Ever

I’m a confirmed dog guy, for as long as I can remember. I’ve had some great cats that left indelible impressions on me—I once found a litter hidden in our barn after the mother had been hit by a car, and raised the three kittens from the age of eight days—but I’m a dog guy.

From our hunting beagle Soxy, to Taffy the Cocker Spaniel, to the German Shepherd named Casey that practically raised me (let a little air out of the football and he would actually play as the sixth guy to even out three-on-three teams, seriously…of course it had to be touch instead of tackle), to the first dog we had with our kids—a female boxer named Bud—I can honestly say that I’ve been blessed with some of the best dog relationships a human can have.

Bud was our transition dog. Less than two years after we were married, and before kids, we were a young working couple, and we both wanted a dog. I lobbied hard for a lab, but my wife Jenny had always had boxers in their family…so she won out. And I was quickly won over to the breed. Gentle, playful, short hair, great with kids. I became a fan for life.

So we started the search, and through a friend found a family that had a boxer about to give birth to registered pups. We actually went and visited them, played with the mother, and plunked down a deposit. The day Bud was born (Veteran’s Day 1986), we went and picked her out, held her when she was less than 12 hours old, and went back numerous times to play with her before bringing her home at six weeks old. In an ironic twist, though we lived more than fifty miles away from my home town and had gotten Bud locally, we later found out her father lived less than a half mile down the road from my mom and childhood home, and we actually went to see him too a year or so later. We’re weird about dog connections like that.

Bud was a terrific dog and will always be our first kid. She started getting sick in the fall of 1997 with a brain tumor and we had to put her to sleep in the spring of 1998. I’d done that before, but this day I cried worse than either of my parent’s funerals. I couldn’t begin to describe the grief.

But this post isn’t about Bud…it’s about her follow-up dog, Penske.

We were going to let some time pass, as you always say when you let go of a dog. But it was less than a week later when there was an ad from the St Louis Post Dispatch circled and sitting on the table when I got home from work. "Boxers, $300, in Maryland Heights" and a phone number. No, I said. We’re going to wait. But after hours of begging and pleading (Dane was only 5, so I think it was mostly Alex and her mom, but I could be wrong), I finally agreed to just go look.


We were ushered into the family’s back yard, and there were the parents with their little herd of pups—eleven or twelve of them as I remember. They were frolicking around, and we asked about a female. There were only two, they said, “Here’s one—not really the color you want—where’s the other one…?” And as if on cue the little girl blasted out of a hole in the deck and raced at Alex and Dane, bounding straight into our lives. We were sunk. 30 minutes later Penske was a Hoover and stumbling around her new house in Chesterfield.

Yes, her name was Penske. We’re racers in the Hoover household; open wheel racers. And Penske was named for one of my hero’s and the King of Indy, Roger Penske. It was close…she was almost Lola or Enzo. But it was my turn to pick, and none of us really liked Cosworth either. Penske came home with us the Wednesday night after the Indy 500 of 1998 (Eddie Cheever in the Rachel’s Potato Chips Special), and the day before I left for the weekend to race in the Skip Barber Series at Indianapolis Raceway Park. Penske was a most appropriate name in her youth and for most of her life—she raced everywhere; up and down the stairs, around the yard. Sometimes she would actually sprint all-out in huge circles, doing four or five laps of the back yard as fast as she could run, before loping out to a trot like she’d just won the Saturday night feature at some fairground dirt track.

The weird connection with Penske was that her birthday was the same as Alex’s: April 14. So every year they’d each put on a hat, eat cake, and celebrate together. We have some great pictures from those parties.

A lot of people will tell you that their dog thinks they’re a person, but I always said that Penske thought we were all dogs. The way she played, how she reacted to us. I’m still to this day convinced that we were Penske’s pets.

I have a lot of indelible images of Penske: there’s the picture I can’t find of she and I laying on the sofa when she’s about a year old. Or rather, Penske laying on me. I’m stretched out reading a book, and Penske is sprawled out lengthwise and flat on top of me…her head under my chin and her feet stretched out almost to my ankles. I wish I could find it to post it here. I'm sorry that cell phones with cameras didn't come sooner, because you would have incredible pictures of Penske accompanying this piece. We have some hilarious shots of her and the kids--I'm particularly thinking of one where she is licking Dane's face when he's about six--but they're all on film and paper. The ones here, while good, are from the last couple of years and really don't capture her vigor...this was more what we referred to as her "reclining and napping" phase... :-)

One of my favorite memories is of her racing up the stairs of our home at about three months of age, barely able to do it because she was so small, and blasting (yes, I used "blasting" again; she did a lot of blasting in those days) across the landing and hall like a bullet to launch herself onto our bed, hammering her head into whatever part of your body she hit first and then just burrowing in there, like you were a gaggle of puppies and she was trying to snuggle up.

She would also crawl under the bed; at least until she did it one day and was too big to get out; I had to lift up the entire King bed so she could stand up, shake her head, and look at me like she was saying "Well I guess THOSE days are over..." Or she'd lay with her head stuck into dark corners, like the intersection of the couch and loveseat. Until she was about five, her favorite thing was to lay down by you, and jam her head behind your back and hips.

Penske always slept with us, and she would dream vividly and in full action, muffled barks and legs churning as she chased some imaginary rabbit. She would look up at you once in awhile and her upper lip would be stuck to her teeth, making her look like she was trying to do a canine impersonation of Elvis. As you'll also note in one of these pictures, she loved "hanging off" of things--the edge of a stair step, the end of the couch.

When I would get down on the floor, she’d wrestle with me round and round, snarling like it was the end of the world…but stopping just short when it got too rough. Inevitably it would end up with me facedown, her pinning me across the back, and pretending to bite my ears as she growled and licked my neck. All the while her stub of a tale going a million miles a minute.

She ate a bottle of prescription steroids when she was about three, and the vet warned that might take some time off her life at the end…but her physicals were always top notch, and she was really in great shape until the last three months. Her worst infirmity was being deaf as a stone over about the last year…which was an endless source of amusement to both our family and Penske. There must be something special about a dog waking up to find you nuzzling her face, surprised at your touch or that you’re even that close and she didn’t know…because her eyes light up and her tale wiggles non-stop.

This storytelling could go on for hours. Penske is the best dog I’ve ever known, and she had her own special communication with each member of our family. She and I would “hug” standing up…I’d bend over and put my arm around her neck, and she would put her face up to mine, nuzzle, and just kind of smile as she leaned into me and wiggled her tail. We’d stand like that for as long as I could bend over, which wasn’t nearly as long as I’d like in the last couple of years.

I share all of this with you because we put Penske to sleep this afternoon (Friday , March 18th); a month before she and Alex would have shared birthdays 13 and 22, respectively. I had hoped to get back to Evansville the night before, but a last minute work situation and numerous calls and commitments kept that from happening. Since I wasn’t there to help with the 4:30 appointment at the vet, and Jenny was going to have to do it alone, her neighbor Sheila went with her. Alex was in Florida, me in Chicago, and Dane was unreachable at some after school activity. The two ladies from the vet’s office were there too, bawling their eyes out—which we’re told is not normal. Penske was routinely touted as the office’s favorite patient, and she received much special treatment when she went there, whether for boarding or an appointment.

So, I’m sitting here tonight thinking of the best dog I’ve ever known in a very long and distinguished list of contenders; and I’m crying like a baby. Today would have been an extremely difficult and tense day at work under normal circumstances, and with this hanging out there I was a wreck all day. It’s the kind of day that I would have come home and just sat on the couch with Penske. When she had her head on my knee, I didn’t need a drink to smooth out the troubles of the world; and I knew I was loved, unconditionally and always. Tonight would have been a prime Penske night.

So godspeed Penske; aka Snoop, Penske Lee, Princess, the Queen, Penny, Racer Dog, Penners, and Penskerella. Dogs are a gift and a blessing; and you were an overachiever in that and every other regard. Thirteen years wasn’t nearly enough, but it was more than we deserved from a dog like you. We love you old girl, and we all miss you terribly already…