And Then There Was One

This post is uncharacteristically long and heavy. It took three days to write. Buckle up.

I can’t say I wasn’t allowed to have a pet as a child. I had several species of freshwater fish. Nothing exotic or over-the-top, just your typical goldfish, neon tetras, and assorted gouramis over the span of many years. There were small aquatic frogs in there as well. At one point I had a half-dozen or so hermit crabs named Bob, mainly because I couldn’t tell the difference between ’em, and because they’d occasionally swap shells overnight so it was never really possible to tell which was which. However, my sister and I were never allowed a dog, point-blank. There was no discussion, no argument, just a solid wall of no.

So, of course, as soon as we each moved out and got married, we got our own dogs. My wife had several growing up, so she knew her way around caring for a puppy. We were still dating when her family got the most recent one, and I was able to see a lot of the early stages of the puppy’s upbringing, so I kind of knew what to expect. That puppy was Lilo, a red female Shiba Inu.

At that point in late 2006, I didn’t know what a Shiba Inu was. Cryptocurrency didn’t exist, and neither did the “doge” face meme that appeared alongside Dogecoin. Lilo was my first exposure to the breed, and while she had a love-hate relationship with me during the first few of years, we ended up figuring each other out, and I grew to love the Shiba Inu personality.

Julie and I got married in 2007 and, in early 2009, we made the decision to get a dog of our own. Our search ended in Gurnee, Illinois with a tiny, 6-week-old, black Shiba Inu named Saki; on June 8, 2009, we brought her home, decided “Saki” just wouldn’t do — us giving a Shiba Inu a Japanese-sounding name just seemed played-out — and renamed her Daisy.

Daisy became the focus of our lives. We found ways to be with Daisy, or to have Daisy with us, even if we couldn’t physically be in the same space: setting up a laptop on a tray table with Skype on a webcam, projecting a continuous webcam view of Daisy’s enclosure on a wall at the office for all to see (the PuppyCam), two-way conversations via whatever random software I could find that day … whatever worked. We were able to teach her that the way to the bathroom was through the sliding door downstairs, and she’d wait patiently for us to grab her leash and take her out. Daisy learned very quickly who brought her food, and she never — and I mean that in the strictest sense of the word, absolutely never — bit any of our hands when we were near her while she ate. When Julie or I put our hands into her food bowl while she was eating, she’d simply stop and wait for us to take ’em out before resuming. We played with her paws, and she had no problem with us trimming her claws, though she preferred Dremels to clippers. She would sit in my lap, give me a paw, and just stare off at her surroundings while I worked.

She didn’t care for baths, though. She’d tolerate them, sure, because she knew we wouldn’t hurt her, but they were not her favorite. Daisy preferred to lie down somewhere and lick herself clean like a cat.

We took her to some group training classes being held in the large back room of a local PetSmart so she could be exposed to other dogs and learn a couple things, and while she was about as stubborn as Wikipedia would describe a Shiba Inu to be, she did pick up some good habits and earned the privilege of wearing the silly graduation cap.

Julie and I decided to start a family in 2010. Daisy was aware something was changing due to the increased activity around the house and such, and she did not leave Julie’s side throughout her pregnancy. She was protective of whatever it was that was in Julie’s belly, but not to the point of violence. When our son arrived, Daisy was skeptical at first: one of my favorite pictures of that time was when Julie was sitting on our sofa holding our screaming infant son, and Daisy was sitting on the sofa opposite her, leaning back in shock at the noisy object. Captures the moment perfectly.

And so, that is how Daisy was introduced to our son at the age of 15 months. While she didn’t quite act like a sister, being a dog and all, she took a liking to the tiny human and watched over him as he navigated the world. Being a Shiba Inu she kept her distance and made it look like she was detached from the situation entirely, but anyone with eyes could tell that she was being protective. As our son learned to walk, she was right there, following close behind and actually propping him up with her snout when he started to falter. I wish I were making this up as it sounds like something straight out of a cartoon; however, that’s exactly how it happened. She was a surrogate broom/mop as well, happily collecting the delicious morsels of whatever our son decided to throw from his high chair. She was quite selective, though, as she left some behind if the flavor wasn’t to her liking.

The “aloof” personality of the Shiba Inu is something that I really love about the breed. Most of the time, Daisy simply could not be bothered. During the day, she’d lie on the back of the sofa and look out the window absorbing the sun. As a puppy and a young adult, fireworks and thunderstorms really didn’t faze her. If anything she was looking changed, though, she’d make all manner of weird noises, making her a fantastic watchdog. Squirrel? Bark. Mail? Bark and run to the door. Car driving by? Stand up and bark. Someone familiar shows up? Definitely don’t bark — start howling and prancing around instead. And make no mistake, I’m using the word “bark” somewhat loosely here, as Shiba Inus … vocalize. They yodel, howl, squeak, scream … I think one of the more frequent sounds out of Daisy’s mouth was “rrr-ow” — a very nicely rolled “r”, at that — often repeated so it was more like “rrr-ow rrr-ow rrr-ow.” Not as a howl, either, more like she was trying to make it into a sentence, actually, with each occurrence descending in pitch until she was finished. It’s not the easiest to describe in text.

Our second child arrived shortly before Daisy reached the age of 5, and none of her behaviors toward babies changed. Daisy was right there behind the new baby girl the same way she was behind our son, exactly as caring as before. This little dog knew her way around human babies, and our human babies saw this little dog as the integral part of the family she was.

Almost two years after our second child arrived, Lilo passed away and Daisy remained as the only Shiba Inu in our lives. Daisy noticed, and we noticed that she noticed. She slowed down a bit, and was clearly missing Lilo, but after a bit she got used to being extra-spoiled. We started taking road trips all over the place, and Daisy had her own seat of honor in the minivan. It wasn’t a fixed seat — whatever seat she sat in was the seat of honor. She had earned it.

The year 2020 rolled around with all of the hot garbage it brought to everyone. Daisy was 11 years old, her tan fur fading, white hairs showing up among the black. She couldn’t run as fast as she used to anymore, and she’d started hiding under the bed or in the bathroom for storms, but other than that she was still the same Daisy, still as gentle and silly as usual. She’d been alone too long, though, so we decided to bring home a friend: on July 3 of 2020, Daisy met Luna, a Labrador mix we adopted via Chicagoland Lab Rescue, and was instantly reinvigorated. Luna, despite being just 9 weeks old, was almost as big as Daisy but was exceedingly clumsy, as you’d expect of a puppy. She was also overly playful, so Daisy had to keep up, and she adapted masterfully. Daisy took on the role of Luna’s surrogate mother despite having no experience being a mother herself, and she handled it like a natural. They did everything together: went on walks, played in the backyard, visited the vet, had spa days, slept in our bed.

Julie and I bought the camper in 2021, and we did not leave Luna or Daisy out. They came camping with us every time. Our camper had a loft for the kids, which Luna and Daisy loved to visit whenever they could, though Daisy did so with increasing difficulty. She wasn’t getting any younger after all, and Shibas tend to have hip and knee issues as they age.

Around mid-2023, Daisy stopped being able to climb up the stairs consistently. There were times she simply stopped at the bottom and waited for us to come get her; other times she felt like she could do it, but found out halfway up that she couldn’t and fell down. Those times were the worst; she wouldn’t scream, either. In fact, the way she reacted, she seemed almost ashamed about it. There was nothing to be ashamed of at all, though: she was 14 years old. In early June Daisy started stumbling all over the place, tripping over her own paws, tilting her head to the side — we didn’t know what to make of it and thought she’d had a stroke. We were terrified, and thought the worst; I’m going to have to take credit for floating the “we may need to make a really difficult decision soon” idea first. Julie took her to the vet, where the diagnosed it as vestibular disease, basically dog vertigo, and prescribed some meds. We were instructed not to allow her to go up and down the stairs by herself at all anymore, so Julie and I carried her up and down the stairs, and lifted her on and off the bed. We gave her the medications that the vet prescribed, and for the first time in her life she disagreed with the method I used to do so, attempting to bite my hand on a number of occasions. However, after a couple weeks of this, Daisy returned to her normal self.

Last Saturday, October 21, we headed out to the camper to clean it up and get it ready for winterization. It was just going to be an overnight trip, as we only needed to get toiletries, cleaning supplies, nonperishables, etc. out of there, as we didn’t want to risk anything freezing over the winter. As usual we took Daisy and Luna with us, though they rode in separate cars: Luna rode with me, and Daisy rode with Julie. At some point during the drive out to the campsite Daisy started screaming, which lasted for the rest of the ride out there — for a 90-minute drive, that’s torture. Julie and our daughter were quite upset by this, so I grabbed Daisy out of the minivan and walked around the campsite with her to see how she was. She seemed to be alright, waddling around, peeing on stuff, giving Luna the side-eye as usual. Her head tilt had returned, though. In the late afternoon I sat out on the deck alongside the camper and trimmed up her claws with the Dremel while she looked around at the trees and sniffed at the autumn wind.

The trip was short, but we were concerned, so Julie took Daisy to the emergency vet as soon as we got home on Sunday. They recognized it as vestibular disease again and prescribed fresh meds, but also drew some blood for labs. Monday morning I gave Daisy these meds in the usual form — stuffing them into a treat — and she ate ’em right up. When Julie came home, though, she found Daisy lying on the floor in a puddle of liquid excrement. Distressed, she called me and asked if I was on my way home. I was, and was happy to take over; she’d already cleaned up the puddle, but Daisy was still dirty, so I gave her a nice warm bath.

Not 30 minutes after her bath, I heard Daisy scream and looked over to see that situation play out again: Daisy, in a puddle of her own excrement. I quickly picked her up, crated Luna, rushed Daisy back to the bathtub, cleaned up the floor, and bathed Daisy again. I told Julie what happened and we thought it was due to the new medications being stronger than the old, since after this second occurrence, Daisy returned to her bowls to eat and drink.

Tuesday morning, the 24th, started out the same as the 23rd. We got up, I took the dogs out — Luna ran down the stairs and I carried Daisy. The kids refilled the food and water bowls as usual. I stuffed Daisy’s meds into a treat as usual, but she refused to take them. I didn’t blame her after what happened the night before, so I put the treat into a small Ziploc and put it on the kitchen counter behind a bunch of stuff so Luna wouldn’t get at it. Shortly before I left to take the kids to school Daisy threw up on the rug. I again attributed it to the strength of the medication and cleaned it up, but when Julie returned home, she saw a scene similar to Monday’s: Daisy in a puddle of urine, lying on her side. That’s too much to let slide, so Julie called me to ask if I was on my way. Again, I was, so as soon as I got home and parked in the garage, we all got into the minivan and we went to the vet. All four of us were more worried than ever about Daisy at this point, and the “difficult decision” talk came up multiple times during the relatively short ride. Upon arrival they immediately took Daisy into the back and started checking her out.

When the vet told us that Daisy’s temperature was quite high, even for a Shiba Inu, that her breathing wasn’t normal, and that her heartbeat was irregular and a murmur had developed, we knew Daisy was telling us it was time. That difficult decision we’d put out of our mind from 2009 until June of 2023 finally had to be made. We had originally wanted to have someone come to our house to perform the procedure in an environment where Daisy would be comfortable, but given the past few days, taking her home and waiting another 12-24 hours would have been nothing but torture. My first dog was in pain, was dying, and Julie and I made the decision to put an end to her suffering right then and there.

The vet inserted a catheter into Daisy’s front leg, wrapped her in a blanket, and brought her to us to say our goodbyes. Given how recent this was it’s a bit difficult to write about, so I won’t get into much detail, but after approximately half an hour we called the vet into the room. She came in with the drugs necessary to end Daisy’s life, explained the procedure, and began. The four of us put our hands on Daisy while Julie held her in her lap. The vet put Daisy to sleep with the first drug, cleaned the tubes with saline, and then administered the second drug to stop her heart. It was all over in less than a minute; she looked like she was asleep, finally at peace, not in pain. The vet left the room to give us another few minutes to say goodbye before the vet tech returned to take our Daisy away forever.

The lab results from Sunday’s emergency vet visit finally came back Wednesday morning: Daisy was experiencing heart and kidney failure at that time already. We found a minor amount of comfort in the decision we’d made the night before, but … Daisy’s still gone.

Last night, the 27th of October, I returned to the emergency vet’s office to pick up Daisy’s ashes. We’ve currently placed them in the china cabinet, until we find a better place. Luna’s been sniffing around for her, and rubbing her head where Daisy used to hang out, but she knows Daisy isn’t coming back; she hasn’t been barking as much as usual, and has shown a bit less activity. The kids are wrecked. Julie and I miss her as well. The house seems empty despite Luna being an 80-pound beast. I don’t feel like doing anything for Halloween. But … life’s continuing.

Daisy gave us everything. Sometimes I wonder if I gave her enough. She was the best first dog anyone could ever ask for … she was the best dog anyone could ask for full-stop. She cannot be replaced. The family will be getting another Shiba Inu, that is 100% certain — I’m ready to get in the car right now. However, we will miss Daisy ’til the end of our days, and as unfair as it may sound, every dog we have from here on out will have to live up to the standard she set.