A Tribute to a Friend

I’ve decided to start off 2009 with a story about a pup I once had. I don’t talk about Dexter much because I only had him for a short time. However, a little dog with such a big heart deserves to have his story shared.

His story begins when I was a senior in high school. It was wintertime and my job as an ice cream scooper had ended, so I went to the local mall in search for a new job to make some extra cash. Being an animal lover, when I walked past the pet store with puppies and kittens in the window, I thought I had found my dream job. After chatting with the store manager for a couple of minutes, I was hired. Naive and unaware of the harsh realities of pet stores, I was eager to begin.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that a pet store was not an appropriate place for someone who cared so deeply about our four legged friends. Sick puppies, impulsive customers, and irresponsible employees created a horrible atmosphere. But it was too late and I was stuck. I found myself caring for the sick animals when no one else would, and I tried my hardest to educate our customers on the dog that they were taking home. I couldn’t walk away like many people would. I felt that the dogs needed me to make their short time in the pet store as pleasant as possible. And so I continued to work there throughout the rest of my senior year and up through my sophomore year in college.

Now one would think, with all these adorable puppies in need of some care, that I would fall in love over and over again. Turns out, I could handle not bring home every lovable, cuddly pup that came through the door. Three years worth of puppies came in and out of my life without staying there forever….

Until I met my little boy Dexter. To this day, I don’t know what it was about him that won me over. Perhaps his goofy dog smile or big droopy eyes or the fact that he “danced” when I walked up to his cage. Or maybe we were simply meant to meet. Whatever it was, he won me over at first sight.

When I got to work that day, he was in the “backroom” where the puppies-too-sick-for-customers-to-see were kept. I walked up to his cage to find a little basset hound puppy looking up at me. I must say, a lot of breeds are extremely cute as puppies, but basset hounds may win the prize for absolutely MOST adorable. But once I got over his brown eyes and floppy ears and laughed at him spinning in circles of excitement, I noticed that he was very wobbly on his feet and that something just wasn’t right. He was walking not on his front paws, but on his ankles. His paws just seemed to flop around him. He was happy as anything, but clearly could not walk properly. I had to know more, and immediately went to my manager to get info on the pup.

Turns out he was 5 months old and had been living with a store employee, out of the public’s eye, and was sent to our store to determine “what to do with him.” Well, without hesitation, and without foreseeing what it would lead to, I told her I’d take him.

Later that day the store veterinarian arrived for weekly vaccines. Though I never had much respect for the vet because he made his money off of sick pet store dogs, I was eager to get his opinion on my new pup…why were his legs like that? He explained that because my puppy had been raised standing only on grates (commonly used at puppy mills to make cleaning up after the dogs easier,) his growing muscles couldn’t handle the strain, thus becoming so weak that they couldn’t support his body weight, forcing him to rely on his ankles to do so instead. He told me that my puppy wasn’t in pain, and you literally could flop his paws around without him noticing a thing. I expressed my concern for him walking on his ankles, thinking that it must hurt him…but the vet simply told me to put socks on his feet to protect him, and that “he’ll be just fine.” However, it was evident that Dexter could not be sold as a healthy puppy. A refund was needed by the puppy mill that he came from before he was mine to keep, so the vet agreed to write a letter to the puppy mill describing the situation, and mailed it out.

It didn’t take long at all for Dexter and I to become best friends. I wasn’t able to bring him home, he had a bad case of kennel cough which he had been fighting since his trip from the puppy mill to the pet store, and because at the time my family had a senior 12 year old Collie at home, we just couldn’t take the risk with the contagious virus. So Dexter stayed in the “backroom” with all of the other sick pups. I quickly worked my schedule around seeing Dexter. In the mornings, I was driving 45 minutes to work at a doggie daycare from 6am until 10am. From there I would drive all the way to the mall to visit Dexter, clean his cage, give him fresh food and water, and spend some quality time with him. Then I’d head back home for a couple of hours, and then it was back to the mall to work and spend time with my lovable pup. I would also come to the pet store everyday I had off to see my pup. As soon as I’d walk through the door, Dexter would just light up, spinning and smiling, so excited to see me. He had a very hard time walking, but I wanted to get him outside, the “backroom” as often as possible. So I’d carry him to a grassy area on the side of the mall where we’d just sit and hang out. He’d spend some time sniffing around, but was usually content just to cuddle and play with me. He could only walk about 10 feet before needing to rest, but his lack of stability on his feet never slowed him down. He enjoyed laying next to me on the top of a grassy hill, acting goofy with his puppy antics, and then flop over on his side and roll down the hill…always with a big smile on his face as he went.

During store hours, Dexter was never allowed into the front of the store, the business owners didn’t want our customers to know that we had a “defective” puppy. However, as soon as we closed, I’d take Dexter out to play. He’d do his best trying to follow me around as I rushed to clean the store. Once we finished, it was a trek across the mall to make the nightly deposit. Of course, Dexter would come with me for that too. He’d get about 10 feet down the hall until he’d stop, sit, and wait for me to pick him up. I’d carry that heavy little boy all the way to the end of the mall and back….he loved his nightly walks!

It was after about a week or two when we finally heard back from the puppy mill. They refused to give the store a refund based on what the vet had to say without seeing the puppy themselves. That meant Dexter had to be sent back to where he came from, where his problems had started. I refused. There was no way I would send my lovable boy back to the puppy mill. I insisted, instead, that I would take him to my family’s veterinarian to see if they could convince the puppy mill to give the store a refund without seeing him.

Dexter’s vet appointment meant he was coming home with me for the day. I was thrilled to give him a day in the life of a “real” dog! We got to my parents’ home where Dexter had a large yard and field to relax and hang out in and he followed me around in the soft grass like a normal puppy would. I gave him a bath outside to clean off the stench of the pet store. He looked great and was the happiest I had ever seen him. My excitement grew as I packed him into the car with my mom to visit our veterinarian…I knew the vet would see past his funny legs just as I had, write a fabulous letter that would convince the puppy mill to give the store a refund, and help me give Dexter a proper, real dog’s life!

When the vet walked into the examination room, it took one look on her face and my excitement and daydreams of Dexter’s future stopped abruptly. Immediately, she gave one look at Dexter she said “Kim, why are you doing this to yourself?”

Turns out, I was having so much fun with Dexter and was so crazy over him, I had never really noticed some oddities that he exibited. Within five minutes, the veterinarian showed me that Dexter did not have proper hip sockets, that his hips nearly “floated,” which limited his ability to walk. His eyes, which I always just thought were adorable, “popped” more than a basset hound’s should. They were more like a pug’s or Boston terrier’s eyes. She explained to me that it was created by a build up of fluid behind his eyes. A weird indent of his ribs suggested further internal problems and his small size and strange colorations were clear signs of genetic problems. His front legs, though not painful now, would be a source of arthritis after only one or two years, limiting his mobility even more. And that consistent kennel cough was a clear sign of a weak immune system. All due to improper breeding and inappropriate conditions from the puppy mill that he came from.

I was heart broken. My vet told me that because of the pain that Dexter was potentially in and the potential problems that can arise in the near future, the best thing that I could do for Dexter would be to have him put to sleep. Sadly, she told me that there was nothing that I could do to prevent him from getting worse, there were just too many things that had gone wrong. I felt as if I were letting Dexter down not being able to help him, but as I teared up, my vet reminded me of one thing I had been able to do for Dexter…I had given him a best friend.

Things didn’t get much easier after our visit to the vet. I had to bring Dexter back to the store to give them the news. The store owner requested a letter from my vet to try once again to receive a refund for Dexter. Until then, we had to keep him at the store until we heard back from them. I was happy to have more time with my pup, but it was so hard knowing that my time was limited. I continued to spoil him to pieces, spending hours outside together and all of my time at the store. Dexter’s bond with me grew on a daily basis and as days turned to weeks waiting for a response from the puppy mill, I shared about a lifetime of love with my little basset hound pup.

My concern was growing as I saw some of Dexter’s healthy problems increase, it was quite apparent that a lot of the issues my vet had pointed out were getting worse. It was at about that time when we heard back from the puppy mill. They agreed to give the store a refund for my pup. Our time together was coming to an end.

My last night with Dexter was spent at my parents’ home. I remember driving him home from the pet store…a day I had dreamed about in excitement about a life together with my little dog, instead brought tears. I gave him a bath and spent the night in a sleeping bag on the floor so that I could be as close to him as possible. He fell asleep contently on my pillow, right next to my head.

The next day we got up and spent a beautiful morning out in the field so that Dexter could be a “real” dog one last time. I squeezed in every last moment I could with him.

When we got to the vet’s office, she gave me time to hang out with Dexter a little longer and say my goodbyes. When I was ready, she gave him a tranquilizer so that he would fall asleep before being euthanized. Within seconds, his eyes got droopy and he sat heavily on the ground. He looked up at me sleepily, but with the same expression he’d give me when he couldn’t walk any further and wanted to be carried. I pulled him up to me and he cuddled onto my lap. And with his little head rested on my hand, Dexter fell asleep with his best friend.

I write this story not to create awareness of the harsh realities of pet stores and puppy mills…it’s a subject I could certainly elaborate on, but not when I talk about Dexter. If it weren’t for my job at the pet store, if it weren’t for the grates that puppies were raised on, I never would have met Dexter. I ended up continuing to work at the pet store for another year, I couldn’t walk away from all of the other puppies that needed someone to care for them during their time at the store. But one can only take so much heartbreak, when I left the store it was a huge relief, and since then the business has closed. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t listened to my vet, had I kept Dexter, but some things are better left unknown. All I know is that I gave Dexter the best time I could during his short little life, and gave him a best friend.

He’s resting in my parents’ field now with a stone place over his grave on which I painted a saying that I found perfect for my lovable basset hound pup, “My little dog, a heartbeat at my feet.”