In 1998 my wife brought home a black Labrador Retriever puppy about the size of a Nerf football. We lived in Colorado at the time, and somehow the name “Nugget” stuck to the dog. He chewed whatever objects he could fit between his little jaws, including furniture legs and any salient angles of drywall in the house. He took forever to house train. He stole car keys, wallets, whatever was left in his reach. He ate things that should have killed him. He was a miniature four-legged Godzilla rampaging through the house. That kind of thing grows on you.
Several months later, he went after a rabbit nibbling on some clover under a cottonwood tree. The rodent led him on a merry chase all over the Fort Carson military neighborhood where we lived. Nugget discovered a love for running wild that day, and from then on escaped anytime he saw daylight through a an open door. He was fast, and it did no good to call after him. When he went carousing, his ears stopped working.
When he was old enough, I took him on a run with me. He tried to tear my arm out of the socket for the first mile, then quit. He weighed over fifty pounds by then, and I had to carry him part of the way home while he drooled on my shoulder. Once we got home, I set him on the ground and removed his leash. He lay down and stared at me with sloppy grin on his face, exhausted. Maybe we’re on to something here, I thought. From then on, he did the OH PLEASE dance every time he saw me wearing, or even carrying running shoes. He and I developed a habit of running together. By the end of that year, he was leading me after six miles. He lived for it. My wife would ask, “Did Nugget take you for a run today?”
When we moved to Utah, my brother-in-law took Nugget out when I had to be away from home. They became best friends and logged a lot of miles together on road and trail. In Utah, Nugget learned to catch Frisbees in midair, play tug-o-war with dogs twice his size, scare away would-be burglars, chase ducks in ice-encrusted water, and he always served as a never-ending fountain of enthusiasm, joy, and love.
When our children joined the family, he adopted them, protected them, and tolerated their using him as a furry trampoline, all with his characteristic grin. He loved us, all of us, no matter what. We moved many times during his life, following military assignments, and he always adapted well. He never lost his desire to run and explore. He was as happy trekking in snowy Utah mountains as paddling through Oahu surf with the sea turtles.
Nugget started to slow down during our time in North Carolina a couple years ago. Our runs together shortened to two or three miles, and I always walked him home the last half-mile or so to let him cool down. At eleven years old, he was in incredible shape for a big dog.
In 2009, we moved to Vicenza, Italy. Once we settled in, Nugget and I went for an exploratory jog. He did just fine, though I was careful not to let him overdo it. For the first year here in Italy, he was able to do two miles before he began to tire. One day in the Fall that year, we went out, and he didn’t want to run. We took a leisurely stroll and came back home. It was the first time he hadn’t taken off like a race horse. It wasn’t long after that he started to stumble on walks, and finally lost the ability to negotiate stairs. His days of sleeping at the foot of the bed upstairs were over. He cried with loneliness for several nights until we all readjusted. Eventually, he adapted and learned to love sleeping on our leather couch downstairs.
Early this year his hips and hind legs seemed to deteriorate before our eyes. He gradually lost strength until he couldn’t get on the couch and needed help some mornings to get off the floor for breakfast. When it became apparent he was living in pain, we faced the decision to end his life with dignity, before he completely lost his ability to function as a dog. My children had never known a world without Nugget’s grinning face and wagging tail. It was going to be hard.
We lost Nugget on May 13th. I took him to the Army vet in Longare and fed him Milkbones in the waiting room. He enjoyed a library of scents and showed his usual interest in what was around him, but he knew something was up. I sat on the floor with him as the anesthesia relaxed his labored breathing and he appeared to sleep. I prayed as he received the second injection for God to speed him on his way home without pain. My greatest fear was that he would feel betrayed by my sending him away. There were some complications, and I’m afraid his journey wasn’t completely without discomfort, but I was there with him until the end.
The clerk behind the counter said, “That will be seventeen dollars, Sir.” I managed to get outside the vet’s office before sobbing. A couple people saw the unusual sight of an Army officer walking and weeping in the parking lot that afternoon. I thought by the time I got home I’d be OK, but when I faced my family, who had thankfully decided to say goodbye to Nugget at home, I completely lost it. It was the only time my kids have seen me cry over an animal, and will probably be the last. I can’t see ever feeling the same about a dog.
Go home, Nugget. What a good dog. Goodbye, Buddy.