Today is Big’s eleventh birthday so I wanted to spend a few minutes talking about him.
My friend Crystal’s mother was a Shar Pei breeder and in the fall of 2002 she had a litter of four puppies. When the puppies were three days old Crystal took me out for a visit. It was love at first sight. I was completely, utterly smitten. And it wasn’t just the puppies. Crystal’s mom had several adult dogs too…I don’t remember now how many but there were maybe five or six. They were all related to the puppies in one way or another and they were all really nice dogs. Shar Pei are, naturally, aloof. It’s a breed thing and these dogs were no exception. But Shar Pei also have a reputation for being aggressive and none of these were. Some were more friendly and curious about me than others, and some were clearly shy, but not one of them were growly or unpleasant. To me, this was a very good sign.
I picked Big out of the litter before his eyes were even open. I don’t know what made me choose him, maybe it was fate. But I knew this was the puppy for me. And I couldn’t have been more right. When he came home he was, from the very start, an easy puppy. He didn’t misbehave and he wasn’t destructive. The law firm I was working for at the time was in an iffy part of town and I was frequently there alone so my boss let me bring Big to work with me. In truth, Big went most everywhere with me and I think that, along with his good breeding, is the reason he’s such a good natured dog. Mr. Gaines and I often joke that if someone broke into our home Big would cheerfully give them the grand tour and, in exchange for a few ear scratches and a treat, show the burglars where we keep the “good stuff”.
Sometimes I think Big is a cat living in a dog’s body. There is nothing he enjoys more than a nap, something he does for roughly twenty two hours a day. The last time we were at the vet, she asked if I thought he was slowing down any now that he’s getting older. All I could say was, it’s hard to tell…he’s never been fast.
He does still have bursts of energy. About as much as he ever did. Just last night when Mr. Gaines came home from work, Big stood at the top of the stairs, play bowing and dancing around with excitement. He’s never been one for toys or fetch or tug, but he definitely lets you know that he’s happy to see you. And he still appreciates a good game of chase and the occasional wrestling match with Lola-dog.
One of Big’s other great joys in life is eating and he will happily eat a lot of thing many dogs don’t like, apples and oranges for instance. Bananas are probably his favorite thing. And he’s very polite about it, you never have to worry about inadvertently getting nipped when you’re giving him a treat. Most larger pieces of food, you can hold for him and he’ll eat it bite by bite, just like a person would. Except pizza. He seems to believe that pizza must be eaten by the slice in one gulp and we will try to do exactly that if you give him the chance. One of the first time Mr. Gaines met Big, we ordered pizza for dinner. Having seen Big eat things properly before, Mr. Gaines offered him a piece, expecting him to take a bite, chew it up, and then come back for more. But instead, Big opened his giant maw (really, it is life-flashing-before-your-eyes-horrifying to wake up and find him standing over you yawning) and inhaled the entire piece. There was much coughing and gagging as Big chewed it into submission and, for about thirty seconds, Mr. Gaines was terrified he’d just killed his new girlfriend’s dog. That was the end of offering Big an entire slice of pizza.
He is rock solid off leash. I have no doubt I could (though I obviously never would) walk down the middle of I-95 with him and he’d never take a wrong step. I don’t think this is because of any great training on my part. He just wants to be with his people and doesn’t see any reason to stray. Nothing is better than mom and dad. Because he’s so well behaved, both on and off leash, we’ve taken him all over. He’s been to Florida, Kentucky, and back and forth between Michigan and Virginia more times than I can count. He’s hiked in Shenandoah National Park and toured Gettysburg, Antietam, and half a dozen other parks and battlefields.
He has a plethora of nicknames: Biggles, Bigglesworth, Bigenstain Bear, Pumpkin Butt, Little Man. He thinks he’s emperor of the world (don’t ask). He doesn’t bark or whine to go outside, instead he gets right up in your grill and stares at you…a cold, unblinking, unfeeling stare. That look has woken me from a dead sleep almost every morning for the last decade. He follows me everywhere and stands between me and the stove while I’m cooking, just in case I might maybe possibly drop something. (Lola-dog is trained to lay at the threshold and watch but, obviously, that training didn’t go so well with the boy.) He watches TV, especially Food Network. He loves riding in the car. The other day, Mr. Gaines and I were moving our cars around. Big ran out, jumped in the Escape, and refused to get out until after I’d moved it.
My life has changed in a lot of ways since I first brought that wrinkly little puppy home, mostly for the better. But even when things were bad, the outlook always seemed a little brighter because I had Big by my side. For eleven years now he’s let me bury my face in his neck and cry when that’s what I needed. And he’s been there to make me laugh and smile with his silly antics and strange Chewbacca like noises when that was what I needed. And somehow, he always knows which of those is exactly what I need.
He’s not perfect. Not by a long shot. He slobbers and drools on everything. While he almost never barks he has an entire symphony of other annoying noises: huffs, grunts, snorts, snores (OMG, the SNORING!), and these weird yodeling sounds that really do sound like a Wookiee. He has separation anxiety and has destroyed more than one door or window that dared to come between him and his people. He sees the vet more often than I see my own doctor. I think I bought a yacht for his old vet in Michigan, and we are well on our way to buying a Porsche for his vet here in Virginia. We’re lucky that so far his myriad medical issues have all been relatively minor and easily managed.
But for all of that, my life has been immeasurably richer because he’s in it. Now that he’s getting to that age and I’m starting to worry. The average life span for Shar Pei is eight to ten years. We’re already past that and, though he is still spry and healthy, I know that isn’t always going to be the case.
So today, we’re going to celebrate another year with the best dog ever. We’ll take him out for a burger and let him get whatever he wants at the pet store and come home and cuddle and nap. He’s given me so much over the years, it really is the least I can do.