I never wanted a dog. At the time, I recall telling my wife that they were just too much work. We had a family dog growing up, and while I loved that dog, I was very young and I remember how much time and care they took - and I just did not want that. I treasure having a relatively uncomplicated lifestyle, and a dog just did not fit into it. I had 4 cats - wasn't that enough?? I believe that the one thing you never get back in life is time - and that you are a fool if you are not spending it in a way that you want to. At the same time, we had been contemplating a move out West for me to become a full time nature photographer, and Chanthee felt that it was unrealistic that she would be protecting me at all times, and that I should have a dog. Multiple conversations later, I got myself a dog. It is funny how life works itself out like that.
Mahkayla came the Saturday after Thanksgiving in 2005, Chanthee and I found her on Petfinder, and went to New Jersey to pick up our new six month old puppy. She was one of approximately 40 or so dogs that was unloaded off of a semi-trailer headed from Tennesee. Our Southern Belle. We were told that all of her siblings had been adopted because they had 'blue eyes,' and that she and her brother Oren were the only ones left. We told them that we would take both - but to give them credit - they said that they both had some medical needs and that they were going to go to separate homes. The medical needs they were referring to was that Mahkayla was recovering from mange (well controlled, they assured me), and that she had developed a limp from horseplay with her brothers.
I remember it like it was yesterday. The adoption process was an absolute nightmare, and the folks wanted a ton of information. The irony was that I later learned that the husky rescue was being shut down because they weren't taking half the care that they were demanding of the people who took their dogs. We were ultimately approved to take the dog, and we met them at a rest stop on the highway. I remember how excited everyone there was - waiting to get their puppies/dogs. While everyone else was getting their beautiful dog, we got handed a chart and some pills and a really smelly - and miserable - dog. She had been separated from her mom for the first time that morning - a beautiful, red Siberian husky. We took her home, and as a new dog 'owner,' I was a bit repulsed to see that she had worms in her stool...they didn't tell me about that. Her limp was also much more pronounced than I felt was advertised - we had been told that she had just hurt herself playing with her brothers. I got that 'funny feeling' that we had been hoodwinked by the folks who advertised their dog at PetFinder.
The first day was really rough for her - she cried all night long and she really tried my patience. We had a crate for her, and we placed it not far from our bed. She was very upset - and why wouldn't she be? She had just been separated from her mother and was now living in an alien world. We live in an apartment building, and I thought my neighbors were going to freak out on us. I remember being very upset - unfairly - with her. She ultimately settled, but I will never forget how rough it was. It is also important to mention that the cat thought she was a real buffoon. No joke.
My wife was absolutely freaked out because all of the photos on Petfinder showed a floppy eared dog. Coming off the truck, Mahkayla looked like a little, mangy wolf. She had perky ears and a willful disposition from the word go. She thought that the dog was going to have a terrible prey drive and eat the cats. Little did she know that the cats would 'own' that dog. Mahkayla certainly owned Chanthee though. I remember her calling me from the park one day because Mahkayla did not want to walk with her and just plunked herself down on the pavement. My wife was convinced that there was something wrong with the dog. It turned out it was just a case of stubbornness.
We were fortunate to have an excellent relationship with our vets at Westside Veterinary Center, here in Manhattan. It turned out that poor Mahkayla had both sarcoptc and demodectic mange. That limp was actually a broken hind leg that had been allowed to heal. She also had hook worms, round worms and tape worms. We were told that the hind leg was probably best left 'as is' as it had already healed and that they were otherwise going to have to re-break it and that there would be a longish recovery. In addition, we were told that at the age of 6 months that she was already arthritic - and we started her on glucosamine supplements. The mange was a much more difficult matter. It was 16 weeks of visits back and forth - and the veterinarian, Dr. Brodsky, was not convinced that she would throw the mange. At the end of the day, Mahkayla was a tough dog and with the great care that she got, she beat the mange. She never - ever - enjoyed having a bath after those 16 weeks of lye dips.
After that, the relationship building had begun, and it "was complicated." For the first six months that we had Mahkayla, I could not pet her without her submissively peeing on me. It was incredibly frustrating. On a positive note, we learned very quickly that we could not leave anything (of my wife's) within mouth's distance. She literraly ate every single pair of shoes my wife made the mistake of leaving out - often with mine right next to hers and - dare I say it - untouched. They claim that this is an example of how my dog prefer's my wife to me - I will gladly accept that one.
As with most dogs, Mahkayla grew more comfortable with time. We worked very hard to learn to speak 'Doggish,' and we spent hours in classes with her provided by the local Petsmart. I am very thankful for these classes - as they are really not about learning to train the dog, but to create a common language between the pet and his/her human.
She was a 'dog's dog.' She really preferred the company of other dogs. In addition to her multiple walks each day, we would take her for a play date every evening around 9 PM, when she would go out and meet her friends in the local park. She was so young - so exhuberant and vibrant. She had a joie de vivre that she never really lost, even in her old age. Her raw energy and beauty would attract people to come from across the street to say hello to her - everyone knew her name, and we sometimes felt like she was the Mayor of Inwood.
Playing in the park, she was the master of the domain. She loved being chased and would physically 'hump' many of the other dogs, and we would joke - please pardon this - that she was leaving snail trails on all of the big boys in the community. Her agility was amazing - and I have never seen a dog that could turn on a dime the way that she could - even with the arthritis. I am convinced that had we properly trained her to do agility that she would have rocked the world.
As I said earlier, Mahkayla never had any bite to her. She did act as a great visual deterrent - people gave the little wolf space in the park. Once, when there was a rash of muggings being committed by a group of kids, we were approached and left - I believe because they didn't trust what Mahkayla would do. For the record, I didn't either. I think I just said this - but it is OK to emphasize - she did not have an ounce of bite to her.
I know that some will say that this is anthropomorphization, but Mahkayla had an amazing sense of humor. Just to be clear - for those of you who think this is anthropomorphization - you are just wrong. Sorry. Get over it. There is a ton of empirical studies that back up what I am saying, so don't let your limited reality impact folks who able to think bigger. She liked playing games and really enjoyed trying to knock my wife over when we were out together. Great fun, at least for me.
She would dart in and smash Chanthee at the knees from behind and then run away - just far enough that we couldn't get her - and have that tongue lolling out.
Her wonderful relationships with her buddies - Boutros, Mekutchla, Jack, Sampson and Lilly, not to mention Vosco and Roxie and Bongo and Grommet and Liellu and Pia and Peanut and Selkie and Elvis and Buddha will stay with me for the rest of my life. One by one, they either passed or moved away - but she kept trucking. When we moved to our new apartment, she had a new 10 PM walking date with our neighbor's dog, Lucy.
Sadly, a dog's life is a short one. By the time she was 8, Mahkayla finally developed an 'off' switch. She still required hours of walking each day, but she was definitely more settled. Every night, we would go out to Isham Park, and she would go out and play like a bunch of hooligans between 9 and 10 PM. Having a thick double coat, she loved nothing more than spending hours - even in the depths of February. These next two photos were taken on various snow days. The second of the photos was taken 10 years to the day from when we euthanized her
The older that she got though, the more I found that we were able to talk to and understand each other, That's a big deal, and for someone who didn't want a dog to begin with, I learned that I absolutely loved her. My wife's shoes and papers apart, I am fairly convinced that Mahkayla was 'my dog.' She would greet me at the door each night and we would go walking. I was the 'fun person' in the relationship. If there was anything serious going on, well, that was what Chanthee was for. For example, if Mahkayla ever felt scared, she went to hide behind Chanthee. You don't mess with the Cambodian - and Mahkayla knew it.
Mahkayla caused so many great changes in our life. While I have always loved nature and the parks, having Mahkayla made me become more intimately involved. For example, because Mahkayla was not welcome in many places, we were forced to start camping. Camping has become one of my favorite things to do - being in the woods and away from everything else. Chanthee and I used to like to do a lot of fall camping, up in New Hampshire and Vermont. For those of you who have not been to New England in the late fall, think 'Winter." There were many times when we would wake up with a nice thick layer of snow on top of the tent. I remember arguing with Mahkayla to stay under the blankets because I was afraid she would freeze to death. She was a good girl, and usually waited until I nodded off before she would throw the blankets off - waking me up and making us go through the process yet again of attempting to cover her. Mahkayla was always dubious about the ocean. I remember camping with Chanthee and Mahkayla near the beach, in Acadia. We were up at sunrise walking the beach line - when those big waves came in, it was time to go - go - go.
I have always told my wife that I don't want to linger too long if I lose my sense of self. I don't want to get stuck in a situation where I am not able to take physically care of myself,or I lose my sense of individuality. I feel that people should be given a choice about how they die as we get older. Sadly, humans are rarely given the choice of controlling their own destiny in regards to how and when we get to die. Too often, we spend the last years of our lives living in conditions that we don't want. We do have euthanasia for pets - the trick is that unfortunately they cannot verbalize when they have had 'enough.' We need to figure that out for them - and it is an almost impossible thing to figure out how much longer to take it - how long is too long? Are we being sadistic in our own selfish needs and inability to handle loss? Or are we throwing our pets away because they are no longer fun and easy to care of? Or is it somewhere in the middle? It is hard to figure out what is merciful and what is selfish.
My feeling is that for the last several months that Mahkayla has been - at best - uncomfortable. Her arthritis had gotten worse, and she looked "old." Really, really old. There were moments where we would see definite declines, and we had just had another one. Mahkayla had reached the point that she could not be left at home, and really needed the equivalent of a hospice nurse. She had definite moments where she lost control of her legs and would scream because she did not know what to do. We are fortunate that our neighbors are the kindest people you can imagine, and they helped us with her. If I believed in Heaven, Todd and Irving deserve a special place there. As a human, I have (I think) better emotional control and an ability to reason. I felt that I needed to account for the fact that my dog just didn't "get it," particularly as there was some evidence of cognitive slipping - but that may have looked worse than it was because she had become deaf. The New York Times
had published an article on "Knowing the Right Time to Say Good Bye to A Pet," which includes a link to a scale
to determine a pet's quality of life. It was produced by someone named Dr. Villalobos and I found that in the last months of Mahkayla's life that I performed it a few times. One thing I watched with Mahkayla was that she had several small periods where there would be a significant surrender in her ability to do things for herself. We had been hand feeding her for months - her jaws were not strong enough to break down even canned food. Slowly but surely, her ability to walk became more compromised - as also her ability to control her pee and poo. I was physically having to hold her towards the end. When she was up, she would pace incessantly - it was so uncomfortable for her to get into a lay down position, particularly during periods where she was in between doses of medication. When I just performed the scale - to double check myself to see if what I did was wrong (I know, its a bit late), she came out at a '25.' Anything below 35 is seen as a compromised dog.
Even though she was constantly uncomfortable, I think we could have strung this along for a month or so - particularly as my wife was working from home to help keep her stable. We ultimately decided to euthanize her at home in a planned way so that we could ease her discomfort. Let me say that it was an outright terrible experience, We have always euthanized our pets as a result of a crash, and this was the first time we said, "Tomorrow at 2 PM, around Tea Time, we are going to euthanize our dog." While I 'know' that this was the right thing to do, I felt just terrible and dead doing it - that in my heart, I was not sure that she was really ready - that her suffering wasn't really 'that bad.'
I have always loved wolves - from the time I was a child. However, if I were a wild beast, I think that I would be more like a coyote. While wolves pack, coyotes usually work in pairs. They pack typically only when it is necessary - ie in the winter months, or when things are tight. Coyotes mate for life and will only seek another after the death of a mate. I would like to think that the bonding and linkage is even more profound as a result - though I suppose that is kind of hard to measure. I am not a young man anymore - I have known loss - many of those losses have been significant.
Mahkayla's death has been particularly difficult to deal with. When you love a dog, they invade you in a way that you don't think is possible. Your schedule becomes their schedule. You need to make sure they are walked at a certain time every morning - and that they have the ability to go out in the mid-afternoon. You need to be home at exactly the right time - or they will let you know it. Your life revolves around them in a way that other beasts in the home (including most of the humans) don't require. Unlike a child, they never develop the ability to become independent in a way that your presence is not required. While the typical meme is about a dog and their master, the truth is that you live for them. It is a mutual bondage. On December 20th at approximately 4 PM, we euthanized Mahkayla at home. I am not going to say that it was a positive experience - it was just terrible. No matter how much emotional planning you do, nothing can really prepare you for 'the moment.' However, we are thankful to Karen Cantor, and her tech, from Westside Veterinary Center, who came to the house for us. We lost an important part of our pack - and I feel like one of the constants in my life is gone. we will miss her always.
This was my last formal portrait setting with Mahkayla, taken at the Westminster Dog Show two years ago. Sadly, you can see it in her eyes - she was anxious and uncomfortable on my platform under the lights. I am a firm believer that a portrait should be something that the dog likes - you can tell every single time when they are feeling stressed or unhappy. It has been good for me to go through these photos, as I sometimes forget how young and vibrant she was for so much of her life, and how long she was sick - and tired.