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Derby and Me With Apologies to Marley

Written by Tom Walsh on December 9th, 2010 with

I said goodbye to one of my best friends today.

If you’ve never had a dog, or don’t like dogs, or just aren’t a dog person in general, you can stop reading right now. One of the advantages of having a blog, no matter what the topic, is sometimes you can use it for your own personal therapy. That’s what I’m doing today. If you read on, remember that this piece is more about me than it is about you. Thanks in advance for indulging me.
We met on a hot, sticky summer Sunday in August of 1997. It was love at first site.
We were at the Save the Animals Foundation (STAF) at the old St. Mark’s School in the Walnut Hills neighborhood of Cincinnati, OH. The rules there were very clear: Sunday was adoption day. No visitors on any other day, and you couldn’t take a dog home the same day you met her.  If you wanted a particular dog, you had to wait until the next Sunday to come back and adopt her.
We were in the kitchen of this old house that served as their shelter, and the dogs were in the basement. You could hear them and smell them wafting up the basement steps. We told the people what type of dog we were interested in, and they paraded them one-by-one up to the kitchen. Because I am tall, and because many of these dogs had been abused, most apparently by men, they had me sit in a kitchen chair so as not to be so intimidating to the dogs (if they only knew, I thought, who is intimidated by whom). It was the canine version of speed dating. 
I can’t tell you much about dogs number one through five, other than they seemed nice and cute and excited and had sad stories. Dog number six was different. She flew up the stairs, made a quick lap around the room, and headed right to me, putting her front paws on my knees and laying a big lick across my chin.
I looked at the assembled crowd and said, “This is my dog.”
She had been named Duchess by STAF, and had been brought in several months earlier after someone had tied her to a post at a strip mall and left her. I often wondered who could ever leave this dog like that, but eventually came to the conclusion that they probably weren’t so bad after all. If for some reason your life doesn’t allow to keep this dog, tying her up and leaving her to be found is better than just dumping her somewhere which is, sadly,  what many people do.
Two Sundays later, we brought her home.
She was a mid-sized dog – I likened to her a Ford Taurus – and had a lab body (albeit slightly smaller), a german shepherd nose, soft, floppy ears and the coloring of a deer. Not being particularly fond of the name Dutchess, we spent a couple days searching for names that began with “D,” and finally came up with “Derby,” after the Kentucky Derby (OK, there’s a tie-in to the sports blog).
Those who say that dogs have no concept of time never met Derby. For some reason – she just seemed so trustworthy I guess – we decided to give her the run of the house from day one, even when we left for work. Periodically, when I was out of the office during the day, I would stop home around lunchtime to let her out. She would hear my car and meet me at the door. But when I returned after work, around 6 o’clock or so, she was ALWAYS in the front window, watching for me. She knew that was about the time her people returned home each day. And on Saturday mornings, the one day we slept in and didn’t get up when it was dark, as soon as I opened one eye just a crack after daylight she was up in the bed and in my face, saying ,” Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!” She knew this was a good day because her people wouldn’t be leaving her.
Although Derby never was the type of dog to beg for food – and if a scrap of food fell to the floor, she wouldn’t touch it because she knew it wasn’t right thing to do – she did have one major transgression early on. Her first winter, we grilled steaks on a Saturday night and decided to eat in the living room in front of the fire. Before I ate, I set my plate on the coffee table to stoke the fire for what literally took 15 seconds. I went back to the couch, got my plate off the coffee table, and noticed something was missing. Asparagus – check. Mashed potatoes – check. Filet mignon – MIA. I looked over at Derby, and she was guiltily looking up and away from me and licking her chops. She literally swallowed it whole.
The one type of “people food” I gave her from then on was filet. When I grilled steaks, I would always save one small piece for Derby and her sister, Salem. And the amazing thing was, when I sat down to eat a steak, they sat right next to my chair the entire meal, looking longingly at me and waiting patiently for the treat. Didn’t do it for hamburgers or chicken or pork tenderloin. They knew the difference.
Derby loved people,  and for that we called her the mayor. On a walk, when we approached another walker, she would come in low to the ground and approach them, tail wagging furiously side-to-side, almost scraping the ground. Before they knew it, her paws were in their hands and she was saying hello. Knowing many people didn’t like this type of greeting, we tried to break her of the habit. Didn’t happen. So we just grew accustomed to warning people about the impending “hello.”
As good as she was with “hellos,” she was terrible at “good-byes.” When she figured out I was leaving – be it for 7 minutes or 7 days – she would move away to a comfortably standoffish distance, and look slightly away from me with a terrible look of hurt. But 7 minutes or 7 days later, all was forgiven.
And Derby always needed to be near her people. When we entertained, after greeting everyone as they arrived, she would plop down right in the middle of the kitchen, because that is where the people congregated. If people had to step over her, so be it. I worked out of the house for five years, and she spent most of those days curled up under my desk at my feet.
Derby was not a barker. As a matter of fact, after the first couple months, we thought she might be a mute. Then one day on a walk, another dog caught her attention and she let out this guttural, rambling bark/howl that came from deep within her soul. She didn’t bark often, but when she did, it was real.
She knew right from wrong. Although we eventually convinced her that furniture was for people, periodically, when I was working in the yard, I would see her through the picture window, sitting on the couch in the den, watching me. I would walk up to the window, fold my arms and stare right at her with a stern look, not saying a word. With an embarrassed look, she would slink down off of the couch to the floor.
We called it the nut run. Every once in a while on a walk or in the back yard, she would get so excited that she would run in squares, not circles, making these amazing cuts at full speed. It would go on for about 10 seconds, and always end in that guttural bark/howl. If Derby comes back as an NFL player, she will be an All Pro cornerback.
Derby lived to be fourteen years old, almost fifteen, and after a tough start of being abandoned and a few months of lockup at the shelter, had a pretty darned good life (my nephew told me recently, “If I come back as a dog, I want to come back as your dog.”) Until the last six months, her health and her energy were great, despite living with a disease called “Cushings” for over half her life. Finally, she developed some sort of tumor in her head that we couldn’t treat given her age and its location. For six months, we kept her comfortable with medications, but this week we could see that the medications could no longer keep her out of pain.
Yesterday she spent her final day at the office with me.  In the late afternoon she found a comfortable spot under my desk to lie in the setting sun. Although I’m not one to “wait for the 5 o’clock whistle,” it was the only work day of my life that I didn’t want to end. 
Derby had filet mignon for dinner last night, and for the first time since the winter of 1997, she ate it off of a plate. This time, there was no look of guilt.
The Reverend Billy Graham once said that, “I think God will have prepared everything for our perfect happiness in Heaven. If it takes my dog being there, I think he will be there.”



I hope you’re right, Reverend Graham, I hope you’re right.

Tom Walsh TJDubs Founder

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