In May 1995, to mark my graduation from university, my mother handed me a card, and a tiny red dog collar. We went to the local Humane Society, where I found a small puppy of indeterminate breed. Our eyes met. She came up to me and licked my hand. We brought her home, and she changed my life.
Over the next few days, I set about discovering what her name was, but didn't have any luck… until I was admiring my freshly minted diploma, and idly reading the Greek on the Chapman University seal out loud. At the word καὶ, her head shot up and her tail wagged, so Kai it was. Years later, I discovered that kai meant food in Maori, which was an immense source of amusement to my inlaws. Unlike most puppies, she did not whine or cry, or bark to get attention. She was quiet, stoic, and exceedingly calm.
My stepdad built her a doghouse she loved, and I took it to my new place.
I'd had to rent a house with a yard large enough for a puppy with boundless energy, who loved racing around the yard, and guarding it. My friends thought I was insane for spending $750 a month on a one-bedroom house, back when apartments rented for $400. As Kai grew, it became clear that she was not the German Shepherd/Lab mix the Humane Society had taken her for, but something else entirely, and whatever it was, it was big. Big enough to warrant a large yard, with an avocado tree and two elm trees and grass to laze in.
I was lucky enough to be working for two guys who adored dogs, and once I brought her by the office, they insisted I bring her with me to work every day. So we'd walk the half-mile to the office, and she'd curl up at my feet and sleep while I designed. She became intensely bonded to me, and while she would be happy to see other people, she rarely listened to other humans. If I was home, Kai would follow me from room to room, not clingy, but always watching me to see what I was doing.
One day, I was with my mother in a bookstore, browsing through the dog books, trying to find what breed she looked most like. My mother picked up a book on Rottweilers, skimmed the breed temperament section, and said, 'This sounds just like her: "Rottweiler temperaments vary from natural clowns, who are affectionate to almost anyone, to the very reserved, one-person dog. Ideally they should be calm but alert companions. These dogs often follow their masters from place to place in the home, keeping a constant but unobtrusive watch over their loved one." Sure enough, the next time she was at the vet, he confirmed that she was mostly Rottweiler -- which we found out when she came down with parvo, despite having been vaccinated for it. She spent the next few months living on white rice and ice cubes, and never did grow to her full size.
She was incredibly stubborn and determined to guard the house. My grandfather and I put in a fence that she was forever breaking, ripping up, or destroying. She even chipped her two incisors one day, when she used her teeth to break the concrete the fence was sunk into -- then promptly lifted up the fence, and snuck underneath, escaped, and happily sat at the front gate, guarding the house until I got home. It took planting morning glories along the fence to deter her from getting through.
This was a problem, as my front neighbors I shared the lot with also had dogs, and Kai developed a severe hatred of their female dog. This was detrimental to my bank account and my relationship with my neighbors, as you might imagine. This intolerance of other dogs was something I never did manage to train out of her, and it made taking her on walks an adventure, as well-meaning people would try to bring their dogs over to 'play' with her. I'm sure I seemed like the unfriendliest person in the neighborhood.
Possums, rats, mockingbirds, sparrows -- they all met a quick death if they came in the yard. It got so bad one year that Animal Control began to recognize my address when I would call them to come pick up the corpse of the latest intruder. Kai would chase airplanes out of the yard until they'd left the airspace, and this never got old for her. When we went on walks, she would periodically turn back in the direction of the house and whine, giving me a look that said, 'Are you sure about leaving the house unguarded? Someone could be breaking in Right Now.'
Kai's protectiveness didn't extend to just other dogs, but strangers as well. If I didn't know or like someone, neither would Kai. She was pretty good with most people, except those who were afraid of dogs, or happened to be my landlord. That guy, she wanted to kill on sight, and there was no convincing her otherwise. (She was right.) Once, the house next door was broken into. When my neighbor plaintively asked the police officer why it had been her place instead of mine, the officer simply walked onto my property, and Kai threatened to take his head off. He looked at her and said, 'That's why.' A few years ago, I blogged about a neighbor, who was high and running through backyards, and the police wouldn't go into my yard to catch him, until I got home to put her inside.
Though the native possum population would disagree, she wasn't a vicious dog. When she was two, I was badly ill and bedridden. I heard this horrible gallumphing noise and a crash and the sound of water sloshing, and I thought, shit. Kai came up the stairs, with her water dish in her mouth, and gently set it next to my bed. I cried so hard, she thought she was in trouble. Ever after that, when I was seriously ill, she'd bring me her water dish.
Kai was an incorrigible food thief, who loved few things more than to steal food, then drag it outside to eat it secretly. For this reason, she had to be tethered upstairs when I had parties, for fear she'd eat all the guests' food when they weren't looking. Bread was her favorite food, and she loved stale bread more than any dog treat on the market.
She was quite the clownish goofball, even when older. Kai never did care much about playing fetch, or learning any tricks. Those things were Not Guarding, and Kai lived to Guard.
I had cats, and Kai loved them as if they were strange, oddly-shaped puppies. When they would try to leave the yard, she would race after them, scruff them in her mouth, and unceremoniously dump them back inside the house. Then they'd disgustedly bathe the dog slobber off their fur. When one cat, Pantagruel, died, Kai came and took my hand gently in her jaw, and tugged it insistently until I got out of bed, which she'd never done before. She led me by the hand, downstairs, and outside, where she'd laid Pantagruel's body in her doghouse. His surviving brother, Gargantua, used to team up with Kai to hunt birds; he'd climb one of the trees, and flush the birds down to Kai. They thought this was the best game ever. (Animal Control, not so much.) This is Kai and Sasha, about a year ago:
Kai was getting on, and her hips bothered her so much in the last couple of years that she would only go on walks with a look that clearly said, I'm only doing this because you ask. So I stopped walking her as far, and she stopped going up stairs. I began to leave her outside in the patio, because her habit of following me from room to room meant that if I got up to get a drink in the kitchen, she'd get up to come with me. That was just too hard on her hips, and it became easier on both of us for her to guard the new place from the patio, where she could sleep in the warm sun. As she got older, it was hard to keep weight on her, despite feeding her rice, pasta, and of course, bread, to supplement her food.
On Sunday, I noticed in the morning that she had not eaten her dinner the night before. I watched her carefully over the next couple of days, and she was still eating and drinking, though not as much as she once was.
When I left for work yesterday morning, she seemed a bit sleepy and stiff, but okay. I gave her more food and fresh water, and petted her. That afternoon, I began to have a very bad feeling, that had reached a full-on anxiety attack by the time I made it home --I went straight outside. Kai gave me a look that was indescribable, but unmistakable: dull pain, weakness, and her spark was close to being gone. I saw she'd eaten all her food, and thought that perhaps I'd been mistaken, that she was actually going to be okay after all. Then I reached to pet her, and saw that her belly was swollen and distended to easily four times its normal size, and her hind legs were swollen as well. She looked at me, and sighed deeply, and I began to cry.
For a moment, I had it in my head to bathe her, since she'd rolled in the mud for the last few days, and her fur was matted and dull. I wanted the vet to know I loved her, and that she was not really this pitiful creature, muddied, bony, and weak. Then I thought better of the idea, realizing I'd only be adding 'wet' to the list of her afflictions. I called the vet who'd treated her since puppyhood, but his office closed at six, in 15 minutes, and he was already in emergency surgery. So I took her to the next closest vet. I had to put her in a sling of towels to get her into the car. She couldn't stand or walk, or even sit. Her hind legs weren't working, and this baffled her. The vet techs had to get a gurney for her, and it hurt every time a customer looked at her, as we passed, then quickly turned away.
Kai either had a bloated stomach, which would require surgery to possibly fix, or a ruptured spleen, which seemed more likely. The vet wanted me to stabilize her, then do a whole battery of diagnostic tests to prepare her for exploratory surgery, which, given her age, seemed insane to put her through. When I told him I didn't want that for her, that neither option was one she would live through for long, he sternly told me he was in the business of saving lives. I got into an argument with him about what was best for her. He sent one of the techs back to me with a 'treatment plan' that was the stabilization + exploratory surgery route, and I flatly refused it. The vet came back to try to dissuade me again, and I put my foot down, though I was sobbing. I was not about to put Kai through being sedated and cut up, just on the off chance that it was not a ruptured spleen. She was damn close to 15 years old; a Methuselah of both her breeds. If she survived the surgery and tests, she would gain at most a few more weeks.
The vet finally heard me, and they started to prep her and do the paperwork. I paid the bill, and waited for them to bring her in. When she saw me, she struggled to get off the gurney and sit up, but she couldn't manage it. Sitting had always been what I made her do to establish my dominance, and it felt like a final display of loyalty. My tears started all over again.
I got her to lay down, and she groaned while I stroked her head. I whispered something like prayers and something like goodbye. The light emptied from her eyes, and they left me alone to weep into her muddy fur.