They picked him up running around at the municipal airport. He was in a shelter in an industrial area of Hesperia, California when we found him. He was a big dog, but a little under-nourished, so his blocky head looked gigantic compared to his skinny body. He looked like a canine bobble-head.
And he seemed like he might be a good dog.
We named him Keoki, which is sort of Hawaiian for “George,” but I never thought of him as Hawaiian-for-George. He’s Keoki… and a bunch of nicknames, too: Keo-kul. Blocky. Luggo. Big Dog. Keok-ul-doe-kul. You know. Cutesy names that people give to their loved ones. It happens.
When we got him home, I sat down on the living room floor, and so did he. That’s the first time I noticed that, sitting down, we were about the same height. That’s also the first time I noticed that this was a dog that didn’t mind looking you in the eye.
You know what I mean. Most dogs, a staring contest is… no contest. Not this guy. He’d just… look at you. I liked that, a lot.
When we brought Keoki home, four full-grown cats — a family — were already well established. As you can expect, it wasn’t love and flowers to begin with. Still, Keoki quickly revealed himself to be one of the most tolerant, quiet dogs I’ve ever encountered.
Cat getting in his personal space? The worst he’d give was a low growl. More often than not, he’d just get up and go somewhere else. Our oldest cat apparently loves the hard-to-get type, though… she went through a long phase of trying to rub up against him. It never worked out. But he never snapped at anyone, as far as I can tell.
Keoki was so quiet, when he did bark, I had to check and make sure it was actually him. He didn’t bark at visitors, at the mailman… he was not one to talk. In fact, he made more noise sleeping — whining and chuffing, his velvet jowls vibrating and his paws twitching as he chased some dream prey — than he did when he was awake. With one notable, highly entertaining exception… that we’ll get to in a bit.
Keoki wasn’t much of a barker but he certainly was a panter. Yes, he was. It was almost a nervous habit — you could tell him to “hush,” and he’d get the hint and clomp his mouth shut. For a while.
Keoki was gentle, and, while I’d never admit this to people who flinched at his size when we walked down the street, Keoki was a bit of a wuss.
Sadly, I suspect he was not treated kindly by the folks who had him before we came along. Even though he let me pet his snout and face right away, in the early days he was a little jumpy if you approached too fast.
Keoki hated when things were tense in the house. He seemed to think people yelling at each other equaled people yelling at him. He was not a fan of thunder… an eighty pound dog would not let the possibility of furniture damage get in his way if it meant he could slink into the smallest possible hiding space in the house. Never mind the time he tried to get into the shower during a thunder storm… while it was occupied.
An example of how timid he could be… and careful and gentle… comes to mind. I was walking him around the neighborhood in Hesperia, California. People own horses there, and sometimes you have to share the road. We encountered a horse and rider on our walk, and Keoki wanted nothing to do with that. Nothing. He kept himself on my far side from the horse, pressed against my leg, and didn’t want to go anywhere until that clomping monster was well on its way.
On that same walk, we found an elderly bitch hound sunning herself on the pavement in front of her house. She was probably fifty pounds smaller than Keoki and old, old, old. She lifted her head a little as we approached and thumped her tail. Keoki — who was never really a nose-in-ass-by-way-of-introduction kind of dog — approached her very slowly, dipped his head down to her, and the two of them sniffed noses. The old gal stood up and let me pet her while Keoki just kind of… stood by. I was touched by how careful and tentative he was around her.
Keoki was not a dog’s dog. He didn’t like to fetch, he wasn’t a fan of shaking hands or rolling over (unless it was right after dinner, in which case rolling around on his back in the grass was a great idea). When we added a stray Australian Shepherd mix, Kona, to the family several years after Keoki had been around, the big black dog’s un-doglike ways were even more obvious.
Kona jumped. Keoki kept it four-on-the-floor. Kona loved to chase a Frisbee. Keoki… well, Keoki liked to watch Kona chase things. He’d stand in a corner of the yard and grin and wag his tail. You could almost hear him chuckling at that wacky kid.
Kona, when he was excited enough (and it wasn’t hard to get Kona worked up to this), loved to run in tight, fast circles around the front yard. Keoki… watched. I could sometimes get him to join in by slapping him on his shanks and doing the universal dog symbol for “let’s play,” which is, of course, lunging forward slightly with your feet scraping the ground. If Kona and I made it look appealing enough, Keoki would suddenly burst into movement and take a few laps.
But he was a big guy. Once or twice around was enough.
Then, the neighbors in the house behind us, their back yard separated from ours by a chain link fence, got a couple of not-quite-Keoki sized dogs of their own.
Once Keoki and Kona met these two doggy neighbors (through the fence), by some unspoken accord it was game on. And the game was… running. And barking!
Back and forth, as fast as they could go, billowing desert dust clouding around him, my casually motivated dog would run, all the while exercising the one muscle that pretty much never got worked… his vocal chords… with deep, bass, stentorian ruffs.
It was a joy to watch.
Now, even though Keoki was not the most verbally emotive dog and he liked his personal space, he was a very loving and supportive friend. For me, one particular memory epitomizes that.
In early 2010, as astute readers will know, I separated from my wife and was alone in our house much of the time, feeling pretty darn low. If you’ve been there, you know the low of which I write. It’s low. Your body hurts. You’re wrung out from sadness and stress and anxiety. And sometimes you just need to weep.
It was one of those nights when the pain of the situation was particularly acute. I was alone, except for Kona, four cats, a turtle… and Keoki, the giant dog who loved to be pet but didn’t like being hugged for very long.
That night, Keoki got a shoulder full of tears while he sat with perfect stillness and patience. When I ran out of steam and he lay down, he let me use his body as a pillow and didn’t move when his exhausted, sad human buddy dozed off.
I sure needed that, and he was there for me.
About a year ago, Keoki and I joined a household that included Trixie and Woody, dachshund sister and brother. For Trixie, it was love at first sight. She saw Keoki and ran — full tilt, head first — into his crotch, which was just above eye level. And she started to lick.
Nice to be loved!
Keoki took the rather personal attention with characteristic aplomb. Woody, not so sure about a new guy in the house, adopted a more stand-offish attitude. As some of the images in this post show, Woody came to accept Keoki as one of the family… but he never went so far as Trixie’s special treatment.
Keoki spent his last year with Woody and Trixie (and, of course, his four cat cousins). Even though I think he liked not having to climb the stairs of our old apartment and loved having the space to wander around… not to mention my roommate’s generous contribution of a nice meaty bone every now and then… he took a turn into old age there, too. A little blind, a little hard of hearing (sometimes I swear it was selective), a little obstinate, a little less husky; we started calling him “old man.”
One benefit of his increasingly dulled senses was that thunder, firecrackers and other loud, sudden noises didn’t bother him any more. Hilariously, we discovered he’d acquired a taste for groovy lounge and surf music when we hosted a rehearsal for my girlfriend’s band, the Tiki Tones, and Keoki cheerfully sat himself down right in the middle of the action.
Hm… how come he usually left the room when I practiced..?
Musical taste aside, he was a good dog.
Keoki, like many bigger dogs, had always had a few “skin tags” — little flaps and bumps — on his body and his head. In his last year one of those, just above his left ear, started to get very large. It never bothered him, didn’t seem to hurt him… but eventually it started to weep fluid and blood.
I took him to the vet, and, as suspected, she diagnosed it as a cancerous tumor. She advised me that the cost to remove it would be over $1,500.00, and that, in her opinion, it would grow back with a vengeance a month later.
The decision: try to keep the sore clean and let him continue to live out his days until, as the vet put it, he stops doing his “three favorite things.”
My girlfriend and I had a laugh at that… his three favorite things were sleeping in the bedroom, sleeping in my office, and sleeping in the “yellow room,” as we called it.
The next three weeks of my time were largely occupied with cleaning his lump… and cleaning bloodstains off carpet, dog beds and, when he shook, the walls. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t fun. He didn’t enjoy the dried blood and fluid that unavoidably accumulated on his ear, and while he liked it when I cleaned him off, it never lasted long.
I started to think about everyone’s quality of life… not just my boy’s. Also… did I really want to wait until Keoki was visibly in pain and constantly miserable before we said goodbye? Why put him through that?
I made the decision that I would have him put down before that happened. When that would be… I wasn’t sure. The decision was hard enough.
Because he was a good dog, Keoki spared me from choosing when he would go.
The morning of August 2, 2012, my girlfriend and I were yanked out of the half-sleep between hitting “snooze” on the alarm clock by a noise from the kitchen and a “wuff” that could only be a rare but tired bark from Keoki. It wasn’t like anything I’d heard from him before… he was telling us, “Hey, guys? A little help..?”
I found him in the kitchen, where we was sprawled on his belly, his legs behind and before him like an X. His breathing was labored. He tried to get up, but his legs weren’t having any of that. I didn’t exactly know what had happened, but I knew he was going.
So I crouched down with my face near his, pet his jowls and his snout and the back of his head like he liked, and stayed with Keoki until he felt safe enough to die.
Ultimately, it wasn’t the skin cancer that got him… he was just, well, old. Probably his heart; maybe a stroke. He was anywhere from three to six when we got him at the shelter; I told people he was about thirteen. We’ll never know for sure, so I’m going with that.
It’s been about two weeks. I’m a sappy guy; I cried when I picked up his crap in the dog run for the last time. I have a a thirty pound bag of dog food, half full, that I don’t like to look at. I’m not filling in the blanks of his absence with little half-seen phantoms of his blocky, space-filling presence anymore, like I did the first few days after he died, but I still miss him a lot.
Everybody liked Keoki, and he liked everybody. He was not my first dog, but he was my first dog, the first dog I was essentially responsible for and who treated me like his only master. While we shared houses with my second wife and then with my girlfriend and he loved them both, I was his dad. His best friend.
I’m grateful for the experience, and I miss my boy.