29 Apr Remembering Frieda — Our Classic Basset Hound

Two days ago, Jill and I had to put down our lovely old basset hound, Frieda. She was ten and, until a few weeks ago, doing fine. But then she started limping, favoring her left front paw. We thought she had sprained it because she was fond of clambering onto the raised flower beds in our back yard and then climbing onto the edge of our fish pond — four feet from the ground — a regal vantage for such a low-gravity dog. She’d pose on the pond’s edge for a while, her snout raised to the breeze. Then, to return to the yard, she’d leap from that height.

It turned out that her injury wasn’t a sprain but, alas, bone cancer. In fact, such an agressive cancer that, within the space of three weeks, the tumor had announced itself with a buldge at her shoulder. The vet gave us three options: 1) amputate her leg up to the shoulder, with the prospect that the cancer would certainly occur elsewhere; 2) put her on pain medication to give her more time, maybe 6 months, with increasing complications and pain; or 3) put her down. Mind you, this happened within the space of a day: we took Frieda in at ten. By six we got the prognosis. By six-thirty, we were at the vet’s saying our final goodbyes to our dear old dog. She died in our arms, as the vet administered an overdose of an anesthetic to put her out of pain at last.

We got Frieda eight years ago from a rescue shelter. Jill had lost her ancient basset hound the year previous. So I knew something about basset hounds: they are stubborn dogs, ruled wholly by their noses. Second only to blood hounds, bassets have the best sense of smell — 1000 times greater than a human’s. When I say “ruled wholly by their noses,” I mean, actually, that they are rule by their stomachs and led by their noses. Granted, most dogs are ravenous and indiscriminate eaters. But bassets may be the most ravenous and indiscriminate. Frieda would eat anything and I made a video to prove it: What will Frieda eat? She loved lettuce, carrots, peanuts, bananas, celery, eggplant, avocado, cabbage, oranges, potatoes, tomatoes — even lemons. I was planning on making a video of Freida eating a lemon whole. She’d done it a couple of times. Whole oranges too. I defy you to name a food she would not eat. She loved apples most of all.

If you let a basset off its leash, it will happily trot away and, chances are, you’ll never see it again. There’s no such thing as separation anxiety with bassets. It’s not that they are unfaithful or unloving; they simply have other priorities — nose-specific priorities. Imagine a world that smells 1,000 times greater than what you smell right now. Imagine the heady, mind-reeling sensory overload carried on every breeze. Who wouldn’t want to pursue that? Just a couple of months ago, I forgot to latch our gate in the back yard and Frieda got out. I found her a block away in the company of a neighbor who was about to call the animal shelter. Bassets are sociable, even-tempered, and will go home with anybody (as long as there is the prospect of food).

So, when Jill said she really wanted to go see this basset hound that was living in a foster home, I balked. I said, “We don’t need a second dog [we already had a boxer/pit bull]. And we certainly don’t need a basset hound.”

“We’re just going to look,” Jill said. “What’s the harm in that?”

Jill often gets the best of me in arguments. Really, I should have known better because she’s never one to “just look.” She’s a woman of action. Which meant that, a few hours later, we were driving home with Frieda. I admit, Frieda was a beautiful dog. We called her the “classic basset,” well-proportioned, with huge white-stockinged paws, long silky ears, and soulful, caramel-colored eyes. She had been living in a house with 4 parrots, 3 cats and 2 other dogs. And she was fine with that. She liked a pack and she could get along with just about anybody, as long as she got first-dibs on food. You can’t make a basset wait for food.

From the start, Frieda was irrepressible and puppy-like. She ran long and hard, was always up for an adventure, and could not be taught much of anything. Second to beagles, bassets are the most unteachable dogs. They’re not dumb; they are strong willed. We knew Frieda wasn’t dumb because she learned to connive some surprising ways to get at food. She was so food-obsessed that she slept in the kitchen by choice. Unlike her “brother,” PJ, she wasn’t much interested in sleeping with us in the bedroom. There were too many good things happening in the kitchen. For example, if we left food too close to the kitchen counter’s edge, she could heave herself aginst the counter and then angle her snout onto the coutnertop and snatch something off. How about 3 piping hot baked potatoes in the space of a minute? How about 2 foot-long apple strudel? How about an entire roasted chicken, truss string included, and not a speck left — all within five minutes?

Occasionally, we’d catch her in the act. Then she’d take off in a gallop. This afforded her enough time to down the stolen food, at which point she’d stop abruptly, swallow hard, then promptly roll over for an endearing surrender. Too often, we didn’t catch her in the act. We learned to listen to the bang of her hefty body against the cabinets and the rattle of her collar. Then I’d scramble downstairs, at which point she’d adopt the most innocent pose, glancing up at me in surprise, as if to say, “What’s happening?” Often her mouth would be full of something. But she knew better than to chew when we were watching. If I was especially suspicious, I’d have to make an inspection. One time, I pulled a whole carrot from her mouth. Another time a whole potatoe. Yes anothe time, a frozen sausage. You get the idea. Usually, though, I was too late. She ate a lot of stuff without chewing.

Jill often laughed at “the special realtionship” I had with Frieda. I believe dogs should obey certain rules and Frieda wasn’t one for following anybody’s rules. One of my rules is “people first.” That means that we humans get to enter the house first. No dogs barreling past us (and knocking us down in the process). I taught Frieday to wait outside the door until I gave the okay for her to enter. Still, she learned to bump open the door with her snout if my back was turned to her or I was unattentive for even a minute.

Jill and I have lots to laugh about when we recall the times we shared with Frieda. She truly enriched our lives. And now we must put her to rest in our memories. But we’re going to be haunted for a while. Her bed is sitll in the kitchen. For a long time, I am sure, we will find ourselves anticipating her howl outside the porch door, the clatter of her claws across our wood floors, her groans of pleasure as she rolled around on our dining room carpet, her weight against our feet as we sit at the kitchen table, her sloppy troughing at the water bowl, her head butt against our calves as we prep food at the ktichen counter — “manna from heaven” we called the vegetable scraps we let fall to her: what a magical world it was for Frieda!

I know more than a few people who, after losing a beloved pet, refuse to get another. I understand this. To lose a pet is to lose a family member. And it seems there is only so much pain a single human life can contain. Still, there are too many pets without homes and, really, they don’t ask for much. I like to think that we bring a dog as much pleasure as it brings us. Admittedly, it’s a short-lived bargain and one that never ends happily. But that is what makes it all the sweeter. We gave Frieda our best and she, in turn, gave us hers (which isn’t the same as saying that she was well-behaved). When it was time to let her go, we held her fast until the end, and she must have known — if she knew anything — that this loving embrace was the best that we could give.