I liked telling friends that Rondo was the end point of canine evolution—that some 40,000 years after the canis lupus familiaris lineage split from its wolf ancestors, the world had finally produced the perfect dog. I’ve never seen another remotely like him.
At the beginning of November, he was torn from our family in a manner that was both untimely and cruel.
I got my first pup when I was four years old and have been surrounded by dogs all my life. They always die, and it’s always sad—but not like this. I am not merely grieving for Rondo. I am broken.
The first thing others noticed about Rondo was that he was beautiful. He was a big boy—long, tall and lean. He moved with grace, rolling his shoulders like a jungle cat. His black and white coat was remarkably soft, the hair on his head and neck as fine and silky as mink. His soulful brown eyes made everyone melt.
He was astonishingly intuitive and empathetic. If I was irritable or not feeling well, Rondo knew it before I did and was always right there, placing a big paw on my knee or dropping his head in my lap. If my wife Patricia grew frustrated with a poem she was working on, Rondo materialized at her side to offer comfort. His touch was magical. It calmed us, slowing our heartbeats and respiration. He was a rampant kisser. No matter what might upset us, he made everything better.
God, how I need him now.
Rondo showed the same empathy for Brady, our Bernese Mountain Dog. The scion of farm dogs bred in Switzerland, Brady loves to lounge outside in cold weather. That clearly worried Rondo, who shunned the cold. Several times a day, he would go to the door and demand to be let out. He would run to Brady, nuzzle him to make sure he was all right, and then dash back to the warmth of the house.
The first time I brought them to the vet together, Brady yelped as a needle was inserted to draw his blood. Rondo sprang to Brady’s side, his lopsided grin a memory as he shoved his body between patient and doctor.
“Oh, wow,” the veterinarian said. “He’s worried about Brady. I’ve never seen a pooch show such concern for another dog.”
Without training or prompting, Rondo was our protector. Whenever anyone approached our door, he unleashed a howl with a trace of menace in it. When we opened the door to people he didn’t know, he barked and placed his body between us and them. He kept it up no matter how long they stayed inside.
When Patricia wrote in our library, Rondo stationed himself between her and the front door, watching over her. Evenings, whenever Patricia went upstairs to bed first, he would sit on the landing, half way between us. When I let him out do his business, he stalked the perimeter of our fenced back yard like a sentry, checking for intruders before coming in for the night.
At the dog park, he amazed everyone by assuming the role of peace officer. Fighting was not permitted in his presence. When trouble broke out, he leaped between the combatants, forcing them apart, his sharp bark an unmistakable command to knock it the hell off.
His authority was never challenged. When Officer Rondo was on the job, even the Dobermans backed down.
Although Rondo seemed to abhor violence, I had no doubt that if anyone attacked me or Patricia, his pacifism would have vanished. Our Ron would have given his life for us.
He was obsessively eager to please. If we wanted him to come, he would come. If we wanted him to sit, he would sit—no training required. If we opened the door for him to go out, he would go even if he didn’t want to. Then he’d sit outside the door and stare at us, patiently waiting to be let back inside. To discern our desires, he listened to every word we spoke, absorbing a large vocabulary of English words. He lusted after people food, especially pizza crusts, but he never begged. He’d just sit and watch us eat, a hopeful look on his on his face.
A few days ago, as my wife Patricia sat in our family room, half-watching election coverage on CNN, she burst into tears again. “He used to stand right there and look at me, asking my permission to get on the couch,” she said. “I’d nod, and he would climb up and snuggle against me. I want just one more day.”
Rondo was a dog who loved his life, his default demeanor joyful. His muscular tail was forever thumping the floor or sweeping coffee cups and books from end tables. Oh, how he loved to watch Patricia dance! Almost every time I looked at him, I laughed.
One of his greatest pleasures was walking through our suburban, NJ, neighborhood, sniffing every bush and trash can, always on high alert for rabbits. Whenever he spotted one, he froze in a classic pointer stance, hinting at a hunting dog somewhere in his lineage. But he wouldn’t walk unless everyone in the house including Mikaila, the granddaughter who lived with us when she wasn’t away at college, went together. Recently, Brady’s arthritic back legs made him reluctant to come along. Rondo would dig in his heels and refuse to move. No Brady? No walk.
Rondo’s contradictions were endearing. Despite the grace with which he moved, he never learned to lie down the way most dogs do, sitting first and then sliding their front paws down to the floor. Instead, he would hurl himself to the floor from a standing position, landing with a thud. Although his coat was silky, it acted like Velcro. Leaves, twigs and dirt always clung to it when he came in from the yard. His fearlessness in the face of intruders was no match for the terrors of vacuum cleaners and bubble wrap. He often looked noble, sitting upright with perfect posture. And suddenly, his face would dissolve into the goofiest of grins. He was such a character that I made him one in my fifth crime novel.
As I write this, I am in tears. I can hear Patricia weeping downstairs. She just let out a moan. “I want my baby back.”
Just before midnight on Friday, Oct. 30, I let Rondo outside to do his business and make his final check of the backyard. This time, he stayed out a bit longer than usual. Finally, Patricia saw him heading for the back door. He wasn’t loping along as usual. He was racing, as if something was wrong. She opened the door, and he careened in, sliding across the tile floor. He lay quietly for a moment and then retched, expelling a volume of white, frothy liquid. His eyes were glassy. Though conscious, he didn’t respond to our touch. His breathing was ragged. I thought maybe he’d been poisoned.
Patricia called the Northstar Vets pet hospital, located about 20 minutes away, and described the symptoms.
“Are his gums pale?” she was asked.
“Bring him in right away.”
Mikaila grabbed Rondo’s leash, but we couldn’t coax him to his feet. We tried to lift him, but he was 125 pounds of dead weight, too heavy for us to carry.
The voice on the phone told Patricia we should slide towels under him, one in front of his back legs and one behind his front legs, and pull him to his feet. When we did, Rondo stood unsteadily. Then he tottered out the front door with us, climbed into the back of my SUV, and collapsed. Leaving Patricia behind to watch over Brady, I hit the gas, Mikaila riding shotgun as we sped down the street.
It was two months and four days before Rondo’s tenth birthday.
When Brady was a pup, he loved meeting other dogs on our walks around the neighborhood. We wondered. Would he like to have a brother to play with, or would he resent having another dog in his house?
One evening, as we scrolled through online lists of homeless dogs, we spotted a black and white puppy and fell for him. A few weeks later, volunteers from Rainbow Animal Rescue of North Carolina pulled into a Delaware parking lot with a truck load of dogs intended for families from points north. All of them were big pups, mostly Husky mixes. Rondo was the last one they unloaded. He looked nothing like the others. At ten weeks, he was the biggest pup I’d ever seen.
When I scooped him up in my arms, he squirmed, struggling to get free. I carried him to my SUV and found that he was too big to squeeze into the puppy carrier I’d brought along, so I placed him on a blanket behind the front seat and climbed behind the wheel. As I put the car in gear, he climbed over the console and crawled into my lap. I gently put him in the back again, but he wasn’t having it. Our test of wills went on for several more tries before I gave up.
My lap was where he stayed, nuzzling my tummy on the long drive home. By the time we got there, Rondo had my heart.
Patricia and I were both concerned when she opened the door to let us in. Would Brady welcome the newcomer or reject him? We needn’t have worried. Brady reacted the way a little boy does when surprised with his first puppy.
We watched in amazement as Brady took Rondo on a tour of the house. Here’s our water bowl. Here’s where they feed us. Here’s our basket of dog toys. As soon as we let them outside, Rondo pounced on Brady, who outweighed him by 100 pounds. The play-fight raged for a half hour, Brady rolling onto his back to let Rondo maul him. Finally exhausted, they collapsed together in a heap and fell asleep.
We knew Rondo was going to be a big boy, but we never imagined that within the year, he would tower over his new brother.
Dog people had warned us that two male dogs wasn’t a good idea—that they were sure to fight. But a cross word never passed between them. They were forever nuzzling one another, often pressing their bodies together when they rested on our family room floor.
Rondo grew dependent on Brady, frequently looking to him for guidance. When fireworks or thunder startled him, Ron would glance at Brady. If Brady showed no signs of alarm, Rondo immediately relaxed. Whenever I took Brady to the vet and left Rondo home with Patricia, Rondo would sit by the door and wail a wretched aria until our return.
Once, when Patricia was away on one of her many business trips, I left Rondo alone in the house to take Brady for a checkup. While we were gone, Rondo panicked and tried to break out of the house to find us. He tore the curtains from the dining room windows. He ripped down the moldings around the front door. He knew we used the knob to open the door, so he tried to do the same, crushing the brass in his jaws.
Was I angry? Of course not. I wrapped my arms around him and told him how sorry I was. We never left him alone again.
Last August, Brady turned 11 years old, well past the average lifespan for a Bernese Mountain Dog. By then, the arthritis in his back legs had worsened. He struggled just to pull himself to his feet. But Rondo was as healthy and vigorous as ever. How would he cope when his older brother, his rock, was gone? We sought advice from our vet, from other dog owners, from online pet websites. We got plenty, all of it contradictory.
As it happened, we were worried about the wrong dog.
As I pulled up to the Northstar Vets emergency entrance, two staffers rushed out with a gurney, slid Rondo onto it, and rolled him inside. Because of the Covid-19 epidemic, we were told to remain in our car and wait for a call. Ten minutes later, my cell phone clanged.
“Rondo is critically ill,” the doctor said. “It’s bloat.”
She started to explain, but I knew what it was. For reasons that are not understood, a dog’s stomach abruptly fills with air. As the pressure builds, it blocks blood flow from the lower body to the heart, plunging the animal into shock. Worse, the stomach folds over on itself, yanking and often damaging other internal organs. The blood-starved pancreas spews toxic, often fatal, hormones. Whether the air pressure causes the stomach to flip or the flip causes the pressure is unknown.
Bloat occurs most often in big dogs with deep chests—dogs like Rondo. They nearly always die if not treated within an hour of onset. We’d made it to the hospital within thirty minutes. But even with the best of care, which includes emergency abdominal surgery, about a third of dogs don’t survive.
It is a terrible way to die.
As we waited, the vet inserted a tube down Rondo’s throat and into his stomach. That released the air pressure, allowing his stomach to return to its normal position. She also gave him fluids by IV to treat shock. A half hour later, she called again. Rondo was stable but critical. The surgeon was on the way and would arrive within the hour.
Go home, we were told, and wait for our call.
Not yet, I said. We need to see him.
After a quibble over Covid rules, which they graciously agreed to bend, we were allowed to mask up and enter the lobby one at a time.
As I pushed through the door, two staffers in white coats led him to me. I was surprised to see him on his feet. He stumbled forward, his head lowered. I knelt, wrapped my arms around him, kissed his nose, and told him he was a good boy. After a minute or two, I went out the door so Mikaila could come in and do the same thing. As she turned to leave him, Rondo tried to follow, straining against his handlers. If he’d had his strength, they wouldn’t have been able to restrain him.
Back home, Mikaila tried to sleep, but Patricia and I sat up well past dawn waiting for news. Shortly after 8 a.m. my cell phone clanged. Rondo had survived the surgery. Fortunately, there was no damage to his internal organs, the surgeon said, but she’d found his abdominal cavity filled with blood, perhaps because the twisting of his stomach had ruptured some blood vessels. After surgery, he’s was given more fluid and dosed with antibiotics and painkillers. He was sleeping now in the intensive care unit where he was being monitored by a nurse who couldn’t leave, not even for a bathroom break, unless she was relieved.
“He’s not out of the woods,” the surgeon said. “Time will tell.”
“How much time?”
“At least a couple of days.” She promised the attending physician would call twice a day to keep us informed of his progress.
It was 2 p.m. when Dr. Steven Berkowitz (“Call me Dr. Steve”) phoned. Rondo was awake but giving no indication of how he was feeling, he said. “He’s a stoic dog.”
“That he is,” I said. Rondo was never one to complain. Except for the times when he had been separated from Brady, we’d never once heard him whine.
Rondo’s blood pressure was too low and his heart rate too high, Dr. Steve said. He was going to be given more fluids, and perhaps that would resolve the issues.
At 7 p.m., just before going off shift, he called to say Rondo was sleeping. His blood pressure and heart rate had improved, but only a little. Unless something dramatic happened, we wouldn’t get another call until he returned to the hospital and completed his morning rounds sometime after 8 a.m.
Saturday into Sunday was another sleepless night. Did Rondo wonder why we weren’t there for him the way he had always been there for us? Did he think we’d abandoned him? Goddamned Covid! I couldn’t get those thoughts out of my head.
Sunday morning, Dr. Steve called as promised. Rondo’s blood pressure and heart rate had improved overnight, he said, although they were still concerning. And he had detected an irregular heartbeat that was troubling. Perhaps more fluids to increase his blood volume might help.
When he called again early that evening, the news was good. Rondo’s blood pressure and heart rate were much better. Not back to normal yet, but heading in the right direction. Soon, the heart arrhythmia might resolve itself.
“He’s still not out of the woods,” Dr. Steve said, “but if things continue to improve, we can talk about a discharge plan in the morning.” Once again, he said we wouldn’t get a call overnight unless something dramatic happened.
At 1 a.m. Monday morning, Patricia was still up, and I was lying sleepless in bed, my cell phone on the bedside table. The moment it clanged, I knew.
“Oh God, no,” I said. I hesitated, then picked it up on the third ring, my voice cracking.
“I’m so sorry,” a woman doctor said. “Rondo’s heart stopped. We tried CPR but could not revive him.”
“I understand,” I said, “but do you think maybe you could try a little more?”
She said she would. Ten minutes later, she called back. Thanked her for her efforts and dissolved in tears. In the upstairs hallway, Patricia, who had listened to my side of the conversation, shrieked and pounded her fists on the wall.
I changed my ringtone. I never want to hear that clang again.
Later, Dr. Steve told us he wasn’t sure what had gone wrong. The most likely explanation was that a blood clot formed, reached Rondo’s brain, and caused a massive stroke. When I finally got around to examining the three-page hospital bill, I counted 104 line items of procedures and drugs that had been administered over two days—a measure of how hard Rondo’s doctors had fought for him and how much he had endured.
Monday morning, we debated whether we should ask to see Rondo’s body. Initially, I was against it. I didn’t want a corpse to be my final memory of him. Mikaila argued that if we didn’t see him, we’d regret it. Otherwise, our final memory would be a box of ashes.
So at 1 p.m. that day, the three of us stood silently in the hospital’s “family room” and waited for Rondo to be wheeled in. Entering that room was one of the hardest things I’d ever done.
I was blindly staring out the window when I heard a gurney trundling down the corridor. As the door swung open, a thought flashed through my mind: There’s been a mistake. It’s going to be somebody else’s dog. But, no. It was Rondo, his body wrapped in a quilted blue coverlet, only his head and front legs visible.
I went to him first. I stroked his head, then startled as it moved in a heart-rending imitation of life. But his body was cold. He’d just been taken from a cooler. Tears flowed as I stroked that silky hair on his neck, caressed his ears, took his big front paws in my hands, and kissed his nose one last time.
For a solid hour, Patricia, Mikaila and I tearfully took turns hugging him, stroking him, telling him how much we loved him, and saying our goodbyes. Entering that room was one of the hardest things I’d ever done, but leaving it was the hardest.