Laika was a good dog: smart and sweet and loyal. I got her when I was just a kid, 12 years old in the summer of 1997. She and I grew up together.
Going on walks in the woods that were further than her short legs could handle, she would eventually stop and wait for me to pick her up and carry her the rest of the way. She was adventurous, staying outside long after dark, coming home not exactly when called, but a little after. I never did figure out how to whistle properly, so a falsetto yell was our rallying cry.
After a bath, she’d hate her clean new scent and rub her face on the couch until she smelled like herself again. One walk back from the groomer, she found a mud puddle and submerged herself up to the neck in it. Once she was nice and dirty again, she emerged entirely pleased with herself.
She was a good traveler, going back and forth between VT and southern NH on alternate weekends. When I got her I told her she’d have to learn to like the car, and that she did. She’d fall asleep with her head cocked upwards against the seatback, which looked awkward but must have been comfortable. She’d know when we got to Old Ridge Rd, and would perk up to survey her other territory.
When I left for college, Laika went to live with Janet and Lou, but she was still my dog. Coming home for weekends, she’d meet me at the door with a squeal and demand belly rubs for at ten uninterrupted minutes. The whole weekend, she’d be glued to my side. I think it slightly irked Janet and Lou, because what are they chopped liver? But it was always clear she was my dog, and I was her boy.
After moving out of the dorm, I brought Laika down to Boston. I wasn’t quite as conscientious a care-taker as the adults were, but Laika adjusted well to her new surroundings and a smaller backyard. She got new friends in my roommates, snacks whenever we grilled out back, and a spot on the front porch from which she could bark up and down the street. It was a perfect vantage point for keeping watch over the neighborhood.
She knew nothing about cars, and moving from the country to the city was an adjustment for us both. I now had to walk her on a leash and pick up poop with my hand covered in a plastic bag. She had to learn to wait at crosswalks, or at least not go until I let her. She always loved the snow, maybe some of that Tibetan heritage. She would leap through drifts far taller than you’d think a small dog would be able to manage. There was joy in her step, romping through the park.
She was cute; maybe cuter than a young man deserved. I always thought she’d come in handy picking up girls, but walking on the Somerville community path it was always the old ladies who would stop and ask to pet her. She did work on one young woman, though. Ruth knew that the way to me was through Laika, and did her best to ingratiate herself into our relationship. Laika learned to move over in bed, and the three of us became a family.
When I moved to California, Laika came with me. Not at first, but once I found an apartment that allowed dogs, I was on the next plane back east to get her. She did well on the plane, quietly sleeping underneath the seat in front of me. Until I too fell asleep, and she wandered toward the cockpit. The stewardess scolded me with annoyance, but I knew Laika just wanted to go exploring.
California had new smells, new dog friends in our building, and a new routine. I left for work after our morning walks, and she would be waiting for me by the door for my return in the evening. She wasn’t always able to wait to pee for that long, so we got her an absorbent pad and a little piece of fake grass to put in the bathroom. The smell didn’t bother me too much, and Ruth not at all, so it was a workable solution.
Recently, Laika started to lose energy and eat less. I reminded myself that she’s an old lady, just turned 14 in June, and almost 100 in dog-years. I could tell she wasn’t feeling well when she would no longer eat her pill-concealing treats, or even drink milk out of a bowl. She used to bark at me as I ate breakfast, demanding her turn at the sugary milk. That’s when I knew it was time.
Today, I took Laika to the vet for the last time. I carried her in my arms, as she’s gotten used to getting rides down the hall. She peed on me a little in the car, perhaps a parting shot, or a sign that she hadn’t eaten her medication in over a week. She didn’t mind the vet, just closed her eyes and fell asleep. I cried, which I don’t often do, but felt right today.
I don’t think much of heaven, but I know that Laika’s spirit is too strong to disappear immediately. I’d like to think that she joined her namesake and is barking at the stars.