As many of you know, I lost my dog Clooney right before the holidays. I had hoped to finish the story below before I had to have him put down but, sadly, never did. Here's a tribute to my difficult but beautiful baby boy.
I should have known the adorable 8-pound Shih Tzu was going to be trouble as soon as I got into the car to take him home from the breeder. He panted incessantly through the whole car ride home. “He’s just nervous,” I told my aunt and uncle who had accompanied me to pick up the dog. “I’m sure he’ll calm down once I get him to my apartment.” They had been a little more suspect. Apparently, I had been too smitten with the eight-pound top-knotted red-and-white fluff ball the breeder had put in my arms to notice their home was decorated both inside and out with Shih Tzu paraphernalia. “There’s no way a healthy dog comes out of that place,” my uncle told me. The dog, who has been named Mikey but I now dubbed Clooney after my celebrity crush, continued panting through the night.
My uncle was right. Dr. Tom, the veterinarian who had lovingly taken care of Tiberias, the Shih Tzu that proceeded the new puppy and who had been put to sleep a month earlier, had a medical explanation for the heavy breathing. “His nostrils are too small. Shih Tzus are often bred that way so that they have those cute little noses but it makes them difficult to breathe.” He suggested waiting until he was a year old to see if it improved. If it didn’t, there was a surgical procedure that would open his nasal passages up.
Great, I thought. I just got a dog on Long Island and he needs a nose job.
New dog owners usually get 24 hours to decide if they want to return the dog to a breeder. But 24 hours was all I needed to fall in love with Clooney, the dog, not the actor, and there was no way I was going to return him.
The breeder agreed to pay for the surgery when Clooney, who they still insisted on calling Mikey, was a year old but wanted me to bring him back out to Long Island where it would be significantly less expensive than any of the New York City animal hospitals. Shortly after his October 24 birthday, I rented a Zipcar and took him back to Long Island, where he had the procedure.
It didn’t work. For the next 12 years, Clooney’s excessive panting, which often lasted for hours at a time, made me feel like I lived with one of those perverted heavy breathers who made menacing phone calls in the days before caller ID.
The nose job, I would learn, was not Clooney’s biggest problem. In addition to his funny bow-legged walk, Clooney meandered so slowly I began to think he was part turtle. Unlike most dogs, he was never able to get up on his hind legs and never rolled over onto his back. Dr. Tom and the vet that replaced him when I moved across town assured me it was nothing to worry about.
I should have worried.
I was in an Uber on the way back from a one-day business trip when I received a notification from Wag that my dog’s walk had just been completed. In addition to showing me a map of where Clooney had peed and pooped over the course of his walk (I wasn’t quite sure why I needed to know that), the walker had written an effusive note about how playful and adorable Clooney was. I bet she doesn’t tell that to all the dog parents, I thought, proudly. But then I looked down further and saw that she had written, “I don’t want to alarm you but…” – a sentence that’s never going to end well – “Clooney’s back right leg seems to be twisting when he’s walking.” Despite the walker’s wish, I was indeed alarmed. I tried to slough it off as part of his bow-leggedness but, noticing his legs turning in a little more than usual, I decided to take him to the vet the next day. A few more vet visits and an MRI revealed that he had a congenital cyst that was pressing on his spine. The orthopedic specialist at the Animal Medical Center, one of the best animal hospitals in the country but also where retirement funds go to die, and our new vet, Dr. Rosenthal, agreed that surgery would be difficult and unlikely to improve Clooney’s condition. They recommended I keep Clooney on a small dose of steroids that would slow the progression of any damage to his spine.
It didn’t end there. If Clooney and I received frequent flyer points for his vet visits, we’d have accumulated enough for several trips to Asia and back. First class. The blood in his urine, which the vet thought would be a UTI? Bladder stones. The frequent eye infections? Dry eye. The persistent diarrhea? Clostridium difficile or C. diff., an infection uncommon to domesticated animals. Then there were the cysts that seem to pop up on his skin so often that, if he was shaved down, would probably make him look like a teenager with acne.
If I’ve started to feel like someone with a car that is always headed to the repair shop, there is a good reason. Clooney was a lemon. He clearly fit the legal definition: He broke down regularly, had significant defects and I made every reasonable effort to have him repaired.
Clooney’s health afflictions weren’t the only indications that he was not what I expected from that sweet-faced puppy. While not quite on the scale of the dog in Marley and Me, Clooney displayed some significant behavioral issues. In my attempts to keep him contained over the years, he proved to be so adept as an escape artist that I am pretty sure that he would four yeses from the judges on America’s Got Talent. He could barely walk, had few teeth left and, at full size weighed only 12 pounds, but somehow managed to ease his way past the same mesh gate successfully kept my brother’s two huskies confined.
Despite being able to get up on his hind legs, he managed to pull newspapers off shelves two feet above him and shred them into so many pieces you’d think they contained his Social Security number. He chewed up several pairs of reading glasses, left toothmarks on a few designer belts and handbags and destroyed two pairs of his dog sitter’s shoes. He seemed, at least, to understand that any attempt at damaging my beloved shoe collection would have resulted in his expulsion.
But Clooney wasn’t all bluster. He stood and shivered as soon street cleaning machines and garbage trucks turned the corner. He was probably the only being in the city that benefited from the DeBlasio years, when keeping the city clean didn’t seem to be a mayoral priority and the trucks appeared infrequently. He never forgot the time that I set of the smoke alarm, it’s high pitch so disturbing that, from that point on, he’d start to shake and would pee on the rug whenever he heard me rattling pots in the kitchen.
Training Clooney was a failure from the very beginning. So much so that the private trainer I hired for him quit after just a few sessions not because of any bad behavior but out of guilt for taking money to train a dog who absolutely refused to participate in any activity that he did not initiate. Although he quickly learned the commands to sit and stop, Clooney drew the line at being summoned. Calling his name never resulted in more than a turned head, a little side-eye and resumption of whatever activity was keeping him occupied. Treats, he seemed to think, are for bitches.
But I never wanted to trade in my lemon. The big brown eyes that peaked above the toy stuffed lobster he held tightly in his mouth as he greeted me at the door made me melt, even if though I knew walking in a few more steps would lead to the discovery that he had pooped on my Turkish rug. The loud snoring that sounded like there was an overweight 70-year-old man with sleep apnea sleeping next to me filled my heart with love. My favorite moment of the day was when I would scoop him up and he would put his head against my chest and close his eyes. Because of those missing teeth, his little pink tongue stuck out while he slept, making him look like a cuddly stuffed animal. I couldn’t help but smile when he ran, or rather bounced, down the hallway after I’ve taken him off his leash after one of our brief walks. He long stopped the “zoomies” that sent him darting off into frenetic laps up until a few years ago, but it reminded me there was still some puppy in him until the very end.
“You were meant to be his mother,” my sister told me once, right after Clooney had peed on one of her brand-new carpets. “Only you could have that kind of patience and love.”
I was sure any dog lover would have risen to the challenge that was Clooney. Sure, the heavy breathing put me on edge, especially if I was trying to focus on something else. His frequent accidents and need for constant clean up left me frustrated. And I’m pretty sure the vet bills, medications, specialized dog food, diapers, mats and specialized harness added up to a lot more than replacing the engine on an exotic sports car.
But dogs don’t come with a warranty and occasionally you’ll end up with a lemon. The only thing that’s guaranteed is their unconditional love and I got that in spades. Thankfully, we had Dr. Rosenthal, our trustworthy vet who regularly patched him up for a little more mileage and helped me make lemonade out of my lemon for a few years longer than I could have hoped.
Thank you, Dr. Rosenthal, and R.I.P. dear Clooney.