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My parents had Leo put to sleep a few days ago. They did it while I was out of town, to save me the pain of taking him to the vet myself. We all knew it was time. Leo was 14� years old and his eyes and hearing were going and his legs were too frail to carry his weight. He had to be lifted from his bed to eat his meals. And he never missed a meal.
He'd been staying with my parents for the last year, because they live in a house and Leo couldn't climb the stairs at our apartment anymore. But Leo was my dog; there was never any question about that. Feisty, eager, flap-eared, with a voice like the horn of a Model T Ford, he had—according to some people—a personality similar to my own. He came along when I was 21 and together we'd grown up—I into an adult, he into an old man.
I've always hated nostalgic stories about people's dead pets. A dog, like a cat or a bird, isn't a person. All a pet can bring to us is some comfort, some warmth when things are cold. Pets are nice, but so are good books. There isn't a dog anywhere that's worth one person. You have to believe that or you start to forget what's important about being human. But I'll say this—Leo brought me a lot of pleasure.
He was the main character in the first story I wrote for this magazine. I'd recently been cut by the Kansas City Chiefs and my life was a mess. What was I going to do? How was I going to survive? I came back to the house I shared with my college buddies, and there was Leo, tongue out, optimistic, ready to get on with things.
"Hey," his look said. "Write about me." So I did (SI, July 31, 1972).
He was a sporting dog. We used to play a game we invented called "block football." I'd "kick off" with a block of wood, he'd pick it up in his mouth, and I'd try to tackle him before he could juke his way to the goal line at the other end of the yard. He was slow, but he had quick feet and fabulous instincts, and I seldom touched him.
Like everybody's dog he did things that were amazing. One day, he climbed out my bedroom window and jumped off the second-floor porch roof and followed me to the store. Another time a lady called to say she'd seen Leo riding the Evanston El by himself. He was headed toward Chicago, she said, and wasn't I concerned about this? Sure I was, but I liked it, too.
We lived in an urban area and, dumb youth that I was, I never put Leo on a leash. He would disappear for days at a time and come home filthy, skinny and weak. Friends' dogs sometimes went out with him on his trips, and sometimes they didn't return.
"That dog is a survivor," my father said about a month before Leo died, and what he meant was that Leo was smart.
Still, there were a number of things Leo couldn't or wouldn't do, and one of them was swim. I took him into Lake Michigan one time, and he turned vertical, like a weighted sausage, and sank until nothing but his wildly snorting nose was above water. I had to drag him out by his collar. But there was dignity even in that fiasco, an authentic dogness to it. Part beagle, part basset, Leo was designed for ground work, not for aquatics. His actions said, "I can't swim, and why should I?" Indeed, why.