Hercules made me angry like only a family member could. He would start barking at five-thirty in the morning on days we wanted to sleep late. He'd sneak off to shit on the carpet just moments after coming inside from the yard. He'd steal chocolate bars from the table and scrambled eggs from the baby's plate and scraps out of the garbage and butter from the counter-top. He'd whine and whimper and complain about any little thing that wasn't just so.
He would constantly demand attention when we were busy with something or someone else - very literally nosing-in in order to have his head patted. On cold days, he'd try to hide when it was time for a walk. He had the most disgusting breath of any creature I've ever encountered. He had a knack for being underfoot at the most ill-conceived moments. He would spend hours flipping a blanket with his snout in order to arrange himself underneath it to his satisfaction. When we needed a break, we'd lock him in his kennel, but somehow he'd get it open and escape. One time, he actually got out of his kennel, climbed out of the locked garage through a window, opened the back door to the house, and went inside.
Christ, that dog drove me crazy.
Most aggravating of all, though, was that Hercules would run away. He ran away so often that it wasn't worrisome or alarming or even notable. It was only maddening (and occasionally embarrassing when neighbors had to bring him home). At my old house, he'd jump the four-foot high fence easy as kiss your hand (an amazing feat for such a tiny dog) and go on an all-day walkabout. He'd trot back hours later with a look on his face that said nothing so much as "whuuut?"
On Monday, he ran off and got hit by a car. He died instantly. He was thirteen.
Though I consider myself to be an animal lover, I am not much of a dog person. It is not for lack of trying: as an adult, I've actually owned four dogs. We got our first dog, a black lab, in 1993. He was spirited and entertaining, but he grew into a ninety-pound handful, and after the novelty wore off, it became a grind to care for him.
At the time, we ran a child care business, and when that lab started to bite other people's children, we were forced to get rid of him. I vowed I'd never have another dog. But I was eventually overruled, and in 2001, my family and I found ourselves with an Italian greyhound, a breed I had never encountered (or even heard of) before my then-wife and daughter came home with Frodo.
As fate would have it, not long afterward, a college kid moved in across the street with his own Italian greyhound. Most dogs are not well-suited to a college student's lifestyle, however, and soon Hercules was spending a lot of time with us. He was more delicate than Frodo, and also a good deal smarter. We ended up adopting him, and from then on we were a two-IG family. We eventually added a third dog, a Pomeranian. They were quite a trio.
Now as I've said, Hercules had always been a total jerk. But damn it if he wasn't the consummate charmer too: he loved children and he loved the daycare. He'd cuddle with whomever was willing to sit on the couch for more than thirty seconds (especially if you had a blanket). And boy, did he love cats. When one of our cats had kittens, he took pride in them and considered himself to be a co-parent. They were his kittens and he raised them.
The years slipped by. In 2007 I divorced, and although I wanted exactly zero dogs, I ended up with the two greyhounds. Strange how that worked out. Anyway, Hercules and Frodo didn't love the life of a single dude nearly as much as family life, but the three of us adapted and soldiered on.
When I remarried in 2010, my wife brought her cat Levi into our home, and predictably, Hercules loved that cat too. Unfortunately, Levi didn't want much to do with Hercules; one might say that he was on to Hercules' charming bad-boy routine (Levi being cut from a similar cloth). Levi preferred Frodo's guileless company, which made Frodo quite nervous and Hercules even more determined to bond with him.
Even though Hercules and Levi never really came to an understanding, the newly-remade household and the dynamic between the three of these animals revived Hercules' familial nature. At ten years old, he was as playful as a puppy. I think it was a heavy blow to Hercules when we had to put Levi down due to illness in January of 2012.
Hercules proved to have plenty more life in him, though. When our first (my third) child was born in 2012, Hercules formed an immediate bond with the baby. This was something new for Hercules: he had played nursemaid to kittens and to preschoolers, but he had never been around a newborn infant, and he took to our son Malcolm more effortlessly than I thought possible.
It's not an exaggeration to say that Hercules pretty much single-handedly taught our boy how to be gentle. While Malcolm was squeezing and pinching and prodding, he'd patiently stand there as if to say, "try again."
All of this happened right before our eyes, and while it pleased us, I don't think we appreciated it as fully as we should have. We were busy being harried, sleep-deprived new parents just trying to hold ourselves together. But the magic happened, again and again, and I'm glad we captured some of it.
On Tuesday we received quite a few calls from our searching and canvassing efforts. A lot of people had seen him Monday afternoon in his frenzied condition. But our hopes were short-lived: on a tip from one of the many flyers we posted, we found his body that afternoon by a busy highway about half a mile from our house. I went to collect his remains. He was almost unrecognizable. Poor, poor dog. We suppose that he was hit Monday evening right after dark.
There were no skid marks, and by the blood-streaked road, it was clear that he was dragged at least 50 feet, and probably more. I doubt the driver saw him, but I am not sure how the driver failed to feel the impact. I washed and saved his name-tag, and I let Frodo sniff his body so he'd know that Hercules wasn't coming back. Then we brought his remains to Minneapolis Animal Control.
I am sorry. It was my job to protect you, little dog. And I failed.
Our relationships with our pets are complicated: we form attachments and project our own hopes, fears, and foibles on to these creatures. They probably try harder to understand us than we credit. Science has learned much about the chemistry and the hormones that transform a small domesticated animal into a beloved family member. But there is no measuring instrument that can quite capture the regret I feel.
I always thought Hercules would outlive everyone. Though he certainly had a long and rich life, he didn't deserve to die so suddenly and violently. And even though he drove me crazy, I am sad that he's gone, and my complacent, annoyed attitude toward his escape on Monday gnaws at me. I'll miss him most for his kindness toward my youngest son - I am heartbroken that their relationship has been cut short. Rest in peace, Hercules.