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FinnyWhat I admire so much about dogs is how they always seem to love freely, without expectation. Such was true with Finny, my rat terrier that died yesterday.

I surprised myself over the course of the last two weeks with how much Finny was able to consume my thoughts. He quickly, unexpectedly, and still without a known cause, fell ill with renal failure at the beginning of this year. We kept him at the vet, flushed his system with fluids, experimented with Chinese herbs — anything to save his life. The empty spot at the end of the bed seemed more pronounced without his 15-pound body there. The unrelenting bark when the door bell rang. The harassment and desperation for just a scrap of food while I prepared dinner. The 10-minute-long lick-Dad’s-ear-and-neck sessions.

It was so noticeably absent.

I can’t remember the moments I meet most people. Those moments lack interest and significance for me. But I can remember that March afternoon in 2005 at a Kansas City rat terrier breeder’s home when the owners explained how everyone had scooped up this newest litter rapidly. But, for some reason, no one had taken the “dog that prances.” A head nod toward the kitchen area told me where I would find the prancing dog. And around the corner came this 3-pound, posture-perfect black dog, far from expressionless due mostly to his golden brown eyebrows broadcasting his emotions. I signed the paperwork, paid a little too much, and walked out a proud papa.

While I thought he was cute, we didn’t have the “man’s best friend” relationship that I was expecting. He seemed more like a “mama’s dog” — somewhat prissy, would be perfectly content in a purse, and wouldn’t complain if he were hand-fed.

When my life changed in 2007 and 2008, it came with the blessing of marriage. But it also came with a few headaches: a new job and a drastic pay cut, a new home, and an out-of-control flare-up of Crohn’s disease. My bond with Finny materialized during this time. No matter how many people I disappointed during the day, or how many times I screwed up, Finny had no idea, didn’t care, never held a grudge, threw out judgment. Instead, he waited for me to sit down so that he could spend the rest of the day proving how big his heart was. On walks, he turned his head around routinely to make sure I was still with him. While I watched TV, he maneuvered his body on the couch so that he could watch me watch TV, sometimes for hours. And he stood at attention, tail wagging, while I chopped, diced, and julienned each meal, knowing that I was in his debt and would throw him a carrot if he tilted his head just the right way.

And he knew that, because of his loyalty, I would return the favor to him. Even when he crept on the dining room table when my back was turned to inhale every last Christmas cookie. Even when he climbed on top of my head in the middle of the night so that he could slurp out of my tea mug on the bedside table. Even when he humped our cocker spaniel in front of company. Even when he turned the bathroom into a landfill and feasted on the contents of the trashcan.

Even when.

I think back on the events in my life since 2005. And at the end of the days of triumph, at the end of the days of sorrow, Finny was at home, waiting to show that he loved me just a little bit more than he did the day before.

And so, when it came time to make the decision to end his life, it tore at me in the deepest way. He had gone nearly lifeless in his last 24 hours with us. He was preparing himself to die. And, on the frigid evening of a full moon, we walked in silence as we carried him inside the animal hospital. Laura sat and held him in a blanket in her arms. I knelt on the floor so that I could watch him and let him know that I was committed to him to the last second of his life and would not let the sterile walls of a vet hospital be his last image but rather the unbroken, devoted gaze of his best friend. He lay there, weak, broken, and at his most vulnerable. He didn’t wince. He didn’t complain. He rested his head in my palm. And when the doctor injected him, I caressed his neck. I whispered a thank you. I said goodbye.

He loved because he could love. And I’ll be forever grateful to him for that example.

Finny, December 2004 ~ January 2013