My Life in Dog Years

For most of Dean Whitford's five decades, his "pack" has included a dog—but he's never chosen any of them. Don't miss this heartwarming tribute to the four-legged members of a man's family.

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My dogs chose me - Duke
Photo: Dean Whitford


I was six years old in 1976. Our dog Spooky had passed away a few months earlier. We came home one day to find a handsome, young black Labrador retriever had come calling! We fed him, gave him water and showered him with affection for the few days it took for my father to find his owners. We thought our time with Duke was at an end.

Two days later, Duke’s “pack Alpha” called. He had been given an ultimatum to choose his mate or Duke—could Duke join our pack? Apparently, Duke sensed he would need a new pack in the near future and had made arrangements!

Duke was with us for 14 great years. I remember camping adventures, snuggles on the garage floor while Dad worked on vehicles, Duke dragging his doghouse around the neighborhood, Duke dragging his chain two kilometres through town to visit his girlfriend—and more.

My sister had to take Duke to the veterinarian and say goodbye while I was at university and our parents were out of town. Although I regret not being around to help, I probably wouldn’t have been able to make that last drive with Duke, anyway.

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My dogs chose me - Kayla
Photo: Dean Whitford


In 1995, the parents of a longtime friend called because they were moving and couldn’t take Kayla with them; would we be her new pack? Kayla was an American cocker spaniel that I had met a few times and I was happy to agree to the adoption. Ironically, while my new bride, Cheryl, strongly suggested that I didn’t need a housemate, she was okay with keeping Kayla.

During our five years together, Kayla exhibited the spirit of a lion and endless affection for her pack as well. She never hesitated to curl up beside us on the couch or the bed for snuggles. Beware all four-legs, though! Kayla seemed to have an “adjustable suspension” that allowed her to go under cars and beds without losing a step. Many a cat was surprised to find their hiding place breached. Kayla didn’t seem to care that she was only 20 pounds—one evening, she bolted out of my garage to charge two teenage bullmastiffs. I don’t know who was more shocked, me, the bullmastiffs, or their owner. Thankfully, I managed to scoop Kayla up before any people or dogs were harmed.

I am one of those people who loves dogs too much to be able to say a proper goodbye when it is time. I managed to get in the car with Cheryl and Kayla for the last trip to the vet but stayed in the car blubbering while Cheryl did what was needed.

Here’s expert advice on how to provide end-of-life care for your pet.

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My dogs chose me - George
Photo: Dean Whitford


One week without a dog was enough. Cheryl and her sister went to the Edmonton SPCA in November 1999 “just to nose around” and brought me in a week later. George had us with one look from his deep, soulful brown eyes. He was quiet and subdued and didn’t demand to be taken so much as just needing a pack—and we were it.

George was an English cocker spaniel, three years old when he adopted us. He was affectionate but not playful, perhaps due to his years as a university behavioural study dog. One day around Easter, we came home to find that George had dug a bag of chocolate eggs out of their seemingly secure hiding place. Unlike other dogs, George didn’t gorge on the chocolate, then vomit foil and stomach contents. Instead, he’d carefully placed one egg on each bed and another in the middle of the floor in each bedroom.

After nine fantastic years, George developed intestinal issues. Steroids gave him another three years, but then it was time. For the first time, the final trip to the vet was my responsibility. It was a good thing I made arrangements by phone, because when I got there all I could do was hand him over. They asked if I wanted to be with him, and in my head I was thinking, are you insane? I barely managed to make it in your door, but all I could do was shake my head and leave. Nobody was fooled by my shades; they couldn’t hide the tears streaming down my face.

Here are the 13 things you should know about pet adoption.

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My dogs chose me - Kona
Photo: Dean Whitford


Kona is a shepherd-doberman-rottweiler-greyhound-and-something mix. She had to work extra hard to ensure we would be her pack. The “dog cops” had the audacity to capture her at the tender age of 18 months. Her first adoption with the wrong pack only lasted six weeks before Kona showed up in “dog jail” again. The SPCA called the first adopter and was told Kona could stay with them. Being a pretty girl, Kona was adopted again only ten days later. Kona shook off this incorrect pack by chasing their cats for six days!

After George’s passing, our pack went just two weeks before talking about adopting. Cheryl really wanted another cocker spaniel. We came upon Kona at the SPCA. She took a look at us and barked once. At the time, I thought she meant that we should come in and meet her. In hindsight, I believe she was saying “You’re finally here, take me home!”

Our son, Damon, and I along with Kona, all knew immediately that Kona would be joining our pack—it took a week for Cheryl to give up the cocker spaniel quest. Kona has been with us for nine years now with no sign of slowing down. Our adventures together will have to be shared in a separate story.

My lesson for you is to stay alert—if you find a stray on your doorstep or are accosted at the SPCA, that dog may have chosen you to join its pack!

Next, check out the most popular dog breeds in Canada.

Originally Published in Our Canada

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