by James Sands
Gus was 12 weeks old when I met him. I watched the breeder carry a lanky, white pup with a green collar and leash to the grassy area of a hotel parking lot. The pup was all legs and feet. He looked apprehensive when the man set him down. I could see wariness in his eyes, but there was something else as well—maybe defiance, maybe stubbornness. He seemed braced to do his best to handle whatever was coming his way.
He watched with suspicion as my wife, son, and I approached. His eyes struck me; they were gray-blue with a depth of expression almost human. I bent down a few feet in front of him and said, “Hello, pup.” This brought a tentative wag that suggested he wasn’t sure tail wagging was the best response. My wife and son came up beside me and began talking to him. The wag got a little stronger and he moved a few steps toward us.
Crystal has a voice like warm maple syrup poured gently over pancakes; to say it is sweet would entirely miss the mark. When Gus heard her, he visibly relaxed; I think he started to realize he was going to be okay. We petted and talked to him, then Crystal went to handle the exchange of documents and money.
I took the lead and gave it some slack to see what the pup would do. He watched the breeder walk away and seemed to understand the significance in this. He tentatively approached the business of being dog. The breeder had mentioned this particular puppy was not an alpha, and I could see he wasn’t confident while he sniffed the grass and nosed around, but his demeanor was more cautious than fearful.
Later, about five minutes into the drive home, I glanced toward the back seat. The lanky, white pup was stretched out next to my son with his head in the boy’s lap, sound asleep. He had accepted his fate–for better or worse–and was officially part of our family.
We named our female Great Pyrenees, Boudica, after the Celtic warrior queen who led a revolt against the Romans in Britain when her husband, Prasutagus—who had been relatively complacent about Roman rule—died. It seemed fitting this new pup be named after Boudica’s husband. I wasn’t certain of the pronunciation having heard both Pra-sah-tah-gus and Pra-soo-too-goose; either way it was a mouthful, so I condensed it. He started off as Gus.
I might have an unconscious dislike of monosyllabic names as I tend to double up on those creatures around here that have one. Our chicken named Poe became Poe-Poe; our ducks evolved into duck-ducks. Gus soon turned into Gus-Gus or sometimes Goose-Goose or even Guh-Gus, depending on context and person.
Pyrenees have been bred to be independent. They are accustomed to thinking for themselves and making decisions based upon their own conclusions. If they obey you, it will be largely out of love. You cannot force them to do something they do not want to do. They are stubborn, and you must work to earn their trust. Both of my dogs have taught me this lesson, but Gus more so than Boudica.
I do not give my dogs bones; they get bully sticks to chew. When Gus arrived, in addition to Boudica, we also had an old hound named Rourke. Twice a month, Boudica and Rourke were given a twelve-inch bully stick. I cut them in half for Gus, but I did this only twice. The third time I offered him the half stick, he put his nose on one end, smelled the length of it then looked at me with disgust—yes, disgust—and turned away. I offered it again, but he refused to look at it.
I set it on the floor in front of him. He still wouldn’t acknowledge its existence; instead, he stared at me with a deep and unmistakable accusation of betrayal. He knew what the other two were getting. He was not going to accept anything less. From that point forward, Gus, despite being a four-month-old pup, got the full twelve. And every time since, without exception, he placed his nose on one end of the stick and smelled the length of it to ensure he wasn’t getting shorted.
Gus was unlike Boudica in several ways. He had to be taught to not chase chickens, which he did, eventually, learn. Although, there were a few “accidental” slip-ups where a chicken just happened to be near or on a Gus trajectory when he decided to chase after a real or imaginary squirrel. Squawking and frantic flapping inevitably ensued. On those occasions, his name would quickly revert back from Gus-Gus to just “GUS!”
He also had to be taught to not hate and to not chase Crystal’s cat, Sophie, which he did not eventually learn—not ever. He could not understand how she could love a cat while at the same time loving him. It was unacceptable. He was willing to share Crystal’s affection with Boudica. Boudica was his queen; he adored her. But the cat was, well, a cat—in Gus’ mind belonging in the same category as squirrel—a creature to be barked at and furiously chased. His name morphed on those instances too—and there were many—going from two to four syllables with the singular “GUS!” and the additional, albeit colorful, alliteration partially remaining the same.
Gus’ fur was different also. Where Boudica’s coat was straight and flowing and easily brushed, Gus’ “wool” was the hook to nature’s loop—all of nature, every bit of it. Many dogs will fetch a stick, not Gus. He didn’t need to. He just laid on the ground and all the sticks, leaves, twigs, pinecones, fir boughs, random detritus, and sometimes even insects in the vicinity instantly attached to his fur.
We developed a ritual before he could enter the house. I would say, “Hold on, let me get the stick,” (stick being synonymous for all of it). And he would stop and wait at the open door; although, I could see in his face he didn’t really agree with the need.
Sometimes, he engaged in the “California stop,” where one simply hesitates then beats it through the intersection, at which point I would be left hastily trying to grab as much debris as I could before he settled under the dining room table, which, incidentally, was one of his favorite places in the house—as long as we were sitting at it. And if we were, he inevitably had to have a paw touching one of us. His other favorite places were wherever all of us were gathered. Gus loved his people.
He loved to guard us. It is a Pyrenees job to protect his flock, and Gus did so with relish. I do not believe a single person ever went undetected walking past our house during Gus’ watch. He would charge the cedar post fence, throw his head back and let loose a deep, throaty, “WHOOOO, WHOO, WHOO, WHOO, WHO!”
If Gus didn’t spot the perpetrator, Boudica did. All she had to do was yip once, and Gus would be at the fence, “WHOOOO, WHOO, WHOO, WHOO, WHO!” He was her henchman. Together, they were a gang. You might wonder how two dogs could make a gang. I assure you, two Great Pyrenees can. Together, they were fierce, and we were protected—protected against pedestrians, UPS, FedEx, the US mail, folks walking dogs, kids on bikes, deer, squirrels, and oh so many things we did not see.
Gus also loved his ducks. Crystal has a flock of seven Indian Runners who live in the fenced area south of the house. Our chickens are in the fenced area on the north. Chicken poop sits on top of the grass and, over time, is slowly absorbed into the soil; whereas duck poop has a great deal more liquidity and tends to move into the soil much quicker. This fact was emphatically emphasized.
Initially, Gus and Boudica stayed out with the chickens. The two Pyrs loved to wrestle. Inevitably, Boudica would take Gus’ front legs out, and he would hit the ground on the run and roll then bounce back up, tongue lolling, eyes shining, streaked with war paint from the chicken factory. Gus’ fur was a magnet for chicken poop too. We moved the dogs into the duck yard as soon as I got it fenced.
At first, the ducks were the unhappy recipients of the Gus fly-by, just as the chickens had been. Gradually, we were able to get him to understand ducks have rights too. After that, he generally ignored them, until he found his greater purpose.
Crystal and I were having tea one morning; we heard Gus barking. His tone was different, urgent. This was not a dog walker. Crystal ran out the front door and I the back. The attack was at the front. She first saw Gus, barking desperately at the fence, helpless to get to the other side where a large hawk was tearing at the back of one of our chickens. The big dog was roaring and lunging, trying to scale the five-foot fence while the chicken screamed as the hawk dug talons into her back and slashed with its beak.
Crystal managed to chase the predator off before I could get there. The hen survived, but the damage was extensive; I had to quickly end her life. Crystal was crying, visibly shaken. It was the first time we’d lost a bird to a predator. Gus witnessed all of it. After that, he watched the sky, and he watched Crystal’s ducks—even from inside the house. He learned their typical duck banter. But any loud, unusual quacking brought him to the door; he would get there before we did, even if he had been upstairs napping. One of us would open it, and he would charge into the yard, looking wildly in all directions as he ran.
Although Gus slept on the floor on my side of the bed, and typically greeted me first in the morning, in many ways, he was Crystal’s dog. He was her baby; it was a role they both embraced. The cat was the only thing that stood between them. And, I think he forgave her for it—instead, choosing to blame the cat—just as Crystal forgave him.
Whenever Crystal left the house—taking our boy to cello lessons, doing a grocery pickup, delivering eggs—Gus would either wait in the corner of the yard closest to the road or, if he was in the house, at the front door until she returned. If outside, he would charge the back door, wriggling and whining like a 130-pound puppy. If inside, the barking started when she entered the driveway, and the puppy behavior as soon as the garage door opened. When she walked in, he would smile big. His eyes squinted into horizontal half-moons as he squirmed and wriggled. Gus had the best dog smile I have ever seen. It was pure joy!
The first night he was home, Crystal walked into the upstairs bedroom where he was laying on his bed, and he rolled over on his back and smiled, as if saying “rub the belly, mama.” There were many, many belly rubs and smiles after that. He loved belly rubs. He loved affection.
He was “dad’s big dog,” “mama’s baby,” and our son’s best friend. They were to be giants together. Our boy is now 12, 6’ 2” and 205 pounds. Gus stood 33 inches at the shoulder and weighed 130 pounds.
To see an animal that size run flat out is impressive. In early August, Crystal was weeding the flower bed, and Gus was laying on the grass beside her. The ducks started in with a terrible commotion. I was in the kitchen and ran to the door in time to see Gus stretched out in a dead run. He was flying, barking like crazy. I shot a look in the direction he was headed and saw a Cooper’s hawk on the back of one of Crystal’s ducks. That hawk heard him coming. It let go of the duck and lifted off just seconds before Gus lunged. His teeth snapped air; he hit the fence and up he went, standing on his back legs, head thrown back, WHOOO WHOO WHOO WHOO WHO!”
It had been two years since he witnessed the hawk attack. This time, our bird survived. Gus saved it.
In retrospect, there were signs. His eyes seemed a little tired. He maybe moved a little slower—although, he had always operated on “Gus time” and was never too fast to anything unless he deemed it a threat. In late spring, his habit of being the first up then down the stairs and out the door in the morning started to fade.
I chalked it up to summer heat and the fact he was older and finally completely out of puppy hood. He was still active and barked like a maniac whenever someone passed by, drove into our driveway, or came to our door. He still chased deer along the fence, chased squirrels—and the cat, and his appetite was good. But he didn’t play as much. Boudica would engage him, and he would bounce and prance around her but not like he used to. Again, I thought maturity—and maybe weight. He hid the lymphoma well. I just didn’t see it.
We had him to the vet for his annual checkup on August 27; he received a clean bill of health. Around Halloween, his eating slowed then eventually stopped. I put him in the ground on November 10.
There are close to 200, seven-foot, cedar fence posts buried two feet into the ground on our property. I dug the holes in the rocky Maine soil with a shovel and spud bar for every one. A few years back, I helped a neighbor pour a cement floor for his dirt basement. The two of us did a job that should have had four or five people. I spent hours working a homemade PVC trough to get concrete into his basement while it slowly ate third degree burns into my forearms and legs. It took a month of Crystal applying aloe vera four times daily before the skin grew back. I still have the scars. I split my firewood with a maul, and I till my 3,000 square foot garden area with a shovel. I guess I am tough—maybe not child-birthing tough—but, for a man, I do okay.
I’ve had plenty of loss in my 61 years. My grandfather—the person closest to being my mentor—died when he was 62 and I 16. My stepfather committed suicide when he was 43. My mom died of lung cancer at 47. My uncle died of lung cancer at 40. My sister died of lung cancer at 46. My brother took his own life at 18.
I never cried for any of them like I cried for Gus—with the exception of my brother. His death was beyond tragedy. Gus’ death broke me down. We had him for four years and seven months. I still get teary from time to time; I expect I will for a while.
Gus was resting at the front door the day we took him to be euthanized. I had just walked into the house after digging his grave when UPS showed up. Gus rose to his feet and let out a WHOO WHOO WHO! WHOO WHOO WHO! He stood until the driver finished his delivery then collapsed to the floor. We carried him to the Subaru on a quilt.
We couldn’t go inside the veterinary clinic because of the coronavirus. I parked under a big pine in the back of the building. The vet had agreed to come outside to do her work. I opened the hatchback. Gus was facing the door. His final act was to stand up and turn around to face the east, away from the clinic—the direction of the rising sun. I held his huge head in my arms, told him over and over he was “dad’s big dog” and cried as he went to sleep.