For Juno

Michael Baugh, CPDT-KA, CDBC

This is not a eulogy or an obituary. She is still alive. Under the desk, just inches away, Juno is sleeping deeply. If I called her she would still sleep. Her hearing’s not the same as it was. I’d have to go touch her gently to wake her. I’d signal in the way we learned when she was just a puppy and she would come to me. She’d sit by me and look up at me. Her eyes are cloudy and I don’t know how well she sees. But she’d look anyway right into my eyes. I’d pat her head even though I know it’s not her favorite thing. It’s habit. Then I’d softly take her snout in my hand and kiss her forehead. She’d sigh and settle down again, probably fall back asleep. We’ve done it like this countless times. It’s our way.

All that started in a puppy class 11 years ago. We were learning “stay.” We were just 6 feet apart and I looked at her and thought, don’t move. And she looked right back and I imagined her thinking, I won’t. Our eyes locked for the minute or two we were supposed to stay apart. But for that minute or two we were closer than if I were hugging her. We were communicating and I think we both knew it. I walked back to her and the instructor said well done. Well done? That was magic. I was hooked – on Juno, on training, on all of it. That’s all it took.

A couple months earlier my partner came to me at work and announced, “I’ve found the most perfect golden retriever puppy ever.” She was unremarkably cute in the way all golden puppies are, curled up in the front seat of the car, sleeping. We named her Juno because all our pets had the names of Greek and Roman deities. She was my first dog since childhood. I knew nothing.

Dogs chew, Juno especially. It’s their nature. It is also their nature to explore, to run, to pull on their leashes, to eat unimaginable things, to bite hard with their sharp puppy teeth. People don’t believe me now when I tell them how bad Juno was. It’s probably for the best. She forced me into training and then seduced me into becoming a trainer. I wrote about it the day she so miserably failed puppy class.

I tossed my puppy class bag in a corner, dropped to the couch, stretched out and stared through the window. My mind wandered to how things always seem to start one way and end a completely different way. Nothing had ended up how I planned. Juno was lapping up her water in the next room. Who are you and what have you done with my puppy, I thought. She padded into the living room as if she’d come to answer me. I looked at her and she was beautiful. There she stood, tail wagging, looking back with clam resolve. For the first time her face foreshadowed the noble dog she would become. And her eyes, for just a moment, showed the ancient wisdom of her kind.

Magic. My partner left and I moved to Cleveland. Juno and I opened North Coast Dogs (training and behavior). She learned agility and fly ball and heart stealing. I lie and tell people NCD grew because we were all so smart and talented. It was really all about hope, the hope that if you brought your dog to us you’d end up with a dog like Juno. I paid her in dried liver and trips to the lake. She was fine with that.

She made TV appearances to share the hope. Then she landed the role of Sandy in a local production of Annie and shared some more. She ran off stage into the audience to see me right in the middle of things on opening night. Otherwise she stole the show and some more hearts.

They came and went, lots of people, lots of dogs. Juno was always there, unremarkably wonderful in the way most goldens are, magical in the way most are not. People who never loved dogs before loved Juno. Some went on to get dogs of their own. She would be anyone’s friend who welcomed her, at times a final friend. There was a woman named Mary who had lived for years in the nursing home we visited. She was blind and deaf and never spoke. Juno made her giggle every time, and every time Mary would pet Juno on the neck and ears. Then one day after her laughter faded, Mary looked up with her blind eyes at no one in particular and announced to us, “She’s three!” I stared. Then I cried. The social worker with us calmed me so I could explain what had just happened. Even now I cry at the strange beauty of it.

It was Juno’s third birthday.

It’s a mast cell tumor. I’ve heard that twice now. The first time we got it all, good margins, simple and easy. This one, less than a year later, will be more difficult, perhaps impossible. After the news I took Juno for a swim. One day long ago she chased a goose out on to Lake Erie and I thought she’d swim to Canada. Now she chases a ball, and tries to corral a second one, just a few feet from me, still with so much heart. I laugh like we’re at the lake again. I laugh and then can’t help but cry.

It wasn’t that long ago, the lake, puppy class. I knew nothing then. Or maybe I knew all I needed to know.

Juno jumped up on the couch and cuddled up next to me with a big heavy sigh. It was one motion. Her breathing fell in with mine and soon puppy class faded away for both of us. There were no hand signals, just my arm around her chest. There were no commands, just comfort. No tests, just this. And true there were no gold medal stickers [on her diploma] , just a golden puppy kind enough to share a nap and claim me as her own.

Not today. But one day I will touch her and she will not wake. No call or signal will bring her. She won’t look up at me. I’ll wonder if my heart is broken. I’ll wonder but then I’ll know better. Perhaps I’ll close my eyes and Mary will tell me; maybe she’ll speak one last time the truth of the old and the sick and the dead. “Juno is off whereever it is unremarkable magical dogs go, swimming a wide lake after a Canada Goose, clutching a ball but still holding fast to your stolen heart.

(this essay was written in May 2009, four months before Juno’s death)