by Benjamin J. Kirby
It was 2008 and things were not going well for us. I will spare you the sob-story details -- this isn't about us, anyway. The point is, we were feeling angry, emotionally busted, despondent. They say when you're feeling this way it is important to avoid making life-altering decisions.
We ignored that good advice. I swear I still remember it like yesterday, meeting Duncan at Pet Pal Animal Shelter, in St. Petersburg. I convinced myself that we would just look at the dog we'd seen pictures of online. We'd check him out, realize we didn't really need a dog, I would take Duncan out to lunch on Central Avenue somewhere, and that would be that. Crisis averted.
I knew it was all over the minute I saw Conan laying on the cement floor. I knew when he lumbered up to greet us that we'd be taking him home. And we did.
I would love to tell you about the four-plus years filled with glory days: me, Duncan, Conan, and later, Emmy. But I'd by lying. He was a damn inconvenient dog.
Great Danes are a special breed. Conan was small for his size -- around a hundred and ten pounds -- but in a modest house our size, that is still a whole lot of dog.
Danes are dirty -- they shed -- and Conan was almost entirely black, with some white on his paws, his chest, and his muzzle, which grew more white the older he got. And we have white tile floors. We should have bought stock in whatever company owns Swiffer.
They drool and they... leak. They're couch potatoes, and we weren't smart enough to cover our last couch. We had to literally throw it away because of the stains and stench. No self respecting thrift store would've taken it.
They sleep a lot of the time, but they do require a little bit of exercise every day. And the exercise is non-negotiable. I gave up innumerable after-work events to rush home for a requisite dog walk. At first I took to walking him early in the morning and after work. After a training session and some regular walking, he and I settled on a good route.
We would head down towards Stetson College of Law and walk the entire perimeter of the school. If Emmy was with us, sometimes we'd stop at the soccer field and run.
It was on one of these walks that something happened. It was a defining moment in my relationship with Conan.
Lots of people walk their dogs around our neighborhood, around Stetson (an institution conscientious enough to put up regular outposts with poop-scoop bags). Most folks have fair to moderate control over their dogs.
Some have no control over their dogs.
I don't remember exactly how old Emeline was, but it was young enough that Conan and I had only just figured out the stroller situation. When I had him heel, his head was only a foot or two ahead of my hip. But the stroller was way out in front, and that's where he wanted to be. It took us some time to find the right pace, but we did.
We'd had Conan for at least two and a half years at that point. I was fairly bitter about having to walk him every single day he didn't go to doggy day care. Rain, heat, bitter cold. Didn't matter -- he needed that walk, or he became insufferably neurotic. A hundred and ten pounds of neurotic dog in our small house would not work.
Anyway, it was a clear day, sunny, nice. I remember that. We were gone two blocks south towards the college. We had hit our stride and were ready to make the right turn towards the school.
Conan was great around other dogs, mostly curious about them. Scared as hell of little white dogs, but otherwise, a genuinely social kind of guy.
Still, I stayed on alert when we passed people, and especially people with dogs. It was less for our sake, more for theirs. He was good, obedient -- but because of his size, he could be intimidating.
Conan saw them coming around the corner the same time I did. A big guy, fat, beer gut, greasy t-shirt and flip-flops. Talking on a cell phone, and smoking a cigarette.
And a dappled Mallorquin bulldog, all chest muscles, angry eyes and bitterness.
He saw us and went insane.
The guy's leash went fully taut, he dropped the cellphone and tried to stand his ground, losing against the gravelly road in his flip-flops, inch by inch as the bull pulled with everything he had.
Conan, on the other hand, reacted. He had his chest thrust out and was in kind of an lean crouch. Every hair on his back was up, his floppy, goofy ears pinned fully back.
And that's when Conan did two things I had never seen him do, not before or since. One, he didn't bark. Conan was a barker. Knock on our front door and he sounded off like the hounds of hell. Another inconvenience.
But he didn't bark at the dope and his out-of-control bulldog, pulling hard towards us across the street.
He drew back the black gums from his teeth and let out a low, gurgling growl I felt before I heard. I saw his eyes roll back white and red, and his nails clacked slowly against the pavement. He was no longer a pet. Nature, the fight instinct, had completely taken over.
Which made the second thing even more extraordinary.
He let the leash go slack.
Show him a nine pound white Shih Tzu and he'd yank your arm out of the socket. It took me longer than I'd like to admit, but I did realize what he was doing. He was giving me the power to let him go.
I could feel it in the leash. I could feel his power, loaded up, ready to fire. I could feel the harnessed energy on the verge of exploding... and he was giving it to me. I was the leader of his pack and he would await my order to go to work on the bulldog.
Recently, I could flick the leash in my hand with no more force from my index finger than turning on a light, and he would know to stop or sit. The slightest jingle on his collar would tell him what to do.
That was all he needed in that moment. The slightest indication from me and he'd have let loose. Without hesitation.
Of course, none of that is the most extraordinary part of this story. The best part, as you may have already guessed, is where he was in relation to me and the bull.
The stroller, in front of me, was angled much closer to the charging dog. But I was in his path, too.
I was, by far, the easier one to shield. The distance to the threat was further, I was away and back from the fat man's killing machine.
And yet he had placed himself squarely in front of Emmy's stroller.
He wasn't protecting me. He was protecting Emeline.
Who would have won the fight? Who knows. Who cares. It would've been damn ugly, because it was one hell of a pissed off dog. The fat guy literally had to get on his knees to subdue him with his arms criss-crossed around his massive chest, trying to whisper to him. Then again, Conan had a head the size of a cinder block and thick black nails three quarters of an inch long.
I said probably the only smart thing I've ever said in a situation like that: "Come on, Coney. Let's go." And he stood up and got normal weirdly fast. He stood, settled quickly into his goofy, silly gait, and we were off.
When we got out of sight of the bull and his terrible owner, I hugged Conan. I probably should have hugged him more.
I used to judge people by who they complimented first on our walks: Coney or Emmy. But I stopped doing that because Conan won nearly every time. I have a beautiful daughter, but people just gravitated towards Conan. Turns out, it really is quite something to see a man and his daughter walk a hundred and ten pound dog on a leash with nothing but slack.
He was a pretty good looking guy, too.
Conan died yesterday. He was around eight years old, maybe a little older.
If it's okay with you, I will decline to share the details except to say that it was peaceful, he was never alone, and it was every bit as dignified as he deserved.
Turns out you miss some inconveniences more than you thought you might.
Maybe you miss the chance to say thank you one more time.
It's not good enough here, but thank you, Conan. We'll miss you.