Watson Is Dying

30 October 2022

Mark E. Jones

I hope there is a positive outcome from the recent CSR Catalysis Workshop.  I will always remember it with sadness. Watson is no longer the dog I left. Returning from the workshop, I found Schroedinger’s dog.  A cancerous growth on his spleen, diagnosed on the day after I arrived back home, put him somewhere between his best life and death.  He likely had internal bleeding while I was at the workshop.  He’s alive, but near death.

During a meeting just before I left for D.C, Watson, interrupted wanting attention. He came into the room with his Frisbee, dropped it and growled at me to pick it up. Ignoring him, he pawed at me until I picked him up for a vigorous scratch-fest. It was the Watson I’ve known for 11 years. Exuberant and, quite frankly, joyous. He was a dog made for fun.

Watson with his Frisbree
Watson with his Frisbee.

My daughter Maura’s first word was “dog”. She will always be a dog lover. She found Watson, then named Raggs, at an adjacent county’s shelter in February 2012. We already had a dog. When asked about adopting him, I responded “we already have a dog, we don’t need another”. I’m glad I was ignored. They were right and their ignoring me ended up enriching my life. My wife, Erin, drove Maura to see the dog and it was love at first sight. The staff said it was rare for a dog to go other than to the first or second on the “want to adopt” list. Maura was eighth. There was a waiting period. The blizzard on the morning he was to be released was to our advantage. Erin was the only person willing to brave the storm. Raggs, soon to be renamed Watson, was ours. I got a text from Erin stating “We got the dog. He’s in a crate at home and I’m on my way to Korea.” She dropped him and left on a business trip.

Watson is a strange looking dog. I always figured he’d be the dog the dwarves in Time Bandits would make as a practical joke. His body is long, with short stubby legs. His tail curls up over his back. His ears are floppy. If doggy DNA kits are to be believed, he is one-quarter Corgi, one-quarter poodle and the rest terrier. He has a bit of a barrel chest, looking vaguely Corgi-like. His paws are too large, also hinting at the Corgi heritage. His pointed nose is reminiscent of a poodle. His coat is grey and white, curly and he doesn’t shed. He was skittish at first. In playing with him, we quickly found out he was hard-wired to retrieve. Throw a ball, he couldn’t help but go get it. He quickly gravitated to a Frisbee, actually a soft, floppy disk for dogs. It has been his near constant companion for the last 11 years.

Frisbee is something I love too, something I picked up in college.  I was happy to throw it for him.  It is surely how we bonded.  He is still Maura’s dog.  Our house remains her permanent address, but she hasn’t spent many nights here over the last 8 years with college and early career.  Watson’s been in our care the whole time.  Maura used to have him as her phone’s home screen.  That is now a picture with her boyfriend.  My home screen is Watson with a Frisbee.  He might be more my dog these days.  Certainly once COVID hit and now that I’m retired, he is my near constant companion. 

It is leaf season in Michigan.  I’m reminded of Watson in his prime.  He figured out if he dropped the Frisbee where I was raking, I would pick it up and throw it.  One day, I thought I would determine how many times I had to throw it before he’d stop retrieving.  I stopped counting once I made 1000.  In his prime, he was a very good catch.  Our record was 36 straight without a drop.  If he lost it into the woods, he’d circle and search methodically until he found it.  Whether caught in the air or found after a hunt, he would strut proudly, joyously, with his tail wagging.  He was always conflicted.  He wants to possess the Frisbee, but he also likes retrieving it.  He would rush back, drop the Frisbee, but grab it when you reached for it.  Ignore him and he’d put the Frisbee on the ground, bark and growl.  It was something to behold as he would get more animated and louder if ignored.  Watson’s pursuit of the Frisbee is nothing short of maniacal when other dogs are around.  In his prime, he would race, bark and growl to keep other dogs away.  Dogs recognize crazy.  As age slowed him, he would still keep up the bark and growl.  I will admit to frequently calling him Dumbass over his disposition and frenzied approach to Frisbee.

He really isn’t a dumbass. He is a very smart dog. He has the largest vocabulary of any dog I’ve known. “Get your Frisbee” got the Frisbee. “Get your ball” got your ball. “Get your pumpkin”, well you get the idea. Both Erin and Maura would get mad at me for talking to him like a person. He would listen intently to me, cocking his head from side to side as if trying hard to understand. We got doggy puzzles for him to keep him occupied when he was demanding attention. He had treat balls, ones with a hole I would fill with sausage snacks. He’d toss them around and bat them with his paws when he wanted attention, something he last did two weeks ago. I was well trained. He’d play until he caught my attention, rolling them at the refrigerator where I kept the treats. Once filled, he’d look me straight in the eye as I held the ball down for him to take. He'd always do a curious little grunt as he took the ball. I interpreted it as his way of saying thanks. Off he’d go to extract the treat.

He is a gentle dog, one of the gentlest I’ve known.  He has stuffed toys and Frisbees that are over six years old.  He doesn’t tear things up. I always found it curious that he never lunges at treats like other dogs.  Handfeeding him always was a slow process, each piece sniffed before gently taking it out of your hand.

Watson with Maura
Watson with Maura.

He loves to be touched.  Nothing pleases him more.  If he’s awake, he wants a hand on him.  His favorite sleeping arrangement is pressed against a human body.  As he got old, he took a couple of falls trying to jump on the bed.  He gave it up, begrudgingly sleeping on a dog bed next to our bed.  He would regularly wake me, hoping I’d lift him onto the bed.  It was something we did last night.  In his current, fragile state, it seemed like we should try to make him comfortable.

He was, prior to the last couple of weeks, a very vocal dog.  He’d bark at the smallest provocation.  I welded an elevated dog bed so that he could look out the window.  He’s spent many an hour looking out and barking at any movement on the street or in the yard.  Delivery men likely thought he was a giant dog, maybe a Great Dane, due to the elevated perch hiding his stubby little legs.

He likes to ride. Loves going in the car. My parents moved to Midland three years ago. Everyday we took a ride to see them. “Let’s go see Pop” got him running to the car. It was replaced by “Let’s go see Gram” after my dad’s passing. He barks out the window as he sees things. Anyone approaching the car unleashes his inner Cujo. He’ll violently growl, completely out of character for his otherwise gentle demeanor. It makes stopping to talk to others a challenge. Curbside pickup is also interesting. He figured out how to roll down the windows, moving along the armrest until he hit the button.

His way of playing with other dogs is to growl.  His best friend Rory, a Golden Retriever four times his size, towers over him.  For years, he lives to see Rory, but the casual observer would think Watson hated him.  All he does is growl and chase.  It is just his way. 

Watson is not doing well.  Maura came home for a tear-filled goodbye.  She’ll miss him.  Erin will miss him.  We’ll all miss our Watsie-boy.  I’ll especially miss the exuberance when I come in the house.  The uninhibited love of a dog warms the soul.  I’ll miss him rushing toward me, tail wagging so hard that it looked like it would fall off, wrenching his body from side-to-side.  I got a little wag yesterday, but for the last three days, the joy is largely gone.  I’ll miss tossing the Frisbee to him.  I have only seem him pick up the Frisbee once since I’ve been home.  He really isn’t himself.

Watson clearly won’t be with us much longer.  The vet said he may rebound a bit, but has only weeks, best case.  His decline this weekend makes me think the end will happen soon, likely within a couple of days.  We'll have to make the decision to put him down.  Halloween will forever mark when our time together came to an end.  The workshop and my presence there did not harm Watson, but I was away in his time of need.  I hope something good comes of the workshop.  It would help to soften the memory of what, for me, is a bad time.


Correction: Watson arrived in our house near Valentine’s Day 2012. The original version had it as 2010. I incorrectly recalled the meeting he last interrupted. It was an ACS committee meeting on October 20th.

Epilogue: At 3:10 PM on Halloween, Watson slumped into my arms. The vet removed the needle and, after a couple of minutes, nodded his head. I wrapped his body in the blanket and carried him to the car.

I dug the grave over the weekend. The diagnosis, his decline, everything was making me feel sad and helpless. Digging the grave was something I could do. It was an action. It was also a nice day and I thought he’d enjoy being out in the woods. I was wrong about that, soon after I started work, I’d noticed he’d hoisted his aching body up the stairs and was gently tapping on the door. He’d trained us to come whenever he tapped. He wanted back on his bed. Using an ax to cut through the roots was cathartic. The normally easy digging, sandy soil unexpectedly had a layer of clay that a shovel wouldn’t touch. Hacking through the clay added to the catharsis. It clearly wasn’t enough. I started this document once the grave was done. More catharsis.

I placed cotton cloth at the bottom of the grave I’d dug. I gently laid him on it. I placed a Frisbee, a treat ball and a stuffed pumpkin. I covered him with cloth and began to fill the hole.

The temperatures in Michigan were headed to the 70’s. We originally planned a last camping trip with him. There is a State Recreation Area 90 minutes away. Watson camped there more than any other single spot. He enjoyed camping and the unfettered attention it got him. We decided to go on the trip, hastily leaving when the burial was complete. The weather was glorious. He would have loved it.

Home now, the house is a bit darker. There is no tail to wag. No jingle of tags. It will take a while to get used to. I do miss him.