Ben, a loving Labrador pit bull mix who taught me the specialness of dogs and inspired me to adopt my own, was put down this morning after the pain from his cancer ridden body became too much to bear. He was 12 years old.

I’m very sad.

My first encounter with Ben was some eight years ago when I visited my good friend Bethann who at the time was living in the Phoenix suburb of Gilbert. Ben barked up a storm when I arrived and Bethann had to restrain him from jumping up on me. I perceived Ben as tough and mean, particularly given my Toronto heritage. My native city banned pit bulls in 2005 after several high-profile attacks involving the breed.

“Don’t worry, he’s a real love bug,” Bethann assured me.

“Yeah, right,” I thought, pondering whether to check into a hotel.

It took a few hours, but Ben took to me and I took to him. He followed me around the house and soon we were inseparable. I had a new best friend.

Ben was wicked smart and knew how to play me. When I was eating an appetizer while Bethann was preparing dinner, Ben sat next me and gazed with a forlorn look that shouted, “Can I have some?”  I saw no harm in sharing a piece of my food.

Bethann went ballistic, as Ben was taught and trained not to beg for food at the kitchen table. He knew that, but correctly figured I didn’t.

After dinner Bethann and I were sitting on the floor looking at pictures and drinking some wine. Ben decided to join us. He wedged himself between and with the full force of his behind shoved me over a few inches so he could comfortably fit his 80-pound frame.

Ben had his inimitable way of making his desires known.

Ben was a stray dog picked up from the Arizona streets by Bethann’s ex, without her consultation or consent. The couple already had a family dog, and with a young daughter, Bethann wasn’t looking for extra responsibility. Ben had seen better days; he was emaciated, had mites, and smelled really bad.

Bethann, who’s been around dogs all her life, cleaned Ben up but it took several days before she’d let the mutt into the house. Ben was a charmer, and soon he was making his presence felt, destroying Bethann’s designer sunglasses and any item of clothing he could get his paws on. He was quite good at destroying things.

Ben was warm and kind, a trait he acquired from Bethann.  His gentleness validated the arguments of pit bull defenders, who say the breed’s reputation for aggressiveness is the result of irresponsible owners. I don’t fully buy that argument, as I’ve yet to read a story about a golden retriever going crazy and mauling its owner.

It was hard saying goodbye to Ben, and the joy from interacting with him that weekend made me determined to one day adopt my own dog. I wanted a big breed dog like Ben, but the HOA rules of my San Francisco condo prohibited dogs over 50 pounds. My dream would have to wait.

Over the years Bethann would send me photos of Ben, which fueled my dog adoption fantasy. Invariably, I’d respond, “One day I’m going to have my own Ben.” My imaginary dog took on a name: “Ben Jr.”

After moving to Los Angeles and buying my first house four years ago, I went online and miraculously found a white English cream Golden Retriever puppy in central California that unexpectedly had become available for adoption. I had less than 24 hours to claim him, and Bethann advised me that I’d need a collar and tags to take with me.

“What name should I put on the tag?” the Petco clerk asked me.

I had all of a few seconds to come up with a name.

“Ben Jr.,” I said.

Bethann gave me valuable advice about dog ownership and care, some of which I will share. My original plan was to adopt a dog, but Bethann said first-time dog owners weren’t sufficiently adept at taking care of rescues because shelter dogs often have behavioral problems. Too frequently, the dogs are returned or abandoned, causing them more harm.

As many as 20 percent of adopted dogs are returned to shelters within six months of adoption. Lena Dunham is among the celebrities who have returned their dogs to shelters.

“You need to know how to take care of a dog before you adopt a rescue,” Bethann maintained.

Ben’s final photo

Bethann, who now lives in her native Michigan, was also underwhelmed with all the money I initially spent on dog trainers, particularly as they all gave me conflicting advice. “Just love Ben Jr. to death and everything will fall into place,” she said.

That’s what Bethann did with her Ben, and she gave him the most wonderful life. He repaid her in spades with his inimitable love and warmth. It pains me to imagine what it was like for Bethann to take Ben to the vet this morning and return home to find his doggie bed, his bowl, his blanket, and all the other reminders of his presence but an hour earlier.

Bethann said that dogs are God’s idea of a cruel joke. “They come into your life, you love them to death, but they aren’t around for very long. That’s why you need to cherish every moment with them.”

Only a dog owner can understand the pain and emptiness that Bethann is experiencing.

R.I.P. Ben.  I’m forever grateful for the gift you gave me.

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