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Must Love Dogs

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This post is dedicated to Mr. Hershey Kaplan, born April 4, 1997.

When I was six years old, what I wanted more than anything else in the world was a dog.

My parents were hesitant. My parents had never had dogs, had never raised a puppy. They told me to do research. They told me they weren't sure; we would see.

I was a very determined (and perhaps unusual ... but that's another story) first grader. I did research. Lots of research. My parents bought me an encyclopedia of dog breeds. It was the largest book I had ever owned -- larger than my kids' dictionary, even. The book was heavy, the pages were big and glossy, and the chapters were organized by different types of dogs -- Sporting Dogs, Non-Sporting Dogs, Toy Breed Dogs, Terriers, etc. There were 157 dog breeds total, and I read about all of them. I read descriptions, made lists and ranked breeds based on various factors -- cuteness, size, temperament, and tendency to get along with children (my younger brother was only four, after all). In the end, I decided that cocker spaniels were the perfect breed.

I don't know if my parents expected me to get so immersed in this project and to do as much research as I did. Maybe they thought it was a phase that would pass. Or maybe, knowing me and how intense I sometimes was, they knew that this was serious. They were very supportive, and they began to do research as well. We acquired something of a mini-library of books about dogs, dog breeds, and dog training.

During that spring, I completed a Dr. Seuss book entitled All About Me. The book was filled with questions and prompts that, as the title implies, were all about the reader. One page had a birthday cake on it and asked the reader to draw on the number of candles that would be on his or her next birthday cake. Below the cake was a question that read something along the lines of, "Blow out the candles! What will you wish for? What would be the perfect present for your next birthday?" I, of course, answered, "A dog."

In May of 1997, I turned seven years old. Around this time, I also called in to a weekend radio show that was all about pets. I woke up early, and, armed with a page full of questions written in painstakingly perfected pencil print, sat in my parents' bedroom as they helped me dial the number. On air, I conquered my nerves and asked questions about housebreaking puppies, the demeanor of cocker spaniels, and whether the radio host thought that a cocker spaniel would be the absolute perfect family pet for a seven-year-old girl, her four-year-old brother, and their parents.

In June of 1997, Mr. Hershey Kaplan joined our family. There are certain childhood memories that stick out, memories that you feel you will never -- could never -- forget. This day is one of those memories. It was a sunny day, and I was up early. Hair still wet from the shower, I stood anxiously by the window at the front of the dining room, where I could watch the street and wait for the car -- and the dogs -- to appear. My parents had finally agreed that we could get a dog, and we had found two chocolate brown cocker spaniel puppies, brothers, who were, essentially, show dog rejects. They were from a line of show dogs, but their hair wasn't long enough for them to compete in competitions. They needed homes. And, on this day, the puppies were coming to our home, to visit. And, if things went perfectly, if I was lucky, maybe one of them could stay.

The two puppies looked very similar. I had read a lot about what to look for when choosing a puppy -- in fact, in our dog book library, there was a book that was entitled something along the lines of Picking the Perfect Puppy for You. The puppy we chose was playful but not out of control, responded eagerly to petting and toys, and was, as far as I was concerned, practically perfect in every way.

We named him Mr. Hershey Kaplan. I don't remember who came up with the Mr., but it seemed appropriate for our dignified, wonderful, sometimes misbehaving and unconditionally loving puppy. Later that summer, I went back to my All About Me book and edited my answer to the "perfect birthday present question." Beneath the question, I added, "My wish came true!!!!"

Today, my dad called me. Hershey's kidneys are failing. He's in the hospital; the veterinarians are treating him, but he hasn't responded to the treatment so far. If he responds within the next 24 hours, then he might make it. If not ... he won't. I am currently 3,000 miles away from home, away from Hershey.

When I was in the eighth or ninth grade, Dennis Prager came to speak to my school. During his speech, he posed a question to us: "If you were standing by a lake and your beloved dog and a person you didn't know were both drowning, and you only had the time to save one of them, who should -- and would -- you save?" The answer is the person. I understand that. (At the time, I also thought, in my head: Well, my dog can swim. He wouldn't drown). But even though I know that dogs are not people, that doesn't change how much I love my dogs. Hershey is the oldest canine member of our family. In recent years, three more dogs have joined the family -- Judy, a black Labrador, Molly, a cockapoo, and Irving, a pug. My parents, formerly ambivalent about dogs, have become dog lovers. We are a family of dog lovers.

Hershey is almost thirteen years old. When I come home from college, he always sleeps in my room, and when I left to return to school at the end of January, he was as frisky as a puppy when he begged for treats. Hershey reminds me of my childhood, of being a child, of all the happy moments of my early years, of a time when life seemed simpler and more stable. I understand the facts of life, and I know that dogs can only live so long. I don't want Hershey to be in pain. After my dad called this morning, at first I felt silly for crying, felt guilty for crying over this when there are, for example, children dying of malnutrition in Africa and people still missing under the rubble in Haiti.

It's all relative, and in the scheme of things, etc. I know. There are pains worse than this. A dog is not a person. Hershey has lived a long, good life.

But all you dog lovers out there will, I hope, understand and relate to my love and tears. As evidenced by books and movies like Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows, and Marley and Me, to name a few, the relationship between a person and a dog can be a powerful one. And death, though it is an inevitable part of life, is hard to handle, no matter what.

This post is for Hershey, but it is also for all of the dogs out there, whether living or not, and the people who love them.

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