Sunday, July 17, 2011

Tribute to Chili Dog

Yesterday we said goodbye to a precious, beloved member of our family – Chili. Chili had a heat stroke while running with Susie, and it took him quickly. He was doing what he loved – running, riding in the back of the truck, and being with his “pack” when his time on Earth concluded. We have shed many tears since last night and have appreciated the words of encouragement and prayers that so many friends and family members have extended our way. We thought we had much more time with Chili; he had just turned eight years old and seemed to be in great health. This post is a tribute to “Chilidog”, the loyal, patient, loving, honest, and warm-hearted member of the Gronseth household. We would like to share some memories about and pictures of our canine friend from the past eight years.

This memoir will definitely have a bit of a rambling feel. Both of us have been working on this throughout the day, passing the computer back and forth when we think of things to say. So the grammar might not be pristine, the third and first person will go in and out, and the flow will be choppy at times, but this has been extremely therapeutic for us, and we hope you appreciate a few stories about a true candidate for the title “man’s best friend.”

Chili is from Magnolia, Texas, a small town just north of Houston. He was the largest of his litter and the gentlest. We both read The Art of Raising a Puppy by the Monks of New Skete prior to searching for a dog, and the book provided much guidance as to how to determine if a dog will likely be successful as a family pet. The book suggested several quick “tests” that we did on prospective puppies to observe their levels of aggressiveness, pain tolerance, and trust of humans. Though it was hard to walk away from other litters that had very cute dogs, we waited until we found Chili, because he passed all of these tests with flying colors.

Chili was born Memorial Day weekend of 2003. We located him through a local flyer, and he was actually on “special.” His mother was a family pet that had been bred with a stud, but there were no papers available to prove that he was full-blooded golden retriever. He certainly had the look and temperament of a golden, and not having papers on him was never an issue with us, though we often joked that he was part “hound” due to the prominent white spot on his chest. Purchasing Chili was by far one of the best ways we’ve ever spent $150.

When Matt spoke on the phone with the mother dog’s owner, he asked if there were any females available, since they tend to be gentler in temperament. The breeder mentioned that he had one male that he really wanted to keep, but he told his little girl she could pick the puppy they would keep and she wanted the cute little runt. When we showed up to see the litter, Chili came bounding over stomach-deep grass straight to us, and there never really was much of a decision after that. We ran him through some of the tests we’d read about, but we’d have taken him even if he failed one of them.

As we drove home with him, we talked about how “chilled out” he was – how relaxed he was with us, riding contently in our laps. So, we decided to name him “Chili,” and it stuck. We are goofy with names sometimes, making up silly nicknames and songs that go along with the nicknames. One of our nicknames for Chili came to be “Chili-rico” (as in the Spanish word rico for “rich”). We often walked around the house chanting, “Chili-rico” then two short claps and three long claps (like at a baseball game), “Rico suave” then two short claps and three long claps, “Chili-doggie” then two short claps and three long claps. It was so fun to see Chili get excited when we’d say his name or sing one of the silly songs that we had made up.

Chili was Susie’s first experience with having a dog. When we got Chili, we had just bought our first house, and it was in the south part of Houston where Matt was working as a plant engineer for Air Liquide. Here’s a picture of Chili as a puppy, and you can see that he was playful and full of energy.

One of Matt’s early memories of Susie and Chili was leaving for work the day after we’d picked him up. Susie and Chili were sitting on the front sidewalk kind of looking at each other, both with a look that said, “What the heck do we do now?” Chili was about 7.5 lbs. at the time, his collar was still too big, and the shackle on his leash weighed his head down, but they managed to make it halfway down the block before Susie had to carry him back home.

Susie was doing educational technology consulting at the time and was home three weeks every month. This meant that Susie and Chili had lots of bonding time during his first two years. Going on runs was something that Chili really seemed to look forward to, and Susie and Chili ran together quite often during his entire life (even when she was pregnant). Though it was heartbreaking to have to say goodbye to him yesterday, we find it interesting that he went out running. When we lived in Houston, we often met at a park between our house and the plant for lunch. There was a bit of distance between the parking area and the picnic bench where we usually ate lunch. We usually didn’t arrive at the same time, so it was always fun to see Chili run to Matt as soon as he could recognize him. We called it his “third gear,” which was a kind of gallop that his cadence would break into once he saw Matt across the park. He would initially start trotting in the direction of the figure to sort of check it out. When he realized it was Matt, his head would fling back, his tongue would flap out to the side, and his legs would start going two at a time – front then back, front then back (like a horse). What a greeting! Chili was awesome at showing others how excited he was to see them.

As we looked through some our pictures from the past eight years and talked with our church family this morning, it is apparent that Chili has not only been a vital part of the Gronseth household, but he was also a substantial part of our churches and local communities (see the picture below of our actual church pictoral directory photo before Cade was born for a good laugh - yes, we were smitten with our dog). In Houston, Spartanburg, and Owensboro, he attended youth functions and co-hosted sleep-overs. He hiked to Patoka Lake, Indiana, one spring with a group of students, many who were new to hiking. Here’s a video of Chili playing fetch with the students in Patoka Lake.

When we moved to Owensboro, we discovered an incredible local annual event that Chili seemed to look forward to every year – Combest Pool: Gone to the Dogs. On this day, the public pool celebrates the last swim day of the season by opening up to dogs of all ages and sizes. “Who Let the Dogs Out” plays on repeat over the sound system about every fourth song! Chili enjoyed jumping into the pool and swimming around to chase tennis balls. He also was a repeat champion at the large breed swim race and the biggest wet shake contest. Matt and Chili were even featured in the city’s advertising for last year’s Gone to the Dogs day.

Really, there are too many individual memories to list here, but there were certain mannerisms and behaviors that stick out in our minds when we think of him. First off, he was a gentle and patient dog. Cade had been less than angelic in his treatment of Chili recently, pulling his ears, pulling his tail, trying to ride him, and kind of being a general pest when it came to Chili. But Chili was loyal and loving, occasionally chiding him with a growl or a bark like a parent dog to a puppy. Even though we saw him get frustrated and go to another room to get away, he really didn’t get to the point of lashing out in anger at Cade. Golden retrievers are known for their good temperament with families and kids, and Chili proved that absolutely correct.

Chili had impeccable timing. He seemed to have a knack for knowing right when we’d sit down for a meal. If he was outside, he wanted in. If he was inside, he suddenly had the urge to go out. It was pretty much clockwork, and we laughed in frustration many times, but as we sat down for breakfast this morning, we missed it. We had just gotten into the habit of sitting down for breakfast and then getting up again to let him in or out. Also, when we open our dishwasher, it blocks the access from the kitchen to the pantry where we keep his food and water dishes. And without fail, whenever we opened the dishwasher to load it after a meal, he’d be standing there panting as if to say, “I’m starving, and I just realized it, and I have to eat now!” So we’d close the dishwasher, let him in, and he’d get one bite or one scoop of water with his tongue, and then stand on the other side of the now-reopened dishwasher as if to say, “It’s boring in here and I really need to get out.” This would go on back and forth as long as we’d let it go on. Chili would always take one kibble from his bowl and go to another room to eat it. He’d then return and eat the rest. We thought it funny at first, but then we just got used to things being this way.

When we were first housebreaking him in Houston, Susie would have to go to Arizona for one week each month for work. Since Matt didn’t trust him inside yet, he’d leave him in his crate and go home at lunch to let him out and check on him. At one point, his mom gave him a hard time about how cooped up Chili was and how he needed more space than just a little crate because he was a growing dog with a lot of energy. So the next day, ridden with guilt, Matt left him in our bathroom. Safe bet, right? Uh….not so much. Below is a picture of the bathroom when he returned at lunch to let him out. When Matt walked into the bathroom, the shower was on, the soap was gone (probably swallowed), magazines and toilet paper were shredded and pulpy on the floor, the toothpaste had bite marks all over the tube, the toothbrushes were chewed up, and Chili was soaking wet. Other than that, he didn’t destroy anything valuable or chew a hole in the wall or cabinet. We would have loved to have been there to see him prop up on the shower wall and pull the handle down and get a face full of water. Matt was laughing too hard to really be mad at him, and we haven’t yet let Matt’s mom live that one down.

He also had a thing for toilet paper as he was growing up. Most dogs grab the end and run with it, trailing a path throughout the house, and he did do that once or twice. But the thing we remember the most is how he’d walk by the roll and just take a chomp out of the side. So then as you unrolled the roll, one side would have a nice scalloped design, compliments of Chili. When that roll was gone, we’d put a new roll on and shortly later we’d have another scalloped roll.

Another growing up story: even after he was housebroken, we would still leave him in his crate when we left the house. One weekend, our friends Tim and Cari were visiting from out of town. We decided to head out to the Houston museum for the day. When we returned, we walked into the kitchen from the garage and there was Chili, just waiting and wagging at the door like that’s how life was supposed to be. The crate had a split line around the middle that was fastened by screws with wing nuts. Somehow he’d shaken the crate enough to wiggle enough screws loose that he could escape. We definitely kept a better eye on those wing nuts in the future, and we already miss that now-familiar enthusiastic greeting at the door when we return home from anywhere, no matter how long we were gone.

We faced another challenge when he grew tall enough to put his front paws on the counter and help himself to anything close to the edge. One evening, he ate an entire loaf of banana nut bread that was sitting on the counter cooling (the next day included, uh, we’ll just call it a big mess in our car). Right after his first Halloween, he swiped a large bag of candy from the counter, and the chocolate made him pace the house panting all night. At least one piece of candy made it all the way through him with the wrapper still intact. Snack anyone? We started running out of ideas for how to get him to stop swiping things off the counter until one night we were cooking some brats on the grill and accidentally burned one. We had something to go to that night, so we purposely left the brat on the end of counter, except we garnished it with chili powder, Tabasco, cayenne pepper, hot salsa, and everything else spicy we could find in our cupboards. When we got back that evening, the bratwurst was gone, and Chili was looking up at us with extremely watery eyes, a healthy drool trail, and an empty water bowl. Guess what? He never got up on the counter again!

We talked in another post [here] about Susie’s labor and delivery of Cade. But, in thinking about our special times with Chili, a sweet memory involved him staying by Susie’s side as she unknowingly was in labor in the tub. When Matt came home from work, he found Chili kissing the tears off Susie’s cheek and looking very concerned. He may not have known what was going on, but he knew how to care for a friend in need. We feel like we can learn a lot from the way that Chili seemed to intently listen to us and be a friend to everyone that he met. When we brought Cade home from the hospital, Chili immediately went to his carrier to check him out and appeared to quickly embrace him as a welcome addition to the pack (and disposer of dirty diapers, as told in this post).

Anyone who spent time outdoors with Chili knew that he was a water dog through and through. From the time he was a puppy, he loved to swim in anything from a small stream to a lake to the ocean. You would sometimes literally have to drag him out to get him out for good because he’d be unendingly ready to fetch anything you threw. There were a couple of times when we thought one of us was going to have to jump in to keep him from sinking. When he was still pretty young we visited Susie’s aunt and uncle in Sargent, TX. They had a couple camp houses off the intracoastal waterway near the Gulf of Mexico with a nice dock. We just couldn’t get Chili to take the leap off the dock (it was only a couple feet above the water). We’d get him to take a running start, but he’d always put on the skids before the edge, even if we threw the stick/ball/etc. in. Finally, we figured he just needed a push, so that’s what we did. One time when he got to the edge, Matt just shoved him off the dock. He looked so surprised (and a little insulted) when he resurfaced, but after that it was game on, and that game has been on ever since. Here’s a picture of him only a few minutes after we pushed him in for the first time.

Chili had a way of making himself comfortable wherever he was. When he drank a lot of water or ate, he would lay down with his paws surrounding the bowl. His posture generally meant that he blocked major kitchen area walkthroughs whenever he ate or drank. Though we probably could have found places for his bowls that were more out of the way, we think we just wanted him to be able to eat when we were eating and be near where we were. We tried to be very careful about giving him table scraps, but if a suitable morsel fell, it could easily be placed in his food dish. And he was usually very much appreciative.

Speaking of table scraps, when we first got him, we refrained from giving him ANY kind of human food crumbs or scraps. That is, until one day that Susie was making tuna salad. She opened the cans of tuna in spring water, and Chili sat beside her staring longingly. Since his bowls were right beside her, she obliged him by pouring the tuna “juice” over his kibble. He devoured the kibble and lapped up the tuna water, and his food bowl was sparkling clean! Thus began a tradition that whenever we got out the can opener (for tuna cans or something else), Chili came running. And if we did happen to be having tuna fish, well, let’s just say that we didn’t have to wash his bowls that night. Here's a picture of how clean those bowls were after the first taste of tuna juice.

As is probably the case with many dogs, Chili found a way to chew on or ingest unusual things. Around our first house in Houston, we had some landscaping with small lava rocks. We laughed so many times because we’d come outside and he was either literally chewing on the dirt from one of our planters or he’d just be gnawing on a lava rock. This became even more funny when we took Chili to a temperament test in order to be available as a therapy dog in local hospitals. During the session, one gentleman started talking about how he only bought “pet” tennis balls since they would normally bring tennis balls for patients to play with the dogs. We asked why and said that we’d never heard of “pet” tennis balls. He sort of chastised us and told us that normal tennis balls have abrasive felt and would damage a dog’s teeth. We were like, “Uhhh, please, our dog chews on lava rocks.”

One evening when Chili was still a puppy, we left him out back to play while we went to the gym. We had several garbage bags full of old pillows that we had used in moving left near our garbage cans, which were inside the fence. Being new dog owners, we didn’t think anything of leaving those there, and Chili had quite the hey day while we were gone. It must not have taken him long to find the bags of feather pillows, shred the bags, and then proceed to shred through all of the pillows. When we returned from our workout, it looked like we had snow in Houston. Feathers were everywhere! We tried to clean them up the next morning, but we found feathers in that part of the yard the rest of the time that we lived there.

A friend of ours gave us a great idea for house breaking. We hung a bell on the back doorknob, and would then help him ring the bell with his paw before we let him outside. He was a pretty smart pup, so it didn’t take him long to put it all together in his mind. Before long, he was letting us know when he needed to go out, and shortly after that (since we rewarded him with treats for a successful tinkle), he learned to ration his bladder so he’d literally be going out every ten to fifteen minutes. One night, Matt was watching TV while eating dinner. He was curious about Matt’s food at first, but then kind of left him alone. Matt heard Chili ring the bell, so he set his plate down and got up to let him out. As he got up out of his seat, Chili snuck around the back of the easy chair and was ready to take a big chomp out of the dinner. We don’t know if he had planned that or if he just realized the opportunity he’d just created, but we all watched our food around him much better after that.

Chili didn’t always display it, but he was a fairly bright dog. It didn’t take him long to learn new tricks if we worked with him consistently. As a puppy he quickly learned sit, down, and rollover. And it didn’t take long to teach him to do a half roll with his paws extended up in the air if you pointed at him and said “Bang!” like you were shooting at him. Pretty cute. A couple years ago we decided to see if he could learn his right and left. Matt would extend his right hand like for a hand shake and then ask for his “Right Paw!” The idea was to get him to shake like a human would with his right paw. Then Matt would repeat with the left hand, saying “Left Paw!” After a number of weeks, it still seemed like Chili was guessing and not really making much progress. Matt asked Susie about it and she proceeded to demonstrate the same mechanics of teaching this trick, except that when she extended her right hand and said “Right Paw,” she was teaching to Chili to shake with the same side of his body (so actually his left paw). Poor dog. He must have been so confused and frustrated. He was always so eager to please us, so it must have been hard to not know which paw either one of us was asking for.

For the last few years, Chili has been a great companion to both Matt and Susie as they’ve had to spend some time apart due to Susie pursuing her Ph.D. at IU. Matt has especially appreciated the companionship during the weeks alone at the house. This last winter especially, he would let Chili sleep in the bed with him when it was cold outside, and then change the sheets out on Fridays before Susie got back so she wouldn’t have to sleep on a bunch of dog hair. Also, Matt broke his ankle last December. He was out of commission for his regular runs, and as he started building his mileage back up he had to take it slow. Chili was a loyal and able companion as Matt gained miles and speed back this last spring. This is part of why we are so perplexed with his inability to finish what seemed like a fairly easy run yesterday. But Matt really appreciated his buddy as his ankle gained strength this spring.

Chili made over 100 trips between Owensboro and Bloomington, as Susie worked on her degree. For the first year, he made the trips stretched out comfortably in the back seat of Susie’s Toyota Camry. Then, Cade came along. We tried different combinations of car seat and Chili in the back seat, including putting one of the seats down so that he could possibly stretch into the trunk. But, what actually happened is that Chili got moved during the second and third year of Susie’s IU commute to sitting upright in the front seat for three hours each way. This was certainly not the most comfortable for Chili (or Susie, as Chili often breathed in Susie’s face most of the way). So, for the fourth year, we bought a Toyota Rav4, with the thought being that Chili could have the whole back cargo space. Chili not only completed the weekly roundtrip Owensboro-Bloomington trips in this arrangement, but he also made two trips out to Colorado and several trips down to Alabama. Cade loved looking up and seeing Chili rest his snout on the top of his carseat or the seat back next to him. Cade often would reach up his hand and say, “Kisses, Chili,” hoping to get a few licks every now and then. Chili was there every step of the way as Susie strived to reach her dream of getting her doctorate. He was there to protect her as she slept alone in her 286 square foot apartment the first two years. He slept at the foot of her bed (and often smacked his lips) as she read until the early morning hours, slept a few, and then got up to start the next day. He was in the passenger seat when she broke down south of Bloomington in the middle of nowhere with Cade as an infant. He didn’t seem to mind that the food bowl we used in Bloomington was actually a cat bowl, and it was small and had to be refilled repeatedly to equal what he would get in one scoopful at home. Chili was a big part of Susie’s success in getting her doctorate in four years, and he deserves a nod of recognition for his faithfulness and flexibility during this time.

Part of the difficulty of the last 24+ hours besides the suddenness of it all is the empty feel our house has. Susie and Matt have been married for over nine years now, and eight of those years have been with Chili in the house. He felt like more of a fixture than even Cade does yet because for nearly all of our married life it has been the three of us. We know we’ll eventually get another dog. It’s only a matter of time before the pain of the loss will translate into a longing and desire to have a furry companion in our home again. We’re definitely not there yet, but we can’t see going the rest of our lives without another dog. We know the stakes going into it (and knew them when we got Chili), but there isn’t really a match for the love and warmth a doggie friend brings. Our good buddy Tim put it well. He said that a relationship with a dog isn’t the same as with other people. You love them just as much, but they just take you relationally to a different place. That place is just as deep and important as your human relationships, but their lifespans are so much shorter than humans, which is why it’s so hard to let them go. We will miss you, Chili. Our hearts hurt so much, but we know that you lived a happy life in our household. We hope to take the lessons you taught us about unconditional love, personal sacrifice, unquestioning acceptance of everybody, and undying loyalty and apply them to our lives going forward. You were a great friend who will never be forgotten. We love you buddy.


Anonymous said...

Matt and Susie: I just got caught up on Twitter/FB this morning, and was so sad to hear about your loss. I remember meeting Chili years ago when I came for a short overnight visit at your house in Owensboro. Chili was a great dog and I know it hurts to lose a member of the family so suddenly. My prayers are with you as you grieve and remember your friend.

Jill said...

My heart goes out to all of you. I smiled and laughed while reading this, and know from your other blogs that Chili was a great dog. My husband still laughs about the "chili turd" (something you tweeted long ago). I'm sorry you're hurting and pray for you all during this loss :(

matt e said...

What a great tribute. Had tears in my eyes multiple times while reading this...

Jane Buchanan said...

I loved reading all about Chili. Thanks for sharing his life and your experiences with us. What a sweet dog.

Anonymous said...

So sorry, I feel the loss too.