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Friday, April 27 Opinion

The Home Team / Goodbye to a good, good dog

This morning I drove to Southport Harbor for my daily excursion with Ricky. Only there was no Ricky.

That's how I've been dealing with things since he died: I do a lot of the same stuff I always did with him. I go to our places, and I think, and I walk. It's amazing how much more ground I can cover without him tugging insistently at the leash for a sniff-fest every few feet, but I don't get nearly as many smiles. Or, "Oh my God, look at that face!" Or, "Aww, is he a puppy?" -- even when he was 10 years old.

Most of the so-sorry-to-hear emails I've received mentioned what good "pals" Ricky and I were, and it's true: We spent an awful lot of time together. Our hikes in Trout Brook, with me dragging him along as if he were a pull-toy, until he finally gave up on the idea of heading back to the comfort of the car and started trotting along ahead of me, looking back every so often to make sure I was keeping up. Our errands around town: I would never so much as drive to Walgreens without Ricky riding shotgun. Not to mention our three September road trips from Connecticut to California and back.

We totally lucked out the early part of that last Sunday. Carol and I both woke up to his shakety-shake after he'd slithered from his "throne" to the bedroom carpet, then slowly s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d, ambled over to Carol's side of the bed, struck a show-dog pose, and wagged his tail manicly. "God, is he a beautiful dog," Carol said. (This, of course, before he started whining for breakfast when she stayed in bed admiring him just a little too long.)

Later that morning -- it was a gorgeous, sunny day -- he and I went for a walk along Soundview. No tugging, no fights. I let him do his thing, and just fielded the by-now expected compliments on behalf of my handsome beagle. In the afternoon, I sat reading on the wooden bench at the far end of our yard, with Ricky by my side. As I admired Ricky sitting regally in the sun, I put my book down and gently patted the smooth top of his head and his suede-soft ears for about five minutes, thinking, what a gorgeous dog. What a fine specimen.

Later, after all hell had broken loose -- after the vomiting and the difficulty breathing and the hiding himself desperately in far-away corners and the rush to the Vet Emergency Center and the "Your dog is, very, very, very sick" and the drop-everything surgery that turned out to be no match for the clot that blocked the flow of blood to his dying organs -- I was so glad that last day had been a "good" day, and not one of those days when we were at each other's throat. Because lord knows, while Ricky was lovable and adorable and had his winning ways, let's not forget he was also food-obsessed, untrainable, and stubborn as the day is long. (One experienced dog trainer, after Ricky flunked out of his class: "Beagles are 1,000 times more stubborn than any other breed, and your dog is 1,000 times more stubborn than any other beagle.") Which resulted in many days when I screamed at him, wanted to smack him, and cursed myself for not starting out with a nice mellow Lab or Golden.

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But beneath all that, a more peaceable, sweet-natured dog has never walked the face of this earth. I know that somewhere in the deep recesses of his doggy nature he had learned to kill; I could see that in the way he'd treat his stuffed monkey when we'd play fetch. He'd grab the thing in his jaws, thrash around violently, fling it in the air, then grab it again, killing it over and over. The sight of my long-eared, floppety dog involved in this violent dance made me laugh out loud every time. But actual living creatures? Ricky wouldn't hurt a fly or -- as we learned in Montauk one day -- a frog. I'm not sure what beagles are bred to do when they spot a frog, but I'm sure it's not to lay down on their belly and gently paw at it.

Followers of my Beagle Man blog, forgive me; you've already seen a lot of these thoughts on-line. I've decided that the blog will go on -- and that the Beagle Man will still be the Beagle Man, no matter what breed of dog might come next. Ricky the Beagle was my first dog. And you only ever get to have one first dog.

All in all, I'm not as distraught as I thought I would be. You know that thing we all do, when we hear that a friend's dog dies? You morbidly try to picture yourself in the same situation, to see how you'd feel? I always assumed I'd go to pieces. But it hasn't happened that way. Sometimes, when I'm driving in my Jeep, I'll catch a glimpse of Ricky's trademark red collar that I still keep on the shotgun seat, his seat. and I'll smile, thinking about my good, good dog.

Hank Herman is a Westport writer. "The Home Team" appears every other Friday. Hank's adventures with his dog, Ricky, can be followed on his blog, "Beagle Man," on the Westport News website -- http://blog.ctnews.com/beagleman. Hank can be followed on Twitter @BeagleManHank and reached by email at DoubleH50@gmail.com.