Miss Megan the Australian Wonder Dog
by Annie Kolls
My husband and I walked into the Humane Society one afternoon in 1988, mostly as a lark, after purchasing a nice chandelier at a store in the same neighborhood. In the back of my mind was a picture of the ideal Australian Shepherd, and although I didn't expect to find such a dog at the Humane Society, I was always optimistic. Now that we had our own house, I thought it would be good to have a dog. A house needs a dog.
As I entered the little compound surrounded by cells filled with various brown and black dogs, some yapping and yowling, a face across the cement fountain caught my eye. It was that special face. The Australian Shepherd expression of studious amusement. The little white blaze circled her black nose and continued down her lower jaw, descending into a white chest, contrasting with her black and tan body. Her forepaws were white, with tan trim. Her bright orange eyebrow dots were big as a nickel. She was sitting at attention, studying a young girl who stood just outside her cage. I knew she would have a bobbed tail, since her features were so perfect. She had luminous brown eyes, the kind that can melt your heart with their depth and intelligence, and a high “stop” was a testament to her superior brain size. I knelt and played with her through the bars of the cage, and her calm demeanor and trusting look made my heart race. I wanted her. It was love at first sight.
The little girl standing nearby said, “She's my dog.”
My heart sank.
“Honey, you picked the best dog here, by far. You'll love her.”
“No. She's my dog and we're just now bringing her in here.”
“’We're?’ Who's with you?”
“My mom -- in the office signing Megan in.”
“Why would you give such a beautiful dog away?”
“My Dad is allergic, and Megan's pups are weaned, and Mom had a new baby, and said I could have only one dog. I'm going to keep one of the puppies. A blue one, a little boy.”
“What's your name?”
“Would you take me to meet your Mom?
“Sure. C'mon.” She led me into the front office where her mother, Denise, was signing the papers to put Megan up for adoption. After a long conversation, in which I told Denise how much I wanted Megan, explaining that I was a writer, and worked at home, and had a sailboat for Megan to sail in, she decided I should have her. The uniformed man at the desk said they had a waiting list for an Australian Shepherd.
Denise said, “Can I change my mind? Take her back?”
The clerk said, “Sure. Just take her across the street to give her away. Not here on Humane Society property.”
“Ok, I want her back,” said Denise.
We got Megan out of the cage, went across the street, and Denise gave me her beautiful dog along with her papers, her leash and license. My husband drove and I held her all the way home.
Megan was just under two years old, and had recently weaned her eight pups, four black tricolored like her, and four blue merles. We never saw the pups, but Denise said they were spectacular. They should have been; Megan was the epitome of Australian Shepherd perfection. I was so glad Denise decided to go out of the dog breeding business.
It took about three weeks for Megan to get used to us as her “people,” and slowly she stopped looking for her other family and the pups. I had her spayed, and she put on some weight. She was happy, and I was thrilled to have such a beautiful and intelligent companion.
She always weighed about 50 pounds, and would never eat one morsel more than she needed. She would leave a single kibble if it was one kibble too much. She was athletic, and loved to run for the sheer fun of it. One day we took her down to our boat at the marina.
As she started out on the floating docks, her legs splayed in panic. She didn't know what to make of the moving surface beneath her. Within a couple of minutes she had figured it out, and walked along with us calmly. Getting onto the boat was another thing. She couldn't figure out how to go from one moving surface to another, and we carried her into the boat. She conquered the surface in the cockpit area with no problem. The steep companionway was another hurdle, and she figured out how to climb up and go down the steps within hours. A lot of challenges for one day. We carried her off the boat and went home.
The next day as we neared the boat, she looked closely at the distance between the dock and the boat, and leaped into the boat as gracefully as a gazelle. She was quite pleased with herself, and promptly went all over the boat by herself: around the upper decks, out on the bow, back to the cockpit, down into the galley, and back up again. Then she curled up contentedly on a cockpit cushion and made herself at home. From that moment on, she was in love with boats.
On our way home that second day, she surprised us by methodically going up to each boat on our dock and getting aboard as gracefully as a cat, and walking around the upper deck, jumping down, and on to the next, until she had gotten on and off at least twenty boats.
She never again tried to jump up on someone else's boat after that day. And she knew right where our boat was. At the main gate of the marina, we could say to her, “Megan, go get on the boat.” She would dutifully go down the ramp, turn left, walk the fifty yards to the next turn, and go another fifty yards to our boat. She would get aboard and wait for us.
One day we bought a little sailing dinghy, and Megan immediately wanted to go in it. I invited her to come along. She carefully got into the front section, and after about thirty seconds, she had her sea legs for this new boat. From that moment on, the little eight-foot dinghy was Meggie's personal vessel. We sailed everywhere, all over the Shelter Island basin. I could leave her in the dinghy, and she would stay, moving her weight to keep the boat balanced, until I returned.
I decided she'd better learn to swim. Born and raised in the country, she had never seen water (outside of her water bowl) before she came to live with us. We took many walks along the beach, and one day she just let herself go forward beyond her depth, and soon she was swimming like a little otter.
I taught her how to come out to rescue me, just in case I might need some help. I would cry, “Help, Meggie” out in the deep water, and she would launch herself into the water, swim right to me, and turn around to face the shore, giving me a chance to grab hold of the hair on her back, or hold her around the hips. She would happily tow my limp body all the way to shallow water. Of course I would praise the dickens out of her, so it became a favorite game. People were always remarking what a wonderful dog she was. They were right, Meggie was intuitive, and seemed to know what you wanted before you voiced it. It was almost eerie sometimes.
One day I was preparing to varnish my little cruising boat. Meggie was lying peacefully on top in the shade of the boom. As I was tacking off the sanding dust, I muttered -- to myself, not to her, “Well I guess you'll have to go down to the other boat so I won't get dog hair in the varnish.” She promptly got off, and walked all the way across the marina to our other boat. I watched after her with my mouth hanging open.
Meggie gave joy to children, and adults as well, so I got her tested for the Therapy Dog Program. She passed with flying colors, doing all the obedience requirements, and didn't mind the wheelchair, the crutches, or the hospital smells one bit. She knew exactly why she was there.
At the hospital, interacting with patients and nurses alike, she became known as Miss Megan the Australian Wonder Dog. She seemed to know just how much dog “therapy” each patient needed.
I almost didn't take her into the room of her first patient. I could see from the doorway the old man was beyond communication and near death. His mouth was open, the eyes a blank stare. Then I noticed his wife and son keeping a vigil, so I decided Id better go through the motions for their sake.
The man did not seem to know I was there, but I introduced Meggie to him, and since he had no intravenous tubes, I softly ordered Meg up on the bed beside him. She lay down carefully and put her head on his chest. Then the old man looked down, his eyes focused on Meg, and he began to pet her. His dry lips cracked as he talked at length about his dog of long ago. After twenty minutes we took our leave, and as we walked down the hall I heard footsteps behind me. The son stopped me and put his hand on my shoulder.
“Do you know what that dog did to my father?” he asked.
“What?” I said, quaking in fear that the old man had died.
“My father hasn't acknowledge anyone or anything, nor spoken for six weeks. It's a miracle. When can you bring your Miss Megan back?”
Nurses and doctors would stop to greet her and get their dose of “dog therapy,” too. I was lucky. I got her loving therapy all the time.
"She became an island of light, fun, and wisdom -- where I could run with my discoveries and torments and hopes at any time of day and find welcome." May Sarton
Meggie was the most dutifully honest dog I ever knew. If you put a steak on the floor and told her “no,” she wouldn't have touched it, no matter how long you left her alone with the steak. She never did anything “wrong,” and the words “bad dog” were never used with her. Never. If she heard us arguing, even in the most harmless way, she would cringe under a table, trembling with the emotion of having her beloved people distressed. I always felt guilty when this happened. You see, I never felt that I deserved her. And I was right.
When Meggie was seven, she tore the cruciate ligament in one of her hind legs. One minute she was gaily porpoising along Dog Beach, in a foot of water, and the next she was limping ashore. After a week she showed no improvement, so I took her to the vet. He said it was a classic case, and she needed surgery or she'd never use the leg again.
My heart ached for my brave little girl, as she clunked after me with her leg in a cast. After six weeks or so, she needed physical therapy, to learn to bend her leg properly again. She learned to use it, and never looked back, although she had a slight limp for the rest of her life. She was never again able to streak down the beach in a blur of joyous exhilaration, but she never stopped trying. To her, every day was a treasure, and her only concern was being with me. She looked after me, and made it her lifelong project to be the best dog and the best friend I ever had.
There were things I was able to do because she was there to go with me. We drove two thousand miles up the Pacific coast to take possession of an antique boat. I might not have had the courage to go, without Meggie along. All my friends were her friends, and her only enemies were the garbage man and the gas meter-reader. She would never have hurt them, but the fact that they came and touched our “property” made her sound quite furious indeed.
She had a purely maternal instinct when it came to other animals. We had three little birds as pets and one day, after a sonic boom or some such thing had frightened the birdies off their perches and onto the floor, I came home to find them all huddled next to Meggie's belly as she lay in her favorite spot in the kitchen. They knew she would protect them.
For ten years Meggie and I were seen sailing in the little dinghy on weekends. She slept on top of our thirty foot sailboat. One morning about one o'clock I was awakened, but didn't know what had wakened me. I looked to see if Meggie was in her usual spot. She wasn't. My gaze went further afield, and I realized she might have fallen in the water. Just as I was about to panic, I noticed movement in the next slip. The mast on our little dinghy tilted slightly. I went over and sure enough, Meggie had chosen to sleep in “her” boat.
Meggie's arthritis, caused by her leg injury, was beginning to slow her down when she was ten. We adopted another “Aussie”, a big flashy 2-yr-old neutered male named Shiloh. He was the perfect medicine for her, and she for him. They became devoted friends, playing together and sharing all things, including us. They were a flashy duo on the top of our boat for years, well known to everyone at the marina. Water dogs, they sailed with me in the little dinghy, always with great anticipation that we would stop on some beach and play fetch. Shiloh learned “lifesaving” from watching Meggie.
Last year Meggie slowed down perceptively. Although she was taking Rimadyl, a drug for arthritis in dogs, at fourteen her body was wearing out. I watched her very carefully, as I had made a promise after her leg injury so many years ago: that I would never make her suffer at the end. I would put her mercifully to sleep when she was no longer enjoying her life.
Oh, but these promises are so hard to keep. Meggie always showed her joie de vivre, her enthusiasm, to all of us, so deciding which day was “the” day was easy to put off. The medicine was working, and everyone was amazed at how well this very elderly dog was doing. I know that part of the reason she tried so hard was that she did not want to disappoint me. Her generous heart was always thinking of me.
Last week she went downhill fast. On the second day after she could no longer make her hind legs work to get herself up, I took her to be euthanized. She was fourteen years old. Moments before she was put to sleep, she was trying to console me, as I was crying. She did her job as my best friend with all her strength and heart, right to the very end.
Yes, the three of us have lost a priceless treasure. Shiloh, who tenderly worried about her for so long, is desolate. He comes to me and puts his head in my lap, rolling his sad eyes up to me as if to say, “Where is she? I miss her so.” And I stroke his head and tell him its alright, while the tears stream down my cheeks. I tell him that when we die we won't be lonely at all. She'll be there, waiting for us across the rainbow bridge, wagging her whole body in ecstatic joyous greeting.