Memories of Emmy

SteelyKid's second-grade teacher sent home a couple of books about kids dealing with the loss of beloved pets-- one of which, The Tenth Good Thing About Barney is surprisingly atheistic. We read them at bedtime the other night, which was a little rough.

After we finished, and moved her to her bed (when it's my turn to read to her, we do it in the master bedroom, because her bed is really uncomfortable for me), she said, sadly and quietly, "I miss Emmy."

"I do, too, honey," I said, in a less than perfectly steady voice. "She was the best."

That got a smile, and she said "I remember you saying that in the silly voice." And then I had to do the Silly Dog Voice (a sort of Andy-Kaufman-as-"Foreign-Guy" thing) for her, using Emmy's catch phrase of "I'm the best!" And then SteelyKid cheered up, and chattered about a math game she was playing, or wants to play, or possibly was making up on the spot. It wasn't really clear.

Anyway, in the same general spirit of trying to focus on the happy things, here are some scattered recollections from the last twelve years.

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Emmy back in September, looking soulful. Emmy back in September, looking soulful.

The very first day I got Emmy, from the Mohawk-Hudson Humane Society, I took her out to the car, and opened the passenger side door. She climbed right in, and sat in the seat happily panting. When I started the engine, though, she immediately climbed into the back seat and lay down there. So whoever owned her first trained her very well.

They had apparently named her "Princess," but that didn't seem quite appropriate, so we changed it to "Emmy." She took to this very quickly-- that's why I made it her real name in the introduction of the first book. At times she had a sort of aloof and superior air, though, so we joked that she saw the name change as a promotion. This led to her nickname: the Queen of Niskayuna.

The day I got her, we went to PetSmart to pick up supplies, because we didn't have any dog stuff, really, just the cheap leash they'd given me to hold her at the shelter. I remember standing in the aisle of collars looking at the huge variety. Some kind passer-by pointed out the Martingale collars, which tighten a bit, but not as much as a full choke collar, and that seemed like a good idea. She also remarked "I think the red one would look really nice on her." So other than a brief period where Emmy had chewed through her red collar on a day when the pet store only had blue ones in stock, she wore a red Martingale collar.

I also picked up a leash that day, a six-foot leather lead, which is the only leash we ever really used with her. We had a couple of others, but that one was my go-to. And when I cleaned out the dog stuff from the mud room (giving it away to a couple of people from work who needed dog gear), the two things I kept were her collar and that leash. They're in a Ziploc bag on a shelf near my desk.

Those mystery previous owners had both house- and crate-trained Emmy before giving her up, which made our lives really easy in the early days. I got a crate at that same PetSmart stop, which turned out to be bigger than I probably should've gotten, almost comically oversized for her. The kids comfortably fit inside when playing hide-and-seek:

The Pip hiding inside Emmy's crate, which I would like to emphasize was ENTIRELY HIS OWN IDEA. The Pip hiding inside Emmy's crate, which I would like to emphasize was ENTIRELY HIS OWN IDEA.

In the first year or so that we had her, she picked up a couple of commands without us particularly trying. One of these was "time for bed," which started because Kate and I would use it as shorthand with each other, asking "should we crate the dog and go to bed?" One night, one of us said "Time for bed?" and Emmy jumped up from where she was sitting near the couch, and trotted happily to her crate. From then on, we used "time for bed" to tell her to go there.

The other accidental command was "last call," which we used to refer to letting her outside one last time before bed, usually around 10pm or so. This was a routine for several years, but as she got older, she got less enthusiastic about going out late at night. At some point, one cold winter night, we said "last call," and Emmy dutifully trotted to the back door. When I opened the door, though, and the cold air blew in, she turned right around and went into her crate. And that was the end of "last call." She never had a problem with peeing in her crate overnight, though, until the last few weeks, when her health was finally failing.

As she got older, she became decidedly less enthusiastic about going out in bad weather. The last couple of years, when I would open the door to let her out first thing in the morning, if she spotted rain falling (or even heard dripping from recent rain), she would turn right around and go back to the kitchen. "I don't need to pee that badly, dude..." She'd still go out on a walk, somewhat reluctantly, but by the end of the walk, she'd be cheerfully stopping to sniff things while we both got soaked.

We did some training classes with her for a while (her catch phrase of "I'm the best" actually originated with the trainer), not so much because she needed the work on obedience, but in hopes of getting her a little more comfortable with being around other dogs. That didn't really work, but she did learn some basic tricks-- sit, down, wait, "flop," "roll over." She was always really good about those. We also had "easy" and "settle," which were attempts to calm her down when she started freaking out about another dog. On walks, I would carry a bag of high-value treats to reward her when another dog went by without her getting too worked up, and she came to expect those even when she strained at the leash and raised her hackles.

(As a side note, a surprisingly large fraction of dog owners are utterly oblivious to dog signals. I can't tell you how many times I had to warn people off from letting their dogs "just say hi" to Emmy, who would be standing stiffly, growling low, with her hackles up. "What part of this look says to you that my dog wants to 'say hi' to yours?" I always wanted to ask.)

We used to take really long walks, but the circuit gradually shrank as she got older, and the kids came along and ate into her humans' spare time. We never did fewer than two walks a day, though, sometimes three if I was home during the afternoon. These were, obviously, great times for me to think about physics for the blogs and the books, though I grumbled a bit about the winter months when both morning and evening walks took place in the pitch dark and freezing cold.

She was always very happy hanging out in our back yard, and would spend spring and summer days shifting from lying in the sun to curling up in the shade of one particular tree right at the edge of the patio and now at the edge of the deck we added a couple of years ago. She was even pretty good about not straying too far on the several occasions when the gate to the yard failed to latch, allowing her out into the front. The most recent of these was a couple of months ago, when I let her out back, then sat down at my computer, which is right in front of the window looking out on our driveway. After a bit of typing, I half-consciously noticed a black shape nosing around the flower box, and thought "Boy, that's a big cat; I'm surprised Emmy isn't flipping out..." Then I spotted the red collar, and ran to the front door, where she met me, looking smug.

Yesterday, I gave away two milk crates worth of stuff, including a large number of chew toys. Ironically, these tended to pile up because she was harder on toys than any other dog I've seen. We tried every brand of "indestructible" squeaky toy out there, and never found one she couldn't get open. Left to her own devices, she would settle down with a plush toy, and worry at it until she found the one weak point on a seam somewhere, and then allll the stuffing would come out, all over the living room. So we tended to let her play with these only briefly, before swapping the toy for a treat, and putting the toy in a basket in the mud room.

She did have a black Kong and what we called her "UFO," a ball with a ridge around it made of the same black rubber stuff, with a hole through it sized to hold a dog treat. Those held up pretty well, though she managed to take chunks out of even that stuff. I couldn't find the Kong when I did a sweep of the house the other day; I know I'll trip over the damn thing at some point, and cry like a baby.

For most of her life, the house next door was occupied by a very nice family with three kids and no free-roaming pets (they had a rabbit they kept in a hutch on the far side of their yard, but I'm not sure Emmy ever really paid much attention to that). They moved away a couple of years ago, though, and the house was bought by a young couple who got a hyperactive black dog of some sort. Emmy regarded this as a great affront, and for a while, any time the two of them were outside at the same time, they would end up inches away from each other, growling and barking through the fence. Emmy eventually calmed down a bit, though the other dog didn't really. Toward the end of this summer and early in the fall, when he would start barking at the fence, she'd look over at me as if to say "Can you believe this dog?"

(She'd still bark occasionally, and even go to the fence now and again, but only every third or fourth time.)

Despite the high-pitched voice I used for her-- and I'm not sure why I picked that specific sound-- she had a surprisingly deep bark. And a tendency to add a bit of a baying howl to it when startled. She broke that out most frequently when somebody would ring the doorbell-- as a result, if we spotted the babysitter or a delivery person coming, we'd race to get the door open before they rang the bell. We referred to it as the "Fear! Fire! Foes!" bark, after the Horn of Buckland in the Lord of the Rings books. That was the centerpiece of one dialogue that I wrote that got cut from both of the dog-physics books, for length, though I eventually re-used the joke elsewhere.

If you've read our books, a lot of the dialogues in there are based on real incidents. She really did stare out the back window apparently looking for bunnies made of cheese, and sniff under my desk for steak dropped in another universe and all the rest. I tried to capture as much of her personality as I could (or, if you want to be picky, the human-like personality traits I read into dog actions that probably meant something else), and it's a bit of a comfort to know that she's got a certain literary immortality. Still, it's going to be a good while before I feel up to re-reading any of that stuff. Somewhere down the line, though, I'll pick up a copy, remember the Silly Dog Voice, and smile.

She was the best.

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I miss her too.

By Thony Christie (not verified) on 19 Dec 2015 #permalink

Thanks to Emmy ( and I guess a little bit of Chad) I finally GET Relativity. I could always do the math but Emmy thought me how to SEE IT. Thank you to a really great dog.

By Rick Meidell (not verified) on 19 Dec 2015 #permalink

We never did fewer than two walks a day, though, sometimes three if I was home during the afternoon.

Wow. You were really diligent in looking after that dog. Pretty sure the walks alone would put you in the top 10% or 5% of careful dog owners.

SteelyKid’s second-grade teacher sent home a couple of books about kids dealing with the loss of beloved pets

This may come off as harsh, and just a smidge manipulative, but maybe you should consider segueing this period into discussing getting a new pet. Apart from the kids, it sounds like you could do with a little manipulation yourself.

By RandomPaddy (not verified) on 19 Dec 2015 #permalink

Wow! Blog as art. No matter what you write, you inspire me. Thanks.
As far as your "Emmy voice," you are on to something. Check out The Singing Neanderthals – Steve Mithen. Puts many thinks in perspective.

By dickdavies (not verified) on 20 Dec 2015 #permalink

Really nice tribute, but the best one is in the collection of all articles tagged with "Dog" or "Physics with Emmy".

Glad the teacher had some good books to offer. I knew something like that would help. Losing a pet, at least one more interactive than a goldfish, is often the first real encounter with death and thus a learning experience.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 20 Dec 2015 #permalink

An excellent memorial to my favorite internet dog. My household canine has been getting even more cuddles and skritches lately.

By David Owen-Cruise (not verified) on 21 Dec 2015 #permalink