Before we had kids, my husband, Steve, and I swore that we’d never be the kind of parent that neglects their dog when a baby comes along. We’d heard stories of people giving away their pets because of the mind-melding rigors of raising a newborn, others going days at a time without petting the poor animals. No matter what parenthood brought, we vowed, that wouldn’t be us.
Our chocolate Lab, Gus, taught us to be adventure parents long before we became actual parents. He came with us rafting, skiing, camping, and biking. He belly-rolled into snowdrifts in Crested Butte when he was a puppy and chased us down the mountain during dawn patrol powder days at our local ski hill. By the time he was three, he’d floated the Rio Grande, Rio Chama and the Green River. Through trial and error, we learned what to do when he fell out of the boat and how to keep him from cutting his paws on our ski edges. We figured out that swimming is his sport but mountain biking most definitely isn’t (it's way too fast and he's way too big), and that if we hiked 10 miles climbing a 14,000-foot peak, he’d easily go twice as far. Sure, he got into some scrapes, but we had pet insurance and he was happy and—except for when he was glomming food straight from a toddler's hand—gentle, and we couldn’t imagine a better outdoor companion, ever.
But a couple months before our first daughter was born, Gus hit a rough patch: A couple weeks shy of his eighth birthday, he was diagnosed with bone cancer and had his front right leg amputated. He spent most of his time that spring half-hopping, half-lurching around our house, wearing an old T-shirt of my husband’s to protect the long scar that snaked down one side of his buzz-cut skin from his back to his belly. He no longer had a shoulder. Circumstances beyond our control had made him impossible to ignore.
When the kids came onto the scene, Gus didn’t suffer an absence of affection. If anything, he was smothered in it. Practically from birth, our daughters would sprawl next to him on his dog bed or drape themselves across his tawny, summer-bleached fur that now hid the long white seam where his leg used to be, while he’d just lie there flicking his eyes and thumping his tail. He learned to walk again, and then run, but with each passing year he grew more content to stretch out on the floor and be fawned over by his girls.
Part of this is luck: Labs are natural adventurers. They have boundless energy and love the water, trails, and snow. They're also notoriously affectionate with kids, so we never had to worry about him being too rough—he was born a family dog, before we had a family. But it's also intention: We make a point of including him in every family adventure that's within his ability. It's good for him, it's good for us, and it's good for the girls: They've learned how to look out for their three-legged friend on the trail, river, and backcountry the way he looks out for them.
It was cancer, not parenthood, that changed our relationship. With only three legs, Gus can’t hike or run any distance with me anymore. I no longer have my trail dog, but as Steve reminds me, I should be glad I still have Gus. And I am. We still take him camping and rafting (no, not big water—placid, kid-friendly Class I-II rivers), and our Airstream doesn’t leave home without him. But this summer was the first time when, instead of going with Steve to landscaping jobs as he had almost every day of his working life, Gus lounged at home in the cool shade of the backyard. Who can blame him? He's 12 years old now and almost totally deaf.
Labs are among the most stoic of breeds. This is what the vet told us when he broke the news that Gus’ leg was so eaten away by cancer that it could break in two at any moment. “But he’s barely limping,” I said in disbelief. Eager to please us, he was powering through the pain, the vet explained. It seemed impossible that Gus could be in such agony while still behaving like his usual goofy self.
By nature, dogs are so loyal they’ll put their own comfort after that of their people. This is important to remember because it’s so easy to forget. Dogs don’t throw tantrums, and you can leave them in the car with the windows rolled down on road trips. They sleep on the ground, gamely go along with any outing, and never whine. On a river trip this summer, I woke up in the middle of the night and went looking for Gus. He’d curled up in a nest of grass, far away from our tents. We decided he might be getting cataracts. In the Airstream, he sleeps on the floor beside the girls’ foldout bed. Once, on a road trip last spring, we heard a thump and got up to check: 20-month-old Maisy had fallen out of bed and landed on Gus, who’d cushioned her fall. There they were, a pile of baby and dog, both still sound asleep.
Gus no longer barks when the UPS man comes to the front door. He can’t hear him. But I know he’s still got our back just like we have his. Most nights after the girls go to bed, when the house is so quiet that I can pretend he’s our only baby, I sit on the floor next to his bed and scratch his warty chin. He’s still wearing his summer coat, red like a fox’s from a long summer outside, and there’s only a trace of dignified gray on his muzzle. If I put my mouth right next to his ear, he can hear me tell him he’s a good boy. I know because he thumps his tail, just like he always has.
Dogs may charge hard without complaint, but they still need days off and plenty of TLC, especially when kids are in the mix. This summer, we finally got Gus his own canine camping bed, a sweet, portable $60 number from Mountainsmith that stows into a compression stuff sack, like his own sleeping bag. It’s squishy soft, easy on his arthritic joints, and you can throw it in the wash when he tracks three paws’ worth of mud all over it. I’m not sure how many summers he has left, but whenever I get to worrying about it, I picture Gus at 14, eating birthday cake straight off my daughters’ plates and snoring on his red bed beside our tent on a desert river under an ocean of stars.
Good dog, Gus.