Greatest Dog Ever

Burgh strikes a poseBurgh Riley

December 25, 1999-March 25, 2017

Started on March 25, 2017

Seventeen years ago, he was the transition allowance. Or at least the getting of a dog was the allowance made when we uprooted our teenage kids, Clark and Blair, from their only known home in Pittsburgh and moved to Atlanta, Georgia.

“You have ripped us away from all of our friends,” said a very unhappy Clark. “I want a dog.”

To be honest, I caved on the idea pretty quickly. I felt pretty darn horrible about the timing of moving our family. The kids were in that very tough age of having cemented friends, playing sports and doing well in school. Not to mention that we all loved our life in The Burgh. We had drilled very deep down into our souls about this opportunity. Finally deciding that we would go for it set in motion so many forces that it felt like all of a sudden we were in our new home in East Cobb County, Georgia. And Clark wanted a dog. We felt like, well, he deserved to get something. Blair, of course, wanted a dog as well to go along with our cats, Crazy and Zoey the mountain cat.

“So, let’s say that we’re open to getting a dog; what kind of dog were you thinking about?” I asked. “A Great Dane,” Clark quickly responded. “Whoa there!” I laughed. “That is a huge dog. You really need some space for a dog like that to run.”

“No you don’t,” he said. “I looked them up. Great Danes are wonderful house pets.”

“Maybe, but not in our house. They’re just way too big. Think smaller.”

“Okay. How about a Lab?” he suggested. I thought about that for a minute. Labs, too, are big, but nothing like a Great Dane. Plus, I had been around some and they are wonderful animals. Sweet as can be. “Okay. Your mom and I will talk about it.”

And we did. I don’t remember much about the discussion but shortly we were driving southeast to just below the Atlanta airport, turning down some country roads finally finding the address our vet had given us. He recommended this country boy breeder because he was known for breeding great Labs and he had a new litter…with papers.

This was 2000, the new Millennium, beginning of the new century. Before Google maps, WAZE or the Channel 2 Traffic app. Getting there was a journey in and of itself. It was a home address, not a business. What we found was a very modest ranch home with an old Camaro in the driveway. It was definitely the home of a single man. Sparse. Simple. Down right plain. But, clean.

The pups had full run of the utility room and hallway in the back of the house, which had newspapers spread out to protect the linoleum floor. The mother, a Yellow Lab, was out back. The father was a Black English blockhead Labrador that had served his purpose and returned to England, leaving this brood and papers with very fancy names of the pups’ ancestors.

The litter was a mix of both solid black and solid ivory puppies although one ivory colored cutie had a black spot on his back. “I’m probably going to end up with that one,” the breeder sighed. “Nobody will want him with that spot.”

He picked us as the story goes.

That made us give serious thought to picking “Spot,” but then this solid ivory puppy came up to greet us and that was that. He picked us as the story goes. We made the deal and worked out the arrangements. We had to leave him with his mom for a few more weeks. On the drive back to the house we talked about names. “Iceburgh” came to mind first, thinking about his coloring and the mascot for Pittsburgh Penguins. Then, we shortened it down to “Burgh,” a fitting tribute to our previous home, friends and…hockey team. And, to forever remind us of our wonderful 15 years there as we began to build a new life in Atlanta.

Two weeks later we returned to pick up our first ever puppy. And so it began, our life with a dog uniquely named Burgh, who lived up to his name and more.

The early days were a mix of wonder, angst, frustration, sleeplessness and laughter. The hard part was it was like having a newborn baby in the house again, this time whimpering and barking instead of crying. Julie took the brunt of it and I wasn’t sure that she was going to make it with all of the other stress in moving, getting the kids into new schools and learning the ropes of life in Marietta. All while I was spending most of my time at work or commuting.

But then Burgh made it through a night, then another, and then he was good.

Next, we had to learn how to train him faster than he learned how to train us. We beat him in some points and he beat us in others. He turned out to be extremely smart and picked up on things quickly.

It became his job, his morning routine. And he did it every morning like clockwork.

One thing he learned early on, with a little help from Julie, was to pick up the morning paper in the driveway and bring it to us. It became his job, his morning routine. And he did it every morning like clockwork. We’d let him out the back door and he would trot around the back of the house to the bottom of the driveway, pick up the day’s AJC and return to the back door. Of course his reward was breakfast, which he gobbled up in a few bites. If, for some reason, the paper was delayed, he was left empty, having not performed his job, and he was not right until it finally arrived and he could go get it.

He learned how to be a great walking partner and learned the route by heart. There was one bridge over Sope Creek next to the golf course that had a huge tree growing beside it with vines hanging down. Something about it riled Burgh every time we approached it on the outbound leg of our walk. His hair stood up on the back of his neck as a slow low growl grew from his throat. When we were about 10 yards from the bridge I would let go of the leash and he would charge it, ending up with a few fierce barks over the side of the bridge. Julie and I decided it must be the bridge troll. Interestingly, it had no effect on the walk back. He repeated this attack every walk for the next 15 years.

Burgh was unique. He was Labrador retriever that really didn’t retrieve. He was interested in fetching a ball or a stick a maximum of three times. Then, he lost interest and wandered off or lay down.

He was a Lab who didn’t like water. He wanted to jump in, but he just couldn’t.

He was a Lab that didn’t bark at people who came to our front door. So he wasn’t much of a guard dog. To him, no one was a stranger, and every one wanted to pet him. Even kids afraid of dogs.

In the hierarchy of personality traits Burgh was a beta. Maybe even a theta but most certainly not an alpha dog. His little Jack Russell cousins (Page and Maggie’s pups) ran over him and out tugged him in tug of war with a rope. He just didn’t see it as a competition for very long and let go, even after swinging them around effortlessly, he gave in. And they would bark and growl as if to say, “You may be big, but you’re not that tough.” And he seemed to say, “Uh, well, okay.”

He was a dog that turned out to be allergic to cats…and we had two of them. Once diagnosed, I gave him monthly injections for almost sixteen years.

He was a dog that would go the full trip to anywhere without going to the bathroom. Even the six hour drive to Durham. Even when we stopped and hoisted him out of the car so he could go. He’d sniff everything in sight, but never go until we arrived at our destination.

He was a (young) dog who held it all the way to Beech Mountain, passing on the opportunity to go in a brief walk around the grounds. Then, in the excitement of all of the greetings in Marti’s family room, we heard the kids yelling, “No Burgh!” I turned around as he deposited a big one just to announce his presence with authority.

He was a dog who snored, especially when he slept on the floor of our bedroom – for many years. I would often get out of bed and roll him out of the snore.

He was a dog who went out in the morning to pee and turned up wonderingly following his nose in the back yard of our neighbors, totally ignoring our calls even when he stared right at us.

He was gentle and tolerant with his much smaller, higher energy cousin dogs, Grounder and Sketcher, Page and Maggie’s Jack Russell Terriers. He’d let them lead the way on walks, and entertained their playfulness and games that they would start, often around his head, ears and nose.

He quickly grew large enough to be a bonafide counter surfer, training his owners to never leave bread anywhere near the edge of the counter or it was gone. He was also adept at opening the cabinet door under the sink to get into the garbage. We solved that with two tactics; installing child protective closures as well as never throwing away bread or meat in that particular trashcan.

He mastered the art of the heroic pose, ears up, standing tall and surveying his area with a strong oversight. And when lying on the floor, he crossed his front paws, suggesting his true and supreme reign of confidence and self-assurance.

He was the youngster who, with the van full of Hazelton cousins, dropped a deuce in the back of the car, creating a lot of excitement and laughter and wailing from the kids, screaming for me to open all of the windows and forcing me into an “emergency” pull over on a neighborhood side-street. When I stopped the car, the side door flew open and the pack of kids abandoned ship, holding their noses, leaving me to deal with the surprise package. Burgh sat there wondering why everyone jumped out of the car and left him alone.

He was a show stopper on our walks, and we walked everywhere with him. People always smiled as we passed, staring at this beautiful dog. Often they just had to walk up and pet him. Kids hugged him and scratched his ears and kissed his nose. Burgh slobbered all over them and they loved it.

His good looks and talent earned a starring major role in an in-house video screened at my company’s annual conference. In it he not only picked up the paper, he started the coffee, turned on the TV – to Channel 2 Action News “This Morning,” of course – checked out the station’s website before getting in the car with his mom. He punched the knob on the radio dial to turn on WSB-AM 750. He was amazing! And he loved his media.

As he hit 15, he let us know that he needed to shorten his walks from 2 miles to just the neighborhood. Gradually he told us that a walk up the hill was enough. At 16, the cul-de-sac was enough. And then one day he seemed to say as he handed the paper to me that, well, that was that. He just couldn’t make it to the end of the drive and back anymore. That last time he said, “I’ve done all that I can. You’ll have to get your paper from now on.”

He was, and forever will be, the greatest dog of our lives.

He was Burgh. And, like I did this morning, I’ll never pick up a paper from the driveway and not think of him and how he transitioned us from Pittsburgh to Atlanta, from high school to college and from college to life. That’s a lot of work for one dog. And, that is why he picked us. I, for one, am forever grateful.

Note: It’s taken me over a month to write, re-write and rewrite this again. And to find just the right photos and a video of his paper delivery.

Since I first started, we received his ashes, held a small memorial and committed them into the ground in our back yard. We placed a memorial bench over the site to give him a place still in our lives.

To this day, when I wake up in the morning, I think that I hear him barking, as he did a lot in his last year with us when he couldn’t get up by himself. And when I open the kitchen door I still have a brief expectation to hear his nails on the hardwood floor as he got up to greet me.

And every evening when I return home from work and open the door from the garage I reflexively anticipate him there, happy to see me, or at least hear him and am almost surprised to remember that he is gone.

This weekend I caught up with my dear friend and former boss, John Howell, with a long overdue phone call. As we worked our way through how the family was doing John said that Gail had wondered just the other day about how Burgh was doing. He went on to say that he had told Gail, “Honey, I’m sure that if Burgh had passed that Steve would have published a long article with photos and video accompaniment to let us know. I think it’s safe to say that Burgh is still with us.”

I sat on my answer for moment before saying, “John, you’re right and it’s already written. Burgh passed a few weeks ago and I just can’t finish what I’ve written. Every time that I edit it, I add more that has to be edited.” He expressed his condolences and how he knew what Burgh meant to us and that Burgh was a really good dog. A beautiful dog. 

I started that editing circle again this morning. Firmly committed to putting it to bed by finding and repairing misspellings or grammatical errors, smoothing out sentences and adding the pictures. But then I added more copy, including this “Note.”

I realized in the process that Burgh stood for more than a dog in our lives. His time with us marks a terribly important passage in our lives. The two go hand in hand. My hope is that he always felt safe, loved and happy. He surely seemed that way to me except for the final days.

A few weeks before Burgh died, Julie had an idea on how to pay tribute to him after he was gone. She started saving bagged newspapers in a grocery bag which I stumbled into in our garage. That’s when she told me of her idea. The weekend of his passing, we laid them out on the driveway at the spot where he found the paper every morning. The photo homage to our paperboy says it all.

Thanks for reading. I hope you got to pet Burgh at least once in your life, and wipe some slobber off of your sleeve and ivory fur off of your black pants. It would have been worth it.

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