International Dog Day: Chaser, My Fair Canine


International Dog Day is August 26. Saying goodbye to a pet is difficult. Saying thank you is what I want to figure out how to do.

Around 25 years ago, I had learned our 15-year-old Brittany, Chaser, had cancer. One month, the same X-rays showed nothing. About four-weeks later,  her lungs are filled with cancer. There were no treatment options. Our veterinarian said she probably had only a few days, if that.

So, who could I thank her?

When Chaser entered our lives, she was around nine months old, and afraid of everything from canine and human strangers to busses and trucks, even fire hydrants. Whenever we left the house, Chaser would piddle. In fact, whenever I closed the bathroom door to do my business, Chaser would do her business on the other side of the door.

Advice helped, and somehow, we worked through it.  And all through that, our bond intensified.

I was writing newspaper and magazine stories about pets back then, but I was also covering the entertainment beat.

A few years later, my wife and I took an amazing trip to the Galapagos Islands. When we returned, Kim Okabe, then an editor at Tribune Media Services was voice mail number 31. Yes, back then we did have answering machines. Her message was an offer to be a syndicated pet columnist.

I didn’t accept immediately. I asked for a few days to think it over. I instinctively knew that if I accepted, I’d only write about pets for the rest of my career. Just as actors don’t want to be typecast, many journalists don’t either.

Trapped in the Elevator: Big Decision Happens

On the next day, I was riding our antiquated elevator in our Century plus old building on Chicago’s near north side.

“Ka-boom,” the elevator, which I believe is operated by a pair of chipmunks, stopped. The passengers began to pace and whine. It immediately occurred to me, lucky thing I’m going up and not down.

You see, the passengers were three dogs. Our then puppy Lucy; our neighbor’s dog, Boots Montgomery; and Chaser. Lucy was worried and howled with anxiety, and Boots was pacing and whining. But Chaser was calm as can be.

While waiting to be rescued from the elevator, there isn’t much you can do. So, I sat down and I thought.

I thought about just how far once terrified and anxious Chaser had come. By now, she had earned her Canine Good Citizen Test, was visiting my grandmother at an assisted living facility, and cavorted happily with fellow canines at the dog beach – where she relished finding dead fish to roll in.

Chaser had a Pygmalion transformation into my fair canine. She was now every bit a confident dog.

As I thought about all this in the stopped elevator, Lucy and Boots began to quiet down. Chaser placed herself nearly on me. This entire time she stared into my eyes; our noses were nearly close enough to touch. This was her thing, staring at me.

The next moment seemed to last for several minutes. But I’m sure that it was only a moment. It was a moment that I’ll never forget. It was the kind of moment that I always thought was reserved for Timmy and Lassie.

Chaser and I connected in a way that is difficult to articulate.  But I know that I felt her soul in a way that I never had before. I can’t translate what Chaser told me. It was more like a feeling, a warm feeling of unadulterated love. I was moved to tears, though I didn’t quite know why. Chaser ended this moment as she licked a tear, and then she smiled, opening her mouth and pulling back her lips as many dogs are able to do. She followed with a restrained “Woof.”  I can’t claim to translate the woof.

I knew then, at that moment, I wanted to help others to enjoy the relationship I had with Chaser.  The next morning, I phoned TMS and said “Yes!” about the offer to write the column.

Chaser Changed Lives Well Beyond My Own – But Sadly How Can She Know?

All these years later, I know I’ve reached many many millions of pet caretakers via that column which had an over 20-year run; my pet radio shows and lots of TV appearances; contributing to and authoring many books, and the many veterinary conferences and shelter events I’ve spoken at. I’ve tried to make a difference, using my platforms as advocacy pulpits. Along the way, many years ago, I became certified as an animal behavior consultant. And I’ve received countless emails from pet caretakers telling me that I’ve helped them.

What matters most are those individual pets who have in some way benefited from my advice. I’m told over and over again that I’ve saved lives. Since pets are considered members of the family – I’ve apparently made a difference to many families.

I couldn’t have done any of this – and wouldn’t have done any of this if Chaser didn’t come along, well before anyone had every thought about International Dog Day.

One dog can change a life.

I know Chaser did have an amazing life; going through it all with me. She’s in the major league baseball record books; you see I’m the only person in baseball history to throw out a ceremonial first pitch with two dogs at my side (Lucy was there too). Chaser’s been a passenger many times on the Canine Cruise (an idea I thought of on my WGN radio show, an architecture cruise for dogs, offered by Chicago Skyline Cruiseline). Chaser was twice a Grand Marshall at the La Grange, IL Pet Parade, the largest and oldest pet parade in the nation. Chaser’s was at my side, helping to raise money at dozens of benefits for animal shelters, including overcoming total humiliation dressing in various outfits – including as a veterinarian – to raise dollars at Halloween fundraisers. For Chaser ever day was International Dog Day.

I know 15 years was a long time. Of course, for my wife and I, it was not nearly enough time.

As we said goodbye, I’m sure she knew we loved her – but how could she know how she changed my life? And how many other countless lives she influenced as a result.

Chaser does still live with me every day;  don’t really need International Dog Day to remind me.