Dog leaves paw prints on hearts

It was a normal day in mid October. A dull orange sun crept through my bedroom window. Tucker, our German Shepard, came in and greeted me with a spit bath – my usual morning wake-up call.

It was just as wet and welcoming as the others, but he looked sluggish – almost depressed – as he left my room. His ears were up, but I could tell by his body language that he wasn’t himself. He hadn’t been for a few weeks prior to this particular day. Fear started to creep in for my parents as they realized just how long we’d had our big, brown-eyed best friend.

My mom blocked out that fear on her way to the vet later that day. She sent me a text about an hour later saying, “On my way home. Tucker has to have emergency surgery. I’ll explain in a few.”

X-rays showed that he was bleeding internally. He wasn’t expected to make it for more than a few hours without surgery. My dad rushed home from work to help mom load Tucker into her van and take him to State College, where the procedure would be performed.

I didn’t know what to say, much less think. They brought him in the house until they got everything ready. We were all confused at this point. It’d only been a few hours prior that he was nose-to-nose with me – licking my face like there was no tomorrow. I wrapped my arms around him as tight as I could and let him give me one more spit bath in case it was my last.

I canceled my plans for dinner with a friend later that night. My younger brother and I waited for my parents to text us. I received about a dozen text messages within an hour – saying, “Running tests now” and “going into surgery.” When the texts stopped coming in a couple hours later, however, my heart sank into my stomach.

I sat in my room alone and bit my lip to fight back tears. I didn’t want to believe the worst had happened – but when I heard the distinctive turn of the doorknob amidst our other two dogs’ barking – I knew something was definitely wrong.

My parents came in my room with their eyes swollen with tears. They slowly told us that surgeons found cancer in Tucker’s stomach and had to “put him down” while in his surgery.

My parents choked on those words as they escaped their lips. I completely lost it at that point. I turned my head to cry into my sweatshirt as my parents cried with me.

I couldn’t think – couldn’t breathe. Tucker wasn’t just a dog. He was a big, intelligent creature of love who always wanted to stay close to you, whether or not you were having a bad day. He was our guardian – and could’ve been my service dog if we had trained him the right way and only 8 years old.

It’s been almost two months since we lost Tucker. It still hasn’t sunk in that he’s gone. It was a blow to the soul that no one saw coming, but the healing process has been a bit easier since we got Gizmo, our new puppy.

As we watch him play with Lacy, our Labrador, it’s hard not to smile. It’s like turning back the clock and watching Tucker play with her, but it’s also a chance to make new memories.

I was very apprehensive at first. I didn’t want our best friend to be replaced when I knew he couldn’t be. My parents knew that as well – and agreed not to get another dog that looked exactly like him.

I’ve never wished dogs could talk – but if Tucker could’ve – maybe he’d still be with us. I just hope he knows he left his paw print on our hearts – and that he’ll always be our “forever dog.”

Erin Kelly, 28, was born with cerebral palsy in Seoul, Korea and now lives in Altoona. She is a 2009 graduate of Penn State Altoona. E-mail her at