“Your friend is your needs answered. He is your field which you sow with love and reap with thanksgiving. And he is your board and your fireside, for you come to him with hunger, and you seek him for peace.”
I named him Niko because, unlike every other four-legged family member we had taken in until then, we knew his true birthday. It was December 6th - 2006 to be exact. In Germany, children leave their shoes out on their front steps on the eve of the 6th for Saint Nikolaus to fill with gifts and treats, provided that they’ve been good of course. As we drove home for the first time with our 7-week old Labrador puppy, I thought the name was thus be appropriate, but I had no idea how perfect it would turn out to be.
He was one of a litter of 12 adorable chocolates! As soon as we walked in the door, they swarmed us and the kids melted. How to choose? But then I saw that there was one missing. He was just waking up from a nap to see what the commotion was all about. I walked over to him, held him up to look at his little face and even though his sleepy eyes were still only half opened he gave me a big fat wet lick right across my face. The deal was sealed. The kids never questioned. This was going to be Mom’s dog!
We had just moved to Kansas from Germany and had not yet taken ownership of our new house. “This is nuts,” I thought to myself, driving back to our hotel that evening. “Why on earth would I bring a puppy into an already stressful situation like this?” All I remember is that something just felt undeniably right about it.
Truly though, he was a perfect puppy. He was easily housebroken in less than a week, he never chewed furniture, rugs, shoes or anything other than his designated chew toys. We did go through a rough patch when he developed an affinity for cat box snacks but that was short-lived. And when he discovered his big dog voice, he scared a few people in fleeting moments of unwarranted protectionism. It was so easy bringing Niko into our family. All of his life, he was so in tune with us, so eager to please that training him was close to effortless. The possible exception to this, however, was leash training. It’s not that he couldn’t be leash trained, but he just had so much energy and drive to run, and swim, and play and explore, that none of us ever really had the heart to hold him back. So the times that he absolutely had to be on a leash were never pleasant. Katie and I took him to the Fort Leavenworth Turkey Trot 5K one year because dogs were allowed. He was always over-the-moon excited to go on a run, but that, coupled with all the other people and all the other dogs was a bridge too far. He was the kid at the birthday party who’s had just a little too much cake and ice cream! The gun went off and I think we broke land speed records that day getting to the finish!
Niko loved everyone, and if they came with tennis balls, he REALLY loved them. But most of all, he loved his family. He regarded himself, I think, a sibling to Katie and Sepp. When Katie was still living at home, he slept in bed with her every night. If she was still in bed when we finished our morning walk or run, he’d go right back to snuggling with her. They often enjoyed breakfast together on the living room couch. Whatever Katie was having, Niko was having – from the same plate and with the same silverware. For Sepp, Niko was a partner in crime, in a manner of speaking. If Sepp and his teenage friends had been a gang, Niko was one of the sworn members. I can’t say I always knew where they were or what they were up to but it usually ended with coming home wet, muddy, and stinky and often involved other animals, dead and alive.
He went everywhere with us as a family. It didn’t matter where we were going, to the lake or to the grocery store, getting in the car was beyond exciting for Niko, so exciting in fact, that he would never sit down, choosing instead to stand in the back with his head as far out of the window as we would safely let him get it. This proved to be problematic only once when we made the 15 hour trek to Montgomery, AL to have Thanksgiving with my Dad. Niko, bless his heart, stood the whole time and could barely walk when we finally reached Alabama!
As a lab, of course Niko loved the water and loved to swim. Hawaii was doggie paradise for him. Every weekend we would go to the beach where he would swim after tennis balls launched at least 50 feet into the water for literally hours until he had nothing left to give and would drag his exhausted body back up onto the beach. One Christmas when the kids were both home, they taught him how to body surf….he would swim out to the wave and know exactly the right time to turn around to be carried back to shore.
Just as much as he loved to swim, he loved to hike. The two of us have hiked thousands of miles together, through the backwoods of Kansas, through the Kahuku and Ko’Olau mountains in Hawaii, Shenandoah National Forest and all over the Chesapeake watershed area. In his youth he always covered at least twice the miles I did as he quite literally ran circles around me exploring, chasing squirrels and finding new waterholes. He knew every milestone on the way to wherever we were hiking and as soon as we got within a mile of the parking lot, he would bark with anticipation and wouldn’t stop until we started walking, as if to say, “Come on, Mom!!! I’m so excited! Lets goooooo!!”
One of the best things about Niko was that he was such a gentle, benevolent soul, I could trust him around anyone, even other animals. My neighbors in Maryland had twin 6 year olds who were half Niko’s size. They adored him and would lay on him, ride him, and continue to try and play with him when he was clearly done, but I never worried that he would be anything but sweet with them. He would never admit that he liked having all my foster kittens around but he would patiently tolerate their attempts to play with him as well.
I was always more of a cat person. We had a few dogs when I was growing up but they weren’t my dogs and I didn’t feel like I was missing anything when I struck out on my own and remained, for the most part, dog-free. In fact, the only reason I found myself in that house with 12 puppies was a promise I had made to my kids. All the years we were in Germany, they never stopped asking for a dog so I told them that we would get one when we moved back to the States. That relative indifference to dog ownership ended with Niko. He was my friend, my confidant, my co-pilot, my comfort, my courage, my weakness and my strength. Even in the tougher times when he was sick or hurt or old and feeble, he was a continuous source of warmth and goodness, love and happiness for me. If I had my Niko with me, I could do anything! Everything I’ve achieved, every challenge I’ve overcome in the 13 years that he was with me is due in large part to his unwavering love and companionship. My life, our lives will never be the same without him.
But in keeping with my intent to memorialize him in a positive way, I want to thank my friends, colleagues and family who were special to Niko, for making his life rich with the same love, warmth and goodness that he gave every day. There are so many of you - too numerous to mention all, but you know who you are! You’re the ones who cared for him in my absence, the ones who tolerated him in the office, the vets and their assistants who kept him healthy and active for so many years. You’re the ones who helped me manage when he was sick and gave me seven more wonderful years with him when I thought I had none. You’re the ones who were never too busy to say hello, sit with him and pet him, or play fetch with him until the sun went down. You’re the ones who gave him steak under the table when you thought I wasn’t looking. You were all part of making his life one that he deserved. I am forever grateful to you and I’m sure Niko is too.
In a take on the Beatles song, a popular bumper sticker reads “All you need is love and a dog,” as if the two were mutually exclusive. Niko WAS love - a leggy, goofy, chocolate, bellowing, fur ball of goodness and love that never quit. Born on Saint Nikolaus’ birthday, the name I gave him seemed perfect as we drove home on that big adoption night. But through the years, I’ve come to appreciate the deeper similarities between my pup and the good saint. Nikolaus, in his 3rd Century life, was sainted in large part for taking care of people in need and for his frequent and often secret gift-giving. Niko not only was a gift to me, my family and all who knew him, but like his namesake, every day of his long and full life, never stopped giving the gift of his love.
I will love and miss you always my very dear friend!
“When you part from your friend, grieve not; For that which you love in him may be clearer in his absence, as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain.”
* quotes from Kahlil Gibran's "The Prophet"