Long before anyone had heard of “Marley and Me” there was Nina and me.
Nina wasn’t even supposed to be my dog, not really. It was 2000 and My grandfather (who’d lived at my house his last few years) had just passed away. My dog Snuffy, always a social animal, was despondent. As his depression dragged on I realized I needed to get him a companion. I fell in love with Nina the first moment I saw her at the shelter. She was a beautiful shepherd beagle mix with huge brown eyes ringed with black, as if she’d had eye liner tattooed on her. She leaned up against the cage, stared me in the eyes and gave me the “I’m so abused and pathetic” look that I later came to know so well. It was all part of her schtick, though I didn’t know it at the time. Nina had been returned to the shelter a couple of times and I knew she was at risk of being put down, so I agreed to foster her for a while. That foster care placement became permanent by the time we’d gotten home.
Nina clearly had issues. Though she was 6 months old she hadn’t been housebroken yet. She knew no commands. Most troubling, she had the strongest escape tendencies of any dog I’ve ever seen. Nina was a Houdini dog. She could escape out of any enclosure ever made. And if she wanted to go somewhere, she’d eat through doors and walls and break through windows if she had to. Nina was born to be a free spirit.
When she proved difficult to train I finally sent her to a doggie boot camp where I found out she was smart enough to learn commands like sit and heel, the question was if she really wanted to do them. Boot camp staff had one problem with her: every night she escaped. They couldn’t figure out how. One night they put her by a nanny came and showed me a tape of her shoving her paw out of the front of the cage and sliding the latch. She was that smart.
At the vet where I boarded her she was known for causing mayhem. One time there was a new vet tech and when he came up front I asked if he’d put her in the sealed top kennel to keep her from escaping. He said to me in a condescending tone, “The kennel is 7 feet tall with concrete walls. It’s not like she can scale those”. I smiled, said, “Oh really?” and pointed behind him, where Nina was sauntering back out to the lobby.
Nina was famous among my friends and family for her dramatic escape attempts. She’d jump her 80-pound self on the counter, push out the window screen, leap over the bushes and end up in the neighbor’s yard. You’d open the door a half an inch and she’d be a block down the street before you realized she had even gotten up.
Nina’s escapist tendencies seemed to be fueled at least partly by anxiety and we spent a lot of time at the Animal Hospital becausue of it. The first time I left her alone on the 4th of July I came home to find her prancing around on the roof of my front porch covered in blood. She had jumped through a closed window, cutting herself badly on the way out. I could never leave her alone during fireworks after that, not matter how much xanax she had.
Another time she chewed through some chicken wire that was covering her 6 foot high indoor kennel. Unfortuantely she hadn’t chewed a big enough hole to get her whole body out and I found her hanging on the wall of the kennel, half her body on each side, chicken wire dug into her stomach. I had to use wire cutters to get her out, and she seemed to be quite proud of herself when she pranced into the Animal Hospital wearing a wire tutu and trailing blood.
Nina got into trouble so much that I joked around when she met other dogs she probably told them her name was “God damn it Nina”. She got into cabinets, chewed the lid off paint cans (covering the basement floor in paint), tore down window blinds, ripped up carpets, dug up bushes. But she was also a sweet and affectionate dog, jealous of anyone else who might divert my attention, human or dog. A hug from a boyfriend or another dog sitting on my lap and she’d try to push them away so I could focus on her. When I cried she was there to comfort me and if I screamed she came running to see what was wrong, poised for battle. When I pet her or we’d snuggle I’d make a play on her name, “Nina, Norena, Bobena, Fofena, Sosena” and she’d wag her tail so hard the entire back of her body would wag too.
Nina was unusually smart and I joked that she was an evil genius. I could write for days on all the tricks she pulled. My favorite was the night she wanted to be on the couch by my other dog Slim refused to move. She finally went and found Slim’s favorite toy. She brought it to me and started shaking it. He ignored her. She brought it to me and indicated I should throw it for her. I threw it. She stopped to look at Slim and he ignored her. She grabbed it again and stared at Slim intently. Slim jumped off the couch and Nina dropped his toy and took a flying leap onto his spot on the couch. I swear she was smiling triumphantly. I have many stories involving her tricking us out of food somehow. Evil genius.
Once when my mother was staying at my house Nina started staring at her intently. My mom ignored her. Nina started whining and rubbing her. A few minutes later my mom went into a diabetic emergency. Nina had been trying to warn us. For years after that whenever Nina did that I’d make my mom take her sugar and every single time it was at a dangerous level.
Nina also warned me about her own health problems. One day she rubbed her neck against me non-stop for hours, whining. Finally I looked at her neck more carefully and there was a cyst there. The minute I saw the cyst she stopped whining and laid down. Another time she was acting weird when I was running on the treadmill. Although she’d always been afraid of the treadmill she suddenly leaped on and started running behind me, then fell off the back. She laid there with the belt rubbing her stomach, refusing to move until I turned her over to look at her stomach. Another cyst.
The one health problem she didn’t warn me about was her last one. The vet said it appeared to have come on very suddenly. One day on a short walk with my sister she collapsed, panting and drooling, her tongue purple. By the time we got to the Animal Hospital she was fading fast, choking on the fluid in her lungs. We don’t know for sure what even happened but the vet theorized that there was a fast growing tumor either inside or pressing on her lungs that had quickly gotten dangerous. They tried to save her but told me she was fading fast and I should come back to say goodbye. I saw her laying on the table, looking small and pitiful with a tube in her throat and wires everywhere. She looked me in the eye and for the first time since I’d seen her at the shelter she didn’t wag her tail when she saw me. She was too weak. Her heart gave out while I was petting her and I heard her take her last breathe. My girl was gone.
I was shocked and heartbroken. Somehow I’d thought Nina would outlive all of us. She’d always been disgustingly healthy and had scarcely slowed down even though she was 11, old for her breed. She never lost her sense of mischievousness and never seemed to stop plotting. Yet she was loyal and loving and I knew without a doubt if I was ever in trouble Nina would be the dog to rescue me, she was the only smart enough to do it. And after over 11 years she was the second longest relationship of my life. We’d been through a lot together, Nina and me, and I’ll miss her terribly.