Our love story started many years ago. It was 2007, and I was completing my last year of high school. You were born to two purebred parents, an accidental mix of a stunning Golden Retriever mama and a strong, sporty brindle Boxer father, on April 3rd. The owner of your mother worked with my own mother. I remember exactly where we were when she told me about the litter of puppies. I told my mom that it wasn’t the right time for me to get a dog, with college looming ahead and my family preparing to move to Virginia (how stupid of me!) but she insisted that we at least go visit. Typically all reason and logic, I will never be able to repay my mother for her persistence. Sometimes mothers really do know best, and she must have known that you were just what I needed.
When we got to the house, 12 coal black pups, with a variety of white markings, were waiting in a lined kiddie pool. I remember the largest, a boy with lots of white, that they called Kahuna. (I am still convinced that day at the dog park in State College, just a few years ago, it was Kahuna you were reunited with). There were a few other families there to pick out their dogs. For some reason that I still can not explain, I was instantly drawn to you. They told me all about your little personality, that you were the pup they pulled from the litter each night to cuddle with them in bed. You would snuggle up against the wife’s face, and sleep peacefully through the night. While my mother hinted towards choosing Kahuna, or perhaps both of you, I insisted that you were the one for me. When she asked me why, I had no real reason. You weren’t the quietest in the litter, nor were you the most confident. I know now that it is because you were meant for me. Stroking your sleek black coat, looking into your deep brown eyes, and watching you explore the grass in your environment… it was instant love.
We returned a few weeks later to bring you home. We had a new crate, toys, blankets, food & water bowls, and a red leather collar… everything a pup could ask for. You didn’t cry much on the ride home, content to cuddle in my lap. Your big black paws were SO HUGE, they looked like oversized wheels on a truck… a Tonka truck, to be specific. And thus, your name was born. You were just about the easiest puppy we could have asked for (or perhaps my memory is getting the best of me?). But I do know that you only made one mess in the house while we trained you, and only chewed one pair of old shoes. I couldn’t resist letting you sleep in bed with me at night, and while I know that wouldn’t work for every dog, I still maintain that it was the best decision I made with you.
As you got a little bit older, your mischevious side came out… but only when I was gone! If you were alone in the house, I would always crate you for your own safety. But when I trusted other family members to keep an eye on you, you would rebel for having been left behind! You would steal Sarah’s stuffed animals, spreading their insides all across the house, like freshly fallen snow. Your favorite activity was raiding the kitchen cabinets, which I still cannot understand how you opened. Once, you destroyed a brand new loaf of bred… not to eat, just to play. Worse, you would carry the garbage outside and shred it all over the lawn! I can’t recall how many times I had to pick up bits of trash, but I couldn’t get too mad at you. You were just so happy to have me home! I would often return to find you worn out from your antics, sleeping peacefully with the last thing I had touched. Shoes, jeans, purses… you never destroyed my things! I think you just loved having the smell of me nearby when you slept, which you still do to this day! When you were neutered a few months later, your cone would not fit inside of your crate. I made the decision to leave you in my bedroom, out of your kennel. You expressed your displeasure, and broke your good record by chewing my Louis Vuitton scarf and favorite pair of black pumps!
It didn’t take you long to outgrow that stage, and before long, you were the best behaved dog. You went everywhere with me, and were the perfect traveling companion to horse shows, every weekend, all over the nation. Everyone that met you adored you, and they marveled at your array of tricks. The crowd favorite was when you would say ‘I love you!’ clear as a bell. Really, you spoiled me rotten. If only all dogs were as smart and as eager to please as you! You didn’t need much in the way of treats… attention from me was praise and reward enough. You quickly learned specific names of your many, many toys, and would bring to me the exact one I requested. If I dropped laundry going up the stairs, I could ask you to go back, pick it up, and bring it to me. You even learned to open the fridge and bring me juice boxes! You would entertain crowds with your butt scooting across the floor when I asked you to ‘back up’ and your teeny, tiny movements when I then requested that you ‘crawl’ to me. Such a ham… you love nothing more than attention and some ear rubs, or a good cuddle sesh.
I remember your second Christmas. “Santa” brought you a super-sized red tennis ball, which you opened yourself. When Trevor threw it for you, it redirected and was heading straight for our 8-foot Christmas tree! As you launched up in the air, eager as ever to make an impressive catch, it was almost like you found a way to stop mid-flight. You somehow redirected your mind and prevented yourself from launching into the tree and creating a Christmas disaster. After you landed, you gingerly rose up off of your back paws, and removed the ball from its perch amid the ornaments.
When I went on to college a short while later, it was only natural that you would go with me; we were inseparable. In the first four years of your life, I think you lived in 7 different places! For you though, all that mattered was that I was nearby. You learned the confines of the fraternity house we frequented, and would never leave the yard to cross onto the sidewalk to greet passersby. You would sit on the porch, waiting for the boys to come back from class for a game of chase or fetch. For such an active, giant (100 lb) dog, you were always thrilled to go hiking, running, exploring… and especially swimming. At the same time, if I was stressed or extra busy with school, you would keep yourself entertained and curl up as close to me as possible. You never complained if I got busy or was preoccupied… all you needed was me. Every night, you slept in bed with me, finding the perfect spot to curl up tightly against my body.
You were fiercely protective of my roommates and I, and we knew that no one would mess with the big black dog in apartment 633. As scary and intimidated and LOUD as your bark may be, we can only assume to this point that your bark is bigger than your bite… but somehow I know that if it came down to it, there is nothing you would not do for me. Much of our time was spent driving up and down the highways and turnpike, just the two of us, both to travel to horse shows, and to visit my family in VA or Western PA. Often, this occurred during early mornings and late nights.
I remember one such late-night trip, we stopped at a rest stop. As I walked you over to the grass, a man began walking up to us. Naive young girl that I
was am, I assumed that he was an innocent traveler, who perhaps needed directions. You, typically so friendly with strangers, wanted nothing to do with this man. The hair on your back raised 4 inches, and you lept out in front of me, between me and the man walking towards us. You ducked your head, kept your eyes directly fixed on his approach, and bared your teeth in a low growl. Your courage delivered with such menace, the man ran off, into the dark woods alongside the road. I will never know what his intentions were, but it is only because of you that I never will. You displayed your bravery yet again when a strange man came onto the farm where I was working for the summer. I was alone on the property, and he began imploring me to drive him to the nearest hospital. You came up behind him, and when he asked if you were aggressive, I told him that you were. He got in his truck and drove quickly down the lane. The police picked him up a few miles later for outstanding attempted theft charges. You don’t bark or growl often, so I know that when you do, you are delivering a powerful message.
What I haven’t spoken about, is how difficult my life was when you came into it. I lost my family to another state, hundreds of miles away. I had graduated high school early, and lost my friends to their senior year. I unexpectedly lost my horse Frosty, to another family, and simultaneously was giving up my ultimate passion, dream, and the hobby that defined me as a person. I moved to college early. I lost the security of a stable, family home at a young age, and learned to be more independent than many of my friends who were much older. I went through the eventual loss of a heartbreaking relationship of 6 years. I had become dependent on him as my source of security, and when he betrayed my trust, you were the one I turned to. Towards the end of the relationship, my phone calls were going unanswered… it got to the point where the sound of endless ringing from the earpiece of my cell phone, would send you instantly to my side, prepared to cuddle my tears away. For the first time, my life was uncertain, scary, and unpredictable. The people I depended upon were always leaving me. Through all of this, you were my one constant.
Some say that dogs cannot love, but I know with my whole heart that this isn’t true. I feel your love for me in all actions… the way you choose to be with me over all else. You lay beside the shower for me to finish, or sleep in the kitchen while I cook. You wait patiently yet eagerly at home, for my return from places you can only surmise through sniffs and smells. You roll around on the floor, silly antics just to make me smile. You burrow under the covers when I am sad, and lick away the tears that may fall. Your tail thumps to bring me reassurance. While the others run ahead on our walks, busily searching for adventure, you are the one who returns repeatedly to me, making sure I am alright and following your lead. You would rather sleep squished in bed
beside on top of me, than on your own Tempurpedic bed on the floor. It is in the way you embrace the people that I love, and the way you teach and considerately tolerate the behavior of your ‘sister’ Gaige. You patiently ask me to play, looking up at me with a big toy in your mouth. You implore me with questions, paw resting on my leg, and your eyes locked on mine, showing more depth & wisdom than most people I know. When we are driving down the road, you love to sit behind me with your head resting on my shoulder, a metaphorical reminder that you are, and always will be, my copilot.
Your love for me is true, unconditional and unambiguous. It is unparalleled in any of my other relationships. I make mistakes every day that remind me how undeserving I am of this pure love you offer so freely, but yet you give it anyway. There is a saying that goes “I wish the world could see me through the eyes of my dog.” If that were possible, I can only imagine the love and acceptance I would receive from the people around me. As crazy as it may sound to some, I truly believe that God sent you to me as an angel to protect me. Sometimes that protection was from others, and sometimes in my darkest moments, it was from myself. I cannot imagine life without you. You are the brightest part of every day, and my happiest memories.
I will never know for sure if the richness of your soul is something you were born with, or rather something that has been enhanced by your environment. Tonka, I may have taught you sit, down, stay… all the basics of being a good family dog. But the things you have taught me have vastly more depth and value. Thank you for making me a kinder, richer, fuller person. You taught me about loyalty, courage, acceptance, and happiness. All this, and you asked for nothing but my presence in return. I will never be able to repay you for that, but I plan to spend the rest of your days trying to come closer.