Today, November 14, 2021, would have been my dog Sheeba’s 17th birthday but, unfortunately, she left us just over a year-and-a-half ago, on May 1, 2020.
One of the sad truths about pets — besides that they do not live as long — is that we always know the exact date they died, but rarely know the exact date they were born, unless we get them from a breeder.
Which you should never, ever do, by the way. There are plenty of loving, healthy dogs available in shelters and rescues, and they also have the advantage of not being as potentially inbred as an expensive designer dog might be.
But whenever I adopt a dog, one of the first things I do is pick their birthday. I know that some people like to make it the anniversary of the adoption day — and even call it their adoptiversary — but I’d rather give each of my dogs one special day out of the year that I can also use to keep track of their age.
My first two dogs both happened to be born around middle to late August, so they both got August 23 as a birthday, although they were born fifteen years apart and never actually met. I picked the 23rd because that day is associated with Sirius, the Dog Star.
Sheeba was a little trickier because her birthday fell in late fall, probably some time in November. So, since I had two friends with birthdays on October and December 14, I decided to put Sheeba right between them, and November 14 became her birthday.
I always celebrated my dogs’ birthdays with them although, obviously, it’s a lot easier to do it in a one dog household. For the just over nine years that I had both Sheeba and her older sister Shadow, they both celebrated each of their birthdays the same way.
Sure, neither of them ever had any idea what the hell was going on, but because of how I celebrated, they didn’t really mind. Depending on how much money I was making, they would each get either their own steak (well, generally, part of a London Broil) in good times, and their own miniature cheeseburger in tougher times.
I’d serve this on one of my real plates and sometimes even let them sit at the table to eat — although that can be a bad idea if, like Shadow did, your dog thinks this means that they can sit at the table all the time. That’s part of why including things like singing happy birthday and doing other little rituals are so important. It lets them know that there’s something different about today.
There would also always be presents — usually squeaky toys for Shadow and chewy things for Sheeba, plus a bag of their favorite treats. I’d loosely wrap these in newspaper to make it easy for the dogs to open them. And, yet again, I had to untrain Shadow once the first Christmas after her birthday rolled around, and she proceeded to unwrap all the human presents stacked in the corner.
The festivities would end with a dog safe “cake” consisting of a muffin they could actually safely eat, quite often with numbered birthday candles on top. Yes, they were clearly totally baffled by the idea that their food was on fire, but I’d handle blowing the candles out and they would scarf down their treats.
Of course, I never had any illusions that I was doing the dog birthday parties for anyone but me, but I could tell that it made them happy because, special food, even if they had no idea why it was happening.
That’s something you learn as a pet parent, though. Their happiness is your happiness whether it’s them greeting you with full-body wiggling excitement when you come home or flipping out in joy when it’s time for walkies or a ride in the car.
One other moment of insta-joy that I shared with my dogs from time to time also involved a cheeseburger, although in this case it was one that Daddy made with eyes bigger than his stomach, and when that happened and there was a third of it I just couldn’t eat because the whole thing was like three quarters of a pound to begin with, then the dogs would get the remainder, cut up into tiny bits.
The funniest thing was this, though: They could just tell when I hadn’t finished the whole thing, even if I left it on my plate for ten or fifteen minutes but pushed to the back of the plate in the middle of my desk where they couldn’t even see it.
Sheeba became particularly adept at this one. As soon as I’d stand up and grab the dish, she was leading me backwards into the kitchen, tail wagging furiously in anticipation — but she only ever did it when there was something leftover on that plate for her. Otherwise, nary a glimmer of excitement.
I really don’t know how they did it; whether the remains of the burger really had enough of a different, stronger smell that they could estimate the amount, or whether it was some body language I was giving off that told them, “Damn, why did I try to eat all of that?
All of that is just part of the wonderful mysteries of dogs, and for the nearly fifteen years that she was a part of my life, Sheeba in particular was the Queen of Wonderful Mysteries. She just has a way about her, and the ability to figure out and understand things that a dog never should have been capable of.
Which is a big part of why I miss her so much — especially today, but every day since she left me.