So you’re one of those little dog people now, huh.

Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register.

That’s what my neighbors just have to be saying as I walk by with our new 12-pound dog cradled in my arms like a baby. She has a pink harness and matching pink leash that lights up and blinks, a purchase I made because she’s precariously hard to spot at night.

Until now, I have only owned big dogs. My last dog was a 75-lb greyhound, fawn-colored and fawn-sized. We had more than a few close encounters with curious deer who were probably wondering why one of their own was on a leash. She was tall enough to boss around our other big dog, a 75-lb lab mix. My partner and I are used to wrangling and loving our large animals.

But our new dog Koki looks like a child’s stuffed animal. She’s a miniature dachshund – I didn’t even know a mini version existed – and she’s longhaired too, so she waddled into our home like a walking mop head. Studying her tiny, furry legs, I had to learn how to discern when she was peeing, though it’s still really hard for me in the evening. And pooping – the process takes forever. It’s like she’s trying to squeeze the last bit of toothpaste from the top of the tube. 

Even her name is diminutive. Koki is short for “to kókkino,” which means “red” in Greek. It’s adorable and fitting for the ginger-colored fluffball, whose original owner is Greek and happens to be an exuberant, loud fellow. I can’t help but wonder if he’s why Koki appears quite deaf at times, or if it’s just because she’s 12 years old.

So yes. We now own a geriatric, half-deaf little dog with a heart condition. Oh, I haven’t told you yet that she has a heart condition. Yep. She has a severely enlarged heart and heart murmur, likely caused by dental plaque buildup (clean your pets’ teeth, folks!). Our vet discovered this and promptly put her on two medications, one that we have to cut so miniscule it could be a purse for a Polly Pocket – you know, those half-inch dolls who came with homes the size of makeup compacts.

Anyway, her heart condition is why I got the backpack. I feel compelled to tell this to people when I am wearing a dog. 

The vet advises against any exercise whatsoever, which means I carry Koki down the stairs and to her pee spot outside, the space not too close to our condo neighbors, lest they wonder why I’m standing alone by their window because they sure as hell can’t see my four-inch-tall dog. But her favorite poop spot is right in front of a ground floor patio; I’m just waiting for the day it takes her six minutes to squeeze something out while these people are eating breakfast on their porch.

Koki is blissfully unaware she has a heart condition. She leaps onto the couch, springs up like a prairie dog, and generates a gentle thunder as she scampers after my partner Adam. “Koki, calm down!” is our constant refrain. Her post-scamper cough is caused by her too-big heart working too hard against her little lungs.

The vet says Koki may have one year left, or up to four if we’re lucky. We’re her owners now because Adam’s mom needs full-time care. She was diagnosed with an atypical form of Alzheimer’s disease two years ago, and Adam’s stepdad – Koki’s original owner – worried he could no longer care for their three dogs too. So after Christmas this year, he drove the pets to live with other family members around the country. Making sure your dogs are placed with family, even if it means driving thousands of miles from the Midwest to the West Coast, is an incredible act of love. 

We don’t know how much time Adam’s mom, Nancy, has left. She was young for the diagnosis, hence the “atypical” label: Alzheimer’s is diagnosed in people ages 65 and older. She started showing signs of motor issues in her mid-50s, and was diagnosed at 58. She has lost most of her speech, often needs help eating, and requires constant supervision.

You never know how long anyone has left, of course – your friends, family, colleagues, pets. But when I watch Adam and his stepdad care for Nancy I see how exhausting and sad it is to care full-time for someone who’s markedly needy, who clearly has limited time. I also see that it’s an honor. Only mothers know what it’s like to grow life, to move someone into the world, but any of us could end up helping move someone out of it, providing the love and care they need near the end.

Koki is dealing with separation anxiety, but only when Adam leaves. I try not to be offended by this – like hey, I too scoop your poop – but I’m also not surprised. Adam dotes on Koki like he does his mom. He’s tender and kind with Nancy’s new challenges, and he’s adjusted to his role as a caregiver, as painful and premature as it may be. He says he would care for her full-time if he could, and I know he’s not just saying that. 

So the way he dotes on Koki – tending to her meds, frequent potty breaks, and special meals – well, that doesn’t surprise me either. 

But the way I’m starting to dote on her, well that does surprise me a bit. I’m the one who bought the backpack and wears Koki when we’re on a hike at the park – I mean, she deserves to enjoy the outdoors with us and our big dog, too, even if the vet’s orders prohibit her from exercising in it. My partner hasn’t been willing to don the dog just yet, but I know it’s just a matter of time. Just as I knew it was only a matter of time before I watched Koki spring up next to our bed in the morning, with her happy tail and eager little face, and thought: Ah, crap. I am a little dog person now.

Photo of me and Koki by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register

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