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Remembering our best buddy, Mr. Sam

We lost one of the great all-time dogs yesterday, our 16-year-old love sponge Sammy, aka Mr. Sam-Sam (properly annunciated five octaves above your normal speaking voice). It hit home this afternoon when I walked across a remarkably dry kitchen floor that for the past seven years has been blissfully covered with the contents of Mr. Sam's water bowl. You could attend Iron Maiden concerts quieter than Sammy taking a drink with his water cannon of a tongue.

Long story short: we adopted Sam in 2007 when he was nine years old. We (by which I mean my partner Julie) were looking for an older dog to serve as a companion to our then-12-year-old chocolate Lab, Molly. Julie liked to peruse rescue group websites and email me pics of potential adoptees. The emails began as things that would occasionally show up in my email box and over time grew to outnumber requests from Isaac in Africa for my checking account number.

Sammy's origin story: his original owner had apparently gone into a nursing home and the family dropped Sammy off at a city of Los Angeles pound in San Pedro. Those reading this locally know that the phrases "city of L.A. pound" and/or "San Pedro" are generally synonymous with the phrase "super shitty things to always be avoided." Here's his original notice (later updated) on the Fetching Companions website: 

I was resistant. We had busy jobs. We weren't home during the day. Walking two big dogs seemed a chore. Blah blah blah blah. Nonetheless, in a domestic peacekeeping move, I reluctantly agreed we could visit Sammy at his foster home and then perhaps have a burrito and Family Discussion about adopting him. At this point, I was still under the gravely mistaken impression that I had any say whatsoever in the matter.

On a sunny May Saturday, Julie and I trundled over to Venice -- one of L.A.'s funkier neighborhoods -- and found that Sam was being fostered by two extremely nice hippy-dog-loving-Westside-stoners living in their small Stoner Bungalow. If you live in SoCal, you know exactly what I'm talking about. They struck me as the type of couple who were still a little sad that they had missed Woodstock.

The couple were, in fact, hosting a small herd of Labrador retrievers in what appeared to be semi-controlled bedlam. As we sat in the weedy backyard pretending to have something in common with the Stoner Couple, Sammy deposited himself next to my chair and proceeded to spend the better part of 30 minutes leaning against me (below). If he could talk, I'm pretty sure he would have said, "I would greatly appreciate it if you could get me the fuck out of here."

Shortly thereafter, the checkbook emerged and Sam was in the back of the Subaru bound for the quieter, more sedate 91106 (i.e. Pasadena), where the majority of populous was probably already well into their 50s when Woodstock finally rolled around. Sammy fit right in.

He was a pretty quiet fellow those first few weeks. Molly was the dog with the strong personality, Sammy was the roly-poly follower (he lost 20 pounds in time; I did too and put mine back on). In fact, that was his big activity -- following us from room to room and watch with utter fascination and great approval at whatever mundane thing we were doing. If I was clipping my toe nails, for example, he would watch, completely certain that I was the Rembrandt of toenail clipping.

True. And I greatly approved of this line of thinking.

In time, his personality emerged. Sammy was no dummy. He was an eminently peaceful dude and, once comfortable, grew to enjoy his walks, sniffs and meals -- or being stuffed into a doggy poncho (above). One of his favorite activities would be visiting the local Peets coffee with us on Saturday mornings and wandering from table to table, coaxing hellos and pastries from unsuspecting patrons. He became a beg-monster. He knew the sound of a variety of food wrappers, in particular the plastic bags that accompany Costco roasted chickens. 

In 2009, a year after Molly had passed, Sammy accepted another rescue dog into our home, the rascally chocolate lab Teddy. Teddy was quite the opposite in many ways and yet the two often whiled away the days huddled side-by-side. As far as we know, Teddy's original trailer-trash owner had gone to jail, thereby landing Teddy in the pound. We're pretty sure Teddy regaled Sammy with many a tall tale about life on the street, tales we richly imagined Sammy innocently passing on to us. "Teddy sold a dime bag to Bigfoot once..." And so on.

And Sammy wasn't quite the pushover he seemed to be. Walking by the home of two jerk-off dogs who live down the street, Sam got into a fight, complete with a nose scrape that he wore as a badge of honor. Although never a dog who barked, Sammy surprised everyone when at a lake beach in Oregon last summer he suddenly broke out in a barking fit at a sailboat that he was convinced had abducted Julie (in fact, a different boat had abducted her). It was the kind of bark that would make a burglar think twice.

Sammy's back legs were never good. Shortly after we got him, a vet x-rayed the legs and found a wire running up one of them. We never knew why. We never found out much about his earlier life, never even saw a photo of him as a puppy, never really knew how much of the world he saw beyond his home in San Pedro.

And, yet, Sammy had no real interest in simply growing old. We hauled him (as with our other dogs) all over the Sierra and parts of the West and Sammy liked the travel. A few years ago, we stopped to fish the West Carson River near Tahoe and Sam decided to jump in -- we had never seen him swim before. He did a few strokes downstream and hopped out. Soon he was swimming in Horseshoe Lake in Mammoth or any place we took him and our kayak. We have no idea if he had ever swum before. If not, he had taught himself by watching our other dogs. Impressive.

As he shed a few pounds, he even managed to accompany us on short hikes, bad legs and all (in Rock Creek Canyon, above). Eventually, as with all dogs, that wound down -- but late in life, Sammy got a taste of the outdoors. We took him camping last year at Kings Canyon and he had a perfectly happy Memorial Day weekend just hanging in our campsite and cuddling in the tent. And he had a great time hanging with us in Bend last summer, napping in Drake Park and watching the world go by.

The past year has been quieter as Sammy wound down his life as dogs will do. Still, we spent many a fine day and night with Sammy at our side, even if it was just watching Jon Stewart or the turtles at Caltech. He always did his breakfast and dinner dance, he always ran to the door when he heard a motorcycle, signaling the possible approach of our friend Cathy, who ran a dog walking service.

We lost Teddy last year, and in April, in perhaps Sammy's ultimate act of grace and love, he accepted a three-year-old pit bull rescue in desperate need of a home into our home.

Even though he was no longer the only dog in the home, and thus no longer the sole center of attention, he remained the same lovable, happy, smiling pup as always. He passed quickly and peacefully on Monday afternoon, seven years gone by too fast and too lovely to properly contemplate or absorb. We miss you Sammy and thank you for everything.


Steve, Julie and Blue and, from doggy heaven, Molly and Teddy

P.S. And now the sermon. If you are thinking of getting a dog, please consider adopting a rescue dog.They're not for everyone and they will likely require some work and/or money. But while the puppy mills continue to pop out full-breed dogs, there are far too many good dogs who have found themselves in pounds -- even the nice ones are dens of awfulness -- through no fault of their own. This is one of those awful, persistent, societal problems that is best dealt with by individual dog lovers such as you. And there's this: the dog you rescue may be the one who rescues you :)

And now some more photos:

Shortly after adopting Sam, he pooped in the house and decided to retreat to a safe place -- this chair in the den. By the time we tracked him down, the guilt had apparently subsided.

Sam and I, both in our fat boy phases back in '07. 

We took Sam camping at Shaver Lake in the Sierra shortly after getting him. He wasn't too thrilled with the water at the time, so we put him in this very seaworthy vessel of ours purchased for $25 or so at the five-and-dime. The photo is priceless. 

Staredown! On Reds Meadows Road near Mammoth.

We still can't believe Sam didn't take a dump on the warning track. Not sure the Bonds sign is still there.

Sam and Julie sharing a laugh at Lacey Park, almost certainly at my expense.

Bernal Heights in San Francisco.

It's not your imagination: their poses are the same.  

Sam and Teddy practicing their dance moves at Horseshoe Lake in Mammoth. 

Sam always took particular joy in deftly crossing and recrossing the little bridges in Snowcreek Meadows in Mammoth. 

Sam always enjoyed a contemplative sit at Crissy Field even if facing the wrong way to properly contemplate.  

Playing with my new wide-angle lens at Arroyo Burro dog beach in Santa Barbara. 

Yet another losing attempt to coax a poop from Sam on the way home from Mammoth. 

Hero pose between swims at Wrights Lake in late August last year. 

Sam didn't understand the concept of kayaking; he always thought one of us was being kidnapped. Upon return, he almost always would swim out to ensure we were okay. 

Christmas Day last year in Pasadena when winter is still fall. 

Working on my portraiture skills in Victory Park earlier this year. We had a creative dispute about his need to smile. He won. 

And at Caltech this spring. Pic says it all.