Henry came home on February 28, 2005. At 10 weeks old, he weighed 10 pounds. He was blonde, a bit clumsy, and the cutest living being that I had ever seen. He was my heart dog from the start. We were instantly a pack of two.
I had readied for puppy Henry’s arrival for weeks. Mostly, I just mentally prepared for him to chew the corners of my couch and the legs of my coffee table. I assumed I’d have to toss out the area rugs after the trials of potty training. Funnily enough, Henry never chewed up anything, and he was housebroken in four days.
I also bought all the training books, researched dog foods, and assembled a crate right next to my bed. I installed car seat covers, stocked my shower with Paul Mitchell puppy shampoo, and dressed him in his first San Francisco Giants collar. And of course, I bought a very nice camera to document it all.
In a lot of ways, Henry was a typical golden retriever. Sure, he liked other dogs, but he loved people most. When Henry was a puppy, a walk downtown was like being the agent for a rockstar. He basked in all of the attention and was always happy to pose with his adoring new friends. I remember one very proud doggy mama moment when a stranger said, “Henry isn’t just cute—he’s Disney cute.” My blonde bombshell (as my friends called him) never wanted for affection.
Mr. Snuggler, Swimmer, and…Model?
At home, Henry cared for his very own harem of stuffed animals (his babies). Henry had a strange love for aquatic-themed babes—his favorites were his stuffed Nemo, a blue dolphin, and a purple whale he carried around the house with pride. He never destroyed a single toy—he just gathered them in his bed and snuggled with them every night. When friends would come over, he always greeted them at the door with an offering.
Among his many party tricks was Henry’s willingness to do anything I asked. At Christmas time, he always wore a Santa suit at my holiday party, and then again for endless pictures delivering gifts to my dog-walking clients.
Always smiling and emoting, Henry developed an enthusiastic following on Facebook. He allowed me to dress him as a banana, a Giants player, in bow ties, and antlers. He would even rock sunglasses for photo sessions.
Henry trusted me implicitly. I would cuddle with him every night before he went to bed, and I always said the same thing: “Henry, whatever you need—I will do for you. I promise.”
Like me, Henry loved the tennis court. I like to hit, and he loved to fetch. Henry could sniff out a tennis ball from 200 feet away. Or sometimes he would take the lazy way out and just go right up to the edge of the tennis court and let his Disney cuteness do the talking.
Henry would politely and silently sit down and watch the players until finally they could take no more and would toss a ball over the fence to him. With just one nudge or paw push, you could see the ball come to life for Henry. And once he rescued his animated little green ball friend, he made it his duty to bring it all the way home.
At work, in a group of 12 other dogs, Henry was by far the most dedicated to his retrieving duties. It was as if the ball was his personal responsibility and he would leave no man behind. Until all tennis balls had been returned to base, we were not leaving. It wasn’t defiance; it was just unequivocal devotion.
I tried to teach Henry to swim as a puppy. I had taught kids to swim for 3 years, and I wondered how hard it could possibly be to teach a dog who is literally built to swim.
Henry, while coordinated in other tasks, was a pathetically endearing swimmer. He spent his time in the water hitting himself in the face with his front paws and often swallowing most of the water around him. But he loved it and went back in over and over again.
I was always standing on the edge, ready to rescue him, my cell phone and keys out of my pockets. Finally, when Henry was six, after all of my failed swim lessons, I gave up and just bought him a life vest.
People would often laugh and say, “Wait, is that a golden retriever… in a life jacket?” Back off, buster—that’s my dog you’re talking about.
From Near Death to TV Star
Henry never wore a watch, but I swear he could tell time.
Henry had bloat, a serious stomach emergency when he was three. After surgery, the vet suggested I soak his food for 5-10 minutes before every meal. At first, he was very distraught as he watched me drown his dinner in hot water. But after a few weeks, he accepted it and would wait patiently until the five-minute mark (I actually timed it), then he was done. He would begin his distress performance that included 360-degree spins, grumbles and whines. I admit it: I usually waited six minutes, just to see his adorable tantrum.
Henry made his national television debut on Bloomberg West just a few months ago. The CEO for Rover.com was being interviewed live, and the team invited Henry along to be the furry sidekick.
My lucky dog had over a minute of national screen time. And he loved every second of it: He looked right into the camera and strutted around in his Rover bandana like a pro.
Pretty Close to Perfect
Henry was terrified of dog doors, dishwasher doors, and open staircases. He loved cats, licking them from head to toe when given the chance. Henry ate spaghetti noodles like Lady and the Tramp—never biting the noodle, just slowly swallowing it. By the time he was eight, his front teeth were almost gone from years of unrelenting tennis ball search and rescue. And if I had a nickel for every unbelievable pose of Henry with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background….
Henry wasn’t perfect, although I think pretty darn close. He snored sometimes—loudly. He communicated mostly everything in soft grunts, pants, and little whines. He had terrible breath and refused to brush. He was far more interested in eating the toothpaste than actually letting me brush him. I once sold a desk on Craigslist and left an envelope of $300 cash on my bed, which Henry inexplicably and uncharacteristically ripped to shreds. I was taping together dollar bills for hours.
It is an understatement to say that I was lucky to have Henry by my side—at home and work—for 10 years. It was an unwavering bond.
He escorted me to and from my car every day in the big city and even barked protectively on rare occasions when he thought someone or something was a threat to me. He was the mascot, model, and Mr. Manners example for my dog-walking business. He kept me company when I was house sitting, sat shotgun on road trips or, in some cases, in the lap of my victim backseat passengers. What do you mean I’m not a lap dog?
I lost Henry on April 13, 2015, at 4:05 p.m. to a very fast-spreading cancer. My bear was just over 10 years old. True to form, Henry protected me until the end. He barely let on that he was sick even though his diagnosis made the course of action painfully clear.
There was no hope or stress of a possible Hail Mary to make him better. I was powerless to help him, and while I was suffering with the inevitable decision that I had dreaded for 10 years, Henry never looked away or stopped licking me on that dark day.
He did his best to comfort me and I think, wanted to protect me from his pain until the end.
He left this world in my arms and I can only hope he passed feeling safe and loved.
In the days after Henry died, I was overwhelmed with the heartfelt phone calls, texts, cards, Facebook messages, and hugs from family, friends, co-workers, and clients. Even friends who were self proclaimed “non-dog people” reached out and said how much they had liked Henry.
I leaned heavily on my circle and even connected with new people who had been through it and understood the sadness. A month later, I am still catching up on responding to all the gestures of support. I couldn’t believe how much people cared and took the time to reach out. A dear friend even gave me a necklace with a “H” charm and an angel wing to wear everyday. It’s perfect. Another friend mailed me cards she designed using her own collection of Henry pictures to say how sorry she felt. Wow.
It occurred to me recently that as sad as I am about losing him, it is once again Henry that is bringing all of this love and bonding into my life.
I cried when I deleted the monthly reminder in my phone to give Henry his flea medication. I removed his name from my daily dog-walking schedule.
I put away the lint roller by the front door and put the flashlight and nighttime walk slippers back in the closet.
Slowly, but surely, I am accepting what has happened and just coping as best I can with my new normal.
I take solace in knowing that his too short time here was happy. I never treated him as anything less than dear family. That and the 458 videos I have on my laptop bring me some comfort.
Grieving with Gratitude
Will I get another dog? I am sure that I will, someday. I know that Henry would want me to have a new protector by my side. But it’s not a process I can rush. Henry left very large pawprints to fill.
In the meantime, I will make a photo book, talk about him, and write tributes like this one. Next, I plan to take time to travel and experience my new untethered existence as long as I can stand it.
Henry was my heart dog. When people say that he won the jackpot by being my dog, I just laugh. Did you not see the pictures of Henry sitting loyally by my side for 10 years? No, I was the one who won the jackpot with Henry. As the sign reads in my hallway above his picture, “You had me at Woof.”
From the bottom of my heart: Thank you, Henry, for everything you brought into my life. I promise to take good care of your Nemo, just as you always took care of us.
Today and everyday, I celebrate you, Booba.
Dedicated to my heart dog Henry Stephens
December 29, 2004–April 13, 2015