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Christina Merten is a wildlife rehabilitation technician at the Wildlife Center of the North Coast in Astoria, Oregon. Here, she recounts the story of her “once-in-a-lifetime dog”, Jay the Papillon.

A chance encounter with an old, sick, smelly dog turned out to be an unexpected gift. I was on my way to work as a vet tech one cold fall morning in 2007 when I swerved to miss a black and white animal that had dashed in front of my car. At first, I thought it was a skunk, but then I saw a pair of beady eyes staring back at me from a ditch. The creature was a Papillon.

He was an absolute mess — skinny, muddy, incontinent, and covered in fleas and mats. At the clinic where I worked, in Lacey, Washington, we scanned him for a microchip, which he had. The chip tracked him to a veterinary facility near Seattle. They hadn’t seen him for over five years, but they were able to tell me he was nine years old and his name was Jay.

Some more detective work led to an owner who denied knowing him and hung up on me. An exam showed he had skin, urinary, and digestive issues, and heart ailments. Bloodwork revealed a list of problems. One shelter said he was too sickly and old to be adopted out. Euthanasia seemed to be the kindest thing to do.

Nobody wanted the “gross little old dog.” But even though I was a self-described “big-dog person,” for some reason I had fallen for this strange little guy. So, Jay came to live with me for a retirement that I expected would last just a few months.

Instead of quietly fading away, he surprised us all and thrived for six more years. During that time, Jay went from being a sad, sickly creature without a home to a well-loved pet and public figure with fans around the world.
But first, he needed a big makeover. His teeth were severely decayed, and all but nine had to be pulled. As a result, his tongue would hang out of his mouth at all times. He could only give “dry kisses,” because his tongue was never moist.

There was surgery to repair an old leg injury, and then one thing after another. His medical chart would eventually weigh more than he did, and I had a whole drawer full of medications that he took every day.

The Rhythm of Life

None of that stopped Jay from blossoming into a happy little dog who became my constant senior sidekick. He came to work with me and went on all my vacations, traveling the West Coast from San Diego to Canada. It was easy to take him because he was so small and loved to be anywhere I was.

For me, he was the soul of one of the truest lines ever written, by dog-loving novelist Edith Wharton. She wrote a poem in the 1920s that strikes a chord for those of us who have ever shared our lives with one of these wonderful creatures.

My little old dog:
A heart-beat
At my feet.

Jay helped me through some of the hardest times of my life. He was by my side on the horrible night I took my Dad to the ER, thinking he had the flu, only to find out it was advanced cancer. The little Papillon accompanied us to all his doctor appointments and chemotherapy and radiation treatments. In the last few weeks of Dad’s life, the nurses let me sneak Jay into the hospital room wrapped in a blanket. He was such a quiet comfort to us both, and I’m so grateful he was beside me for such a difficult goodbye.

He was also there when I lost my first dog, Kasey, a Labrador Retriever mix, when it was her time to leave this world. Jay adored Kasey, and Kasey, who usually did not like other dogs, took it upon herself to be Jay’s bodyguard. Then later, when we rescued Sadie, a terrified feral injured stray, Jay helped show her what it was like to finally be loved.

He’s A Keeper

In a bizarre way, Jay helped me make one of the most important decisions of my life. I was about to leave on a first date when one of Jay’s frequent inflammatory bowel disease “blowouts” delayed my departure. Luckily, Greg, my date, was patient and not easily grossed out. I explained in great detail over dinner exactly why I was late.

On our second date, Greg brought me roses … and carpet cleaner. We’ve been married nine years now and still laugh about it!

My tiny Papillon had a huge personality, so we set up a Facebook page for him. Pictures I took of his funny face, with his long tongue hanging out, were suddenly all over. Jay popped up on Papillon-lovers sites and in such listicles as “Are these the funniest photos on the Internet?” and “23 Hilariously Derpy Animals.” He won a Valentine’s Day contest, posing with a rose. His photos still pop up all over on random websites, blogs, calendars, and even cards. A portrait of him wrapped in a towel became a perennial favorite. Most recently, Jay appeared on a slide at a veterinary medical conference.

In August 2013, the health issues finally caught up with Jay, and he passed away in my arms at home. I miss his “speeches,” his quiet snoring next to me each night, his pompous little attitude, the way his small dome head fit perfectly under my chin when he snuggled, and his weird dry-tongue kisses.

I swear I still hear Jay’s bossy little bark some days and hear his little Papillon paws walking behind me at times. He was a once-in-a-lifetime dog, and I’m so grateful he found me.

This column first appeared in the September/October 2019 issue of AKC Family Dog magazine.
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