He was the last dog in the last cage.
My roommate Peter had convinced me to come with him to the South LA pound. “Just to look.” The potential adoptees were jumping up and down, barking and pawing at the glass barriers. Except for one. Curled up in the far corner of the final kennel was a ball of fur. “Who’s that?” I asked.
It took two staffers to coax him out of the cage. He didn’t want to look up. He had a snout like a kangaroo and a head that was too big for his small body. He looked up at me with wide, fearful eyes as they brought him out. He didn’t want to run around or sniff things. He quivered with fear. When I went to pet him, he cowered like he’d been hit.
He’d been dumped at the pound twice. He’d never acted that way until he was returned the second time, a staffer explained. “He’s already had all his shots so you could take him today,” she said. I must have a thing for hard luck cases. I signed the papers. He was so scared that he couldn’t walk out of the pound. Peter had to carry his shaking body to the car.
On the ride home I sat next to him in the backseat, stroking his fur and talking to him while Peter and I discussed what to name him. “Paradise City” by Guns N’ Roses was playing on the radio, so we called him Axl. Later, I would joke that the two had other similarities: They were both redheads who liked to pee on things.
When we brought him home, Axl had an eye infection, kennel cough, and worms. He was 28 pounds. “I don’t want a dog that gets too big,” I had said at the pound. They told me he’d gain another 10 to 15 pounds. His giant paws suggested otherwise. He grew to nearly 80 pounds and was amazingly strong. Several times he yanked so hard on his leash—at the sight of a squirrel, a cat, another dog—he nearly dislocated my shoulder.
Axl had a double-coat of thick orange fur, spots on his tongue, a large, curled tail, and the most adorable underbite. For years I figured he was some sort of lab and chow mix. One day, Cris Dupont called me and said, “I know what your dog is! Dr. Phil has the same dog. Axl’s a jindo!” Jindos are a popular breed in Korea, where they are known for their willfulness, intelligence, and fierce loyalty to a single owner. That sounded like Axl.
For the first several years of his life, I was a freelancer and worked largely from home so Axl and I spent almost every day together. When I sat down at my desk to write, he’d plunk himself down behind my chair. When I went to the bathroom, he’d guard the bathroom door. When I’d go to the kitchen for a snack (how the typical writer spends approximately 72% of each workday), he’d perch himself under the table, his ears poking out as he waited for treats. I suspect his early abuse had made him wary of humans. When new people visited my pad, he’d growl and follow them around, making sure to place himself between them and me until they proved they could be trusted. Once he decided you were okay, he was eager for snuggles and scratches and affection.
For such a ferociously protective dog, he was remarkably affectionate. When I was sad and sobbing he would jump on my bed, lick my tears, and look at me as if to say, “Why so sad?” Or he would flop down with a heavy sigh and lay his head next to mine until I felt better. He loved to race back and forth between the living room and the bedroom, leaping onto the bed over and over again. At night he was my furry space-heater; he loved to curl up next to me.
If Axl was wary of humans, he loved his fellow canines. He NEVER barked first at other dogs. He stopped to sniff every dog he met and he wanted to play with them all. Well into his golden years, he had the energy of a dog half his age. Seeing how bouncy he was, people often asked his age. When I told them—10, 11, 12, 13—they were amazed. “He still seems like a puppy,” they’d marvel.
For 13 years Axl was with me nearly every day. Lolling about the house, going on walks, riding in the car (Axl adored car rides), running around Runyon Canyon, waiting for treats, snuggling with me.
A little over a week ago he had a seizure. He shrugged it off. So did I, terror in my heart. A couple days later he started refusing food. An MRI revealed a large, probably cancerous mass around his spleen. It was time.
Like most dogs Axl was a better person than most people. I am grateful that for 99% of his life he was healthy, happy, and active. That his life was full of walks, expeditions, affection, and delicious snacks. That he felt no pain as he passed away. That he was surrounded on his last day by people he knew and loved: Rob, Sean, Bjorn, Anthony. He was my true confidant and the sweetest soul I’ve known. I hope Axl knew how much he was loved. I hope he is in doggie Valhalla, a land where catapults fire tennis balls and Frisbees round the clock, where squirrels never mind being chased, where cars can be hailed with a bark and the windows are always rolled down, where steaks rain from the sky, and where the green lawn never ends.
Rest in peace.
Axl Rose Shatkin
2001 – 2014
The Best Dog Ever