I received a big, brown envelope in the mail the other day.
Inside, there were dozens and dozens of small slips of paper, carefully printed messages from the students at Joseph Teres Elementary School in Transcona, which I visited in February for I Love to Read Month.
The school's kind teacher-librarian, Cathy Paul, had asked the kids to write down what, if anything, they liked about having me, a middle-aged newspaper columnist, read to them and tell them a bunch of goofy stories.
Every note made the same central point. "My favourite part was when he showed his dog pictures and told the stories," wrote Phoenix.
"My favourite part was when we got to look at the dog," explained Frederick. And Mason echoed that sentiment, writing: "My favourite part was when Doug showed us his puppies/dogs!"
The thing is, whenever I visit a school to talk to kids -- and I do that a lot -- I always go in armed with one thing: a giant cardboard poster of my main dog, Cooper, a long-eared, drooling basset hound with a brain the size of a cashew and an appetite that would make a great white shark green with envy.
We have two backup dogs -- a miniature wiener dog named Zoe, and Mr. X, a small white creature that I believe is a cross between a throw pillow and a cotton swab -- but somehow I always end up talking, and writing, about Cooper.
I generally start with the first column I wrote for this newspaper, in which I described, in grisly detail, how I shattered the bones in my left arm frantically chasing Cooper and the wiener dog after they escaped out the front door in a desperate bid to visit a woman and her three-legged dog who were standing at the end of our driveway.
Before detailing Cooper's capacity for evil, I typically show the audience the poster, a cute photo showing him standing in our kitchen, guarding the spot where I dropped a sandwich years ago, a spot to which he returned every day, praying that another sandwich would magically appear.
"Awww!" is how the audience members, whether senior citizens or kindergarteners, always react when they look at my sandbag-shaped buddy's bleary-eyed yet majestic face.
That's when I'd swing into the epic tale about how, several Christmases ago, while we were out shopping, Cooper stumbled on a 20-pound sack of flour in the kitchen, ripped it open and -- with some help from the wiener dog -- gobbled at least five pounds' worth, then gulped down his entire water dish, at which point he decided to roll in the rest of the flour to ensure he was evenly coated in a thick, white, dripping mass of glue, which he tracked throughout the house before finally falling asleep on the new leather sofa, which is where we found him, stuck like cement, looking like the Abominable Snowman.
Kids eat these stories up, but not long ago, when I'd finished talking, one little guy in Grade 5 thrust his hand in the air. He wanted to know how old Cooper was. "He's 13," I told him.
"Doug," the boy whispered, "when Cooper dies are you going to miss him a lot?"
The question sort of stopped me in my tracks. Now, sadly, I know exactly what to tell that little guy. Yes, I miss Cooper. I miss him more than words can say.
We lost him a few weeks ago. The truth is, it was just his time. He had an enlarged heart and water on the lungs, though until the very end, it was almost impossible to tell there was anything wrong with him.
We were fortunate in that we have known our vet, Dr. Jim, for at least 30 years and he was able to come to the house to do what had to be done, that final act of love that our pets count on us to perform when the pain becomes too much.
It's something Dr. Jim has done countless times in his career, but even he, a seasoned professional, became misty-eyed. There's no good time for this to happen, but I'm happy I was there to hold my best friend as he slowly slipped away.
I think it works like this: The naughtier the dog, the bigger their personality, the larger is the hole they leave behind.
And Cooper left a huge hole because -- and I am not exaggerating here -- if they gave gold medals for bad behaviour, he would have been the Olympic champion.
That's why he was such a hit with readers. Whereas I get the odd email, Cooper routinely got fan letters. "Doug, if it wouldn't be too much trouble, could you give Cooper a big hug for me because I love hearing about him so much," is what one gentle soul wrote in a letter I have saved for months.
In recent years, whenever I sat down to write some thoughtful column about current events, somehow, it always ended up being about Cooper. In 2007, for instance, I turned my column into an open letter to Cooper, a desperate bid to get an out-of-control basset to clean up his act.
In it, I lamented his refusal, after eating the remains of a dead squirrel, to throw up outside because we have a perfectly good carpet in the living room. I scolded him for climbing on the kitchen counter and using his Gene Simmons-like tongue to lathe the butter, spinning it round and round until there was nothing left but a thin, gooey spindle.
He was the kind of dog who never met a food he didn't like, even if, technically speaking, it wasn't food. He had the unique ability to open a fridge that had been sealed with a baby lock and, within seconds, could defeat the most high-tech of garbage containers.
A day after the open letter was published, I was deluged with emails from around the globe, sent in by fans impressed by a dog's ability to spread so much mayhem. One message was from Cooper himself, written by a dog psychologist who, for fun, took out an email account in my mutt's name.
The thing is, my buddy never meant to be bad. It just came naturally to him. Along with a huge appetite and overactive drool glands, he had a gentle soul. He routinely rammed his way through the rotten fence in the backyard because, with all his heart, he loved the neighbour's cat.
In 2010, he was hammered with arthritis and a ruptured disc and temporarily lost the use of his back legs. When he needed to go outside, we had to stagger along behind him using an old sheet or a towel as a sling to support his hindquarters while, powered only by his front paws, he dragged us like a (bad word) farm plow, slamming our bodies into every available tree trunk and overhanging branch as he motored along.
Miraculously, he regained the use of his back legs, but from that point he moved like a semi-trailer sliding on black ice, with his hindquarters frequently slipping around and catching up to his nose. Kind-hearted older readers, hearing of his plight, actually sent in their arthritis medications, along with notes urging Cooper to "get better soon."
Right until the end, my buddy was happy as a clam. He wasn't the sort to complain about anything. While paralyzed, he'd still knock over the garbage, barge into occupied bathrooms, and drag himself to the front door to check out new arrivals.
I'd sincerely like to thank all of you for taking this ill-mannered hound into your hearts. I'd say he's crossed the rainbow bridge and is running happily through a sunlit meadow in heaven, but I know that's not true.
Because this angel with floppy ears is way too busy breaking into the fridge.