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The cartoon above by Pearls Before Swine creator Stephan Pastis ran in newspapers a few months ago, and instantly struck a chord with many folks who have loved and lost an animal who was more a member of the family than just a pet.

I’m sharing the cartoon today because my family recently said goodbye to Keiko, our English Shepherd mix who provided us with so much joy, affection and wet-nosed kisses over 14 years. Keiko was a constant in our lives through job changes, a move across town, heart-breaks and triumphs, and more than a dozen brutally hot Midwestern summers. During her lifetime, Keiko endured two pet cats, her humans’ hectic work schedules, and various yapping little dogs in the neighboring yards. Meanwhile, we tolerated bare patches in the backyard, the constant shedding of dog hair around the house, and the occasional “gift” in the corner of the basement when Keiko couldn’t quite make it outside in time.

Like Edee in Pearls Before Swine, Keiko was a gentle, nurturing dog that neighborhood kids often approached for a quick scratch behind the ears. In more than nine years, she never once growled or snapped at our son, despite the tugging, pulling, and errant karate kicks little boys sometimes inflict on pets. In fact, Keiko was very protective of our child. From the time we brought a three-day old infant home from the hospital, Keiko would bark and growl at any stranger who approached our doorstep, perhaps knowing how much this little baby meant to us. In a way, he was her baby, too.

For me, Keiko was an enthusiastic walking companion, even on days when the thermostat dipped into the teens or soared above 90. For my wife, Keiko was a tricolored shadow, following her from room to room, especially the warm bathroom on cold winter mornings, or the kitchen, where there was usually a pretzel cracker to enjoy.

Like the beloved pooch memorialized in Stephan’s cartoon, Keiko had cancer, and we had to put her to sleep. The staff at the veterinarian’s office were almost as heartbroken as we were. A few days later, they sent us a sympathy card with an image of a dog bounding across the Rainbow Bridge. Fourteen-year-old dogs affect a lot of human lives.

Does a Rainbow Bridge exist? I’d like to think it does. It would be nice seeing Keiko again. The house seems emptier now. Walking the neighborhood sidewalks without holding her lease feels strange. Even our son, who complained of having to let Keiko out several times a day to go pee in her later years, claims that he misses her. I even miss–at least a little bit–vacuuming the downstairs and pulling up gobs of black and white Keiko-hair from the medium-pile carpet.

Our hearts are a little broken right now, and it could be a while before we welcome a new animal into our family. There’ll be no replacing our soft, sweet companion of more than 14 years.

Rest in peace, Keiko.

Keiko, in her younger years.

Cooling off with a friend.