I woke up last Saturday, with my dog’s hot, heavy breathing in my face - often the way I wake up on weekend mornings when I’ve overslept.

My kids are to the age now where, when they wake up on the weekends, they stumble into the living room, turn on the TV and entertain themselves. My husband, an early riser, made pancakes for everyone that day, including our two boxers, while I slept in.

But around 9 a.m., I woke to my oversize, 85-pound boxer breathing his pancake breath in my face. He rested his droopy jowls on the corner of my bed, quietly seeking permission to jump onto the bed.

“Come on up, Dozier,” I replied, patting the bed beside me.

He knew what that meant. It’s our routine. Sometimes, if it’s too early and I go back to sleep, he’ll curl up next to my back and take a nap, too. But that morning, he crawled on top of me, pinning me, his elbow pinching my sternum, his snout trying to make its way under my right hand and his tail wagging. He wanted to be petted.

There’s something I’ve learned in the last four years of having boxers - they are needy dogs. Not in the whining, annoying way, but in the constantly by your side, “I’m your shadow,” “Let me crawl in your lap and be a lapdog even though I’m too big” kind of way. The dogs have huge hearts. They are devoted, known for their clownish antics, and they love BIG.

When my youngest child was an infant and I’d get up multiple times a night, Dozier would saunter down the hall with me in the early morning hours, watch me grab a bottle from the refrigerator or watch me change a diaper, then saunter back with me to the bedroom to go back to sleep. He didn’t have to, but he wanted to be nearby. As we read the kids a bedtime book each night, Dozier was always there, too, lying by the bed, seemingly listening to the story. Sometimes he wanted a little more attention, and would stick his lug of a head between me and the book, almost to say, “Hey! Let me see the pictures, too!”

When the kids would go to school in the morning and the house was suddenly quiet, he’d sadly retreat back to the kids’ room, where I’d find him snoozing on the carpet or sometimes hidden amongst my son’s stuffed animals on the bottom bunk of the bunk bed. And when we took down our youngest daughter’s crib and converted it to a toddler bed, our daughter eagerly climbed in for her first night in the “big girl” bed. Dozier hopped up too, lying down beside her. I guess he thought it was a new dog bed.

There were times, when all the attention was a bit annoying. Trying to go to the bathroom in private is hard enough when you have young children. But with a very attentive dog, it’s just as bad. Whenever Dozier caught one of us on the toilet, he’d stick his head around the corner, sit next to us and stare, sometimes resting his chin on a knee. With his nub of a tail wagging, he was waiting to be petted. Captive audience, I guess.

When I’d blow dry my hair, he’d watch from afar, unless it was cold out. Then he’d nudge up next to me in the bathroom, waiting for me to blow his back with the blow dryer, too.

And time on the couch was never meant just for humans. There is a permanent indentation on our sofa cushion where Dozier - who I call “Dozie” or “Doze” - has spent at least half his life watching out the window, seemingly serving as guard dog watching the outside world. We recently came home with a windowpane missing and our two boxers’ snouts happily sticking through the open gap. Apparently, UPS delivered a box and a certain someone got a little too excited at the window.

Last Saturday, after a pancake breakfast and a quiet day at home, Dozier wrestled with our boxer puppy Maggie, as they always do, and I decided to take them to the dog park. We had taken Maggie before, but not Dozier. We’ve always been a little cautious about him, as he wasn’t always certain he loved strangers, whether it was humans or other dogs. But my 9-year-old daughter and I decided to try it out.

And as we pulled up to the dog park, packed with other canines and their owners, our puppy bounded out of the car and excitedly toward the gate. She knew what awaited. Dozier was right behind her, his nub of tail wagging so hard that his entire rear end shook. We took Maggie off the leash while we led Dozier around the park, greeting the other dogs, excitedly sniffing and playing. Maggie would run off with other dogs, then run back to Dozier, who stayed close by us. Then she’d run off to play, and come back to him a couple minutes later, seemingly just to check in.

I took Dozier to a more secluded area of the dog park where he could run, leash free. And the moment I unhooked his leash, he relished in his new-found freedom. He happily trotted, smelling the new scents, stepping in mud and marking territory where he could. At one point, after greeting other dogs through a chain-link fence, he realized he had gotten farther away from me than he liked. I said, “Come on, Doze.” He stuck his tongue out and ran, happily, seemingly smiling, his jowls flapping as he paced down the sidewalk.

It was such a good day. Until it wasn’t.

My Doze collapsed suddenly on that sidewalk, in what we thought was a seizure. I rubbed his chest, which had shallow breaths, and held up his head, which slacked to the side. His eyes were closed. My 9-year-old held on to him while I ran to get the car so we could take him to the vet, only by the time I got back, he was gone. Our sweet Dozier died in her arms.

My daughter cried. I wailed, crouched over his body, trying to give “mouth-to-snout” CPR. Only it was too late. Dozier loved big. He had a huge heart - and in the end, his heart just couldn’t keep up.

We are left heartbroken. I miss my wagging shadow.
Lydia Seabol Avant writes The Mom Stop for The Tuscaloosa News in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Reach her at lydia.seabolavant@tuscaloosanews.com.