CHICAGO — Stella the dog grew up on the North Side, the land of dog parks, dog beaches and doggie spas. And she loved it.
Those were the good ol’ days she spent chasing tennis balls with her wacky puppy pals at Hamlin Park and taking long swims back and forth along the shoreline at Montrose Beach.
Sadly, there was much less of that after we moved to the South Side, where dogs get short shrift when it comes to places to play with their kind.
Just three of the Chicago Park District’s 18 dog parks are on the South Side — and not one of them is south of 15th Street. And all three Park District dog beaches are north of Belmont.
That's why this summer’s getaway to Streeterville was as much for my sweet 9-year-old black Labrador as it was for me.
In fact, I rented a place at 500 N. Lake Shore Drive because it just might be the most dog-friendly building in Chicago.
The luxury high-rise is packed with dogs of almost every breed — from bulldogs and mastiffs to pedigree poodles and those yappy mutts that fit inside a purse — and doesn’t skimp on doggie amenities.
Stella especially enjoyed all the sniffing that goes on during elevator rides crowded with fellow canines.
The high-rise includes its own “Dog City” — a hub of canine pampering where your dog can get a bath, fancy hairdo and pedicure. When life gets busy, you can order up an in-house dog sitter or a friendly dog walker.
And there are plenty of other dogcentric amenities in the neighborhood, including free, scented poop bags at the dog run across the street, which is the kind of extravagance that forgetful dog owners like me really appreciate. And after work, the nearby park gets packed as high-rise dog owners let their pooches stretch their legs and mingle.
It seemed like the perfect place for what I planned to be the "Summer of Stella" — a trip to parts of Chicago where dogs are people, too — before my little buddy got too old to enjoy frolicking with puppies and swimming in the lake.
We’d hit every dog beach, I told Stella, take walks on dog-friendly Navy Pier and frequent as many dog-friendly patios and dog parks as possible. And I'd write about all the good times we’d have in the more dog-welcoming parts of the city to shed a light on the inequities South Side dogs like her face every day.
But we never got the chance.
On our first Sunday afternoon together at the high-rise, I came home to find Stella laying motionless on her bed.
Her eyes blood red, filled with puss and drooping. She stumbled while trying to get up and labored walking to her water bowl.
I tried to cheer her up.
“Want to go for a walk?” I asked.
And, not surprisingly, she perked up and wagged her tail.
As we walked toward Navy Pier, Stella struggled to walk in a straight line and nearly stumbled into a brick wall. When I held the leash tight and walked at a slower pace, Stella straightened up a bit and pulled on the leash to go faster like always. I took that as a good sign.
But halfway down the pier, it looked like Stella could use a break, so we stopped for ice cream and looked out at Lake Michigan. A few extremely polite children gathered around Stella and rubbed her silky coat and soft, velvety ears.
“She’s a good doggie,” one little girl said.
“The greatest of all time,” I told her.
We finished our ice cream — Stella likes vanilla — and continued our walk. Before heading back home, I snapped a photo of Stella, her tongue wagging in the breeze at the very moment the sunset turned the city skyline into a brilliant silhouette.
On Monday, the vet told me Stella had suffered some kind of stroke that stole her sight in one eye, made it difficult for her to walk and impossible to navigate stairs. She didn’t want to eat — not even the doggie cookies she loved so much.
She’d never be the same, the vet said.
Stella’s days frolicking at crowded dog parks and beaches, taking long walks and fetching tennis balls were now behind her.
My best friend, an old dog with a puppy’s heart who loved to roughhouse with other dogs now growled and snapped at any pooch that got too close.
Chicago’s most dog-friendly high-rise apartment wasn’t a good home for Ol’ Stella anymore.
So, Stella moved in with my folks in the suburbs where she could better navigate the single step into the backyard, rest in the shade on the cool grass and be surrounded by people.
Over the last several weeks, my parents — with the help of my lovably rambunctious nephews — nursed Stella until she slowly got stronger, regained her appetite and sunny disposition despite her new disabilities.
Our fun summer in dog-friendly Chicago didn’t go as I had hoped, but I’m grateful that Stella made it to the fall.
Early mornings, my mom says, Stella walks over to the fence that faces north toward Pullman, sits in the grass and barks and barks and barks, seemingly at nothing at all.
I’d like to think that she’s crying out because she misses home, but I know the ol’ girl better than that.
Her bark is undoubtedly directed at getting the lady next door — a kind soul known to slip Stella a tasty biscuit or two — to wake up and bring her a treat.
Ol’ Stella might be blind in one eye and stumble when she walks now, but the most annoying early morning beggar you’ve ever met is still the best dog a guy could ever have.
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