The last days of the best dog ever in our family were full of happiness but pain and fear, too. Mason Leviticus Oden, the lab-shepherd mix, was a 13-year-old, 80-lb. furry package of love and nobility, with light brown eyes so deep and soulful that no girl or woman could resist him. Few grown men could, either.

Mason was the smartest dog we ever had by a long shot, with the largest vocabulary. He studied people and learned from them. A calm dog, he never roamed and seldom barked. When he did, the deep growly voice was enough to keep more than one stranger from stepping on the porch or even getting out of their vehicle.

He was my late wife’s protector when I was on the road with business. He “ran the farm,” so to speak, in my absence, helping look after the other animals, from kittens to baby chickens. Once, my wife found him on the pasture hillside, stretched out full length, head on paws, with his nose stuck in a rabbit’s nest. It was full of newborns.

Mason returned several times a day to check on the rabbit family. This went on for weeks until the baby rabbits left the nest to make their way in the wider world. He also brought baby birds and squirrels to us that had fallen from their nests.

Veterinarian clinic staffers are not supposed to have favorites among their patients. But Mason was one of those wherever we lived at the time. With his lifelong companion, Gracie the rat terrier, he made an impression whether his vet appointment was for nail clipping, shots or treatment of a summertime skin condition.

And he looked forward to visiting his newest animal hospital, where he boarded when I was on business trips. First, he loved to ride. With the terrier hanging out one window and his large head stuck out the other, we made a comical trio on local highways in my truck (called the Dog-mobile because of the hair that always covered the seats).

The animal hospital assistants adored him and, we always suspected, spoiled Mason when he was there. The two dogs shared the same kennel because they were inseparable.

When I would stop by to pick up his flea collars or medicine, they’d call out, “How’s Mason?” instead of “How are you?” He was the Elvis Presley of the doggie set, my wife always said, a “Hunk-a-Hunka Hairy Love.”

So, on the Saturday morning recently when I found myself on the floor of the clinic, with two vets and their assistants arrayed around the Good Dog as he panted with labor and his soft eyes rolled in pain and confusion, I realized they loved Mason as much as our family. He wasn’t just a patient. He was their friend, too, and it’s hard to let go of a friend.

He’d been doing OK in his advancing old age, thanks to arthritis medicine, exercise and diet. Over the July Fourth holiday, Mason had enjoyed his new “pink puppy,” 10-month-old Bowie Opal, my granddaughter. He was never far from her high-chair, walker or the lap in which she was squirming to get down and wallow on him. In the way of all Good Dogs, he had someone else to protect and train.

She called him “Anon,” the closest she could get to vocalizing his name. This is actually a word derived from Old English, meaning “soon” or “in a short time.”

When Bowie and her parents returned to Atlanta, Mason became listless. I chalked this up to his normal reaction when family members came to visit and then left the pack again. But this time he stopped eating. This was disturbing because Mason was famous for his appetite.

Thus, there began a week of trips back-and-forth to the animal hospital until that fateful Saturday morning when x-rays showed an inoperable mass in his intestinal cavity. He was in pain, had become feeble and couldn’t stand. Mason was a dog of great dignity, and I could not stand the thought of putting him through surgeries and treatments with only a marginal chance of success.

So, the decision was made. His friends gathered around him in those last minutes, reaching out to stroke his head and neck. Saying goodbye but not turning their backs. We cried. Those animal care professionals grieved for one they could not save because he was a Good Dog.

Don’t tell me it’s not tough working in a veterinary clinic. Like doctors and nurses in hospitals, they see and deal with the effects of cruelty, abandonment and neglect. I really don’t think they receive credit for their commitment. The job has a dark side, an emotionally draining impact.

A little-known fact is that animal care professionals and animal rescue volunteers often struggle with depression and other mental problems. Some of them become suicidal. Their work is not all soft kittens and puppies and happiness. They share our sadness and loss. For this, I thank them.

Mason was their dog, too. His passing hurt them. They helped ease him across the Rainbow Bridge where I am certain my wife was waiting in a meadow of soft grass and sunshine, good smells and eternal love.

We will all cross that bridge… anon. So, if you see a stray dog on the side of the road, stop and make a friend. He or she might become your Good Dog -- your Mason. Their short spans of existence -- and the grief of their parting at the end – are balanced by the enrichment they bring to life and soul.