From the beginning, Max protected Chloe.
Somehow the 27-pound French bulldog knew the little girl needed special attention. If Chloe felt down, Max licked her face and made everything better. He held still, without objection, as Chloe dressed him as a fairy princess and a dinosaur.
Max even let Chloe paint his toenails.
Chloe's parents, Andrea and Erik Brennan, dreaded the inevitable. Their daughter had proven herself tough, a fighter since birth when surgeons cut into her tiny chest twice to repair a defective heart. She had made it 11 years, a strong and happy child, but doctors warned she would eventually need more surgery.
Max had stood by her for most of that time, but now he was almost 14 and fading. Chloe had to help him onto the couch to watch TV. The family had discussed putting him to sleep.
"Max was Chloe's best friend,'' said her mom. "We knew this would break her heart.''
Looking back, the Brennans are convinced that Max served one more act of devotion when on Jan. 20 he curled into Erik's arm and simply stopped breathing.
Max had waited for Chloe and her 5-year-old brother Keegan to go to bed.
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Several weeks passed. The family went through the motions: Chloe joined her sixth-grade classmates at Bishop Larkin Catholic School, Erik commuted to his post in the Coast Guard, Andrea worked at home for Home Shopping Network. Even with rambunctious Keegan, the house in the Millpond subdivision of New Port Richey just didn't feel the same.
Erik noticed a classified ad for English bulldog puppies. Andrea wasn't all that pleased when the breeder showed up with two purebreds, muscular brown-and-white fireplugs yet to be taught the importance of doing "business'' outside.
One of the pups wouldn't leave Chloe alone. He licked her and Chloe hugged him just like she had Max. They all noticed an amazing coincidence: a brown marking on the pup's side looked a lot like a heart.
Then they learned the breeder, Donna Watkins of Spring Hill, had already named them. One was Big Joe. The pup in Chloe's arms: Haas.
"I thought, oh my God,'' recalled Andrea. "You've got to be kidding me. I got goosebumps.''
The pediatric heart surgeon who had saved Chloe in May 2000 was Dr. Gary Haas. His wife, Heidi, often comforted and carried Chloe at St. Joseph's Children's Hospital in Tampa.
In August 2000, Dr. Haas, 47, was killed when his SUV overturned in Texas as he was on the way to deliver his son to college in Arizona. The wreck was blamed on defective Firestone ATX tires, which had been the subject of a massive recall.
After learning the puppy's name, Erik turned to his wife, her eyes filled with tears. "Honey,'' he said, "I think we've found a new dog.''
As he watched Chloe laughing, Erik considered this irony: "A Haas has once again fixed her broken heart.''
• • •
It didn't take long for Haas to become part of the family. Last week, he proved his smarts and athleticism, following Keegan onto a moving skateboard. Erik captured the moments on his smart phone.
Andrea talked about "faith'' and how "everything happens for a reason.'' Chloe just beamed and enjoyed bouncing Haas on the backyard trampoline.
Meanwhile, James Watkins, the breeder's husband, shed more light on how the puppy got his name.
"We were watching Bonanza on TV,'' he said, describing the western series that ran from 1959-73. Ben Cartwright had three sons: Adam, Hoss and Little Joe.
The Watkinses had four puppies and named them Elvis, Little Joe, Hoss and Lumpy. By the time the Brennans called, two were left. On the papers certifying the pups were purebred, the Watkinses had registered them as Big Joe and Haas.
As Chloe bonded with her new best friend this week, she didn't forget about the one who had protected her all those years. She wore a necklace with a sterling paw that contains some of Max's ashes. It dangles close to her heart.