Column: Harlow the dog — Chicago icon, Instagram influencer, good boy — has died after delivering joy and laughs during lockdown

·7 min read

Taylor Wolfe worked her way into Chicagoans’ hearts with her blog, The Daily Tay, where she has shared the joys and loves and setbacks and sorrows of her life ever since graduating from the University of Nebraska in 2009.

“I’m a pretty big loner,” Wolfe told me Tuesday. “Writing has always been cathartic for me.”

Harlow, her dog, worked his way into Chicagoans’ hearts by begging to go inside the Wicker Park Target. And singing along to Lizzo. And starring in a 2013 Volvo commercial. And gracing the patio at Big Star on Damen Avenue with his lust for life and water bowls.

“He brought a lot of people joy,” Wolfe said.

Harlow developed an enormous and devoted fan base, thanks largely to Wolfe’s loyal readers and 301,000 Instagram followers. He’s been called a Chicago icon and an Instagram influencer. He’s been called a good boy, obviously.

He died on Saturday after being diagnosed with cancer in November. News of his death traveled quickly and nationally and left a lot of people heartbroken.

“I couldn’t stop crying,” Melissa Rodenbach emailed me from Pennsylvania. “Seriously — it was borderline embarrassing, the kind of cry that left my eyes red and puffy. How in the world could someone else’s pet make such an impact on me?”

Wolfe welcomed Harlow, a red-coated Vizsla, into her life in 2011 and immediately invited her readers into his world. She shared videos and photos and stories of his adventures around Wicker Park. He was particularly well known for lying on the pavement outside the Target near Division and Paulina Streets and howling until Wolfe agreed to take him inside to roam the aisles. (The employees knew and welcomed him.)

He had an alter-ego named Carl, named after the troublemaking Carl Gallagher character on “Shameless.” Carl/Harlow would sing along to most any song Wolfe played, though he had a special affinity for Lizzo.

He would cower in fear when Wolfe and her husband brought out the Instant Pot, a trait that Harlow’s fans assured Wolfe is quite common in dogs.

“She had a picture of him sitting in a fancy chair and the caption read, ‘I told Harlow it was National Dog Day, and he said, Oh we should get one of those,’” Jennifer Larry emailed me from northwest suburban Cary. “I cannot put into words the sadness I know so many of us feel after hearing about his passing.”

Wolfe and her husband, Chris Hillis, and Harlow moved to Denver last year, mid-pandemic. Wolfe kept Harlow’s fans updated on his new mountain adventures and took joy in the connection and comfort he offered people in a grim, isolated year.

In November, Wolfe and Hillis welcomed a baby girl into their lives: Birdie Harlow. Three days later, Harlow was diagnosed with cancer. Wolfe wrote about Harlow’s final months, which coincided with her first months as a mother, making for some bittersweet, vulnerable, relatable moments.

When Harlow died over the weekend, Wolfe was flooded with thousands of messages. She hasn’t read most of them yet.

“It’s overwhelming,” Wolfe said Tuesday.

She wrote an obituary for Harlow, and she asked me if I knew how to get it placed in the Chicago Tribune, Harlow’s hometown paper. We don’t tend to publish pet obituaries, but I told her I was happy and honored to hear more about a dog who touched so many Chicago hearts.

She mentioned on her Instagram story Monday night that I might share Harlow’s obituary in my column. Within an hour, I had more than 100 emails. By the time I woke up this morning, I had hundreds more — all sharing what Harlow meant to them.

I heard from Lake in the Hills and Clarendon Hills. Roscoe Village and Elk Grove Village. I heard from a funeral director in Canada. I heard from people inspired to adopt rescue animals after witnessing Harlow and Wolfe’s love story. I heard from multiple states and suburbs,

But mostly I heard from Chicago.

“I moved to Chicago in 2017, with no friends, no job prospects, and just a hope that things would work out,” Caitlin Kelly wrote. “It was ROUGH. I missed home, I missed my friends, I missed my comfort zone. Then I stumbled upon Taylor’s blog, and consequently Harlow and I just felt better. Their relationship was one so genuine and endearing it felt like it needed it’s own Lifetime special, without the depressing ending.

“Harlow was such a sweet, sweet pup, with more personality than most influencers and TikTok queens combined,” Kelly continued. “When Taylor posted the other day about his condition I was crushed. That this little pup turned household name (at least in our household) was gone.”

Kim Braschko Hoelterhoff, careful to note that she grew up with a Chicago Tribune on the kitchen table each morning, wrote: “In the wilderness of uncertainty, her stories became a constant. He was lumpy and goofy and faithful, giving her unconditional love and comfort as she became a mom to Birdie, and vicariously, to all who followed his story, including me. Everybody needs a Harlow.”

Meredith Reimer, who identified herself simply as “a Chicagoan,” wrote a lovely tribute to the pup she never met.

“I truly believe dogs were put on this earth to teach us unconditional love,” Reimer wrote. “Whether you believe in a higher power or nothing at all, as humans we can’t help but seek and believe in that idea of limitless, reservation-free love. We don’t find that love in spouses or from children, bosses or even our dearest friends. This kind of love only enters your life in the form of a floppy, four-legged companion.

“Harlow reminds us that there is good,” Reimer continued. “And that we are all capable of good. He reminds us to love first. To find joy in the little moments and to never be afraid to be ourselves. He reminds us to give love without reservation.”

Wolfe said people teased her sometimes about her devotion to Harlow.

“People would ask me, ‘Do you ever get embarrassed for how weird you are with your dog?’” she said. “I didn’t. We made each other happy. And I like that he brought others joy.”

Here’s the obituary, penned by Wolfe, which no one could have written better:

“Harlow Hillis passed peacefully in his parents’ arms on Saturday, June 5. Born in Gridley, Kansas, he soon relocated to Chicago to pursue a career in acting and stopping by Target. You may remember him from a Volvo commercial (shown online only one time back in 2013) or perhaps from dramatically lying outside of the Target on Division street, refusing to move until his mom took him inside. Har loved his walks and never forgot a water bowl or treat jar, even when they were no longer there. Some of his hobbies included begging for hot dogs at Vinny D’s (he once tried to jump through their window) growling at plastic bags blowing in the wind, and casually pretending to stop and tie his shoe (he didn’t wear shoes) when passing the dirty dish bucket outside of Smoke Daddy. Har retired in the mountains of Colorado where he spent his last year hiking, going on road trips and welcoming a baby sister, whom he tolerated. He will be greatly missed by his family, mostly his parents, Chris and Taylor, who loved him so very much. He was everything they could have asked for and more in a best friend. They will miss his snoring, his singing, and his ability to press, ‘accessible ability shortcuts’ on the remote control at any given time. But most of all they will miss him. He was the best boy ever. In lieu of flowers Harlow made one last request: That you donate your Instant Pots ... straight to the trash. Those things are evil.”

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