A Fare-Thee-Well

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Yesterday evening I had to say good-bye to my 11 1/2 year-old Pyr, Faith.

faithfulShe helped more than a few dogs in her day, whether in transport or foster. Though she was the least likely to play of any of my dogs, it was to her that one special Berner boy made his first play bow, when we didn’t know at first whether we would ever be able to draw him out of his shell of fear.

Faith came to me from the local shelter, intended as a companion for my BARC Beauty Sophia. They quickly became fast friends, and they made sure that all other dogs coming to their house knew the rules. She was true to her breed, keeping me and our property safe from all manner of trucks, buses, birds and planes. We NEVER had a plane land in our driveway!

Age and years of property management caught up with her, she spent the past few years on monthly Adaquon shots and Salmon oil seemed to ease some of her cognitive issues, but a recent infection recurred and may have had an impact on her liver and gall bladder. X-rays indicated that her hips and knees were failing, making the option for gall bladder surgery more problematic.

She refused to tell me that it was time for her to go. To the end, she was trying to protect me at her own expense. But I told her that I would do what was right for her, and I know that was what I did.

Three of my dogs are fine, but my ASD/Pyr mix, who was her closest companion after we lost Sophia, is taking it hard. But I know he will help me keep my promise to Faith tonight that I would be fine. He’s sneakiy that way, making sure that I don’t have time to wallow. He will keep me grounded, Berner Hagar will keep me laughing and Duffy and Domino will make sure that I PAY ATTENTION!!!

Run and spin with abandon, dear Faith. You were greatly loved all eleven years I got to share with you, and I will carry you in my heart until we meet again.

States of Being

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Sometimes it seems that my dogs are not five separate organisms, but parts of one whole. When something is off balance with one part, the whole organism shifts.

I have been surprised the past couple of days, while my sweet Pyr is being treated at the vet’s office, by the behavior of my other dogs. Usually, if I get home later than normal, I am greeted with great enthusiasm and vocalization. I can feel the whole house bouncing and vibrating. But not this week.

This week, the dogs have made perfucntory barks and little else. They have made their way to the door and outside with fair haste, but not with the same drive. They know Faith is ill, they know their world is out of balance.

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I don’t know whether this time balance can be restored.

I know that with or without Faith, we will go on. We will find a new balance.

I wonder how long it will take for us to find enthusiasm and joy in that new balance.

If she comes through this illness, she will be a far more elderly, frail dog than she would ever have expected to be. Her dignity will be important to all of us. She will have to supervise someone else keeping the yard safe from buses, birds and planes.

Life changes. Organisms have an ebb and flow.

I feel so lucky to live within the aura of this organism.

Kids and dogs

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Sometimes I think my sons have the notion that I love my dogs more than I love them.

I assure you, there is nothing in this world more important to me than my children.

Part of the confusion may come from the fact that if I did my job well as a parent, my sons are not dependent. If I do my job well as a pet owner, my dogs are dependent.

I hope that what I taught my sons will allow them to continue making informed and independent decisions, choosing to do what is right – for them, for their communities, for the greater good.

I hope that what I have taught my dogs will bring them running back to me whether it’s mealtime or not! I hope they will look to me for guidance, for permission, for praise.

I love my dogs dearly. Their illnesses, their deaths, tear me into tiny pieces that scatter in the wind. I am conscious, from the moment they arrive in my home, that I will have them but a little while, to teach and be taught, to share joy and pain.

My sons are an act of faith, that this world can be a better place, that one child, one man (or woman) can make a difference. They are an act of love, of patience, of devotion and perseverance. They are hope, they are connectedness, they are an extension of me to which I have cut the cord.

I am incredibly fortunate that I have a family that loves being together, exploring, experimenting, supporting each other and laughing together. The loss of any piece of that wonderful collage diminishes the whole. But does not put out the light. We have each taught each other to be strong, in love and in loss. So have I taught my children, I hope, to be strong enough to lean on each other when need be.

My dogs are smart dogs. They have yet to learn to open the containers that hold the bags that hold their food. They need someone around to help them get food and shelter and veterinary care and a little recreation now and then.  And some comfy furniture to flop on. That someone is me. In return for providing all of the above, I get to laugh and play and hold them. They challenge me and we work it out. They are dependent on my presence, my involvement with them, for their survival. And because I have brought them into my home, I owe them that and so much more.

My kids are smart, too. They know that I love them and support them in the decisions they make, because I know they are kind and just men. I suspect they prefer that I not hover at the edges of their lives, offering opinions and judgments that are not mine to offer. I hope they know that if they need me, I’m there for them, whenever, where ever. I cannot take their pain away, nor should I. No matter how much I want them to be free from pain, I know that isn’t realistic and I hope I have given them enough strength to deal with whatever life brings.

Perhaps the most important difference can be summed up this way – I have promised my dogs that I will do everything I can to ensure that I outlive them (or make arrangements, just in case).

My sons had damned well better outlive me.

Quiet days, lessons to learn

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Yes, I have been quiet for quite a while. Work keeps me very busy and the dogs keep me sane. Unless they’re driving me crazy.

As I watch them age, I marvel at how they live their lives. They are so much in the moment that it is hard for most people to fathom.

They remember the past but don’t obsess about it, they anticipate what’s next but don’t worry about it. They simply “are,” right here, right now.

They take joy in the little things, a scratch behind an ear, tracking the flight of a butterfly across the year (and always out of reach), fence running with the neighbor’s dogs – there is no malice in their barking and running, just making their opinions known.

Each day is a wonderful, treasured gift, a new adventure, an opportunity for joy.

Some days I worry that my days with them are numbered, I cannot imagine my life without them. Then I realize that they aren’t worried about any of that, they only know that we are here now, together, with a chance to play and rest and enjoy these moments. Worrying and grieving too soon get in the way of that.

I may be a slow study, but I am learning. They are good teachers.

Choosing joy

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It has been just a little more than a year since we lost my Dad. There are still the occasional waves of sadness and loss, but mostly there are smiles and gratitude.
Smiles because of the love and care he lavished on his family. He was not particularly demonstrative, but we always knew he was there for us and that he would help us learn and grow. And we always knew that he loved us.
And he loved dogs, especially our dogs – first the dogs we got when I was three, and then the dogs his daughters acquired over the years. Even on those days he was confused or in pain, his face would light up when one of us was there with a dog or two.
I miss him terribly, and I always will, but he also taught me the importance of joy, in the big things, certainly, but especially in the little things.
The sound or a tennis ball hitting square in the middle of the strings,
The sight of a moose calmly walking through the woods (as long as we were out of range),
The lovely patterns of the petals of a rose opening to the morning sun,
The grace of a dog running with abandon just for the sake of running. With joy.
My father rarely spoke of any hardships or troubles or sadness. He chose to focus on the good things in this world and making as much as he could possible for as many people as he could – especially for his family.
He chose joy.
There is still sometimes a tear or two as I indulge in these memories, but more important is that I remember the love and the joy, not the sadness.
He taught us well.
I choose joy.

Calm

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It always amazes me the difference it makes to spend time with lots and lots of dogs – and the people who love them.
Having just spent a week at a National Specialty show, I find that I am calmer, happier, and far less reactive.
Granted, the dogs I spent time with are happy-go-lucky people lovers, calm and elegant dogs with remarkable spirits.
That they are willing to share so much of their spirit with us, mere humans that we are, is what is truly amazing.
Perhaps the reason they are so short-lived is related to the parable of the boy saying goodbye to the family dog, refusing to lament that he is losing a dear friend:
The vet who was there to euthanize the dog was trying to comfort the family when the child said, “I know why animals don’t live as long as people.
“We are all put on the earth to learn to love and make others happy. Animals are born knowing how to do that, so they don’t have to stay here as long.”
They give us love and joy, asking so little of us in return.
They are treasures, blessings to our lives, if we will only just stop to see it.

Canine health – Hope and Tragedy

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Why do we do it? Why do we put ourselves through this over and over and over again?

This morning I found out that a dear friend’s dog was diagnosed with cancer – a cancer all too prevalent in the breed we love. This is the second dog she has had with this form of cancer this decade.

Years ago I lost my beloved Border Collie to hemangiosarcoma. At the time, I could imagine nothing more devastating.

Then I fell in love with Bernese Mountain dogs.

Sanity would suggest that these dogs are their own Greek tragedy. Their life span is one of the shortest of all breeds, they are subject to multiple cancers as well as having a tendency to bloat, bleeding, and dysplasia. Why anyone would self-select for the kind of grief that is almost certain is almost beyond comprehension.

Until you meet the dogs. My first Berner was not my first dog. And my relationships with my dogs before her were wonderful relationships. But something in Sophia really, really got to me.

She was a challenge, both in attitude and health. We had a lot of issues to overcome before she blossomed into the dog we always both knew was lurking behind her pain aggression.  We worked together to make her well. She taught me so much about patience and courage and perseverance and joy. Especially joy.

Even on a bad day, she could light up with energy, happiness, goofiness, … She was clever and she was smart. And she needed me in ways I had never expected. When she was young, she wasn’t ready for the responsibility of the whole house – I quickly learned the up – and down sides of crating. For her, a few months of being crated while I was at work gave her the time to mature to the point where she could take care of the whole house while I was gone. She became my most trustworthy, ‘bulletproof’ dog to be loose in the house.

Berners love their people – and don’t like separations. For a time (after she had once again been given full run of the house all the time) she was growing increasingly agitated when I got ready to leave. After a week or two of this escalating anxiety, one day I turned around, set my stuff back down, and sat down in front of her.

“I always come back. I will always come back. As long as there is breath in my body, I will come home to you. I will never, ever abandon you.”

I sat with her, looking into her eyes and telling her this, for several minutes.  I watched and felt her body relax. She finally put her chin down between her front paws and gave me that look: “What are you still doing here?” I never had another moment of separation anxiety from her.

My girl died of cancer, Malignant Histiocitosis, several weeks shy of her eighth birthday. Although we tried chemo, we were too late. She let me know she was ready to leave.

I wish that no one ever again would have to experience the kind of grief I felt, but I know that isn’t going to be a reality for some time to come. I fear that my friend’s dog, another goofy, sweet, intelligent and challenging dog, will break her heart much as mine was broken.

But I know, too, that the sorrow we feel is a reflection of the love and the joy we have known, and I have never known dogs that bring more joy than these.

So we keep coming back to these dogs. We rescue, we support the health studies, we support each other in times of illness or injury (to our dogs, mostly – our own illness or injury seems trivial in comparison).

And we support the breeders who carefully track the health of the dogs they are considering breeding, and of those dogs’ relatives, and of the puppies they have been responsible for bringing into this world – those breeders who work so hard to breed toward longevity and health and self-confident dogs.

We know they exist – we have met some, and we celebrate the 10- and 12- and 13-year old dogs, and the people who love them. And we weep with the people who love the 4- or the 5- or the 7-year-old dogs who have just been diagnosed.

It isn’t fair that such lovely, loving and intelligent dogs should have such short lives. It isn’t fair that the people who love them feel such grief at their loss.

But we are so lucky to share what few years we do with them.

And I will put in a plug for the Canine Health Foundation – they support research into so many of the ills that plague our dogs, of whatever breed. If we keep working and searching for the answers, perhaps someday I will not see the letters MH and feel like I have been kicked in the stomach.

We can overcome. My Berner taught me that.