The only fault dogs have is that they never live as long as we would want them to. When they pass away, they take a chunk of our hearts with them and cause a kind of sorrow everyone who ever loved a dog understands, but that is incomprehensible to non-dog people.
Last week, an era ended in our family when our Australian shepherd Davie decided that her cancer-filled and arthritic body wouldn’t do any longer. I say decided, because the morning of her death I asked her if she wanted to see her brother Baywolf, our Newfy who died in 2003, and she looked at me, and then blinked with one eye the moment I finished my question. Baywolf and Davie were tight, and we often still mention his name, so both “brother” and “Baywolf” were words Davie comprehended. Although I very strongly felt his presence that day, as I do from time to time, maybe I am just imagining how it all unfolded because my emotions were in overdrive. I don’t really care. Believing that they are together again; picturing Davie happily hanging off his lip as she did when she was an obnoxious puppy, is very comforting for us, and that’s all that matters.
Davie walked into our lives suddenly and unannounced, but dreamt up and therefore somewhat expected, as a 16-week-old pup in need of a place to live because her owners were overwhelmed with her exuberant confidence. The facts that she limped when we got her, and that she was a tad reactive and wanted to bite, caused me to think that the real reason her humans were giving her up might have been that their, at the time 18-month-old son, roughed her up and she snapped in defense.
In any case, Davie was their loss and our gain and turned into a motherly, fun-loving, biddable and so obedient companion. She was easy on the eye, too. Something very special about her many people fell in love with. And she was my defining who, despite her behavioral problems, was the first of ours trained and treated completely positively. Davie didn’t even know the word “no”.
Now she’s gone. When Davie was diagnosed with late stage lymphoma a few weeks ago we realized that one of our saddest days was approaching fast. The last week of her life she would often stop on the little walks we took around our property, not because she was out of breath or fatigued, but to look around, gaze into the distance as if to absorb the place she so enjoyed. And often she startled out of a deep sleep and looked at us for a moment as if she was surprised that we were there, and methinks that her essence was transitioning and already spending time away from her body.
The day before she died she dug up her most favorite toy: the Airdog Football, and tossed it at us soliciting for play, something she hadn’t done for weeks. We played until she didn’t want to any longer, and after that she deteriorated almost by the hour. For both Mike and I, preventing suffering is priority. We believe in euthanasia, and although I was pretty sure that Davie was ready to leave her sick body, I wasn’t 100% certain, and that’s why I asked her, and she answered with a blink. I thanked her for letting me know, called Mike to leave work and the vet to come to our home, and then thought of something we could do to make her last few hours enjoyable ones. The day Baywolf died, we all shared a beer at nine in the morning. Bay loved to split a bottle of Guinness with Mike every so often – male bonding, and that’s what we did. Davie liked food and always loved to supervise us whenever we prepared some, so for two hours I sat on the living room floor with her and Will and cut up dried green tripe. Many pieces landed her way, which she was really excited about and gobbled up with gusto. Then she died so peacefully on her favorite bed; no resistance, no gasping, which is to us is another sign that her spirit said “that’ll have to do for this round”.
As a dog ages, there are many lasts. The last time she chased a squirrel, the last time she jumped easily in the car, the last time she initiated play with another dog. And there are firsts, like the first time I took Will to help me with my work, and not Davie. Then suddenly there is one last, and many firsts: The last hug and kiss; the first walk without a dog on the other side, the first time nobody hogging the bed, the first time homecoming is not greeted with crazy barks and an excitedly swinging, bobby-tailed butt.
A dog with that much presence leaves a huge void felt not just by humans, but also other animals left behind. A change in pack dynamics takes place. With pack I don’t mean the commonly understood dominance pack, but family. The fact is that we are not isolated entities occupying the same space, but a bonded social group sharing life’s journey for a while, and when one member disappears, it has an impact.
Our biggest concern was Will, who never lived without another dog and lost her steady, magnetic focal point companion she took directions from for most of her life. Not that Will doesn’t pay attention to our cues, but following another dog is natural and easier for most dogs, and even more so for her because she was feral born and not imprinted by humans. She, I am sure, still perceives some of our behaviors as strange and alien.
I tried to prepare Will by taking only her on a few consultations and she did great, even showed some of Davie’s characteristics, namely the level of obedience went up few notches. Will always listened to us nicely, but never as unquestioningly as Davie. It is not that she has to behave like her, has to fill her shoes - our dogs are allowed their identity – but the changes pleased me. Who knows, if Will keeps it up maybe we’ll take Adina MacRae’s agility foundation course together. I think we both could have fun.
Of course, despite my efforts I fully expected that Davie’s death would confuse Will, and that she’d be searching for her. Indeed, for the first couple of days Will asked to be let out often, sniffed where Davie walked and voided, and then peed small amounts at various places, perhaps to leave scent markers in case she was merely lost.
Will also became hyper vigilant to sounds and motion – not reactive, just alert and hesitant. I’ll make sure, for the next little while, that I give her more information when she is concerned about something she hears or sees. Bus, person, dog, car are all words Will knows and I can use to convey that what she senses is familiar, and by telling her what she can do about it: forward, over, behind, say hello, come, I give her a command she understands and has experienced in the past, again and again, is a roadmap to safety.
All in all, Will is coping better with the changed dynamics than we anticipated. She goes through her daily routine, didn’t fall to pieces with new events like visiting a car dealership or being left all by herself in the house for a few hours, and enjoys the things she’s always enjoyed: that is going for walks. Such are the blessings of a dog who trusts and feels secure where and with whom she lives. Neither the move across country, nor suddenly being the solo dog, had much of a lasting effect. Perhaps the fact that Will came to a rather substantial inheritance of several Original Beef Chews, a couple of tartar busters, the Nina Ottosson Tornado toy, and a few bags of Northern Biscuit cookies helped some. Plus, she now has lone rights to the back seat of the car; the preferred spot on road trips Will vacated whenever Davie told her to. Will moved without ever arguing, even as Davie became increasingly weaker. So much for the pack leader having to be the physically strongest.
I always marveled at how bonded the girls were. They played with each other, slept in close proximity, synchronized activities, and never fought, but let's face it: Davie was a bossy and controlling Aussie, and Will maybe more inhibited than we realized.
Time will tell, but I think she will be more than okay; think she will be happy with human only companionship. I mean, there isn’t really an option. One just can’t replace one dog with another, a stranger with one she was bonded with for 9 years. And Will is finicky anyway; there are only certain foods she likes, and certain people, and certain dogs, and she easily gets annoyed with goofy adolescents, so unless we come across the perfect adult match, adding a new dog won’t improve her life, or ours.
Believing that Davie is fancy-free roaming with Baywolf was only one thing that was comforting the day she died; the other that she has 12 wonderful years with us. I became acutely aware why I am doing what I am doing professionally and will continue to do it until every dog is treated kindly, humanely, compassionately. The life Davie had, every dog deserves. One either does right by a dog, or not. Black or white. There is no grey zone for the dog.
Life will go on because that is what life does, and the three of us will miss Davie but also find our groove together. I am innately someone who embraces life; consciously chooses to dissolve in my work and not in my drama. On blue days, I take inspiration from Davie who relished in every waking moment and boldly turned every novel experience into a “good time”.
I want to end this post reminiscing about one of those good times we had together. Davie was 7 and in her prime, and we spent the weekend on a ranch in Alberta learning how to control sheep. Davie had never seen sheep before, yet was inquisitively trying to figure out what our purpose was for being there, and after passively observing the instructor’s outstanding Border collie to learn more, she enthusiastically joined in and couldn’t be stopped.
Davie showed us how to live life to the fullest, and that is her ever-lasting gift, imprinted in our souls forever.