In memory of the dogs that I have loved and in recognition of those that love me still.

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A very close friend of mine had to make a heart breaking decision yesterday. I sat with her as she heard the news from the vet, both us knowing what the outcome had to be as she jotted down the key points; so that I could follow along the conversation and as a reminder for herself.

Her beloved dog, her faithful companion for many years, was very sick and in pain. With continued hospitalization and medication they might be able to buy her a little more time. This had been coming for a while. Yet even yesterday, in the midst of the crisis, we hoped for a mistake, that it was something simple and possible to alleviate. It wasn’t.

So she made the arrangements to bring her dog home, medicated to ease the pain, so that her dog could complete one last act of loyalty and spend her last few days & nights at home so that her extended human family would have time to say good bye. Sometime in the near future she will cross the Rainbow Bridge.

I feel so privileged that even in my time of struggle I was able to be there for my friend, in some small way, as she waited for the news from the vet.

I can’t go anywhere just now.

I can’t do anything.

I can’t even speak very much as I’m still struggling to breathe, but I could just be there for her.

I could listen.

I could cry with her.

I could support her as she made the decision and the plans.

I heard how this dog became part of her family. That this “timid, shy” dog, that had been returned to her breeder before coming to live with my friend, had been deemed unsuitable for shows or obedience. That she’d been written off as anything more than a beloved pet.

Yet, this same dog excelled with my friend. She was awarded several titles and passed both the Canadian Kennel Club Canine Good Neighbour and the St. John’s Therapy dog tests. She has been a faithful and loving companion for many years.

She will be very much missed.

In reflecting on this sad situation I was reminded of a story that was doing the rounds on the internet not long ago.

Basically, a vet is telling the story of preparing a family for euthanizing their family dog and was surprised at how well the child of the family was handling the situation. On asking the child about this, the child simply explained:

“People are born so that they can learn how to live a good life – like loving everybody all the time and being nice, right? “

“Well, dogs already know how to do that, so they don’t have to stay as long.”

Continuing with this thought of things that we can learn from our dog; if you undertake a quick internet search you will find a number of variations of ‘Life Lessons from our dogs’. Some have been beautifully illustrated as art work, or posters. Others are just simple lists and personal experiences. I’ve included a couple of my favourite lists.

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Watching my friend go through this reminded me of all the dogs that I have loved and lost, and those that love me still.

My earliest good memories are of dogs. I grew up, as a young child, with police Alsatians (German Shepherd Dogs), Cocker Spaniels, Chocolate and Golden Labrador Retrievers and Papillons. As I grew older my mother’s choice in dogs got smaller. We then had a variety of mixed breeds usually from the local pound. After I left home, my Mum had Jack Russell Terriers, Yorkshire Terriers, and currently has, what we think is, a black Griffon.

As an independent adult my first dog was an older dog from the local pound. Molly I was a mix, but mostly black Newfoundland. This turned out to be very ironic as I had no plans to immigrate to Canada when I adopted her.

Molly had the most gentle, loving, loyal temperament. She had no idea that she weighed almost as much as I did, or that she wasn’t a lap dog. She truly was the epitome of a gentle giant.

As I mentioned yesterday, she was there for me through a horrendous car accident, in 2000, and the long recovery afterwards. Both of us surviving that accident solely due to my insistence on my dogs always wearing harnesses and fixed seat-belts. It broke my heart when I couldn’t bring her to Canada with me, due to her own failing health.

The first dog that I adopted in Canada was in her memory. Bella was a golden retriever / Collie mix. She had been rescued from several ‘kill shelters’ and was literally on her last chance with a ‘No Kill’ shelter.

She had been fostered out, or adopted, and returned several times.

She was seemingly the sweetest, loving dog until…. and it was the ‘until’ that was the problem.

Nobody had been able to work out what her triggers were. She no longer gave a warning growl, her body language was constrained and in less than a heartbeat she could become aggressive. She had been very badly abused, by a man at some point. However, from the moment we met she trusted me.

Bella is probably the dog that I learned more from, than any other.

Several years of rehabilitation and a lot of close observation and she was a phenomenal dog. However, I never fully trusted her not to become aggressive and would muzzle her as needed.

Bizarrely the hardest part of training her was getting other people to leave her alone. People see a ‘Golden’ and assume a specific stereotypical behaviour. Withe her, 99.9% of the time they would be right, but not 100%.

A few years later and I added Timber to my family. Timber was a husky, probably Siberian, but likely a wolf hybrid.

Timber was an old boy.

He’d lived a hard life somewhere along the line and was left at the local pound when his health started to go. We believe that he was about 14 years old at that point. I brought Timber home to die. That dog lived another 18 months – not the 2-4 weeks predicted!

One of my fondest memories is of turning up at the local dog park with Timber and Bella on the back seat of my Ford Mustang Convertible, with the top down. A local police officer came over to my car and got quite the shock when not only were both dogs harnessed in on seat belts but it was the golden, not the wolf looking dog, that I muzzled as I let them out of the car.

Timber died naturally. Bella, unfortunately had to be put to sleep after she bit me. It was purely bad management on my part; but by then I’d adopted my daughter (she was 7 years old) as a single parent and I could no longer safely manage the risk. However, Bella and I had 5 years together that she would never have had otherwise.

During the time that I had Bella and Timber I also got involved with Schutzhund, becoming a member of the West Coast German Shepherd Schutzhund Club.

Schutzhund consists of three components: tracking, obedience and protection.

I must have been insane, when I look back now, because I volunteered as the decoy aggressor. That means that I suited up in full bite protection suits, hid behind decoys and had fully grown German Shepherd dogs search me out and hold me in place through their barking, behaviour and if needed, bite.

I only ever worked with the elite dogs in the group. Even I wasn’t willing to be the decoy for the beginning dogs! How I didn’t fracture multiple bones I have no idea. Those padded suits certainly worked well.

However, through my work in Schutzhund I gained an incredible foundation in training dogs in obedience, behaviour and scent work. I also learned that I needed a personal relationship with my dog and would never be able to have a working dog, that was not part of my family living inside my home with me. I am forever grateful to the many handlers who let me work their dogs and learn this for myself.

Zoe came next. Zoe was another gentle giant, but white this time. Zoe was a Great Pyrenees. Zoe was bombproof. She loved everybody, especially children. She made the move from Alberta to Ontario with my daughter and me. Unfortunately she didn’t take to our new home and developed serious separation anxiety. I came home from work one day to find that she had broken out of her crate and cut herself very badly. Much as I hated to do it, I worked with the local humane society to find her a new home where she wouldn’t be on her own very often and would have plenty of space to run and roam.

Then came Maggie. Maggie was my first registered pure bred puppy. She was a golden retriever. I intended to train Maggie for agility and obedience. Unfortunately, in late 2011/2012 I was hospitalized for several months while Maggie was still less than a year old. My mother was living with me at the time, and between her two small dogs, my daughter and my being in the hospital Maggie was too much for her.

So Maggie was re-homed with a couple that I knew of that had an older Golden. Sadly, not long after they took in Maggie their older dog died; so Maggie came into their life at just the right time. I bump into them occasionally and apparently it took Maggie until she was almost 3 before she matured out of her ‘puppy’ rambunctiousness! She still gets walked for hours every day.

When I was being discharged from the hospital I knew that I needed my own dog. So I went back to the humane society.

Molly II came home that day. Molly II is a German Shepherd/Husky mix. She was a stray and about 3-4 years old in January 2012, a far as we could tell. As she had no name, I called her Molly after Molly I.

She, like Molly I, loves to snuggle. She is never happier than when she is snuggled in next to me. She’s not as big as the first Molly, weighing in at around 40lbs. However, she also thinks that she is a lapdog! As to how she is not bald, I have no clue! I literally comb enough hair out of her to make full body wigs (if that were possible) for other dogs several times a week. My home always has ‘tumbleweeds’ and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

In 2014 I reached the point medically where a Service Dog would benefit me and I started looking into applying for a dog from one of the programs that train them in Canada. Unfortunately, at that time, none of them would place a service dog in a home with a pet dog and nor did they train for multiple disabilities. So, given that Ontario  legislation allows for owner/private trainers I decided to train my own. As the majority of my training experiences had been with German Shepherds, I love the breed and at that time, I thought that I needed a dog that would be of a height and weight proportional to me to be able to do some heavy mobility work I looked for a German Shepherd. In May 2014, Topaz came home.

Topaz was (and is) an incredible dog. She took to obedience and task training easily, though I do remember tearing my hair out trying to train a retrieve on command. (A Service Dog’s retrieve is to fetch a named item, hold it, carry it, and give it to the handler or to pick up anything that the handler drops). We worked on it for what seemed like years, but was probably only weeks. Then one day it just clicked for her and after that she’d pick up anything up for me!

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Unfortunately, as I mentioned in a previous post, in response to some very difficult life circumstances that I went through Topaz became protective. It’s a known breed characteristic and one that Service Dog handlers have to work with carefully as Service Dogs are not encouraged to be trained in protection or bite work as it’s considered too high a risk that they would protect the handler rather than allow emergency services to assist them. So after almost two years together Topaz went to a new home where she nows works on a farm.

Initially I didn’t plan to start training another Service Dog so quickly. I was investigating programs again as there are now a few that train for multiple disabilities. Molly is getting older too and so, as the wait list for a Service Dog from a program can be over two years , it was possible that she would naturally not be an issue for their rules about not placing a Service Dog in a home with a pet dog.

Then I saw a picture of Kai, known as ‘Puppy’ at the time. Now if I hadn’t met a Standard Poodle named Bently a year before I would never have even considered him. Poodles, to me, were foo foo dogs, stuck up, stand offish and a ton of work to maintain!

Bently had shown me that not all poodles met the stereotype.

Additionally poodles are very low risk for allergies. Now, I’m not allergic to dogs myself but I do have a lot of allergies so having a dog that would be a lower risk for others appealed to me.

Kai was living down in Kingston, southern Ontario. He was 5 months old and had very minimal basic obedience training but not a lot else. The lady taking care of him at the time, on behalf of his breeder, was great. I can’t remember how many questions I sent her, or tests that I asked her to do on him and video so that I could see his responses. I know that it was a lot and that she was very patient with me!

Eventually I decided that it was time to make a road trip and Molly and I went down to Kingston for the weekend to see him for myself.

He came home and my life has never been the same since.

Kai is a standard poodle, currently weighing in at 54lbs and about 24/26″ tall. He learns completely differently to any other dog that I’ve ever had. I’m having to learn clicker training for him.

His hair cuts cost more than mine; in fact, since having him I no longer get my hair cut – just his!

He has taken to being a Service Dog as so he was born for it. He is the most calm, loving, intuitive dog ever. Unlike Molly, that loves to snuggle all the time, Kai snuggles when I need it. Otherwise, he stays close and watches over me.

He has learned some tasks in minutes (such as that retrieve) that took me months with Topaz. Others, I’m still learning how to teach him not to be too smart about! I now buy iPhone charger cables by the dozen as Kai decided that rather than take me to my phone when it rang, or the alarm went off, it’s far simpler and quicker to bring it to me. He’s right, but I have yet to work out how to teach him to unplug it first!

As I mentioned in a previous post, he’s already passed the international standard to be a full working Service Dog despite still not being a year old.

Further, I’ve been off work now for several weeks. Topaz would have been going crazy by now and I’d have been running her for hours on the doggy treadmill. Now don’t get me wrong, both Molly and Kai are getting plenty of exercise, both in my back garden and on the treadmill but neither dog are unhappy with this very sedentary lifestyle that I’m currently leading. They are loving having me home!

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Kai seems to have taken it upon himself to help me stay calm by being as laid back as he can possibly be! He’s my shadow and goes where I go, and he works as needed, but his first priority seems to be – since I got so sick – to make sure that he or Molly are making sure that I rest.

I never thought, when I was exploring names for Kai, back at the beginning of this adventure with him, that he would live up to his name quite so prophetically.

In Burmese Kai means ‘strong’ or ‘unbreakable’ and in northern Germanic languages it means a ‘safe harbour’. Consequently, Kai is my  strong, unbreakable safe harbour.

When I read further and learned that Kai also means Ocean in Hawaiian and Willow Tree in Navajo his name was a fait accompli; as both oceans and willow trees have great symbolic meaning and value to me personally.

So today, I have Molly and Kai by my side. They are of great comfort to me as I think of the dogs that I have loved over the years.

I hope, and pray, that as my friend says goodbye to her dog that she is able to find peace in the comfort and love of the other dogs in her family. That together, Kai, Molly and I can provide comfort too.

While this situation is incredibly difficult, and the pain we suffer when our dogs die is unfathomable, I like this thought….

“It came to me that every time I lose a dog they take a piece of my heart with them, and every new dog that comes into my life gifts me with a piece of their heart. If I live long enough all the components of my heart will be dog, and I will become as generous and loving as they are.” Anonymous.

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If only they lived longer….

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One thought on “In memory of the dogs that I have loved and in recognition of those that love me still.”

  1. Nikki,

    Your love and support during this time, is truly a God send. Words cannot express the gratitude I feel. I know how sick you have been but, yet you chose to deplete your spoons to provide love and comfort to me through such a traumatic time. This to me is the mark of a true friend. This is something in today’s society that is VERY RARE and becoming harder to find. I will cherish your friendship and the memory of sharing one of life’s saddest moments forever. You see in the sadness I found joy in knowing true friendship and love still exisists. If I could return your spoons depleted that day I gladly would but, we know it doesn’t work that way.

    In closing I will simply say thank you from a truly grateful friend for a sacrificial gift.

    God Bless

    Kirsten

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