Kokatat

When I was a young newspaper reporter who needed to fill some time in between covering car crashes and jury trials, my editor would send me around to local businesses to do profiles on their products. One of those businesses was Kokatat, a manufacturer of paddle sports apparel and gear in Arcata, California. I toured the factory and spoke with the owner, who told me that Kokatat is a Yurok Indian word that means “into the water.” I don’t remember anything else I learned that day, but I’ve never forgotten that.

The word is on my mind tonight as I remember a day in 2007 when my mother and I took her Golden Retriever puppy Sunny to the river for the first time. We were staying at a small resort on the McKenzie River soon after Labor Day, and had the whole place pretty much to ourselves. My big dog, Ruby, had passed a few weeks prior and I was in mourning. Spending time with a boisterous 6-month-old puppy was bittersweet—so much life ahead of her, but she was not my dog.

Sunny was my parents’ second lifetime dog. They waited nearly four years after their first lifetime dog passed to get another puppy, and she was their darling baby from the day they laid eyes on her.

The second morning of our stay, I let my mother sleep in while I slipped out of the cabin and down to the beach with Sunny. It was deserted at that early hour, except for a flock of four or five ducks that were poking around at the waterline. Sunny had been down to the river the day before and had shown no interest in going in the water, so I let her off the leash. She nosed around and false-charged the ducks a few times, while they just ignored her advances. But when she wouldn’t leave them alone, they decided as a group to set sail downriver. Seeing them all swimming away from her before she’d had time to really even get to know them was too much for Sunny. She didn’t hesitate before splashing into the water after them. They kept going. And she kept going after them. And before I knew it, she was out in the middle of the McKenzie and heading downstream fast. She was just a puppy who had never even been in the water before.

My mother was too far away to hear me when I yelled, and yelled, and yelled for Sunny to come back. Nobody was anywhere on the grounds of our resort. There was a fence that ran all the way down to the waterline at the edge of the property, which Sunny had just sailed past. I clambered over that fence and I ran as hard as I could to keep pace with her as she shot downstream. I shouted and whistled and begged her to come back until I was hoarse, unable to bear the thought of losing another dog so soon, let alone this dog.

I don’t know how far I ran before she finally swam to the shore and plunged into my arms, but she made her way out of the water that day. I walked her back to our cabin and came in to find my mother just waking up. She’d had no idea what had just happened. Our relief was gigantic.

That night, as we were talking of this and other things, I started to cry. Mom asked me why, and it took me a minute to sort it out. Finally I told her, “Ruby would never have done that.” I missed my dog that ran to the sound of my voice. Sunny was not my dog and she never did that; I marvel still that she came back to me at all. But she did come to me the one time when it counted the most, and for that I will always be grateful. My parents’ love for their dog is a mighty force, and they deserved to have her for the full measure of her life.

Sunny

Sunny

When we were at the cabin, Sunny would start each day by running into my bedroom and vaulting onto my bed. She would plant herself flat on top of me and enthusiastically lick my face to wake me up and I have to tell you: I have never experienced a better wake-up call before or since. I told my friends when I returned from the visit that the title of Best Dog In the World and the little tiara that goes with it had officially been passed from Ruby to Sunny.

Some time this summer, when nobody was looking, Sunny stepped to the edge of another river that she had no choice but to enter. A tumor in her spleen that had spread into her lungs was stealing her breath. She slipped silently into the water where the current took her, and she could not make it back to shore this time. My parents said goodbye to her this morning and sent her on her way to the Rainbow Bridge we all hope and dream awaits our pets and, someday, us.

My parents and their dog.

My parents and their dog.

She was a good girl, and much loved. She will live forever in our hearts.

Good dog. Stay.

Good dog. Stay.

“One of them is dead”

This story broke my heart today.

United Airlines Killed Our Golden Retriever, Bea

Beatrice had a perfect health record.  She received a full examination and a health certificate four days before the flight, as is required by the Pet Safe program. This program is United’s branded on-board pet safety program. In addition to Pet Safe’s stringent requirements, we took every extra precaution we could think of.  Both the dog’s kennels were labeled front to back with emergency numbers, flight information and warnings.  Their kennels were purchased specifically for the measurements and design specified by Pet Safe.  We purchased special water bowls which we filled with ice to ensure that the water wouldn’t spill and that it would last longer. We drove the six hours to New York City from our house in Northern New York State, so the dogs wouldn’t have to make a connecting flight.  We paid United Airlines $1800.00, in addition to our plane tickets, to ensure the safety of our pets. Albert and Bea were very prepared travelers.

When we arrived in San Francisco to pick up our dogs we drove to the dark cargo terminal and on arrival in the hanger were told simply, “one of them is dead” by the emotionless worker who seemed more interested in his text messages.  It took thirty minutes for a supervisor to come to tell us, “it was the two year old.”

It wasn’t just that the dog died a protracted, painful death of heatstroke due to the airline’s apparent negligence. Nor was it the fact that she was a show dog of fine pedigree who had a bright future ahead of her. No, what broke my heart is that she was only two years old–just a baby. That, and the fact that her altogether tragic death has brought an end to the blog that bears her name.

Thank you for supporting beamakesthree over the past few years, I greatly appreciate it and have really enjoyed everyone’s comments. This will be the last post.

When my own baby dog, Reggie, faced life-threatening surgery last year at the age of two, I was beside myself at the possibility that I might lose her so soon, so early in what should be our long life together. If it had been my fate to have her with me only two years and to lose her to someone else’s carelessness after I had done all I knew how to do to keep her safe, I know I could not have faced the aftermath with even a tiny fraction of the grace shown by Bea’s owner, Maggie Rizer.

Golden Retrievers are a special breed of dog … oh heck, every breed is special in its own way, but they have an extra helping of charm … and this one seemed to be truly exceptional.

Maggie and Bea, from beamakesthree.

I don’t have any thoughts to offer about the airline’s actions or any guidelines to suggest about how to keep your dog safe when you travel. I just want to tell you about this gorgeous animal and the people who loved her.

There’s never been a dog that lived “long enough,” but this one was taken much too soon.

My favorite story

This is the story of how my first dog found me. The long version.

When I was growing up, we always had a cat—first Smokey, then Flag, then Gully Cat, then Duffy, then Antley. We never had a dog, for whatever reason, and most of my friends did not have dogs, either. My experience with dogs as a child was mostly one of fear. I was charged and bitten by a dog once while delivering newspapers, and was regularly terrorized on that same paper route by a Giant Schnauzer that liked to hide in the bushes and wait for me to pass by. Dogs in the back of pickups that lunged and growled, dogs in back yards that barked incessantly and charged fences, dogs that left their piles all over the neighborhood to be dodged … there was nothing I liked about the dogs I knew.

Back in 1996, I had two cats that I liked very much: a bellicose, green-eyed, long-haired calico named Trillian and a sweet, shy, short-haired marmalade named KC.

My two kitties (1997).

I was, as far as I knew, a life-long “cat person.” My kitties and I had a comfortable life together and I had no reason to want to change it.

But then god spoke to me.

This was the one and only message I have ever received, I believe, straight from the divine, and it was brief and to the point: “You need a Rottweiler named Ruby.” I would hear this message clearly spoken to me in my head when I was driving, when I was at the beach, when I was working, all the time. It was relentless and unchanging. I initially blew it off as somebody having dialed the wrong number because I had always disliked dogs generally and feared big dogs, and I especially feared Rottweilers with their “devil dog” reputation. I am a mild person, conventional to my core and not especially fond either of confrontation or of standing out from the crowd. I couldn’t imagine life with a dog, let alone a dog such as that.

I resisted the entire idea of getting any dog for many months, while the message persistently rang through my head. Finally I began to do some research on Rottweilers, and asked my friends and family what they thought. My parents were worried, to say the least. Nobody thought it was a good idea for me to get a purebred Rottie for my first dog because they can be so strong-willed that they can completely dominate a novice owner. I thought it might be a good compromise to get another breed of dog, and I came very close to getting a 9-week-old Belgian Tervuren with a fear biting problem, a Rottie-mix puppy from a horrendously filthy home that appeared to be ill, and a border collie puppy that I never did end up meeting for various reasons. Fate clearly intervened each time to prevent me from adopting any of these dogs and I am so grateful for that.

After nearly a year of resistance, half-hearted looking and a few close calls, I realized there was no escaping my destiny. I called a friend of a friend who knew of a breeder who had a litter of 12 puppies ready for adoption, with four females still available. So off I went to meet them.

When I arrived at the breeder’s home, she invited me in and I was greeted immediately by the dam, a sweetheart named Zodiac. As we stood chatting, this dog came over to me and sat on my foot while leaning against me as an invitation to scratch her ears. “Zodie’s a suck-up,” the breeder said fondly, “and her puppies are going to be just like her.”

The breeder let me out into the backyard where the four females were all playing together. “Just see which one you like,” she said. I sat down and watched these fuzzy little black sausages chew the whiskers off each other’s faces and wrestle around, and after a while one of them came over to me and rolled over on her back at my feet. I looked into her eyes and asked her “is your name Ruby?” She lost all interest in her siblings, who continued playing together and ignoring us, and wouldn’t leave my side for the rest of the visit, so clearly it was. I knew suddenly and completely that I had made the right choice of the right dog at the right time, and all would be well for us.

Fooling around at my sister’s house when Ruby was about four months old (1997).

Despite her breed’s reputation for independence and dominance, Ruby was smart, biddable and a joy to train. She mastered sit, down, down/stay, and house training in the first month I had her. It helped a lot that I had a home-based business at the time and could be with her 24 hours a day. The one trick we worked on all her life, though, was walking nicely on a leash. She grew up to 110 lbs. and I developed a really, really strong left arm. She was not an angelic puppy … she loved to roll in poop, which she would do with enthusiasm and lightning speed at the most inopportune times. (Is there ever a good time for a dog to roll in poop?) Fortunately for all of us, she outgrew that behavior after she was spayed.

Owning a Rottweiler is both challenging and rewarding. Some of my clients were afraid to come in the house when she was in the room, and she scared a lot of people just by looking at them (although she never once hurt anyone). She was protective of me at all times, which allowed us the freedom to go anywhere, any time, and not be bothered. When she was with me, I felt perfectly safe, even walking at night through downtown Seattle or exploring out in the woods. When I went to graduate school and had to rent a house, her breed was a deal-breaker for several potential landlords, but I was fortunate to find one who owned a 150-lb. malamute, next to which my dog looked quite puny. She had no concerns at all about Ruby’s breed.

Just a big ol’ couch potato, keeping an eye on the neighborhood (2004).

Ruby loved a car ride and she traveled with me nearly everywhere I went. I cherish the pictures I have of her in the canyons of Utah, on the beach, against a backdrop of the Sawtooths, and so many places in between. She was an excellent traveler and companion. She had a calm temperament and a generally peaceful nature, although she had her fierce moments too. Generally speaking, she liked people, and from the time I got her, she had a habit of sitting on the foot of total strangers and inviting them to scratch her ears, just like her mother did.

She learned to swim when she was nine years old, and I couldn’t have been more proud of her.

She was afraid of water all her life until our local river flooded in 2006. She dove right into it and she couldn’t get enough of the water after that.

She had mildly dysplastic hips, a common orthopedic defect in Rotties, and developed arthritis when she was about 5 that we managed with Rimadyl. Otherwise, she was always the very acme of health until the summer of 2007, when she started skipping every other meal or every third meal. She was losing weight and, I am sorry to say, I got impatient with her for not eating. She stopped getting excited when I’d pick up my car keys or her leash, and she would lie down whenever I stopped to talk to somebody when we were out walking, rather than impatiently pulling at the leash to get me to go again. She was restless at night, getting up several times and circling before settling again with a sigh, and I would hear her panting in the dark. It was a searing July, and I was sure it was just the heat. She’d been to the vet in May to have her teeth cleaned and she’d been perfectly fine then.

I watched her carefully for any specific symptoms, but the main problem just seemed to be extreme fatigue that came and went. I started to get a bad feeling, but was afraid to take her to the vet to confirm it. Then one Tuesday morning she went out to the yard first thing as usual and laid down on her side on the lawn, panting quietly. She would not get up when I called her, so I knew it was time to see the vet.

I dropped her off at her regular vet and went to work. The phone call came at about 10 a.m. “How’s my dog?” I asked brightly, still hoping it was just the heat, or a passing bug. The doctor, one of several at the clinic and one whom we had never seen before, responded flatly, “she’s in trouble.” I felt the ground fall away beneath me. “She has a mass on her spleen,” he said, along with a lot of other words that meant very little to me at the time. What was the prognosis? The mass, called a hemangiosarcoma, could burst, leading to a horribly painful death. Or it could just grow until it crowded out her other organs. Either way, she was going to die from it. What could we do? He could remove her spleen, which might give her a few more months but was not to be considered a cure. “Or I could put her down for you now” he said in the same flat tone. That’s when the tears started. The end had come so suddenly, so brutally.

The vet gave her a steroid shot to relieve her arthritis pain so we could discontinue the daily Rimadyl, as well as a vitamin shot to boost her energy level, and I took her home that afternoon. I asked for the rest of the week off from work and made plans for the endgame.

We spent the next few days visiting everyone she knew in town so they could say goodbye to her. I barbecued sirloin steak and fed it to her bite by bite when she wouldn’t eat anything else. We went to the river that she loved so much and we both did our best to act like we were having a good time even though she was so tired and I was so sad.

Ruby at the river the day before she died. You can see the shaved patches on her legs where they drew blood for her diagnosis.

She never in her life slept on my bed, but if she had wanted to, I’d have let her. I couldn’t let her out of my sight.

I weighed the options carefully and decided that since she was only going to get worse and that “worse” could be really, really bad for both of us, the kindest thing to do was to let her go sooner than later. I didn’t want to hold on too long while my dog suffered because of my own selfish fears. So I called the vet and asked for a Friday afternoon appointment. “We have nowhere to store the body over the weekend,” the receptionist said coldly. “You’ll have to take her somewhere else if you want it done tomorrow.” This was the last conversation I ever had with anyone at that clinic, where Ruby had been a patient for five years.

On the last morning, she went outside to pee and came back inside and laid down again. I laid down on the floor beside her and stroked her soft ears while I told her the story of her life, from the very beginning when god said to me, “You need a Rottweiler named Ruby.” I recounted every adventure we’d had together, all the places we’d traveled, all the challenges we’d overcome together, and every funny story I could recall that had anything to do with her. I told her the names of everyone who loved her. I thanked her for being my dog, and for being such a good dog. I explained why she was sick and what was going to happen. I told her not to be afraid because I’d be right there with her and she wouldn’t feel a thing.

The morning passed into afternoon and she showed no interest in getting up. I knew that waiting longer would just mean so many more agonizing days of watching the light in her eyes go dark from pain and debility. I couldn’t do that to her.

We ended up going to the local specialty hospital for the last appointment, where we were treated with courtesy and compassion. I sat on a blanket on the floor with my arms around her as the syringe of red fluid emptied into her leg. She sighed softly once and was gone so fast, literally in a heartbeat. I stayed with her until it felt right to leave her there. I drove away from the hospital feeling surprisingly peaceful and free, knowing she was no longer in any pain and was safe in the arms, as they say. I knew I would miss her, but it didn’t set in right away. My grieving didn’t begin until I picked up her ashes a few weeks later. I keep them in my house in a finely made oak box, with this small rock on top of it.

I’ve kept a few of her things, including her leash and her last collar. We had to go to five stores before we found one large enough; her neck was 26 inches around.

This is the notice of Ruby’s death that I sent to my friends and family (click image for a larger version; Adobe Acrobat required to view).

I miss her still, five years on, but I do not mourn her. I am grateful that god chose me to see her through this life. This is and will always be my favorite story.

The best dog in the world.

Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.
Roger Caras