Today marks three months since my awesome dog Brandy died. The passage of time struck me this morning as I prepared a box of her things ready to go to our storage locker. I had accumulated her toys and many accessories in this box and put it on a shelf in my office. When I took it down from the shelf this morning and opened it, I was reminded of her absence in a way I hadn’t experienced before. The box is full of our favourite things: 2 blue rubber frisbees, several orange hockey balls from Canadian tire (she chewed through tennis balls at the speed of light), a Chuck-it, and her water toy called “squirrel” that always incited a frenzy when brought into view.
I adopted Brandy from the SPCA when she was three and a half. I still have the survey her original family filled out when they surrendered her in September 2003. It is clear from their answers on the survey that her original owners didn’t have time for their dog. Brandy, a mix between a border collie and number of other working dog breeds, did not thrive left outside all day and evening. She needed attention, interaction, something to do, or someone to follow around incessantly. They did the right thing giving her up. I am the beneficiary of what I expect was a difficult decision.
Brandy was my “single-girl dog”. We lived without other human company for a long time. Without her in my life to get me outside to the dog parks, I could go days without any social contact. A former work-a-holic, integrating a half-crazy neglected dog into my life proved to be as challenging as it was eventually rewarding. I hung in and made it past the first 18 months of battling for the role of “alpha”. The best way to describe our relationship is that we developed an understanding and learned to live together very well. Brandy was with me when I moved to Kelowna in 2005, and returned to Toronto with me and my family last summer. She thoroughly enjoyed the wide open space of Toronto’s beach dog parks during her last months. It was a sharp contrast to what we had become accustomed to in Kelowna.
My last walk with Brandy at Kew Beach in Toronto was on Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015 at sunset. I remembered speaking with a man who was at the icy water’s edge with his dog and a SLR camera. After we spoke, I walked down the beach, headed west, enjoying my dog in her happy place. The next morning, she was incapacitated for a final time with pancreatitis, a disease that had been diagnosed in September. The day after she died, I couldn’t get the conversation at the waterfront out of my head, and I kept thinking the photographer must have taken some pictures of the sunset that would have included us in his composition. I would have. A persistent voice in my head kept saying, “I bet you could find him through Facebook.” I sat down and wrote:
I composed carefully, not wanting to overdo it by becoming maudlin in my grief. I didn’t know what to expect and had no idea the outpouring of help and support that was on the way. When the Facebook group “The Beaches” got a hold of my post, our story went semi-viral. By Monday, the post had been shared over 500 times, the photographer and a beautiful picture found. I rejoiced at having a final, beautiful memento of me and “my girl”, photographed by Ryan Phillips. That would have been enough, but the next day, Daniel Otis, a reporter from the Toronto Star contacted me, wanting to write a feel-good story that ended up on the front page. Between the article and Facebook, I heard from hundreds of people all over the world; many of them I knew, and some are new connections. Whenever I miss my girl, I think about the outpouring of support and the interest of strangers who saw the possibility of a photo and were interested enough to help me find it.
As I reflect on over eleven years of being Brandy’s master and the events surrounding her death, I realize I am still learning from her. On that note, here are some lessons from my old dog:
1. Always have your ears up and be ready to play.
Unless you think you might be in trouble, then put your ears down and still be ready to play.
2. Be receptive and greet everyone in your path.
Brandy had three greetings. No human or dog was exempt.
- The tentative stranger greeting, requesting eye contact and an invitation to interact.
- The exuberant friends and family greeting for everyone in her tribe.
- The explosive “you are the centre of my universe” greeting, reserved only for me.
The world would be a better place if we all greeted each other the way Brandy did.
3. You earn your dog’s Loyalty with your Commitment.
It would have been easy to give up on my untrained, prey-driven mutt. There were times that I considered it because of my growing business and extensive travel. Fortunately, Brandy had a second “mom”, Heidi of Heidi’s Doggy Day Care in Summerland, BC. Without her help and level of care, I don’t know how Brandy and I would have survived. Being a dog owner also means commitment on a daily basis, from the humbling picking up of steaming excrement to walks in sub-zero temperatures for months on end.
4. Enjoy each walk as if it were your last.
As cold as it was this past February in Toronto, Brandy and I had a blast on our last walk. We ran together and played together; partly to keep warm, but mostly because we enjoyed each other. There was no indication on that walk of what was coming the next day. If she would play at her age, who was I to deny her?
5. Never underestimate the power of asking or the kindness of strangers.
I have to admit that I hesitated before writing that Facebook post, because I doubted anything would come of it. When the idea persisted, I realized there was nothing to lose. Since all this happened, I have stepped up my conscious effort to heed my inner voice and respond when I can to similar requests. You never know when you might play a role in reducing the six degrees of separation between the asking and the answer.
6. Ultimate Responsibility
It is widely understood that dogs are a lot of work. They don’t outgrow their toddler-like state and depend on us to feed them, walk them, and be their companions. If you’re reading this and are getting romantic about the idea of getting a dog, please think twice! As great as Brandy was, an entire family couldn’t find the time to care for her properly. A dog is a long-term commitment and someone has to be OK with picking up the shit. That part of the responsibility is well known.
The responsibility that we don’t want to think about is that we are going to love this animal and in all likelihood have to make the decision to end their life. Brandy was my dog, which meant the final decision was mine alone. And it was much harder than I imagined. There came a point when sustaining her life was more about what I wanted than what was best for her. Fortunately, when she was diagnosed with pancreatitis, I had a number of conversations with her vet, Dr Nigel Skinner. Our conversations helped me gain clarity at a difficult time and know when the time was right to let her go. It didn’t make it easier, but it helped me know that I was doing the right thing. It was uncanny that the day Brandy died, the Supreme Court of Canada legalized physician-assisted suicide, otherwise known as euthanasia for humans.
This summer, you might see me plodding along at the beach as I renew my commitment to long-distance running. It had fallen by the wayside as my priorities shifted to accommodate the needs of my old dog. It still feels strange running alone, but I have my ears up and am open to playing with you and your dog if we cross paths and happen to make eye contact.