For the past several years I have hoped for something that may seem a little odd. I have prayed that when it was time for our eldest dog to move on, that he would pass in his sleep. He was a rescue dog who came into my life 12 years ago when my husband George and I made the decision to add to our family. It was a decision we took seriously, as dogs can demand a lot of time and additional expense to our already stretched budget. We knew that I wanted to adopt from a shelter, so the process began. George and I went from one shelter to another to another, unwilling to force a connection or fit. Just when my hopes were diminishing, we traveled to a shelter in another county and were allowed to enter the area where all the dogs were held.
I recall my first pass up and down the line of kennels and feeling disappointment that I didn’t see a dog who gave me the feeling of, “That’s the one!” Each dog was barking, spinning, and jumping all over their enclosure, trying to grab my attention and affection. Well, all but one. Like we’ve all heard before, there is an exception to every rule and the dog in the first kennel was clearly stating he was just that. Walking up to his kennel I read his profile card, “Likes long hikes and benefits from exercise.” I then read his name, “Rambo,” and tentatively bent over, not knowing if this 70-pound German Shepard/Rhodesian Ridgeback mix would lunge at me or bear his teeth. Yes I know it sounds silly, but given his name I thought he must be docile. Looking directly into his eyes the unexpected happened. He looked back into mine, held contact, tilted his head, and gave me a goofy little grin, more like Billy Madison from Happy Gilmore than Rambo. This moment captured my heart, and with some reference checks and a swipe of a credit card, we were out the door. There was no question that despite paying for him at the shelter, he was not a piece of property but instead an integral part of our family.
As we got to know each other, his persistence, curiosity, and stubbornness made me fall further in love with him. There was no doubt he was a custom mutt, truly one of a kind and luckily one that didn’t know his name. This was our opportunity to give this dog a more proper name and he made the process easy when immediately his favorite toy was log he took out of the woodpile. In this instant Rambo became Timber and we were thrilled that he seemed to enjoy every type of adventure we could throw at him. For me, I loved having a companion on the trail. He had no complaints if I talked a lot or was silent. He had no hesitation if my route was flawless or if there was a hiccup in my navigation. He had no reservations about striking out at anytime or in any weather. He was all in and that helped me feel all in even when tired, sick, or feeling unmotivated.
Just like a human, exercise for Timber had major benefits and occasional repercussions: a torn ACL from playing hard at the park, a severed anterior artery while skiing, a scratched cornea from trail running, the list goes on and on. The only thing the trips to the vet seemed to hurt was our bank account as each time Timber bounced back faster than predicted. A few years back, I wrote a piece on coming to accept that he could no longer explore at the level and speed he did in his younger years. It brought me sadness to have to leave him home on the longer or more challenging days, but I learned that we could still enjoy scaled-down daily doses of adventure together.
With the acceptance of his aging came the acknowledgment of the reality that Timber was not invincible. I feared the day that he would no longer be with us, as he was a part of our family and a part of us individually. In the double digits Timber certainly wasn’t as sturdy as he was in his prime, but he would give it everything he had. It was like his mind was saying one thing and his body tried to obey but just couldn’t.
It’s hard to believe that just a month ago he stood at the sliding glass door, crying to go out, and before I could open the door enough for his girth he had wedged himself through. He ran full tilt into the field and flushed a fox out of some brush. He then pursued the fox in a full-out sprint. There was no way he had the endurance or agility at this point to catch the fox, but he sure was going to try like heck. It was a minute or two of pure excitement for him then as he worked his way back to the house he didn’t run, rather he slowly sauntered, favoring one side over the other with his tail tucked between his legs. Recognizing his pain, I let him inside and encouraged him back onto the couch.
The next day, we woke up to Timber not feeling well. The soonest our vet could see him was 3:30 p.m., so I stayed home from work to watch over him before the appointment. After his exam and some labs, I was told Timber had an aggressive form of cancer. I explained that this couldn’t be, he had just hunted a fox. Given his age there was little to nothing we could do besides keep him comfortable, while loving him like we always have. I thought with some extra snuggles and treats, he would rebound and fight this. I never imagined that our time with him would be limited to days.
Timber’s health declined quickly and then no word, not even “walk,” “run,” “go,” or “cookie,” could arouse him. George and I have always made the promise to not extend a dog’s life while they are suffering as we felt that would be selfish. Thus my hope that our beloved family member would pass in his sleep while dreaming of one of our runs together didn’t come true. Needless to say having to make the decision to put him down was at the very least heartbreaking. There was utter disbelief and endless tears.
In the following days I cannot tell you how many times I woke up and expected to see him in his bed next to ours or expected that he would come prancing over to greet me when I arrived home from work. During this period of grief, I thought that my running would be a source of solace, but my physical self was mirroring my emotional self. It wasn’t pretty and it hurt desperately, but I slowly came to realize that my life was and will continue to be brighter because of having Timber as a part of our family. There hasn’t been a day that has passed that I have not missed him, but that is the perhaps the greatest testament that he not only gave his best, but that I gave him the best of myself as well. Someday I will share the trail again with Timber, and until then I will remember the love that he gave and the lesson he taught.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Do you have a dog with whom you trail run? Can you describe the nature of your relationship?
- What lessons have the special pets in your life taught you?