by Danielle Kemper, MSW/LCSW
And really, who doesn’t want to run away every now and then?
This is Dash’s story.
I had been fostering dogs for Black Canyon Animal Sanctuary for almost a year when I met Dash. I was trying to distract myself from my father’s slow exit from life due to Parkinson’s disease. It was like that, a slow exit. Every day pieces of my father flew away, leaving the rest of him stuck, leaving all of us stuck, suspended, caught between who we knew him to be and the reality of what we saw in front of us. During that time what energy I had went into my business and the maintenance of the farm I bought to be closer to my father in his last years, a farm I thought could teach me how to grow roots. If there was anything left over at that point it went to grief. I felt powerless, a tough emotion for someone who values movement and change.
Here’s how it happened, those first few steps on the slippery slope of fostering dogs.
Meeting Dash for the First Time
Always a one dog person, I was invited into Vendla Stockdale and her husband Steve’s crazy six-dog family of both resident and foster dogs. Vee is a rescuer in the most beautiful sense of the word and was more than happy to encourage the idea. I knew I couldn’t change much, but I could feed dogs, train them, love on them, see them get new homes. And, I could trick myself into feeling like I had control over something, anything. I could surround myself with jumping, chewing, barking life and distract myself from what was in front of me. I could fight what I really wanted: to run away.
After several impossibly cute puppies and a deaf Aussie that I taught hand signals so we could communicate, all of whom were adopted, Debbie called me about “Van”. Found in a dumpster where he had fallen in searching for food, “Van” was from a now infamous colony of feral border collies living in the adobe hills at the dump. After the “see what you can do with him so we can get him a good home” talk, Debbie agreed to meet me halfway between our properties, at what everyone calls the “smiley barn”.
I waited. And waited. No Debbie. No Van. Just that red barn with the frozen smiling expression.
I drove the rest of the way to the sanctuary where a frazzled Debbie told me she couldn’t catch Van. My memory (that is not altogether accurate in its scope) is this: looking out across a pasture where a pack of dogs ran and tumbled and played and tussled. “And there,” Debbie said, “is Van.” I could see him, moving independently from the pack like some sort of moon orbiting a spinning planet. Always on the periphery, never within grabbing distance.
Van was feral, in every sense of the word.
Debbie humored me and we tried again to catch him. We were, of course, unsuccessful. Van was wary and adept at avoiding capture. And so we did the only sensible thing. We parked ourselves on the patio for a drink, in view of the pack and the majestic Needle Rock that presides over the sanctuary, mostly giving up on the idea.
As the summer night fell, the pack slowly came in for their dinner. At the very last of the pack, Van slipped in quietly and headed for an igloo at the corner of the patio. I had no experience with feral, so of course I crawled partway into the igloo to grab him. I got nipped at both ends, once by Van and once in the booty by an older feral collie from the same group who was protecting him. After both our prides were sufficiently hurt, Van came home with me where he stayed for a few months in a crate, not because I wanted him to, but because he was so fearful I had to drag him out of it and down the hall multiple times a day to go outside and to eat. I couldn’t let him out without a leash and a tight collar, lest he dash away.
And so, Van became Dash. Just Dash.
True Love Is Like This
This is the fast forward part, through moving images of hikes and half marathon trainings, horse rides and Mexico trips. Through all of the thousands of things we did together. Past images of a dog that I had to teach to look me in the eyes, a dog with a ruffled tongue, probably from cutting it on a can he licked at the dump while searching for food, a dog that carefully, slowly, painfully began to trust me. A dog who became amazing at obedience and affectionate beyond measure, who mostly stayed with me like a shadow except for every now and then when he would run away for an hour or so. A dog that came to trust too slowly to be adopted anywhere else but here.
True love is like this. I forgave Dash his dashes, each time going from quick anger at him in my head, to imagining losing him if he were shot by neighbors or hit by a car. He would always run to the same place, though, to the hills above our property. One hill filled with cedars, the other, a dry hill just like the hills where he lived the first year of his life, a steep hill with a view of the valley.
On June 26th he was diagnosed with bone cancer. He had a tumor on his skull by his eye. The cancer was aggressive and incredibly painful and I was told, for the first time in all my years with dogs, that it came with a time limit, 30-60 days.
Thirty to 60 days. That was the summer. By fall, I would catch myself thinking, I will not have Dash. That sweet, impossible, feral-at-heart collie will be gone.
He did not make it 60 days. He was relieved of his suffering yesterday evening by my very wonderful friend and vet, out in the grass turned lush by the recent rains and under the wide, Colorado sky.
I was scared this time I wouldn’t know when he was ready. His body was not giving out-he still wanted to play fetch even though it became impossible to open his mouth wide enough for the tennis ball. He couldn’t yawn anymore. But he still loved me despite increasing pain and pain meds. He still went to work with me, rode in the truck perched on the ledge of the back seat. He still lost his mind when we pulled up the road to Vee and Steve’s house for Cheese Time, or went to the dump, or went swimming. He still bumped friends’ hands until they would pet him.
My kind vet friend checked him before she went out of town for the weekend. “He’s not ready. Let’s keep him comfortable.”
And so, one last Cheese Time at Vee’s house Saturday night. A few car rides, windows down. A few walks where I took him out, no leash, begging him to run away one last time.
He stayed by my side instead.
Run Away Sweet Dash
My friend texted when she was an hour away from arriving home from her trip. She headed straight here when she got into town. While she was on her way, Dash and I and SammyJoe, my other collie from the dump and his partner in crime, headed up to the hills. Up to the top of the pasture, through the gate, up its steep flank. Sammy and I followed him as he wove through the trees, around sagebrush, carefully past cacti. He stayed mostly within sight, a flash of white here and there in the dappled shade, his beautiful tail like a flag. At one point I came around the bend and he was resting under a tree. Beside him was a perfect antler, one last antler from my antler-finding partner.
We continued on, past bones and a horse skull, past the mossy bowls where the deer bed down. When we had made a loop, the loop he wanted to go on, we headed back into the pasture where he lay down in the rows of cool irrigation water. Belly down in water and mud, his favorite. The alfalfa was blooming in purples, pinks, and even white, and the breeze carried its scent in heady waves. In a moment of magical thinking I asked him to follow me back to the house, probably before he was ready. I will take him again tomorrow, I thought. I will let him go even longer then. As if by thinking this, he would stay a few more days, stay in spite of the fact that I knew that over the weekend, he had finally taken a turn.
When my friend got to the house he did not bark. He lay down on the cool tile in front of her, and I knelt beside him. She looked up at me. “He’s ready.” When I started crying he looked up and scooted close to me, hooking me with a paw. We decided to let him leave outside rather than cooped up in the house. A fitting place for him, on the grassy stretch where he played years of fetch. Years, but not nearly long enough. He didn’t make it to old dog status.
And so this is the truth, as hard as it is to write and read: 6 CCs for a dog his weight. She loaded the syringe with 12. I cradled his head in my hands. When the tranquilizer shot kicked in and relieved his pain he sighed and his head was finally heavy in my hands. At just shy of two CCs of the second shot, the deal breaker shot, a dragon fly landed on his silvery white coat, then flew to the blanket we had spread on the grass to wrap him in. There, it touched down.
It was at that 2 CC point that he walked through the door. My friend opened it, and he walked through, past the pain and suffering. He was gone long before the full dose for his weight, long before the entire syringe was emptied. The dragon fly flew away.
True to his name, the door opened and my feral friend was gone.
My vet friend is wise and kind beyond measure. She knows my history. She reminded me some of what Dash taught me. Of what I taught him.
I think we both learned that it is ok to want to run away. But that we can run home when we are done. We can plant ourselves belly down in the earth, in the water, sharing space with the roots and tender growing things.
I did not get to have him long enough. What I would give to say to him one more time,
“Look at me.”
“Dash. Look at me.”
And see his cognac-colored eyes rest on mine briefly, one more time before he looks away, and I see the reflection of the hills in them instead.
And really, who doesn’t want to run away every now and then?
Run away, sweet Dash.