Almost four years, one thousand four hundred twenty-three days to be exact, since May 15, 2018. Almost four years since I had to say good-bye to Lance. Since then I’ve jotted down bits and pieces, snippets of remembrances, nothing more. It’s as though through memorializing, fingers to keyboard, will somehow close a door that I don’t want to shut. And if that door shuts, then what? As unreasonable as it sounds, after almost four years I resist putting a bow on this. Logically I know that memories don’t work this way. When I started writing this it was much too new, too raw, each memory instantly surfacing a fresh pain.
Dogs past. Dogs present. Losing a dog has never been easy for me. My dogs are family. I can’t imagine my life without my dogs. I can’t imagine a life without dogs, period. Losing a dog unexpectedly is especially difficult. This was the case with Lance. I didn’t see it coming.
My first dog was Brandy, a Cocker Spaniel mix. She was as blond as my braids. I was six. Just two short years later she was gone. It was summer. My mom and I were in Ellensburg, where my mom was attending summer school. My dad was home with the dogs in Aberdeen, four and a half hours away. Brandy and Cinnamon, another dog who had joined our family by then, escaped the yard and ran. Cinnamon came back, Brandy didn’t. My dad found Brandy by the side of the road. I remember being angry, thinking if I had been home it wouldn’t have happened. My first heartbreak.
Cinnamon, a Brittany Spaniel, joined the family shortly after we got Brandy. Cinnamon was a smart pup; she repeatedly escaped the pen she and Brandy were housed in. I remember my dad being baffled by her repeated escapes, so much so he parked himself in front of the window in hopes of catching her in the act. It didn’t take long. Cinnamon climbed up the squares of the fencing that made up the pen and deftly walked down a board that was leaning up against the outside of the pen. She was out in less than 30 seconds.
When my parents divorced two and a half years later neither of them was allowed to have a dog in their respective rental, so Cinnamon went to live with my grandparents. I was able to see Cinnamon when it was my dad’s visitation weekend. My dad and I would often stay at my grandparent’s house in Kent on “his” weekends as it was situated halfway between Ellensburg and Aberdeen. Although stern and gruff, my grandpa treated his dogs well. When Cinnamon came to live with my grandparents my grandpa threatened to get rid of Cinnamon if she couldn’t earn her keep. This meant hunt. And hunt she did. Cinnamon hunted pheasants and quail alongside Shorty, my grandpa’s Brittany Spaniel. She endured the haircuts Grandpa inflicted upon her each summer. It was with the best of intentions that the dogs were subjected to the clippers each summer, not only to keep the dogs cool as well as to prevent burrs becoming tangled in their fur during hunting season. The dogs were lucky that most Seattle summers had their share of gray days, so sunburns were few and far between. Cinnamon was a sweet girl, a great bird dog, and lived a long life. When Cinnamon was in her senior years, my mom and I were living in Kansas. I didn’t get to say goodbye to Cinnamon.
Jake, a Black Lab, was my first dog as an adult and my first rescue. He was about two or three years old when he came to live with me, newly married and pregnant with my daughter, Jennifer. My ex-husband, a farmer, drove truck in the non-growing seasons, leaving at two or three in the morning to haul hay and fertilizer. Jake was my protector. One night lying by the woodstove he shot up and stood at the back door. He barked so insistently I relented and let him outside, only to have him immediately want back in. It took only a second to figure out why. Jake fell victim to a skunk. Before having time to react, Jake immediately rolled and rubbed himself all over the carpet before I was able to get him into the garage. Several years later after my son Eric was born, Jake became Eric’s best buddy and confidant, even going as far as to share his kibble with his blond-haired buddy. Jake was gentle, sweet, and snored like a lumberjack. He developed dementia in his later years.
Molly, a Rat Terrier, joined our family when Jake was about seven years old. Molly was the alpha dog throughout her life. She was smart, wicked fast, feisty, relatively independent as dogs go, and didn’t put up with anyone’s monkey business. She was Jake’s companion, as well as Kenai & Sitka’s in her later years. She lived to be fifteen years old.
Kenai was a sweetheart of a Golden Retriever. Kenai was a beautiful dog, carrying himself regally, prancing rather than walking. He developed hot spots each spring and summer from his allergies, which meant clipping his beautiful dark red fur to prevent further irritation. Kenai was a sweet dog, ever insistent in his need to be petted, and was keenly patient with children and even a new puppy (Lance). He lived to be fourteen.
Sitka, a lighter colored Golden Retriever, came to us as a Valentine’s Day present when Kenai was a year old. She developed epilepsy at age two, and luckily her seizures were few and far in between. Sitka was a sweetheart of a dog, ever well behaved, and patient with even the most trying of puppies (Lance). In her later years Sitka developed laryngeal paralysis, which ultimately contributed to her death at age twelve.
Goober and Sparky, brothers, were an English-Springer Spaniel mix. These were my step-dogs, part of the blended fur family, bringing the total to five dogs & three cats. They were both immensely sweet. Sparky died of sepsis, Goober in his sleep.
Lance, Livestrong Lance on his papers, a larger than breed standard, fox red Yellow Lab, born June 26, 2006. I jokingly referred to Lance as my replacement son as he came into our lives about a month before my son, Eric, left for college. Lance lived life with gusto. As typical with most Labs, his first four years of life were a perpetual puppy stage. Several rounds of obedience & rally classes helped with focus and attention. Even with those experiences under his belt, or collar so to speak, Lance fell into a category of dogs that listen primarily to one human. That human was me. That didn’t mean he did everything I asked of him, but more often than not he would listen to me and ignore others.
If Lance had a tag line it would have been "Go big or go home". Medical issues were no exception. When Lance was about four years old he experienced bouts of what presented as lameness of his front right leg and shoulder. Repeated trips to the vet followed. Prednisone. Rest. Lance would get better. Within a month lameness would rear its head again. Prednisone. Rest. Repeat. X-rays revealed no clues to any underlying condition. Finally, after a trip to Washington State University's (WSU) Veterinary Hospital in Pullman, we had a diagnosis: Wobbler syndrome.
PetMD defines Wobblers as:
"Cervical spondylomyelopathy (CSM), or wobbler syndrome, is a disease of the cervical spine (at the neck) that is commonly seen in large and giant-breed dogs. CSM is characterized by compression of the spinal cord and/or nerve roots, which leads to neurological signs and/or neck pain. The term wobbler syndrome is used to describe the characteristic wobbly gait (walk) that affected dogs have.
Intervertebral disk slippage and/or bony malformation in a narrowed vertebral canal (the bony canal surrounding the soft spinal cord) can cause spinal compression. Disk associated spinal compression is most often seen in dogs older than three years of age."
There is no cure for Wobblers, only management of lifestyle and ensuing symptoms. We consistently began using a harness with Lance for any outdoor excursions. Through trial and error we found we could take Lance on walks as long as we didn't exceed a mile. Lance could not be let outside for "free play" with Bailey without a setback, so outdoor time in our yard was on a leash. I encountered a number of people who told me that was no life for a dog, and if it was their dog they would put it down. I know Lance would have disagreed. Dogs adapt. Lance adapted as did we.
One of things that Lance loved to do was disrupt the tranquility of our feline housemates. Lance would square off with the cat, make a motion to chase, bounding down on his front legs, the cat would run,and Lance would follow. Having hardwood floors was an issue with a dog with Wobblers, any slip was likely to trigger lameness. I became an expert in styling with runners, keeping bare floor surfaces to a minimum. After one such event Lance's lameness presented with his back right leg. X-rays revealed a torn ACL. Lance was ten years old at the time, his adult weight was 107 lbs. With Wobblers Lance needed four working legs. Lance and I made the trip to Pullman for his knee repair.
Once home we confined Lance to a pen in our entryway until he was fully recovered. Taking Lance to the bathroom took Dave and me, one of us guiding with a leash, the other guided with a sling under Lance's abdomen. This proved to be quite the excursion once it snowed, Dave and I both navigating snow and ice, hoping we stayed upright lest Lance re-injure himself. I slept next to Lance's pen for the duration of his recovery.
The next two years of Lance's life were fairly smooth and unremarkable. Lance slowed down and mellowed a bit, which in and of itself pained me knowing our time with him was limited. In early May of 2018 I noticed a new bump on the landscape of Lance's coat. Lance already had a few fatty myelomas (benign fatty tumors), but this new one was at the base of his tail and presented with a dry scaly patch. The biopsy revealed cancer. After meeting with our vet for the pre-op appointment I prepared myself for surgery, knowing that Lance's tail, with its ever efficient table clearing ability, may need to be removed. His surgery was scheduled for Tuesday. The Friday before his scheduled surgery Lance was extremely lethargic. Saturday Lance vomited profusely and couldn't even keep water down. I managed to get Lance an appointment to our veterinary clinic with the doctor on call. The vet took Lance back for an X-ray, returning a short time later with the results. The vet showed me what looked to be a football where Lance's spleen should be. I remember asking what the prognosis was and the sound that followed, that erupted out of me, was so alien it made me wonder who was in the room with me. I was gutted. Lance and I were sent home with a prescription of a single pill, the package directions in Chinese, with an English translation to give in case of collapse.
Hemangiosarcoma. According to Wikipedia: Hemangiosarcoma is a rapidly growing, highly invasive variety of cancer that occurs almost exclusively in dogs, and only rarely in cats, horses, mice, or humans (vinyl chloride toxicity). It is a sarcoma arising from the lining of blood vessels; that is, blood-filled channels and spaces are commonly observed microscopically. A frequent cause of death is the rupturing of this tumor, causing the patient to rapidly bleed to death.
The focus of Lance's surgery became operability. Whether he could survive. Lance's vet, who I trusted, who I still trust to this day, told me he would call me during surgery to let me know whether he thought Lance could make it out of this surgery to the other side. I took the day off work. The doctor called mid-surgery with an update. The tumor was inoperable. What did I want to do? They could close him up so I could say good-bye. Wouldn't he be in pain? Yes, but they could could give him pain medication. Would he even know I was there? Maybe. Wouldn't he still be in pain? Most likely. I couldn't do that to my Lance. Instead asked our vet to rub Lance's ear, as I did countless times a day, tell him I loved him, tell him good-bye.
My heart was shattered. I couldn't talk about Lance without tears for the longest time. Even now as I type, I have to stop, blot my eyes, blow my nose, and breath. I can still hear and feel Lance's deep heavy breath when I would rub his ears.
There are some dogs who are our soulmates. Lance was mine.
Bailey, also a Yellow Lab, joined our family December 12, 2008. Bailey was about two or three years old when we rescued her, arriving at a shelter in Prosser, Washington via Idaho where she had been cared for by her previous owner’s neighbors for several months; the wife having fled with her two children in the middle of the night, leaving behind an abusive husband and Bailey. Bailey, who had a bit of separation anxiety in her younger years, was known to clear our four foot high dog yard fence, prompting a change to a five foot high fence. She managed to periodically clear that fence as well until a few extra years and pounds caught up with her. Bailey loved to swim and eat raspberries directly from our raspberry bushes. Bailey developed chronic hepatitis, which we were able to successfully manage for the last four plus years of her life. In the last two years of her life, Bailey had a cancerous tumor removed from her left side and developed neuropathy in her back legs. I bought Bailey stairs so that she could get up on and down off of the bed. Bailey was a happy girl until the end. She crossed rainbow bridge October 2, 2018.
Annie arrived on MLK Day 2016 by way of Texas. My best guess for her birthday is Columbus Day 2015. Annie has short black fur, with a thin tail that disappears between her legs when she’s nervous. Weighing in at 85 pounds, taller than an average lab, with smaller ears, a deep chest, and long delicate limbs. Wisdom Panel says that Annie is part Lab, Chow Chow, Hunting Hound, and American Staffordshire Terrier. Annie is my shadow.
Annie was one of a litter of nine pups who was living on the streets when her mom was hit by a car. Annie and her siblings were taken in by a rescue; four of the five were adopted by families in Washington state. Annie has the softest mouth of any dog I’ve known. She is a bit of a scaredy cat, spooked easily by wind, new people, cars, and children. She’s never demonstrated any aggression, instead when nervous she will put herself in her crate.
Magnus was well planned. With Lance and Bailey in their golden years I began researching breeders early in 2018. As much as I am an advocate for rescues, I also readily acknowledge my love of Labradors. I wanted to add a Lab to our family who was bred with as much consideration for temperament and health as breed specification. I also wanted Magnus to have the opportunity to learn from our senior pups. Magnus was born July 21, 2018 and came to live with us September 15th via Pridezion Labrador Retrievers. Parents, Hogan & Rayce. Lance didn’t live long enough to meet Magnus, and Bailey’s influence was only a couple of weeks of Magnus’ life.
I’ve learned a lot from my dogs over the years. Patience and compassion being an obvious two.
Lance taught me a lot about not taking myself so seriously, living in the moment, along with….
Make an entrance….even if it means everyone grabs their beverage off the coffee table as your tail approaches.
Indulge yourself....whether it’s two pounds of Italian sausage, half of a coconut cake, or a full body rub against the furniture.
Train your people in the manner in which you want to be treated....lay in front of the shower door, bathroom door, any door. You can earn extra treats just by standing up.
Cause a little trouble....pretend you’re going to chase a cat. The cat will run, and you don’t have to.
Trust those you love....they will be there for you. They will make sure you have the best care. They will sleep next to you on the floor after you have knee surgery. They will make sure you don’t hurt yourself.
Take risks, have fun....cones are temporary.
When in doubt, choose happy.
Find ways to remind your loved ones you’re thinking of them....a Yellow Lab’s magical fibers of love follow you wherever you go, even when you're far from home.
Lance lived life big, big in every way. Size. Bark. Personality. Appetite. Enthusiasm. Wag. Lance was a living lesson book.