Last night, I had to say goodbye to my furry shadow, my 100lb wingman, Sam the dog. He went downhill fast, his kidneys failing and he just couldn’t hold on any longer and he passed peacefully in my arms, being held and petted and told how good he was. We should all pass so peacefully and surrounded by love.
I returned home to a bed that felt far too empty. Not long after Sam was potty trained, he took up residence by my side at night and it feels weird having space to stretch out when usually we’d both sleep curled up together in a companionable tangle. When I woke, I decided to start today with a long, long walk…the kind he used to enjoy and as I walked, I reflected on his life and so many good memories as well as the struggles and all the richness he brought to our lives.
Sam was one of the best dogs, if not the best dog, I’ve ever had. It was an honor to share his life with him. Still, I would not say he was an “easy” dog. He challenged me to grow so much and learn so much and that was part of the strength of our bond to each other.
Sam had it rough from the start, the biggest male of a litter of 13 pups born to a St. Bernard in a one room cabin in Seward Alaska in winter. His mother had an anxious temperament and developed a mastitis infection so bad that she began to turn on her own puppies when they tried to nurse, so they had to be weaned at just 5 1/2 weeks, not the recommended 8 weeks. This meant that he missed out on all the socialization his mother would normally have given him, teaching him not to nip and to get along with other dogs. We rescued him and brought him home, choosing him in part because he was already eating food well and had a good chance of survival and the way our hearts melted when he tried to crawl into my husband’s beard.
Sam grew quickly, as giant breed puppies do and soon he was a LOT to handle. He ate an insulin pump and a cell phone, crunching them up with his powerful jaws. He nipped and scratched, not really knowing how to handle his high drive. I tried different training methods and finally, I turned to Schutzhund, which is a dog sport similar to police dog training and I found a wonderful training club to train with who really helped me so much with him.
Working with Sam, I learned patience and courage. It takes a certain amount of courage to train a 100lb dog to bite a target, particularly when you’re holding that target. Sam loved the training and quickly learned to channel his instincts and drive bred into him into something constructive and he became so gentle with us. I was amazed at his ability to track scents and his joy at doing what he’d been bred to do. He knew what days we were going to go to training or tracking and would whine with anticipation the entire ride there. He had the same enthusiasm for hiking or camping and would also whine a whine that was near ear-splitting and fidget whenever he knew we were going on a trip.
Sam taught me about acceptance. There were some parts of his temperament that I couldn’t fix. That might be due to my lack as a handler, but I learned to accept those parts of him even when they limited houseguests. I loved him and I’d committed to taking care of him for life, even if it meant our lifestyle had to adjust to fit him. Our vacations were mostly planned around things and places we could take a big horse dog and I loved seeing his happiness at being included with his family. All he ever wanted was to be right with his people. Even our vehicle choices were driven by what could accommodate him and my husband even got a trailer for his motorcycle so he could bring Sam along. When we looked at houses to live in, Sam’s needs factored right in with our own. I learned to embrace being covered in dog hair on a regular basis, loving him more than I did looking neat or the house being spotless.
Sam taught me about courage and loyalty. He always protected his family to the best of his ability, even if he often thought things were threats that really weren’t. The UPS and FedEx men never killed any of us thanks to his brave displays of strength and bravery. What people didn’t know is that Sam actually failed as an attack dog in training. He would bark and growl at the “bad man” and then get scared and jump behind me. His barking and growling was his fear, but he still did his best to keep danger at bay and I’m sure anyone thinking to break into our house would probably have chosen another once they met him. He also was our “fun police,” quick to break up any roughhousing he deemed too dangerous and he made sure we all stayed together when we went hiking. I can still remember how anxious he would get when the kids climbed on rocks on mountainsides in Alaska, pacing and whining like an anxious nursemaid. He bravely stood guard as we picked berries in grizzly country and accompanied each of us on walks in the dark too many times to count.
Sam taught me about compassion. He had such soft fur around his neck and checks and I think each of us has cried tears into that fur from time to time. He was always willing to cuddle or comfort anyone who needed it, becoming a gentle giant and a steady presence. I remember burying my face in that fur so many times over the trials of the past few years and finding comfort in the slow steady beat of his big heart. Sam kept everyone’s secrets and always seemed to understand what couldn’t be spoken, keeping confidences of two kids navigating from childhood into their teen years. He also had an uncanny knack for knowing when I was coming down with something and herding me off to bed, even before I knew I was getting sick. He tried to take care of everyone.
From Sam I learned about the lighter side of life, too. While he was a pretty serious dog, he also sometimes had a goofy side. It was more subtle than our corgi’s clowning. Sometimes he’d groan from under the table at just the right moment in a conversation and send us all into fits of laughter. He loved to romp and play in snow and would have preferred to stay outside in the cold. When he’d get playful he could clear a flight of stairs in 2 bounds or an entire room and turn on a dime. He wasn’t a big drooler, but when he did, it was usually pretty funny, as were his “floogies” that would happen in winter, long strings of drool that generally seemed to land on the exact person who was most trying to avoid them.
Last night, Sam brought me his last lesson as he laid in my arms, calm and trusting, and slipped away. He was teaching me how to let go with love, which is a hard lesson, but one that is so timely in my life right now as I slowly let my kids out into the world and also grow older myself. It’s a lesson I’m bound to repeat again and again as the years go on. Sam was a noble creature right to the very end, laying in my lap and trusting me as he breathed his last and passing without fear or doubt or regret, listening to words telling him he’d done the job of being a dog well. I couldn’t help but think that I could only hope that one day, when I’m very old and gray, that I will meet my end as gracefully and peacefully and with the assurance that I was good as well.
Rest well, Sam. You kept your herd safe and deserve a well-earned rest.