WARNING: My heart is on my sleeve in this post and I did not edit. I just need to pour all of this out.
So many weeks have passed since my last post.
I learned a long time ago that the world doesn’t stop turning when something significant happens in your life. I wish it did and it sure feels as though it should. We lost our sweet Ava girl last week. It was so unexpected, for a few days, I really needed our world to stop turning.
Reading through my last post, I can’t help but be numbed (and maybe just slightly humbled) by how unpredictable life is. I wrote that post mindful of our “borrowed time” with her. I was feeling so grateful that her February blood work had revealed nothing out of the ordinary and I really just hoped to simply have her with us for, at the very least, another year. Not for a moment would I have believed our time left with her could be so short. The reality feels cruel. Our hearts are broken.
Our last day with her was one of the longest of my life and yet, it wasn’t long enough. Watching our family say their goodbyes to our beautiful girl. Knowing what the right decision was, after watching her struggle for more than two weeks, and still second guessing myself out of desperation. Telling the vet, through tears, about when we first met her and her endlessly gentle nature. Remembering the sixteen pound (they aren’t small for very long) ball of fluff we brought home. How quickly nine years went by. Feeling guilty about a few times when I was so tired, I skipped her walk and grateful for everything she brought to my (our) life. Listening to her fade away, with my face buried in the top of her head, thanking her for being such a good dog and telling her, over and over, how loved she was – how our hearts were so full we couldn’t have loved her more. All the while silently wanting to be able to take back what was happening, and just take her home.
I would give anything to jingle her collar and have her meet me at the door, or bury my face in the top of her head one more time.
I wrote the following in an email I sent, to my friend Laura, over the weekend. Right now, there really are no better words to sum up how I am feeling… “It’s really difficult not to have her here with us. The ache in my heart, at times, is overwhelming. There are moments I think of her and for a minute, I can’t breathe. John and I both found ourselves looking for her this last week. During the thunderstorm, I immediately scanned for her and began to tell her it was ok. She really was our third child, my right hand gal, and heart dog.”
There is a piece missing from our every day. When my family leaves in the morning, I am filled with a gnawing emptiness. I am not lonely, but for the first time in twenty-two years, I am all alone. The house is still. The silence is palpable and the quiet makes me so sad.
Some will say “she’s just a dog”. It’s ok for them to not understand. Many friends have texted, emailed, and sent cards saying they have been there and they understand our despair. I know people are going, or have been, through far worse. Especially right now. Still, it doesn’t lessen the sorrow in our little corner of the world.
This weekend we received a card from our veterinary office. When I opened it, there was a small(ish) piece of paper inside. I flipped it over to find her paw print. It was such a surprise it took my breath away and before I could blink, the tears were spilling down my cheeks. I know, as with anything painful, the flood of emotions will lessen over time. In the midst of it all, I hear my girlfriend Jessica, “this too shall pass”.
For now, it’s right in front of me and I really miss her.
If you had said those words to me ten years ago, I would have acknowledged the idea, but I would not have given it much thought. The idea simply would not have carried any considerable weight for me.
Then we met Ava.
I’ve had pets before and loved them. I grew up with horses and dogs. Truth be told, I have never had a dog entangle my whole heart. If you have ever had a pet like this, you know exactly what I am talking about in this post.
She is family.
She is also aging and THIS. IS. HARD.
Ava is a Bernese Mountain Dog. I can’t count how many times I have been asked if she’s “the dog that carries the barrel around her neck and rescues people?” Let’s get that question out of the way now.
She is not. That’s a St. Bernard.
The Bernese Mountain Dog (German: Berner Sennenhund) is a large-sized breed of dog, one of the four breeds of Sennenhund-type dogs from the Swiss Alps. The name Sennenhund is derived from the German Senne (“alpine pasture”) and Hund (“dog”), as they accompanied the alpine herders and dairymen called Senn. Berner (or Bernese in English) refers to the area of the breed’s origin, in the canton of Bern. This mountain dog was originally kept as a general farm dog. Large Sennenhunde in the past were also used as draft animals, pulling carts. The breed was officially established in 1907. In 1937, the American Kennel Club recognized it; today, the club classifies it as a member of the Working Group.
Before you scroll down and see all of the other photos, I must relay one very significant piece of information. On average, these dogs are short lived. When we brought her home the average was 8 – 10 years. Sadly, it is now 6 – 8 years according to the AKC Berner page and I will tell you this…IT’S NOT LONG ENOUGH.
It had been four years since our Boston passed away (he was almost 15) when I began to toss around the idea of another dog. Yogi was my husband’s dog before he was our dog and he was a lot of work. It turns out, he came from a puppy mill and sometimes you just can’t take the puppy mill out of the puppy. After Yogi, I had been very reluctant to consider another dog. Instead we got a cat and at the time, he was just the right amount of commitment for our family.
We met two families in the same year who had Bernese Mountain Dogs. Before then, the only time I had ever seen a Berner was on the universal dog breed poster. If you have pets, you know which one I’m referring to. It’s on the wall in every veterinary office you have ever visited. After meeting their dogs and talking with the families, I did a lot of reading about these gentle souls.
I was sold and I began researching breeders. I found a gal who seemed like the right fit. She didn’t work out and I found myself disappointed. Then a friend mentioned a local litter she had heard about.
Ava was two weeks old when Laura invited us to meet the litter of eight beautiful puppies. They were so tiny! Their eyes weren’t even open yet and they had round little milk bellies. They were like snuggly little sausages.
It was love at first sight.
We learned that the placement process was very in depth and that Laura would choose which puppy we would be offered. Placement would be based on multiple criteria. We were one of MANY interested families, so if we chose to move forward, we were not guaranteed a puppy. On our second visit, we filled out a puppy questionnaire. It asked about our household, lifestyle, what we were looking for in a dog, and various other dog related concerns. Laura spent time during our visits observing the girls with the puppies and with their mom, Sadie.
I spent the next few weeks reminding the girls (they were 9 and 13 at the time) that we did not know for sure if we would be offered a puppy. I knew that even with preparation, the girls were going to be really disappointed if we did not make the list. We crossed our fingers and I hoped for the best.
When Laura called a few weeks later, we were lucky enough to have our choice of the “blue” or “peach” puppies. Breeders use different colored collars, or yarn, to tell them apart. I was leaning toward the peach puppy, but on our next visit, we chose baby blue. She was the smallest and there was something very special about her.
Ava came home at just about 9 weeks old. From the beginning we were smitten. She melted right into our family and it was as though she had always been there. We took her everywhere. She loved to go to pick up the girls from school. Everyone wanted to stop and scratch her and Ava would eat up all of the attention.
She was easy to train (housebroken in ten days!) and with the exception of rolls of paper towels, she has never chewed anything she wasn’t supposed to. I have no idea why, but to this day, she loves to shred rolls of paper towels. She never eats them. She just shreds them into a big pile. I can leave a bag of leftover vacation or soccer snacks on the floor, open bag of beef jerky and all, (I have done it more times than I can count!) and head out to run errands. She wouldn’t dream of raiding the bag. Well, she’s a dog, so maybe she dreams of it, but she would never touch it. A roll of paper towels is a different story. Oh well, if that’s her at her worst, I’ll take it.
As a family, Lake Tahoe has always been our happy place. We used to make a lot of winter day trips to snowboard when our girls were young (off season for soccer).
On those days, we would load Ava up and she would quietly hang out in the back of our suburban with her toys while we were out on the mountain. Every two hours we would come down to let her out so she could run around and play in the snow. She is truly in her element when we visit Tahoe.
Ava will be 9 in a few weeks and we will celebrate with some dog bakery treats from our local pet boutique. Over the last several years, we have nursed her through several physical ailments, including two torn ACL’s. Through it all, she continues to be her smiley, happy self.
According to many breeders, we are already on borrowed time and truthfully, I have begun to notice her slowing down. Laura has always said “Three years a young dog, three years a good dog, three years an old dog. Anything beyond that is a gift.”
I know some people would probably consider me a borderline “crazy dog mom”. I’m not, but that’s OK. I can own it.
After several discussions with our vet, acknowledging that we are slowly entering our final stages with her has been far more difficult than I would have imagined. Maybe it’s how gentle she has always been. All the evenings we have spent together when my other half was traveling. The way she always rolls over for a belly rub and her way of accepting new friends is to sit on their feet (as long as you’re not wearing a hat). Or the long walks we would take together after the summer sun went down.
Maybe it’s the way she needs to be laying right near whichever family member is in the room. That she always sleeps on my husband’s side of the bed. How tightly she hugs your arm, with her front paws, when you rub her head and ears. That she lays in between my husband and I at the kitchen table every morning, presumably so we can scratch her equally. That she will look over the arm of the sofa when we watch TV to make sure you know she’s still there. Or that she still believes, even at 100 lbs., she’s a lap dog.
Or maybe it’s simply that she has always just been such a “good dog” – the best dog – and when she looks at you, you can see the love in her eyes.
I can only tell you that she is embedded in my heart in a way I cannot completely put into words. I never expected to be this attached to, or emotional about a pet.
Like I said, if you have ever had a pet like this, you can relate. If you haven’t, I hope someday you do.