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Posted on October 3rd, 2023

The Soft Core of the Earth – And then She was Gone.

I remember when I got her, just about three weeks after my previous dog had died. I never intended or expected to get another dog so soon, but once my first pup passed on, I was restless; there was no harbor for my sorrow to take respite. I’d initially planned on volunteering at the shelter, and I’d applied and went through orientation, and later that day I met her. She was in quarantine with kennel cough, so the public didn’t have the opportunity to see her that day, but since I was about to become a volunteer, I got to go where others hadn’t. And for that I’m lucky; anyone else who met her would’ve snatched her up right away. In fact, someone almost did.

It was a Saturday, and after meeting her, I asked if I could take her out to a playpen to get acquainted. I went out first, and then someone else brought her out to me. She was a little ball of fuzz and energy, much less than the advertised 55 pounds, and appearing to be much younger than the advertised two-years-old. The first thing she did when she saw me was cry and stick her head into my lap. My immediate response was to say, “Don’t worry, it’ll be alright.” I didn’t know at that time I would be getting another dog, but it didn’t take much longer after that for it to be so.

I came back the following Sunday morning, and again, asked to see her – she was named Strawberry at the time. When they brought her out, she did the same happy shimmy and whine, and stuck her head in my lap to be petted. I again said, “Don’t worry, it’ll be alright.” Later that day I came back for another visit and put a hold deposit on her. The following morning before it was to expire, I asked if I adopted her if she could stay at the shelter through the weekend, as I’d already made plans to travel out of town. They said no, and in fact, someone else had put a back-up hold deposit on her, and if I didn’t take her home then, she would go to the other person. Thank god I didn’t waiver in that decision. Thank god my ex-girlfriend was able to watch her while I was away.

The start of the trail to Uncompahgre Peak, the 6th highest mountain in Colorado, on her 14th birthday. We were the first on the mountain, just before 6am, and the first to the top. We had the whole view to ourselves for 20 minutes before descending. It was perfect. (Photo by Marco Esquandoles himself)

When I took her for her initial check-up, my vet guessed that she was no more than a year old, maybe as young as nine months. I called her a year to make it easy for future celebrations. She weighed 27 pounds, skinny as a rail.

There was an adjustment curve with us for sure, as she had a pretty bad case of separation anxiety, and that all but ruined my social life for 8-10 months until she got beyond it. When I did really want to go out, I either left her with friends, boarded her, or had someone come over and hang out with her, but slowly she adjusted. She never was happy about my leaving, but she never held a grudge, and her happy dance that she always eagerly displayed when I returned was one of my favorite things ever. I’ll miss it so much.

I read somewhere once that if you’re lucky, you get one great dog. If that’s true, it was her. It’s not that I didn’t love her predecessor, I did, deeply, but the connection with this one was just on another level. I’m sure that is at least in part owed to her predecessor by the simple fact that I became a better dog owner and more appreciative of having a dog in my life over time, but this one, she was just something special. She was gentle around all people and all animals. She was a lovable and an affectionate greeter to all who came to our house. But I was always her main concern – and she mine. I was her person; she was my dog. And now she’s gone.

For the last several years I spent a lot of time thinking about when she’d die and what my life would be like after that happened. She developed some serious health issues that were being managed, and as she’d just turned 14 over the summer, I knew that time was not on our side. I always hoped for one more summer every summer, because that’s when we would embark on awesome adventures together. This year, we spent six weeks in southwestern Colorado, hiking every day. We did close to 250 miles and roughly 50,000 feet of elevation gain, and even did a 14er on her 14th birthday to boot. She moved a little slower of course, but not a step was ever a real issue for her. That’s what made her death such a surprise.

Right up until her evening walk that day, everything seemed normal for her. Because of the heat and humidity, we took a short stroll, and as we were nearing our house, friends drove by and stopped to chat. I noticed out of the side of my eye that she ate some weeds, but that wasn’t anything unusual for her, so I stopped her, and as we walked on, it was clear that she was trying to expel whatever she had just ingested. Usually this happens quickly, and all is well, but that was not to be the case this time. Instead, she made a series of atrocious sounding hacks and wretches, and her body hunched up. I thought it was just stuck in her throat and took her inside. Her energy was normal, but she seemed restless; she couldn’t get comfortable. I went to the bathroom, and when I came out, I noticed that her abdomen was severely bloated, so I put her in the car and zipped to the ER.

Upon arrival, she coughed up a lot of very thick white bile, tinged with traces of blood. The ER staff went through some unnecessary steps for intake only to inform me that their vets were all in trauma surgery; my dog would have to wait, and they didn’t know how long. I rushed her to the other ER on the other side of town, and thankfully their lot was empty. I got the same unnecessary steps at the front desk – but thankfully a vet tech came out and realized the serious nature of her condition and rushed her back for an x-ray. Shortly, they brought me to a room and told me that she gastric dilatation and volvulus; her stomach had bloated, and the air was trapped, and it would take major surgery. But because of her age and a serious, underlying heart condition, the prognosis was not good, maybe 50/50 at best. The vet also thought that she might already be in congestive heart failure. Any intervention at this point would only be for me, not her, and I knew I would never put my needs before my dog’s. I made the decision to have her put to sleep.

Even that process took longer than I’d liked, as it was clear she was in pain and stressed – I just wanted to relieve her of that. She never liked vet clinics and hurt me to know that she’d spent her last moments in one. But once the meds had been administered, I found some solace in the fact that she was at peace, even though I knew I would not be for quite some time.

I loved that dog, and my life without her will never be the same. I’m sure I’ll get another dog, but I doubt it will be in three weeks this time. She set a high standard; I need to accept that the next one may not measure up. And that hurts, too. I have to get to a point where I can accept whoever comes into my life with open arms and avoid comparisons. A future dog deserves that much.

I’m not young, but I’m not old, and I can’t imagine my life without a dog in it. The problem is, the one I want is gone forever.

Marco Esquandoles

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