Do you see this ridiculous face? That’s Sally Derg, our sweet German Shepherd/Great Pyrenees mix, taken six years ago. In this picture she’s modeling the latest in anti-anxiety wear, a Thundershirt, and I can attest that they work! Not during tornadoes, though, which is a pity since I live in Tornado Alley.
We had to put this sweet girl down last month, and that’s an ache that doesn’t go. I’m just now able to talk about it without bursting into tears.
Back in 2005 I went a’dog hunting at our local shelter and found this sweet face looking over at me with hopeful eyes and tail thumping. She was shy; she’d been taken from a house that had abandoned her outside for quite some time. No one wanted to adopt her because she had heartworms. (Seriously? It’s a shot, you don’t let them get too active for four weeks, and you’re done! Don’t let that keep you from a friend.) They weren’t sure how old she was because of how poor her health had been when brought in, but they estimated her age to be about four.
Everyone came out to say goodbye to Sally Girl when I was finally able to take her home. All this puppy wanted was to have you love her. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy, put your hand out, coo and she’s in love. Now, if you came to my front door she had that wicked deep German Shepherd bark of No Admittance, but if I let you in, she knew you were pack (or pack adjacent).
This dog… When the kids were little and I’d call out for them to go to bed, she’d go into Nana from Peter Pan mode. She’d run up the stairs to the landing so her eyes were level with the bottom of the kids’ bedroom doors. If their lights were on, she’d give them a warning bark. If it didn’t change, she’d come get me. I did not train her to do this, mind, this was all her. She was quite pleased with herself every time the kids yelled back, “O-kay!” and shut off their lights as her bark commanded. She would come to me, tail wagging, and patiently wait for her human to give her a treat. (Her human did.)
My littlest would wake up groggy and cranky every morning, stumbling sleepily down the stairs, so Sally Derg would circle her like the little sheep my daughterÂ was, keeping her safe from wolves and danger until she reached the bottom. Working dogs are the best, straight up.
She and the cats were buddies (let me tell you this: I love dogs. Love them. But I am a cat worshiper, and will always have a cat.), each seeking the other out for head grooms and snuggles. When our little tortoiseshell calico Smidgen came home from getting spayed, Sally bounced up and down on her front legs like a Corgi, waiting to be noticed so she could lick Smidgen’s head. Smudge (our evil black cat, because you must have an evil black cat at some point in your life, it’s the law) was her play-chase friend.
If you don’t love animals… I just. I don’t know, I’m not going to say that you’re wrong. I’ll just whisper it behind your back.
I had to limit her toys, because when we’d get terrible storms (or a full moon, or a hot air balloon — all were equal in the level of terror they induced) she’d grab her “baby” and take it with her to the bathroom, my shower in particular. That was her “safe place.” If she had more than one baby, she would literally stare down at them in a panic, shaking and whining and trembling, forced into making a Sophie’s Choice. When I grabbed the other toy and said, “Let’s go! Come on!” she gave my hand a grateful lick and made haste to safety, the child she clearly loved more — her plush otter — safely in her jaws.
(But let’s get real: the stuffed duck was a jerk. I mean, the squeak was broken! His face was stupid! The plush otter toy was the pretty one and never sassed back. The duck was garbage, and he knew it. Pfft.)
Just a big ol’ sweetie, was my Sally. And make no mistake: she was mine. I was the alpha, not the others in the family. She made sure I was sitting down to dinner before she would eat, or she’d curl up behind my chair, eyes on the door in case a wolf came — terrible threat, those suburban wolves. She’d check on me if I went to another room, just peer in, make eye contact (“You good? Cool.”) and then would groan and flop onto her side nearby, close enough to be of assistance should trouble (or dropped food) come knocking.
She had arthritis and hip problems in the end, and she no longer joined me on my long runs. Walks became hard, she was scared of the pool, so hydrotherapy was out. (When we’d get in the pool, she’d endlessly circle it, looking for the signal to bark helplessly at us as she quivered near the edge. Basically she was letting us know she’d be heartbroken to watch us drown, but she’d watch.)
She’d sleep her day away that last month, roused by a knock at the door or a promise for a peanut butter treat. She had the gentlest mouth, lips pulled back and eyes on me, as she’d take a treat from my hand. I’d praise her, “Sweet ol’ gramma Sally Derg puppyderp,” and she’d thump her tail because dogs don’t care what you call them as long as you call them. She was just happy to be noticed.
But she also farted herself awake. One time it was so loud and so pungent that she started barking like she was psyching herself up for a dog fight. I almost pissed myself, I laughed so hard at her absolute anger over the shock of how bad it smelled. YEAH, ME, TOO, SALLY. She circled her butt, round and around, trying to bite at the horrible smell, too dumb to realize it was calling from inside the house, aka, her own tush.She had anxiety out the wazoo, she seriously was afraid of the full moon (she knew werewolves were real, I always suspected), and would shake herself to the point of agonizing pain when storms rolled through. Cuddles and Thundershirts only went so far. It was like she had been on the front lines in Afghanistan, the terror she exhibited. I do not miss scooping her poops, finding hoarked-up lizards on the carpet, or the accidental scrape of her nails on my legs, ninety-some odd pounds of force behind them, in her excitement to jump up and hug me.
But there was always a face and a tail wag waiting for me after a run, a trip to the grocery store, a trip upstairs, a trip to the bathroom in private, DOG JUST LET ME HAVE TWO MINUTES THIS IS WEIRD YOU WATCHING ME DO THIS. She loved me no matter what, and that’s what makes dogs the best. (And that’s why I gave her the best treats ever and daily hip massages, because you take care of those you love.)
Her last days were sad, too sad for me to talk about still, but she got to go for one last ride in the back of the truck with her favorite camp blanket, the wind on her face and flapping her ears the way she loved, she spent a glorious hour licking-licking-licking the marrow out of a giant hog bone, and when she went, it was fast and painless and she knew she’d been loved.
That we could all be so lucky to leave our lives with our favorite things and people nearby.
We ended up burying her out at the hunting camp where she was happiest; so many good smells to sniff, the grey remains of the last campfire she stretched out in front of, grunting and sighing in pleasure at the warmth on her belly were still there, too. I don’t know if I can ever have a dog again, to be honest. She was family and I loved her, stinky farts and all.