I’m writing this at the suggestion of some wonderful fellow photographers and animal lovers. This post is not for the faint hearted so only read on if you are ready to feel all the feels.
My heart dog Bear passed away shortly into the new year and honestly I am struggling to deal. Hopefully this provides something of a cathartic release to enable me to continue working through my loss.
I’m not really much of a spiritual person but the way animals come into our lives, how important they become, and what they teach us always has a feel of destiny about it.
They all bring something unique to teach us in our lives, be it how to laugh, how to be patient, how to snuggle, how to not be so fastidious or most important of all, how to love unconditionally because that is what they offer us.
Dogs don’t care if you don’t put on pants today. If you don’t shower or if the kitchen is a mess. They don’t care if you sleep in an extra hour or decide to take an afternoon nap (really, I think they consider that a bonus!).
My husband and I got two boys from the same litter during our first year of marriage 8 years ago. They were Bull Mastiffs, going to be big boys but still small enough then that I could hold one in each arm. From the moment we met it was obvious they were both very different personalities from each other.
Charger, the larger boy, was always exploring, adventuring and had very much decided my husband was his human. He was then – still is – a real doggie dog. Not terribly bright but simply happy to love and be loved.
Bear, the litter runt, on the other hand was very clever, quite calculating, and was always getting into mischief. He was an escape artist and we went through a few different fence incarnations before managing to keep him safely contained. Being in a rural area it was critical for their own safety that we managed to figure it out (livestock, farmers, guns etc).
On one occasion when they were about 6 months old, I was watching him and his brother in the yard when the cat strolled up to the yard perimeter and scaled it easily like cats do, next thing Bear was at the fence line clawing his way up and over to the other side of the ringlock farm fence. He didn’t jump over and he didn’t push his way through or under the fence. He climbed over like the cat! He watched, he learned, he did. He was on the other side happy and free meanwhile Charger was still inside looking through the fence, confused as to how Bear was now on the other side. It was hilarious and just one example of a failed containment effort.
Another thing we tried was the boundary collar system, where you train them not to go within a certain distance of a boundary. It beeps when they are at a set distance from the fence to warn them away from a mild shock. If done correctly (as in all the pre-training) the shock is rarely delivered. Or you could be Bear and figure out that if you walk along the ‘beep’ zone for long enough the collar batteries wear out and you can go as close to the boundary as you want and you don’t get a shock at all. Another fail from the foolish humans (should have known better on that one!).
There are so many other little quirks about him I could share like how when he was sitting for a treat his back legs would slide out to either side so he looked like the biggest doofus, or how when he was being sneaky he could move completely silently, amazing for such a big dog. Or how he would curl up next to you on the couch but then decide he wanted more room to stretch out so would push and wriggle until you moved enough for him, which sometimes was off the couch completely thank you very much. But the list is endless and some will be my own little memories to keep.
Bear was technically “my” dog (mainly because Charger had decided he belonged to my husband) but honestly I felt it took him a long time to really connect with us, and even then it was mainly just me. He was distrustful of strangers, skulking around nervously while his brother would run up tongue lolling to say hello to anyone. My husband and I often talked about why Bear was the way he was but we never really understood. Two dogs brought up the same but behaved so, so different.
I was determined to ensure that Bear felt a connection with at least one of us – namely me – and I started building on little moments and things we did or shared together. I can’t even remember what exactly but things like encouraging him to be physically closer to me rather than go sitting by himself, little treats, giving him brushes and pats that were like long meditation sessions and he would zone out and totally relax.
Then one day, perhaps when he was a year or so old, something changed. I was sitting on the couch and he just came up, literally climbed into my lap and curled up into my body for a cuddle or comfort or something. He sunk into me, head on my shoulder and paws around me. Mind you this is a 50kg Bull Mastiff so it was a bit awkward but there was no way I was moving him!
Something in his eyes changed after that. They were softer, more trusting. At least for me. The way he looked at me was earned and fought for and I was so happy he had turned a corner in his feeling of belonging. He always remained what I called “discerning” about who he did and did not like, who he allowed to see that softer side.
He was not a very vocal dog either, even towards the end when he must’ve been in pain but never gave any indication. He would always just look at me with those now soft, trusting eyes, willing me to understand what he needed. He didn’t have quite the bladder of his brother and would often need a 2am ‘grandad’ wee, so instead of whining or scratching at the door to be let out he would simply come and stand by my side of the bed and stare at me until I woke up. I would be pulled out of sleep with the sense of someone there and once my eyes opened he would wander to the door and sit until I opened it. When he was ready to come back to bed he would gentle tap on the door and go straight to sleep once I let him in again. I was very well trained.
This constant silent communication and my ability to interpret his needs made us a tight team and I was much closer to him emotionally than my other dogs.
He softened more as he aged, allowed more people in, made more friends (didn’t try to escape as much). Once I left my job to pursue my photography full time he was my regular walking companion in the mornings as he was just so mellow and such a great walker on lead. We would share the beautiful morning silently together just enjoying each other’s company. Often he would glance back up to me with those soft eyes letting me know how much he loved our walks together.
During that six months, our last months together, our relationship changed again. He became more playful, rediscovering a bit of that puppy within. But the puppy he never really was… carefree and silly finally at 8yrs old. It was beautiful, and he brought me so much joy and love on a daily basis during a time in my life when I needed it most. He helped me crawl out of a hole of depression and anxiety caused by the chronic stress of my previous corporate job.
I used to joke about wanting to be a stay at home dog mum but I am so glad I actually got to spend all that time with my Bear and my other babies before he left us. I do believe he came into my life for a reason… it just took him 8 years to get it through my thick skull.
The onset of his illness was sudden and his decline rapid. He was acting odd one evening and during the night so we decided to take him in to the vet first thing in the morning. By the time we got to the vet his breathing was labored and his gums were white. After a few tests it was thought maybe a growth in the abdominal area. He was already too weak for surgery. Two vets, a couple of nurses and a few resuscitations later and he was gone. And I was with him looking into those soft eyes for the last time.
RIP my Baby Bear 2009 – 2017