… with a bag of treats!
I hadn’t gone through the black duffel in years, but that long lapse of time meant nothing to Jigs and Chloe. The moment I pulled the bag from the shelf, they rejoiced, running laps around me as I inventoried it’s contents on the living room floor. Every few seconds they’d stop to poke their heads in the bag, and then jump up on me, scratching my back with their too-sharp nails, trying to lick my face. If they could speak, I know they’d be saying, “Get them out!”
My string gets excited whenever I put on my shoes, touch my car keys, or get in the near vicinity of their leashes — those are pretty common reactions for most dogs. My Alaskan Huskies went insane when I grabbed their harnesses, knowing they’d soon be running down a trail. But many people might be amazed to see that Jigs and Chloe get even more amped up over their shock collars. To them, these collars mean something even bigger than walk or roadtrip or mushing — they mean FREEDOM!
The black duffel contains all of my dog-hiking paraphernalia: blaze orange collars for hunting season, small cow bells to help me locate my short dogs in tall brush, a treat bag, water bottles, and a bowl. One morning last week, I finally worked up the nerve to take out the collars and charge them up. I’ve been wanting to let them off-leash for so long, but my heart still suffers from the “what if’s?”. Giving my dogs their freedom back was something I needed to do — for them and for me.
My friend and veterinarian in Indy, Dr. Shannon Kiley, helped me train Jigs to a shock collar when he was two years old. German Jagd Terriers are bred to hunt bear and wild boar along with the usual rodents. The small but tough terriers have a hard-wired hunting instinct that can be difficult to control. Training Jigs to a shock collar made his off-lead life safer, and gave me some much-needed peace of mind. Now, I train all of my hiking dogs to the collars (I use the Tritronics Pro 100 G3 EXP model with Tracer Lights) which I prefer to call their “pagers.” I very rarely use the shock button anymore, only needing to press the “BEEP!” sound button to get their attention in the field. Jigs and Chloe love to be “paged,” knowing that a treat awaits them when they “come.”
I know my dogs are animals, and there will be times (usually involving skunks or deer or porcupine) when their instincts will take over. I weigh the risks and rewards wherever I go, and try to make the best decisions for their safety. Every day, I become a little bit braver. At first, I allowed them to run free on familiar hikes around Martinsdale Reservoir or up Pasture Gulch. Now, we are branching out to new trails in the Castles, Crazy, and Little Belt Mountains. Every time I release them to run, yelling their favorite command, “FREE DOG!”, I feel tiny pieces of my old self returning. And I am reminded that one of the most precious gifts in life is freedom… of all kinds.
On Monday, I took Lolo to the veterinarian. My instinct tells me that my 14-year old retired Iditarod lead dog is not “sick”, but continues to mourn the loss of her companion, Borage. And that her vomiting, acid reflux, and loss of appetite stem from grief and loneliness, not cancer or some other physical disease. Monday morning wasn’t much different than any other since I returned to Martinsdale 3 weeks ago — I fed Lolo just a small amount, she ate, howled for 20 minutes straight, and then vomited her breakfast back up. She looked miserable standing there in the front yard with her head hung low — so alone, and now so sick. I couldn’t put it off any longer. I needed an expert to confirm my diagnosis.
I recognize the symptoms of a broken heart. In the last two years, I’ve lost both of my parents; my good friend and mentor, Carol Meeks; and my dog, Borage. I, myself, have struggled with a long list of ailments such as disturbing heart palpitations, interstitial cystitis, acid reflux, abdominal pain, ulcers, weight loss. These are real medical conditions causing great discomfort. And I won’t deny that I often feel sad, anxious, and alone just like Lolo does. But how do you separate despair and disease? Thankfully, I have the human ability to talk it all through with medical doctors and therapists, and then come up with a plan that can be adjusted along the way. But how do you help a grieving animal?
In my parents’ living room in Indianapolis, a framed print hangs above their couch depicting a dog greeting passengers unloading from a train. My parents loved dogs, trains, and Montana so when we visited Fort Benton in 2001, all three of us were drawn to the story of “Shep.”
According to historians from the Overholser Historical Research Center and the Missoulian, “Shep first appeared in Fort Benton in August 1936 when his owner, an area sheepherder whose name has been lost to history, was brought mortally ill to the St. Clare Hospital. After the sheepherder passed, his body was sent by train to his family back east. Shep was left behind, but for the next 5 1/2 years he lived under the platform of the Fort Benton train station, patiently waiting for his long-dead master to return.”
I think of “Shep” now as I watch Lolo out in the yard, pacing back and forth in front of the gate. The day I realized it was time to end Borage’s suffering and put him to sleep, my lifelong friend (and veterinarian), Dr. Shannon Kiley, suggested that I bring Lolo with me so she could see and smell his body before they took him away. We all knew Lolo would be lost without Borage, but we hoped this might help. I did as Shannon said and allowed Lolo to sniff her mate’s thick fur for one last time.
Sometimes witnessing the death of a loved one still isn’t enough proof that he or she is truly gone. I often wake in the mornings and feel for a brief moment that my parents and Carol and Borage are still here. For humans and dogs, long-term grief thrashes the body with highs and lows. One minute I might finally feel some peace — but then out of nowhere sadness slams me hard from a new direction. I cry. Lolo howls. Sometimes we do it together.
Dr. Katherine Parks, my Montana veterinarian based in Harlowton, declared Lolo to be in amazing physical shape for a 14-year old dog. “She’s so nervous, yet her heart rate is really low,” Dr. Parks noted, impressed with the athletic physiology of Alaskan Husky sled dogs. The thorough exam revealed nothing — the blood work came back perfect. “I would start her on a famotidine for her stomach acid problem. And for her nerves, you could try some anti-anxiety meds. Or try to find her a new friend,” Dr. Parks suggested. “One or all of these things might help… or not.”
In other words, you can never replace a loved one. But for me, continuing to live means continuing to try — I’m not giving up on Lolo. I cry. She howls. We both take Pepcid twice a day. And then we take a hike… our doctors’ orders.
In August 2011, I stopped letting Borage, Jigs, Chloe, and Lolo run free. To many, this might not seem like a big deal. Deciding to walk your dogs on leashes instead of allowing them to run wild… who cares? But in my life, the decision to restrain my dogs, snapping long extended leads to their collars before each and every hike, marked a major shift in how I navigate life. It all boiled down to one emotion — fear. I was terrified. That summer, both of my parents were dying in front of me. Together, we had already endured a year of cancer, but nothing was going right. Surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, infections, middle-of-the-night ER visits — if one more bad thing happened to someone I love, I feared I wouldn’t be able to take it.
I could be my parents’ constant caregivers, but I could not stop disease from ravaging their bodies. I longed for control — of anything. By making my dogs walk close at my side, I could prevent them from getting lost in the woods or hurt by a wild animal. I could keep them from being swept away by a swollen river. Before my parents became ill, one of my main joys was allowing my dogs to be dogs. I would arrive at a trailhead and open every car door, releasing them to the wilderness. Exploring forests, chasing critters, swimming in clear Montana waters — for 20 years, I cherished those pure moments with all of my dogs (Kirby, Rosa, Adeline, Borage, Jigs, Chloe, Lolo… and dozens more sled dogs).
Knowing what I now know, how do I go back? How do I calm the what if’s? How do I let go of those I love? I think, just maybe, some of the answers might be in the dogs themselves. Jigs, Chloe, and Lolo continue to drag me on down the trail, reminding me that life is not experienced in the later… but in the now. And that the best kind of love happens when you let go of the leash. Thankfully, they’re patient.
Lolo is waiting in the Rav. After pacing the length of my yard for an hour, I decided to give the poor girl a break. It’s 50 degrees here in Martinsdale, and a steady breeze pushes the cool Montana air through the wide-open car windows. Glancing at the vehicle parked in front of my house, no one would know a dog’s in there. Lolo sleeps curled up in the backseat.
Since Lolo was a tiny pup, she’s been a little bit “different.” Hyper-alert, serious, always wanting to please — these characteristics make for a good lead dog, and that’s what Lolo became after I bought her for $100. Terry Adkins — annoyed by Lolo’s spooky, yet stubborn nature — didn’t want to waste his time on her. “Good luck…” he said, taking the check from my hand. “Thanks… I’ll need it,” I replied, restraining my excitement for fear Terry would change his mind.
I made that purchase over 13 years ago. Today is Lolo’s 14th birthday. Like my beloved Borage, she was born in the year 2000. I witnessed both of their births. Sadly, Borage did not make it to June 13, 2014, which would have been his 14th birthday, too. Even Lolo seems to sense it is a bittersweet time. Or, more realistically, Lolo still grieves her loss. Borage was her buddy, her constant sidekick. Lolo likes my little dogs, yet her behavior shows she longs for something more. Sled dogs know their own. They were raised in a giant pack, fed raw meat, trained as working dogs. They ran literally thousands of miles together. When one member of a string passes, the others feel as if they’ve lost a limb… or a heart. I know — that’s how I’ve felt since March 11th, the day I had to put Borage to sleep.
After Borage died, Lolo howled for weeks. The only time she stopped her mournful crying was when I put her in the car. Sitting in her usual place, right behind the driver’s seat, she feels safe. Like Borage always did, Lolo loves the Rav. Whenever I hear her wailing out in the yard, or see her trotting the fenceline, I know it’s time to open the car door and say, “Load up!” Lolo no longer leads an Iditarod sled dog team. Her friend, Borage, is gone. But inside our car, Lolo knows she’s still part of a string. And that I’ll be out to join her soon, loading up Jigs and Chloe, taking us all somewhere good, for a long walk together.