The Last Day of the Best Dog on Earth

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Beastie (then known as Montana) as he appeared on the Stockdog Junction website, 1.5yo
Beastie (then known as Montana) as he appeared on the Stockdog Junction website, 1.5yo

The only command I ever asked Beastie to learn for me was “Go see.” He came to us with the usual commands firmly in-paw courtesy his saviors at Stockdog Junction, a rescue operation devoted to herding breeds based in Stanwood, WA. On vocal or gesture command, for the sheer joy of having work, he would sit, lie down, come, or speak. Wendy even taught him to shake even though he detested having his paws touched. In the morning we would wend our way along a treacherous, crooked path through a forbidding blackberry bramble to our hidden field at Magnuson Park. About half-way in I would ask Beastie to “Go see” in order to determine whether we had the field to ourselves. Sometimes I’d arrive to find him at play with one of our neighbors and their four-leggeds. Other times I’d see his laughing, impatient face reappear in the gap; a signal the field was ours and a bounding obstruction if I dared set foot in it without launching the first of what inevitably became hundreds of balls. ‘Faster!’

Beastie at 1.5yo, newly in his new home
Beastie at 1.5yo, newly in his new home

In the years before children and bereft of actual sheep Beastie’s work was the tennis ball and the Frisbee; his place of employment our hidden field. From the thicket one emerged into broad, grassy rectangle tucked in the tail of a little dead-end moraine –in a past life a container storage yard at Naval Air Station: Sand Point– bordered with remnant Douglas Firs and opportunistic maples. In our hidden field, in pursuit of these agents, Beastie alchemized exuberance and taught himself to fly. He loved his work: to run down fugitive balls and discs, clamp his jaws firmly and repeatedly upon them, and return them to me. Never once did he question (or at least question aloud) my seeming inability to hold on to a tennis ball or disc. My ineptitude as a captor imbued his life with meaning. In an inspired fit of reverse psychology I discovered the only way to convince him to drop the tennis ball he was returning (never his best command) was to show him the next ball ready to go. Nothing convinces a working dog to stop working like more work. Lost at times in the joy of his work he would run his paws raw, then limp home with the crazy, sideways grin of the whipped and bloody mountain biker just in from the best ride of his life.

I recall one afternoon in Beacon Hill Park in Oak Bay, Victoria, BC Beastie’s spectacular athleticism in pursuit of his Frisbee drew a crowd of admirers. He launched himself like an enchanted arrow, uncoiling his body like a spring in mid-air, his jaws closing on a blinding streak of blue plastic my human eyes could barely track, and returning four-footed to Earth with all the inevitable agility of a falling cat. Time and again his catches earned rounds of applause. His magnetic smile, good nature, exemplary behavior, beautiful coat, and athletic prowess meant Beastie attracted complements everywhere he went, even at complete rest, even covered in mud and bone-tired in the back of beyond.

dad bease cannon beachBeastie shared none of the cowardice or unseriousness of dogs (or people) who run away, or run toward. Accosted by marmots, tempted by squirrels, alarmed by Blue Angels blowing by 100’ above his Columbia City home, he saw no cause to question the safest, most appropriate place for him was at my side, in my care. At times in fact his eagerness to stay close at hand caused him to undertake the occasional automotive self-defenestration, blessedly usually while parked but always accompanied by the same uncomplicated, fun-loving smile once within petting range.

The two items Beastie treasured more than anything in the world were his red tennis ball/white rope chew toy and his backpack. To produce either item was to obligate one to a free-for-all tug of war or a weekend in the backcountry. He seemed to recognize that tennis balls and Frisbees existed in the same class of item as other people’s children: fun at times, but functionally interchangeable. These certain items were unique though, and held a special sway over him.

Beastie at 11; Dawn at Lake Summit, with Tahoma in the background
Beastie at 11; Dawn at Lake Summit, with Tahoma in the background

A herding dog, Beastie looped back on the left and came up on the right every time. He had a funny, straight-legged, sideways gait: like he was constantly drifting one big, long corner. On the trail when dissatisfied with my grandfatherly pace he’d nudge the back of my calf with his pack. At first I attributed it to his inexperience with the unaccustomed dimensions of his pack but soon realized every time it happened I would catch him looking up at me, knowingly, sometimes comically. ‘Faster.’ He looped everyone in the party too. If the party divided he stayed with the foremost party; ever eagerly going, seeing. His trail manners were impeccable, trusted in all corners of camp, a welcome presence in the fire’s dancing light.

Last night by the fire he couldn’t stop shaking. Later by my bed he lay his head on a folded towel, went to sleep, and stopped shaking.

This morning I got a bunch of kisses. I had begun to worry because I hadn’t gotten a kiss in two or three days. I lay there immobilized until he was done, then sat back up against the kitchen cabinets beside him, not entirely absentmindedly scratching his body, neck, and ears. He shifted slightly (he’s always shifting), put his paw on my leg, and looked me square in the eye, calm and clear as a lake. In my mind’s ear the old telepathy said “Scratch me,” so I did until the kids and Wendy arrived and up he jumped. He was so clearly excited to have the kids back in his care again, and she’s the only other human he’d always bow his head for and boy did he, his whole rear end up and wagging around his now-famous ‘helicopter tail,’ head low and smiling, looking up waiting for a smile, never waiting long.

Beastie & the kids and the greatest show on Earth
Beastie & the kids and the greatest show on Earth

We were the first people to love him for the individual he was. How he came to us –a rescue and abuse victim—is the tale of the arrow of karma. I feel sorry for the uncomprehending souls whose cruelty bent the karma bow and left him scarred with a dread of being locked in the garage or garden hoses with gun-shaped nozzles, betraying turpitude of such depthless banality I vowed to guard him too; to repay his fortuitous self-confidence with respect.

His focus on me and satisfying the jobs I gave him was his interest, not the social concerns of other dogs. Never would Beastie seek to be alpha, but neither would he be forced to submit. He visibly considered himself too evolved for such matters, and resented even the formality of obeisance to any nominal alpha or pack leader. In me, my family, and my needs he found his Way and sought only to walk it in peace and safety. To love a rescue dog is foremost to create and defend a space in which he can rediscover his dignity. Beastie was intent on re-earning every inch. Relieved of the burdens of fear and care, his fruitful mind was liberated to devise newer and increasingly  satisfying ways to approach the tasks and situations in his life.

We spent the balance of the morning around the house, waiting for a call from friend, former colleague, and Dr. Heather Douglas in review of the materials produced during Friday’s clinic visit. As soon as we heard we set off for a long walk around the hill: starting down at the Kerry Park overlook before doubling back along the shaded avenues where the grass is thick and the breezes are fresh; pausing to sniff every corner of every sniffable thing; to stand at rest with the wind in his face; to pause in the damp, sheltered spaces and smell the springtime breath of the Earth resurgent.

We walked to the park and through a playground (he loved the sound of children), then took the main street so everyone could see how handsome and game he was. At length we found ourselves at another playground. Selecting a spot in the bright afternoon sun near the climbing structure Beastie lay down while I shed my pack and offered a little of the chicken we poached for him the night before (hours later as I write this I discover it is still in my pants pocket). Nothing could distract him from the glorious sun though, and daddy’s hands scratching and rubbing his tired, drum-tight body. In the sun, in my hands there was no more shivering. We watched the kids running and playing while I rubbed his neck and shoulders, feeling the familiar grateful push-back, methodically shifting his entire neck and shoulders until all had received solid attention. We did no work for an hour. Every now and then I’d remind him he was a good boy and he’d roll back into eye contact, check, then resume his sun-worship. ‘Scratch me.’

Completely on 'island time,' Beastie at 8 in Grenada, on the back porch with the kids.
Completely on ‘island time,’ Beastie at 8 in Grenada, on the back porch with the kids.

We slowly ascended the East Rise of the hill, pausing to tease a couple of yard-bound little dogs over by 4th & Galer before passing the playground at John Hay Elementary: a well-known location in his life, brimming with the sounds of his kind of sheep. At the back gate he angled for the stairs then paused at the very extent of his lead, listening intently for the sound of his sheep among all the others, cutting his eyes at me in search of orders or confirmation. ‘Ours?’  He listened intently for a minute or more then concluding his charges were not present consented to carry on. We walked the balance of the schoolyard block slowly, his right ear cocked and listening over his shoulder as if second-guessing himself, just in case. I think he’d have liked to have seen them if he could have just to check, and to let them know what a good day we had.

We made our way back toward home along ways he knew, past Macallan the Friendly Cat and down the Galer Steps, pausing at every landing. We crossed Queen Anne Avenue, followed our accustomed school route past Mailbox Rock and St. Anne’s Church, deviating down to the Kerry Park overlook only when we got the call Dr. Beall was on her way.

Beastie at 13; Mon. Apr. 22 close to sunset
Beastie at 13; Mon. Apr. 22 close to sunset

Just past the parapet we paused to sit together a while on the grass in view of Tahoma –the great Mother of Waters—the landmark that towered over so many of our backwoods adventures. I told him “I have no more work for you today. You did all the work. Now let’s go home and rest.” By this point he was tired and thirsty and wasn’t going to argue so we covered the two short blocks to home pausing only to sniff his regular spots, Beastie feigning to freshly re-mark them all.

Coming up to our block I unclipped his lead (invoking as always the ‘King of His Own Damn Block’ law), turned up the driveway, and walked back toward our door. Halfway up the drive he broke unbidden into his familiar adventurer’s trot, ‘Go[ing to] see.’ In the midafternoon the squirrels were still mid-siesta but the sparrows sang a cheerful song as they looted the chickadee feeder. Bereft of targets, reassured that Squirrelly was not running amok, Beastie raised his face to the sun and paused a long moment with his nose in the wind, then unsteadily ascended the stairs to home, a bowl of fresh cool water, and rest.

Dr. Beall & her assistant, both old friends of Beastie’s from his Capitol Hill days, reacquainted themselves and accepted a mess of tail-wagging recognition in kind. Once the hubbub had settled down Beastie came back over to me, on the floor waiting for him in his favorite spot, one leg a lap, the other out straight. He spun a few times and lay down against my leg; his head soon in my hands; my fingers disappearing in his miraculous, leonine ruff to massage his tired old shoulders and neck. I unsnapped his collar and set it where he could see it. He sniffed it once (he always sniffed it) and resumed his place in my hands. ‘Scratch me.’

Beastie received a sedative without flinching. As the medicine took hold he raised his head several times, looking over my shoulder out the corner window, framing the fruited moon and the glowing crowns of the towering, new-fledged maples across the way. I lay my lips by his ear and told him “I have no more work for you today. You did all the work. Now it’s time to rest.” He kissed my hand, kept kissing and kissing my hand, beginning the next before finishing the last. ‘I love you. Thank you.’

His eyes never closed. He never went to sleep. He lay with his head in my hands, his aching body leaning heavily against my leg, his eyes upon some distant horizon, the blue and rushing shapes of his ancestors flashing in the tree line like wind-frenzied smoke before wildfire. They see him. They are here to show him the Way. His breathing had steadied as the sedative masked his discomfort; his trembling a receding memory. My lips in his ear as the doctor administered the solution, I told him ‘Go see, my beautiful friend. Go see now.’ His final intentioned act was a last kiss. ‘…’

– – –

 With apologies for an overlong block quote:

“Some philosophers claim that if an animal cannot have an expectation about its future, it is somehow less deserving of our concern. Since a position similar to this has been ascribed to the philosopher Peter Singer, a leading figure in the revival of the animal rights movement, I asked him whether he really believed it. He wrote to me that “If we are considering whether a being has a right to life –or as I would prefer to put it, if we are asking how great a wrong it is painlessly to take the life of a being—we need to ask how great an interest it has in continuing to live. Here I think it does make a great difference if a being can see itself as existing over time, and have a sense of its own future. Only then can it have preferences to continue to live (as distinct from preference to avoid certain threatening or painful situations) and only then can killing it render nugatory or pointless much of its previous activity.” But an animal who lives in the present and has few expectations –a dog, for example, though dogs certainly expect to be taken out for a walk—is no less important or worthy of our concern and love and more than is a person who thinks primarily about the here and now rather than what will come later.

“Other philosophers continue to maintain this point of view: that since an animal cannot conceive of its death, it cannot suffer injustice when it is subject to it. But Nagel points out, justly I believe, that when it comes to death for a human, there is nothing to expect. How, he asks, can we expect nothing as such? We do not. We all have great difficulty in imagining a time when our present existence will simply cease. It is, in some deep sense, unimaginable; we avoid the thought. The fact that an animal does not avoid it, but simply cannot begin to think about it, is really neither here nor there when it comes to the ethical question of whether life would be better prolonged than cut short. For us, as for them, life is almost always to be preferred to death. And how can the previous activity of an animal be rendered pointless in any event? How many of us would have a convincing answer were we asked “What has been the point of your life?” If we feel, in middle age, that we have wasted our life, or if we agree with Rilke that “you must change your life,” does that mean that what preceded was pointless? That seems rather harsh either for an animal or a human.

“Many animal behaviorists and other biologists consider the question of animal happiness to be pointless. We can never know, they say, what it takes to make an animal happy. I think we can know quite easily. An animal is happy if he or she can live in conformity to his or her own nature, using to the maximum those natural traits in a natural setting…”

– ‘The Pig Who Sang To The Moon,’ Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson

In view of what had become a chronic and intractably painful situation I observed Beastie had ceased to be able to live in conformity with his own nature, and not even successful lifesaving surgery (the prognosis for which was said to be awful for a dog half his age) would return him to that state. We will all someday cease to be able to run. Many of us –busy parents, lifelong workers and the like—may be not-so-secretly glad of the rest. But to deny a dog born to serve with maximum intelligence at top speed the ability to act on his urge to run –the lifelong axis of Beastie’s joy and certainly his calling—leaving intact ample cognitive power to count and rue the deficit, would have been to transform the space I created for him into a Sisyphean existence of serial disappointment. I won’t backpack where I can’t take my dog. His expectation of involvement in any backwoods caper–and let there be no question of his capacity to frame complex expectations— was always implicit. Not once in the eleven years I knew him were our tracks not mingled on the trail. Come July when the high country opens up and it was only my backpack and gear in view? It is impossible.

In my view an act that preserved his life but prevented him from living in conformity with his nature, from pursuing joy in the Way I had seen him pursue it his whole life, would have been to condemn Beastie to a dissociative, inherently unsatisfying existence. When we ask ourselves if we would have an interest in continuing our own lives under such circumstances many humans immediately & emphatically answer ‘No.’ The required rigorous examination of the arc of our life together does not reveal how he would answer but it does reveal one thing with perfect clarity: he trusted me. My judgment would have to do.

“[Big] Joe [Williams] also carried me to see Tommy McClennan. We visited him in Cook County Hospital, where he was dying of TB. He was just a skeleton, but his eyes were like hot coals burning at you. His music was like that, too—it had a savage, searing sound. He was a fierce man.”

-Michael Bloomfield

My decision for Beastie relied heavily on the views of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama on euthanasia, that it is indeed an act of killing on the whole “to be avoided” but that each situation must be assessed on “a case by case basis.” In our case, two DVMs and a board certified radiologist agreed on the existence, ill-augured location, and poor prognosis for Beastie on account of the mass inside him. Gratefully, we had paid our obligation to science. We had a few case points yet to consider.

如諸佛盡壽不殺生,我某甲亦盡壽不殺生

As all Buddhas refrained from killing until the end of their lives, so I too will refrain from killing until the end of my life.

-The Five Precepts (Mahayana)

The relevant precept as applied to bhikkus even goes so far as to spell out a prohibition against hiring someone to kill. Clearly I had some explaining to do.

Beastie was foremost a non-violent dog. Despite his ferocious daily emergences into the downstairs population of opportunistic backyard squirrels, it must be observed he resented them more than sought their slaughter. He was no killer. I remember one glorious afternoon at the dog park at Magnuson we hadn’t taken five steps through the gate; all of them in gleeful, focused, bounding orbit of the ball thrower in my hand; when a big, unaltered male pit bull ran fully 100’ across an open field in an attempt to seize Beastie by the neck. Beastie was faster and smarter, and ultimately escaped what could have been a serious mauling with minor flesh wounds, but it gave me an indication of his nature, a peek at what Hemingway called his “grace under fire.” I also know had the pit bull turned on me he’d have gotten right back in there for all he was worth to save my hide, damage be damned. In the end a boot skillfully and forcefully applied to the fore-shoulder in aid of my pal at a critical moment gave his attacker pause sufficient for his owners to secure him. I knelt to check Beastie’s neck for serious wounds while he looked over my shoulder at the retreating freak show, panting a bit but as cool and game as he had been moments before. ‘Stupid dog. Ball?’  By the time I regained my feet he was in orbit again, his tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth, a little blood staining his beautiful white ruff. It wasn’t the first or last time he’d walked one off.

He would not bite the pit bull even to defend himself, seeking instead only escape & return to his work. Then as now, it fell to me to commit a disharmonious act of violence in tactful defense of a principle. As surely as he would have been mauled had I not been there, the consensus of a collected host of friends and professionals on a single diagnosis/prognosis and my inability to save him by tears, love, or magic meant his final struggle was destined to be alone, against an implacable enemy from which all wisdom assures us there is no escape. All of this was to take place in the midst of our lifelong friendship, steadfastly beyond my capacity to remedy. I could not fail to defend him from the only part of that enemy within reach.

The Bardo Thodol indicates it is wrong to deny Beastie an opportunity to expiate his karma through achieving a natural death, and that by allowing him to carry negative karma forward into the next life we create the circumstances for negative affect, in essence creating suffering. This is the place and reason many Buddhists shudder and set their support for euthanasia aside, and for them that is good. For me, a belief held so tightly and wielded so uncompromisingly shatters in the moment; is of no reliable use.

“Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’ — then you should enter & remain in them.”

-The Kalama Sutta

Buddhists are specifically warned to believe no authority that indicates a Way the individual does not find skillful, blameless, wise, in harmony with the aims of welfare and happiness. With respect to the ancient assemblers of the Bardo Thodol I find that when I grip the Dharma as tightly as one would a hammer or a sword it dissolves in my hand.

I do not believe Beastie knew he was going to die, but he lay down as gentle as the dew. I believe he enjoyed a richly deserved respite from his pain in my hands, an experience we could not reproduce indefinitely. In the wake of having formed and carried out an intention to end the life of another sentient being let alone my beloved best friend I feel the shifting beads of my thumbworn celestial abacus thundering through the soles of my feet even now, but I am buoyed in the knowledge what minuscule shred of negative karma Beastie carries forward from this blameless incarnation to the next will surely be obviated, even elevated, by the donations of merit from meditation and prayer in his memory by those who came to know and admire his character, mindful excellence, and loving kindness.

“And should you glimpse my wandering form out on the borderline
Between death and resurrection and the Council of the Pines
Do not worry for my comfort, do not sorrow for me so
All your diamond tears will rise up and adorn the sky beside me when I go.”

–       ‘When I Go,’ Dave Carter

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6 thoughts on “The Last Day of the Best Dog on Earth

    Gail Longo said:
    April 26, 2013 at 10:27 PM

    This is a beautiful memorial about his life with you. Your lives together with Beastie stir up a host of happy memories. I can see your grief and how you all will miss him. He loved you all as you loved him.

      wes responded:
      April 29, 2013 at 8:20 AM

      Thanks Gail. It’s so quiet around here I’m certain his spirit is somewhere yawning and stretching newborn into existence.

    Howard Nemenz said:
    April 27, 2013 at 10:57 AM

    It doesn’t help much to say “I know the feeling” but you are a good man Wes and your deeds demonstrate that…be well my friend!!!

      wes responded:
      April 29, 2013 at 8:19 AM

      Thanks, man.

    Devin Liddell said:
    April 30, 2013 at 1:51 PM

    There aren’t words I can produce that would do your words justice. So I’ll just offer up one: beautiful.

    All dogs should be so lucky to have someone like you.

      wes responded:
      May 1, 2013 at 9:06 AM

      Thanks, man. I’m working on bringing home a new buddy now; currently talking with a rescue in Stanwood (oddly, the same town but not same rescue from which I got Beastie) about a border collie puppy whose demeanor and habits sound exactly like Beastie’s. Oh, to find another dog half as smart and eager to please.

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