We honor the memory of our beloved Shelby, the rescued dog who inspired our magazine and mission
BY HEATHER DOWDY
As published in our April/May 2016 issue of Nashville Paw magazine
"This is what those of us in our animal community understand all too well: with great love comes great loss. All of us who invite animal companions into our lives and our hearts are doomed to know this most deeply felt, excruciating loss—and yet, it seems such a small price to pay for the immeasurable joy, love and laughter they bring into our lives, if only for a short time."
In the quiet hours of the early morning on February 8th, my husband and I said our tearful goodbyes to our longest and dearest companion. His death was sudden and crippling, leaving us reeling in shock and grief. As I write this, I am still grappling with the pain that comes in great waves to wash salt from my eyes and leave me heaving for breath. It is the single most deeply felt loss I have ever suffered—one that will take a while to come to terms with.
I recently read a quote saying we never completely heal from a great loss; rather, we simply learn to be who we now are while holding that loss in our hearts. I don’t know who said it, but I believe it’s probably true. I will never be exactly the same as I was with Shelboo by my side—as he was, steadily, for nearly fourteen years. Who I am now, in his absence, is someone missing that part of my heart which only he holds, and that part of my heart will never fully heal. Yes, time will ease the pain and tears, and my heart will continue to love those around me, and it will even expand to accept new love—but his part of my heart will always be there, tinged with bittersweet memories and the sting of grief.
I simply could not put forth our ten-year anniversary issue without dedicating it to the dog who truly inspired its creation, and to the dogs who continue to inspire me in this work every day. As difficult as it is for me to put his story into words right now (which you’ve learned by now if you read page seven), I feel I owe it to my oldest and dearest furry friend to make his legacy known.
I first saw him in the winter of 2002. My now ex-husband and I had scanned the Internet for rescue groups in Chicago, where we lived at the time in an outlying suburb. We had our minds set on adopting a Golden Retriever puppy, and a local group had labeled him a golden mix. His mom was a dark-colored Shepherd, but Shelby was a tiny ball of yellow fluff. His sister, looking like her mother, was shy. His identical brother was hell on wheels. Shelby, however, was a little of both, greeting us with both caution and curiosity. The pups were twelve weeks old, and they were the only ones in the litter to survive.
His mother, Dakota, had given birth to her young under the crawl space of an old house. The house had caught fire, and when firefighters arrived to put out the flames, they heard cries from beneath the rubble. Dakota and three surviving pups were rescued. They had kennel cough and were severely emaciated. Her milk had dried up. They’d been rescued at the last possible moment.
We immediately took to Shelby, and also agreed to adopt Dakota—who was semi-feral at best. She was terrified of human interaction. We brought her home first, while the pups stayed to receive further medical care at the animal hospital. Over the course of a week, we slowly began to earn her trust and to form a basic bond. It was tedious, patient work. Any quick movements resulted in her hitting the floor and spreading out like a pancake.
Near the end of the week, the worst-case scenario happened: while on the way to the car, she slipped her lead and took off running. For days, we tracked her across the county, putting out calls for help online. At night, she’d return to our garage, where we left an open door and food and water, but we could never manage to contain her. It seemed she kept heading in the direction from which we’d brought her—back to her pups.
A few days into the search effort, it was time to bring Shelby home. We hoped that him being there would entice her to return, and she did. She would call to him from the yard, and he’d cry back, but we could never get her to enter the house or follow us. She would escape from the garage before we could close the door. Day after day, we tried, and failed—to bring her back to safety.
It was a bitterly cold winter day when we got the call from a police officer. She’d been hit by a car on the highway, and he had called the number on her tag. She was still alive, but barely. We rushed to the scene with tiny Shelby in tow, hoping he would encourage her to hold on.
The nearest emergency vet was almost an hour away. We gently rolled her onto a blanket and lifted her into the back of the station wagon, where I sat stroking her head and whispering to her, begging her to just hang on for her baby. Shelby was snuggled in my lap, nuzzling his nose into her fur and softly whining. Bill drove like mad to make it in time, but as we pulled into the parking lot, my heart sank. “I think she’s gone,” I recall saying, and my words sounded unreal even as they came out of my mouth.
The staff rushed to meet us at the car and confirmed the dreaded news. Just like that, she was gone. Devastated, we drove the hour back home in tears. I remember holding Shelby as I trembled and sobbed, stroking his soft, fluffy fur—this innocent little being that just witnessed the death of his mother and who now seemed traumatized and confused. I was riddled with guilt and regret. If only I’d been more careful, if only I’d made the collar tighter, all of the “what if” we torture ourselves with after a tragedy.
In the days and weeks that followed, Shelby and I formed a close bond. He kissed away my tears and I comforted him when he awoke howling in the middle of the night. I believe we walked through our grief together, and we helped to heal one another. My guilt, though never fully gone, gave way to a determination to make his life the very best that it could possibly be.
Shelby’s puppyhood soon became like something out of Marley and Me. In the middle of our potty training, we came home to find that he had somehow found his way onto the top of our pool table, where he’d left a large pile of poop for us. (In his defense, it did look like grass.) He ate everything. He chased the cats. He learned to bark then never stopped. He was too smart for anybody’s good. He learned to open the pantry door and pull his food bag out, so I moved it to a higher shelf. Then he learned to pull the bin out of the bottom of the pantry, and how to stand on it in order to reach the bag of food on the higher shelf. He got into everything, and we eventually learned the art of crate training—both for his safety and our sanity.
Over the years, he wound up with a plethora of nicknames: Das Shelboo, Shelba Toast, Melba Toast, Puppa Toast, Booda, Boos, Sir Boosley, Booselfish, Pupalewski, Puppalachango and other ridiculous nonsense. And he answered to all of them.
We took long, winding road trips together. He lived for car rides, and was a total pro at traveling. We swam and hiked and played at dog parks, where he’d attempt to herd both dogs and kids into one corner. He learned endless phrases and the appropriate responses: heel, sit, stay, place, down, go bye-bye, car ride, gimme five, gimme ten, shake, other paw, go outside, wanna cookie?, wanna go to the dog park? I’d make up games for him, hiding treats around the house for him to sniff out, each time beating his previous speed record. I’d rattle off a ridiculous string of nonsensical babblings, to which he’d intently listen, head tilting deeply to one side, until he heard the one word he recognized—cookie!—then he’d be off, rushing into the kitchen to dance in circles by the treat cabinet, eyes glistening with excitement.
He moved with us to East Nashville in 2005. Over the years, he happily accepted other pets in to our pack, a mix of permanent reseidents and fosters. He was forever a dog’s dog, the welcome committee, a happy wagging buddy ready to play. He always seemed happy to simply be a part of whatever we were a part of. As my first dog as an adult, his rescue and our bond inspired me to launch this magazine in 2006, to lend a voice to other rescued dogs just like him.
He saw me through an immensely upsetting divorce in 2008, at which time he, MollyBear and Smokey the cat moved with me into my mom’s small guest room for a few months while we sorted out the broken pieces of my life. He was my constant in a world of harsh change: the one thing I knew I could count on any hour of the day, whether I was laughing or in sobs on the floor—and that he didn’t judge or question me about any of it. He simply allowed me to be, and he was attached to my hip like glue with a loyalty like I’d never known. To this day, I still don’t know how I would have made it through those days without him at my side.
He eagerly welcomed my new partner in life a couple of years later, and accompanied Chris and I as we were happily married in 2012. It did not take long for him and Chris to forge a deep bond, but I was always his chosen person. A DNA test would later reveal that he was a mix of German Shepherd and Australian Shepherd—otherwise known as “Velcro dogs” for their tendency to bond deeply to one individual. Working from home, and with Shelboo being the ultimate traveling companion, there was hardly ever a day that we didn’t spend together. We were inseparable. Truly, he had become the very best friend I’d ever had.
When we rescued Briley, a pit bull puppy, from death row at Metro Animal Care and Control in January 2012, I could almost swear Shelboo rolled his eyes as she began her constant onslaught of wrestling—but he welcomed her nonetheless and even showed her the ropes.
If ever a dog had a dozen lives, it was this guy. He could have died at least that many times, between Eplilepsy seizures and finding ways to get into things he should not eat, and Briley accidentally rupturing his knee with her block head, resulting in major orthopedic surgery at a ripe age. Yet, he overcame everything, always, and I think I was somehow convinced that he was invincible, even as his muzzle began to turn white and his eyes started to cloud with age.
In December, he traveled with us to St. Simons Island, Georgia for a week. He rolled in the sand and ran up and down the beach with other dogs. Passersby would comment how young and playful he seemed, and when we’d say he was almost fourteen, they’d gasp, “No way!” He was forever young at heart (he never met a stuffed toy he didn’t like!) but even in my self-induced delusion, I could not ignore that his pace was slowing, that his leg was stiffening, that he could only play for ten minutes rather than thirty.
Time was creeping up on us. And yet, I still believed we had more time.
And then, just like that, we didn’t.
We came home on the afternoon of February 7th—me from out of town and Chris from running errands—to find him happily greeting us as usual, his naturally bobbed tail wiggling in excitement. He wanted to play, he wanted cookies, he wanted dinner. Everything seemed normal until his dinner started coming back up and, along with it, a massive length of rope. I panicked. What could it be? Chris brought scissors and I cut it from his mouth, just as we began to put it all together.
You see, for years, Shelby suffered from complex partial seizures. They’re not the grand mal style that leaves one padding on his side, but rather a bizarre episode of walking around licking at the air and floor and attempting to chew and eat everything he can get into his mouth. He is unaware that he is doing it, and we have to hold him for the duration to keep him from harming himself. After a while, he returns to normal and you’d never know otherwise. We’d been lucky all these years to be home every time he seized, save for one time coming home as he was eating the shower curtain.
In recent years, an increase in medication had kept the seizures at bay. But here we were, watching in horror as a rope spilled endlessly from his heaving mouth, and then we noticed it: a good ten or twelve feet of carpet rope was missing from our bedroom floor. My heart sank as I realized what had transpired in our absence: clearly Shelby had suffered a seizure and had gnawed up the carpet. And now an entire length of it was inside his body.
We rushed him to the Murfreesboro branch of Nashville Pet Emergency. We sat in the floor with him, crying and begging him to be okay. X-rays were done. Specialists were consulted. And even as the kind veterinarian tried her best to gently convey to us the extent of the damage—that about ten or twelve feet of rope had been mercilessly sawing through his intestines, already causing sepsis and swelling along the entire length of his body—I was somehow convinced that he was going to once again dodge death and pull through. Surgery would run in the thousands. Okay, we said, we’d find a way. I simply could not accept that after thirteen years and countless near misses, he could possibly leave us this way.
I think she sensed that we could not seem to accept the circumstances as they were, so she did the kindest thing a veterinarian can do: she got real honest. She told us that a dog even half his age might not fully recover from such a complicated, devastating surgery. It would be long and incredibly complex. At nearly fourteen years old, and prone to seizures, he would likely not make it off the table. Even if he did, he’d likely suffer and never fully recover.
Suddenly, it hit us with all of the magnitude of falling off a steep cliff: this was, indeed, his end. No amount of wishing or hoping or crying or rationalizing or money was going to make the situation anything other than helplessly dire. And it finally occurred to me that there was only one compassionate, loving thing we could do. After more than a decade of Shelby’s unconditional love and loyalty—and everything beautiful he brought into my life—I could not sentence him to suffering in his old age. I could only repay his unconditional love with the same, by lovingly and gently letting him go, no matter how much it shattered my own heart.
We spent a while alone with him, gently stroking his soft, triple coat of fur and thanking him for all of the love he’d given to us with all of his being. We told him how very sorry we were for his suffering and for having to let him go. I prayed he somehow understood that this was an act of sheer love. And then I lie next to him on the floor of the clinic, as the vet injected the medication that would send him quietly into his final slumber. I kissed his soft head and stroked his ears—his favorite placed to be petted—as he sighed and slowly closed his eyes, taking his final breath.
And just like that, he was gone.
His silly smile, his dancing eyes, his animated life energy—forever gone.
We were left with silence, stillness, and the sounds of our own beating hearts, which throbbed against our chest walls as heavy sobs ushered up from our churning stomachs.
It was hard to ever leave the room. I could not just leave him there. Chris wound up carrying his limp body to the back of the clinic, to his final resting place before being cremated. With much hesitation, we finally left the clinic in a daze. Like robots, we mechanically drove home and walked into the house, greeted by two concerned dogs eager to kiss away our tears. And yet, the house seemed so empty and void without him. In many ways, it still does.
In the days and weeks that followed, I experienced anguish like I’ve never known. I still expect him to come walking back into the room at any moment, grinning at me as if to say, “Did you really think I’d ever leave you?” And when he doesn’t, my heart shatters with the knowledge that I will never again see that happy, grinning face.
Those who have never loved an animal so deeply often cannot understand the immense grief felt by those of use who have. But it’s no surprise that the loss of an animal companion should hit us this hard. Here was a dog who fully depended on me for more than 13 years, was eager to love and adore me every moment of the day, no matter what mood I was in, whether I succeeded or failed, or whether or not I made the time to take him on a walk when I was feeling too sick and tired. What other being is so truly and unconditionally at our sides, no matter what, every moment, for their entire life?
This is what those of us in our animal community understand all too well: with great love comes great loss. All of us who invite animal companions into our lives and our hearts are doomed to know this most deeply felt, excruciating loss—and yet, it seems such a small price to pay for the immeasurable joy, love and laughter they bring into our lives, if only for a short time.
I am still grieving, and will continue to wrestle with the grief. However, he still finds ways to bring me joy.
A few days after his death, it snowed. I bundled up and took MollyBear and Briley into the back yard, and stood there watching as beautiful white flakes fell silently all around us. I cried, thinking of Shelby enjoying the snow just two weeks before and wishing he were still here to run and play and catch snowballs in his mouth.
And then, he came to me. His love, his warmth, the essence of his spirit seemed to embrace me, and peace settled over me as I stared up at the rays of light peering through the clouds. And his spirit seemed to offer the thought that he is no longer playing in the snow because he now is the snow. He is now the snow, the stars, the sunlight, the rain. He has returned to the collective, loving energy that embraces and unites all of us—humans, animals and nature. He is infinite love and joy. He is no longer bound by arthritis and seizures. He is running as fast as his heart desires. And he is here, within me and all around me, and he will never truly be gone.
And even through the pain and tears, I smile.