I joined the dogs in a mournful howl this morning.
Zulu is gone; my magnificent open country leader and faithful companion. Zulu is the dog that taught me the most about being a good, fair and honest musher. My Zulu is dead.
Those of you who believe only in the notion that dog mushing is all about the romantic stories of adventure in the north woods and the wonders and joys of a day in the life in the dog yard don’t know the whole story. It is also about dealing with extreme pain and loss over and over again as your faithful trail companions who you have spent years training, nurturing and cherishing, depart this earth. If you have had a dog and lost them, you know a bit about this sort of pain, only now multiply it.
I’d like to tell a story of Zulu passing away quietly at home with no pain. Fairytale ending, his is not. Zulu became violently ill last night, completely out of the blue. The day went by as usual. Zulu, the happy retired sled dog turned house dog, spent a great deal of time outside while we hosted dog mushing adventure guests. It was a beautiful and warm January day. He posed with one of our guests for photos, pressed as tightly against her as possible. This was Zulu’s style. Never can get too close.
The house dogs ate some dinner then rested while the sled dogs were fed. After which time, Zulu, Copper, Blue and I went for a walk on the lake. Zulu loves his walks and extends himself to the end of his 26 foot flexi leash, running circles around the rest of us, even at thirteen and a half years old! I recall commenting to myself about his gait and how fluid it remains after retirement and arthritis as he bursts into a flat out “puppy run”.
Tuloon joined us in the house last evening. We were all hanging out in the sun room relaxing from our busy day when Zulu began to vomit. Outside he went. Dogs just do this on occasion so there were no immediate concerns. When I returned to retrieve him from the back yard a few minutes later I saw a terrible sight. Zulu’s body was rigid, his steps were measured and his tail was straight up as he staggered towards me. He appeared in terrible pain as he began to vomit yet again. In all of this, it appeared as though he had also cut his eye while he was making his way out of the trees to come towards me when I called him. My heart sank into the pit of my stomach. I had seen this behavior before in him and only a few weeks ago. Neil had sat up all night with him, helping him through it. At the time we thought it was because he had gotten some of the high protein powder in his food that we give to the working sled dogs. We assumed that it would pass and it did. This time, he had nothing different in his diet and he looked even worse.
After securing Tuloon and the house dogs, I carried him to the waiting vehicle and loaded him into his crate. I called the emergency vet letting them know that we would be about 40 minutes out and then my phone died. At least I got that call in.
I tried to console myself during the drive but my gut instinct was telling me that this may very well be Zulu’s time. Over the past year he began to have a fair amount of body tremors while we rested in the evening. Most recently they had begun to knock him off balance but not to the point of falling. He had lost his ability to walk up or down steps a year ago as well and had to be carried if steps were necessary. If he did pull through this, what would I do if we were in a remote location as we many times are and it happened again? We would be hours from help. How much pain would my poor sweet Zulu have to undergo before we reached help, if he made it that long? I remember asking, many years ago, how in the world do you know when it’s time to make that decision for your dog? I was told that you just know. And, do you know what? You do. You may not like it, actually, you may just down right hate it with every fiber of your being at the moment, but you know it to be true. This was Zulu’s time.
In under 30 minutes we arrived. I went to remove Zulu from his crate and his back was facing me. He didn’t want to move. I helped him out then carried this 70lb sled dog into the vet clinic. Doors were opened wide at first sight of us. The tech behind the counter asked for my name and although I couldn’t manage to make it audible the first time through the tears, she did finally understand and whisked us away to a private room. Although I could barely make the words come out, I was sure of my decision and told her that it was time and Zulu needed to be put down. We discussed that based upon the symptoms it was likely a stomach bloat that he was able to relieve on his own just a few weeks earlier. This time seemed much worse and if he got through this one, it would likely return. No more pain for Zu.
I reassured Zulu that the pain would be over soon. And as the vet entered the room and began to administer the overdose of anesthesia that would instantly remove his suffering, I said I would see him later and that I loved him, as I always do with any of my furry companions that pass on. Knowing Zulu, however, I added that if he felt he needed to stick around a while after the pain was no longer, he sure could. Zulu fell limp in my arms. No more pain. My sweet Zulu was gone.
I felt his presence on the drive home. He was resting his head on my right shoulder. Although his last moments were not painless and he didn't pass at home, that is just a moment in time. He is not to be remembered based upon his ending but upon the memories we shared during the time he was in my life and those are abundant.
He was an awesome dog. Zulu lives on in the Points Unknown kennel in his kids Sweet Pea and Klaus and grandkids Oken, Zala and Zodiak.
I’ll see ya later Zu!