Thursday, February 3, 2011

Dogs and a Garden

In 2004, we really wanted… dogs and a garden.  We both grew up on large properties and having dogs were an essential part of life.  Living many years in urban apartments we had a lot of time to envision our first homestead.  I also had a well-developed taste in plants from working for a wonderful landscaping company and nursery.  Terry really wanted to grow vegetables.  So we were excited to finally have a patch of earth to turn into a garden of our own.

The house we bought was a fixer.  It needed a lot of work initially just to make it livable.  It was clear that the garden would have to wait awhile, but having a dog would bring life and warmth to the property.  We put off pet adoption for an excruciating six months, then in January 2005, we adopted Oso, a fluffy, pudgy, three-year-old retriever mix from the Humane Society.  We threw up a crude fence and installed a doggie door.  A few months later, it was clear that he needed a buddy, so we adopted Smithers, a 6-month-old Rottweiler Lab mix.  We expanded the fenced area.

The dogs had a way of sculpting the landscape.  Smithers liked to dig, so we built a large sandbox.  Their constant running made the yard muddy, so we bought in truckloads of wood chips.  Finally in 2006, we made landscaping a priority; we knew it would take a few years for the plants to fill in and become somewhat dog proof.  We spent several months detailing out a budget, design, and construction plan.  That spring we sent the dogs down to my parents and we spent ten grueling days grading the site, bringing in soil amendments, putting up a new fence, mulching, and laying sod.  After the initial landscape marathon, we started planting.  We knew the dogs would damage the little plants, so we put temporary wire fencing around most of the planting beds. 

Over the years, we designed and built out more specific features, as we better understood our needs and how the dogs interact with the garden.  We built a poured a conrete patio, ripped out dog damaged sod and built a fenced in edible garden.

During all our projects on the house and in the garden, the dogs were our constant companions, entertainers, and “construction inspectors”.  They also knew how to remind us when it was break time: time to throw the tennis ball, go for a walk, or just run around the house.  When we really needed a long break, we took them camping in the woods, and hiking in the mountains.

While our dogs were an integral part of our lives and the landscape, they develop relationships of their own: the neighbors that gave them love and treats; the neighborhood dogs that they liked or disliked; the cats that teased them; the crows that displeased them; and the mice that ate their food.  They also had each other.  We observed their dog behaviors: play bows, howling together at sirens, warning each other of strangers walking by, licking each others eyes and ears, competing for the ball and playing keep away with each others treats.

Last year the house, garden and life felt like it had really come together.  The plants created nice garden rooms for sitting and enjoying our summer morning coffee.  The shrubs and trees were large enough to provide shady spots for the dogs to wallow underneath.  Birds came to nest and feed.  We were successfully growing more vegetables than we could eat.  Looking back at photos of the house and garden transformation we could see Smithers getting bigger and Oso getting gray in his muzzle.

While feeling satisfied with the progress we’d made on the house and our transition from working constantly on home improvement to actually enjoying the fruits of our labor, another transition was taking place.  Oso started having trouble with his eyes about a year ago.  With medication it seemed to get under control.  The Vet suspected an underlying issue, but would need to do lots of expensive tests to find an answer.  Since his eyes were looking great with medication, we decided to keep on with the meds and give him the best life possible.   He was nine years old and he had been on medications since he was diagnosed with Addison’s disease several months after we adopted him.

Over the years Oso’s personality had come alive, as he had gotten stronger, more confident, and more socialized.  He loved everyone he met and was happy all the time.  Last summer he had starting losing weight and hair.  All the signs pointed towards liver disease or cancer.  We changed up Oso’s food, and I started bathing him with medicated shampoo twice a week.  Smithers was being a good buddy and spending lots of time licking Oso’s sore spots.  Over the autumn months, he continued to lose weight, but his hair was looking much better.  It was even starting to grow back.  As the weather got cooler we moved the back dogs into the house (after several years of having their beds in the garage).  I covered the living room floor with blankets and towels and the dogs thoroughly enjoyed spending time with us next to the fire and watching TV. 

As the holidays approached we put up Christmas lights, decorated a tree, and hung the stockings. The dogs knew that stockings meant treats and new toys.  They eyed and sniffed the stockings constantly.  Around this time a little bird started hanging out under the peak of the eaves of our front porch every evening.  He was there every time we turned the Christmas lights on and off.  We called him Oso’s angel.  As Oso declined we decided we had better do Christmas with the dogs early.  A couple weeks before Christmas we filled their stockings and presented them to the dogs.  Oso loved his new squeaky tennis ball.  He perked up with each squeak and spent quite awhile just mouthing and squeaking it.  He even played fetch with it outside, although we couldn’t throw it as far as before and he was much slower retrieving it.  

We weren’t sure how many good days Oso would have left and we discussed how to handle things.  Should we call the vet?  Let him go naturally?  What about the upcoming holidays?  What if he couldn’t get up anymore?  What if it happened in the house?  What if Terry was at work and I was alone?  Being such a big dog I wouldn’t be able to pick him up to rush him to the vet.  Terry, having grown up on a ranch, said a dog would let us know when it’s time and will find a comfortable quiet spot to lie in and pass.  Terry also wanted to bury him at home, Oso’s home.

When I designed our garden, I didn’t consider leaving space for a grave.  I suppose with more life experience one would think of these things.  We just happened to have an open spot that we used to store a pile of extra soil.  Terry had visions of building a chicken coop there.  I had visions of more large shrubs for privacy screening.  Now it seemed to be the only open space in the garden that wasn’t lawn or an empty vegetable bed.

On December 15th, Oso stopped eating, but would still get up and go outside when he needed to.  I called a couple Vets to find out if they did house calls and how much it would cost.  On December 16th, a Thursday, I tried to take Oso on our daily walk around the block.  He made it to the sidewalk and just looked dazed.  He was pooping water and drooling.  I knew it wouldn’t be long.  It was a beautiful dry sunny day.  I got him back up on the front porch, but he wouldn’t come inside.  I got his old comforter from the garage and threw it in the washer.  In the afternoon he moved to the back porch.  I tried to make a comfy spot for him with towels.  I kept checking on him and stroking his fur and soft ears, and I could tell he probably wouldn’t last the day.  He looked like he couldn’t even get up again.  I hoped Terry would make it home from work on time.  Around the time Terry would be coming home, I looked on the back porch and Oso was gone.  Did he go find a hole?  I went to the garage and he wasn’t there.  I went to the front porch and he was curled up on the doormat waiting for Terry. 

Terry came home and we petted Oso and decided to let him take the journey he needed.  We ate supper and checked on him and he was still there.  I got the comforter out of the dryer to lay it under him and he was gone.  I looked in the garage to see if he went to his old bed.  Nope.  We turned on the floodlights and grabbed a flashlight and looked for his old wallowing holes in the garden.

Sure enough he had gone to lay under the bushy Cryptomeria tree in the bed just off the front porch.  He was still alive, but just barely.  I laid the comforter just in front of him and he pulled his front legs forward and sunk his head into it.  We rubbed his ears and told him what was a wonderful dog he was.  We went back into the house to let him make the transition peacefully.  We could see him from the front porch, so we checked on him little while later and he was still alive.  I checked again a little bit after that and I could tell by how his head was flopped over he was gone.  He had passed.  His eyes were open, but the life was out of them.  It felt strange to see a beloved creature without any life in him.  After agonizing over his declining health for so long, I finally felt at peace.  He was still warm and we stroked his soft ears again.  We knew that by morning he would be stiff, so Terry repositioned him to make him easier to move and bury.  He looked so peaceful under the tree.  Since it wasn't going to rain that night, we let him be in the spot he picked.

We went back into the house, snuggled with Smithers by the Christmas tree, and talked about how Oso was such a sweet and good dog.  He was such a great dog he even picked the most perfect day and time to pass.  He waited for Terry to get home, Terry had the next day already scheduled off, it was a beautiful mild sunny day, and it was one of the shortest days of the year (meaning the days would be getting longer and brighter after this experience).  It being winter, there also wouldn’t be pesky flies to go after his body.  It was even far enough before Christmas that we could recover and enjoy the holidays.

The next morning was clear and beautiful, we went to the front porch and looked at Oso under the Cryptomeria tree and he looked so peaceful.  I’ll never forget the way he looked under there.  When we went out to check on him, he was cold and stiff except for the flaps of his ears that were still as soft as ever.  Terry measured the body and we prepared the spot to bury him.  As a gardener, I’m used to digging, but this was truly different.  Terry dug down about four feet.  As he got deeper and deeper into the hole, I thought how strange it must be to bury a loved one.  Smithers stood beside me perplexed at what we were doing. 

Once the hole was dug we went to get Oso’s body.  We pulled him onto the comforter and carried him to the hole.  We laid him in the bottom taking care to make him look comfortable.  I grabbed some tennis balls and an old rubber hot dog toy from his early years to put with him.  Smithers didn’t know why we were putting good toys in such a deep hole.  The hardest part was shoveling the soil over Oso.  We were burying not only our dog; but also our first dog, and the first six years of our life in this house.  Smithers leaned against me during this process with concern at our tears.  Once it was done, we spread bark over the loose dirt.  We had some stones piled around, so I spelled out “OSO” with them.

Life has changed since Oso left us.  The house is quieter.  No more pills and medicated shampoos.  Oso's death reminded us of how much time has actually passed since we bought this house and grew our lives around it.  We can’t believe he died before we finished renovating the house.  (We still have a couple projects to complete).  We always talked about how he’d be great with kids… we also noticed how much Smithers was considered Dog #2.  He is now our Dog #1.  Someday, maybe this spring... we’ll get another Dog #2. 

In 2004, we really wanted… dogs and a garden.    

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