Rescue Me

The Story of the Boone Dog

“Sir this is a unique dog. He does not live by tooth or fang. He respects the right of cats to be cats although he doesn’t admire them. He turns his steps rather than disturb an earnest caterpillar. His greatest fear is that someone will point out a rabbit and suggest that he chase it. This is a dog of peace and tranquility.” — John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley.

Boone Dog is not well. That jarring reality sets in when I see the text from my wife Sarah saying “call me whenever you can,” as I get off a plane at DIA on a Friday night in early November. He might’ve had a seizure. He peed in the kitchen. He’s lethargic. He’s laying in the yard. He can’t walk. He’s not responsive. Something is not right.

I hail a Lyft outside the terminal, even though I want nothing more than to be behind the wheel of my car, or any car, so I can get home with the necessary velocity. I consider asking the Bangladeshi woman who is driving if we can switch and I can drive her car. I do not actually ask her. She is wonderfully kind. She has a heavy foot the moment demanded. She gets me home promptly.

When I walk in the door, the Boone Dog — who is never not within a few feet of me whenever I’m in the house — does not even lift his head to greet me or see who is walking through his front door. By now, he’s laying in our dining room, wrapped in a blanket, head leaning on our friend Mary’s lap.

He looks like he is in a coma.

This would be the beginning of the end. And though the end that would come six weeks later doesn’t feel like a happy one, the story of the Boone Dog is.

O n the suggestion of conspiring relatives, Sarah and I first met some seven years ago on a blind date based solely on proximity (we lived in the same neighborhood) and dog ownership (we both had yellow dogs).

“Do you think it’s time for us to introduce the boys?” she asked, after a few ensuing dates, referring to Boone, her yellow lab, and Finn, my golden retriever. That was when I thought she might actually like me.

Boone was born — we think — near Lamar, Colorado, in the southeast corner of the state. We don’t know when he was born exactly or to whom, or much of anything about his puppyhood. It’s hard to imagine him as a puppy, as he’s seldom if ever been rambunctious in the way that young dogs are.

We think he spent some time on a ranch or at least around other animals. There’s evidence that he was neglected or abused or both. He was clearly mistreated at some point, and it’s almost certain that someone took a hand or a foot or something worse to him — and to them I truly hope karma finds its way back to you.

Sarah got Boone about six months before she and I met, after a long search for a dog of her own. She was told he was about 3 or 4 years old at the time, though it’s clear now that he was older. He had been taken from a high-kill shelter to the Second Chance Animal Rescue in Lamar, where he was then fostered for a bit by a female pilot.

We imagine younger Boone sunning himself through the cracked door of a hangar, and taking long mid-flight snoozles when he got to accompany her in the air.

Before Sarah renamed him Boone, he was Asa — which comes from the Hebrew language in which it means “healer.”

When Sarah and her mom found Boone’s listing on Petfinder and went to meet him at an adoption fair in Colorado Springs, it was Sarah’s cat — Bo Diddley — who helped pick Boone out. But the cat’s selection was more out of sport than a desire for companionship. Boone was terrified of the cat, which in turn bullied the dog, which often led to Sarah coming home from work to find the dog cornered in the bath tub.

Bo Diddley eventually flew too close to the sun though, was exiled to Sarah’s mom’s house for peeing on too many things, and last seen some years ago chasing bears in the foothills below Pikes Peak (true story).

Boone was a challenge early on. He was calm and house-trained. But when Sarah got him, he was overweight and antisocial. He was unusual for a lab — he didn’t play fetch, he didn’t much like water, he wasn’t food-motivated, and didn’t have a very gregarious, people-pleasing attitude. He suffered from seizures and was diagnosed as epileptic. The medication that resulted made him a zombie, and exacerbated his apathy and sluggishness. He was tough to bond with, and on top of all that, he had a debilitating and destructive fear of thunderstorms.

Boone unequivocally did not do anything he didn’t want to do, which was a lifelong habit we didn’t condone but certainly respected.

He would often decide a walk was over when he and Sarah were still several blocks from the house. The thought of chasing after a ball or a stick was insulting. And the notion of running? Nope.

Sarah took him to a well-regarded puppy-training school, which Boone was later expelled from for not wearing a gentle-leader or doing really anything he was told.

But gradually he got more comfortable with Sarah, gained some confidence, and knew he was home. Eventually, she took him off the anti-seizure medication and his sweet, gentle personality was more apparent. He got to a healthier weight. He liked early morning walks before Sarah went off to work. And for a brief stretch, he even ran with her, often off-leash.

As difficult as he was at times, he was her boy. She’d waited her whole life to get him.

“You rescued him,” I said to Sarah, on the way home from the vet when his prognosis was clear. “And he knows that. He knows you’re his person.”

“Who rescued who?” she asked. “That dog has taught me more about patience and expectations and trust than anyone I’ve ever known.”

She saved his life. And he changed hers.

O n a more recent morning, after Boone’s episode in early November, Sarah and I laid in bed and looked at old pictures, laughing and crying as we reminisced.

Boone, doing his morning roll in the grass and ensuing back scratches.

Boone, standing on the kitchen counter, confused and disoriented, in the aftermath of a thunderstorm.

Boone, in black and white, at a nearly-deserted gas station in the middle of Nebraska, on a summer road trip.

Boone and Finn, sitting on their haunches, with big dumb sun-baked smiles on their faces, in the alpine meadow where we got married a few days prior.

Boone, sitting next to Finn, both muddied from shoulders down, after finding a sloppy creek bed on a hike above Crested Butte.

Boone, in a bright orange PFM t-shirt, in a snow-strewn park on a bitterly cold Broncos game day.

Boone, in an aspen grove above Steamboat, ears flopping in the wind on the way back down the mountain from a winter hike.

Boone, at sunset, on the museum steps above City Park.

Boone, laid out on a sun-drenched deck next to a lake.

Boone, sitting like a statue on a rock bridge bench over the creek in Manitou Springs, a block from the house where Sarah grew up.

And there are hundreds more, many with him in some phase of sleep, often snuggling next to Finn — funny, touching, sensitive, sweet, serene Boone Dog.

“The one I wish we’d gotten of him is doing downward dog,” Sarah said on that Saturday morning. “He just does the best downward dog.”

After Sarah and I started dating more seriously and eventually moved in together, Boone and Finn became inseparable. They were the buddies. The dumb dumbs. The doggos. And after we got married, the stepbrothers.

They were good for each other in their own way. Finn was the friend Boone had always wanted, and gave him more confidence around other dogs and other people. Boone was the friend that Finn didn’t know he needed, and showed him what a pack is for when Finn had his own bout with cancer three years ago.

Finn’s life led him to believe that humans were good. Boone knew that to not always be the case. Both of them were somehow right.

Boone’s seizures continued periodically. They were never not disturbing to witness, as they would occasionally close in on what’s considered a fatal duration. He always weathered them though.

His total, abject fear of thunderstorms was another challenge altogether. It was not solvable with a thunder shirt or noise pollution or even mild sedatives. His terror of the thunder demons went down to his bone marrow.

He destroyed couches, curtains, chairs, tables, and more. He trashed Sarah’s mom’s house — at least twice. He once tried to hurl himself over the railing of a loft, fortunately not before Sarah was able to grab him.

During the spring and summer months, we often planned social outings around storm forecasts, like crazy people, to hopefully avoid coming home to an involuntary redecoration. He was slightly less destructive in the car. So sometimes if we were out for dinner or a movie during a storm, we’d leave Boone in the back of the jeep, only to find him curled up in the footwell of the front seat later on.

During one summer storm at my parent’s house, I wrestled him to a draw as he tried to tear apart the wood trim in the bathroom, after which we both fell asleep on the floor in heap of exhaustion. Later in that same trip a massive thunderstorm called a derecho came through, and we spent the night with Boone in the back of my jeep in my parent’s garage to help calm him down and prevent him from damaging the house or himself.

Sarah once came home to find him bloodied from scratches and scrapes he got while breaking out of a metal kennel. He never went back in that thing.

Fortunately, both the frequency of his seizures and the severity of his thunder terrors gradually lessened over time. We’d like to think it was at least in part because Finn — the ultimate therapy dog — was with him.

They kept each other company during those desk-bound days when Sarah and I both had office jobs. They often cuddled together on the same dog bed on winter nights and lazy Sundays. And they came along with us on all kinds of road trips and other misadventures.

For an epileptic dog from humble beginnings who was once on death row, Boone Dog had a helluva ride.

He climbed mountains and summited 14ers. He hiked along the Continental Divide and the Colorado Trail. He swam (sort of) in a Great Lake.

He stayed in fancy hotels — once even at the Ritz-Carlton in Beaver Creek. He’s lounged comfortably next to a coy pound in the patio of casita in Santa Fe. And he’s sunned himself on the deck of a cottage overlooking Lake Michigan.

He hiked trails above Salida and Steamboat and Crested Butte, camped in the Holy Cross Wilderness and Sawatch Range of the Rockies, snowshoed in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, rafted on the Yampa River, and played with the other ski dogs in snow-packed parking lots below Mary Jane.

Riding in the car was one of his favorite things. When he still had the hops, if he saw an open car door he would get in it — whether it was ours or not.

And his list of road trips reads like a biography for Sarah and me: Colorado, New Mexico, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana.

Boone was also an all-time great, hall-of-fame office dog over the last three years of working from home. He’d often go up to the office when I was still eating breakfast downstairs. But if I lingered over my coffee in the kitchen too long , he’d come back down with an earnest stare. Despite snoring through most every conference call, he was the Employee of the Month for 38 months in a row.

Nothing really prepares you to watch your dog slowly die. Not the appointment at the emergency vet in early November, where they check his vitals and take blood samples for analysis. Not the follow up appointment where they x-ray his chest cavity and do an ultrasound on his belly. And not even the diagnosis that he has a large mass in his liver that is likely malignant.

The next appointment with the oncologist, where she describes the surgical procedure to remove the mass, doesn’t prepare you for the inevitable conclusion to this story either. Rather it gives you a brief illusion that this is a fixable problem. That he’s a great candidate for surgery. That he will be fine.

But eventually, you realize he will not be fine. You realize surgery that invasive would be an immense risk, and even if he did survive, his quality of life would be inescapably bad. You realize that massive muscle loss in his head and throughout his body points to more unavoidable problems. And you realize that, as Boone’s vet rightly said about possible treatments, “just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.”

You realize that he is going to die. And that you and your wife are going to have to choose when.

That was more than a month ago, and since then, our house has felt like a senior dog care facility. Carefully portioned feedings three or four times a day. A half pill of Prednisone and 20mg of Prilosec, twice a day. Frequent breaks to go outside to account for his unpredictable, explosive diarrhea. Weighing him every so often to see if he’s keeping on weight. Situating ourselves in the house so Boone has to move the least amount possible. Spotting him when he tries to go up or down the stairs. Carrying him when he can’t make it up to bed. And accompanying him on quiet, slow walks around the backyard for fresh air and grazing.

It’s been several weeks of watching him gradually approach death, and, in doing so, rediscover what we’ve always known — that Boone Dog is tough as nails. His persistent calm masked his deterioration and discomfort. His sweetness concealed whatever pain lurked in his bones and organs.

For a dog who’s had terrible things happen to him, he’s never taken it out on anything or anyone. So even as his body betrayed him once again, there have been no barks or growls or snarls, no yelps or cries or whines. Just the same gentle Boone Dog he’s always been.

Boone’s placid demeanor — which turned downright perky as we spoiled him with people food in our last days together — makes it harder to let him go, and more difficult to stop guilt from creeping into our thoughts. All the walks we didn’t take him on. All the hikes we didn’t do. All the times we got frustrated with him for some silly thing or another. And we even started to second guess his end-of-life decisions — had we waited too long, not long enough? The only comfort is some small sense of relief that he’ll be spared the worst of the inexorable suffering that would otherwise follow.

The end came both slow and fast, all at the same time. His final days were filled with all the good comfort food, since eating was about the only remaining thing that made him happy. He had cheeseburgers, french fries, bacon, hash browns, toast, chips, pretzels, cheese, and much more. On the last day he would be with us, breakfast consisted of pancakes, french toast, potatoes, bacon, and sausage. And he got to wash that down with a Good Times “Paw Bender” sundae, that we fed him by hand in the backyard, under the midday sun. He was quivering with happiness.

After that we situated him in the living room, on his favorite bed, wrapped in his favorite blanket. Sarah and I told stories amid tears and laughs alike. His vet arrived. We braced ourselves and said our last good byes to Boone. He looked at Sarah, he looked at me, and he looked at Finn, as they briefly touched snouts for the last time. Then there was nothing left to do but watch him go.

There were two injections — the first plunged him into a deep relaxation and amplified his already prolific snoring into something euphoric, and the second slackened his grip on life and stopped his heart.

“He’s gone,” his vet confirmed. After that, I carried his body out to the vet’s car, his front feet still crossed in the way that he often slept.

We collapsed in tears after it was all over. But decided to go for a walk in the park with Finn. As we were leaving the house, I looked back to see a sliver of late afternoon sun slip across the living room, in what my grandmother called “God light.”

Every time I think about Boone being gone, I start down the list of all the little things I’ll miss.

Like the click clack of his claws along the wood floors, and the weird, sometimes horrible sounds he’d make with his mouth.

I’ll miss how wonderfully excited he would get around other dogs, and how calm he was around kids.

I’ll miss how fully he committed himself to sleep, like a blanket draped over the back of a plush couch.

I’ll miss the little backward dance he did when he wanted something, as we tried to decode if he was filing a request for water or a walk or to turn down the television.

I’ll miss coming home to hear him hop down from the guest bed he’s not supposed to be on, and discovering the forensic evidence that he’d left behind on the living room couch or leather chair.

I’ll miss the point in a hike when he knows we’re turning around, and somehow finds a second or third or fourth wind to double time it back to the car.

I’ll miss his yelps and hollers when he dreams, and wondering what those dreams are about.

I’ll miss the serene, steady companion he invariably was on any road trip.

I’ll miss him following me around the house, waiting for dropped food or a would-be drive somewhere or the most proximate location in which he should nap.

I’ll miss the morning routine I had with him and Finn — more specifically the thing they did almost every morning in their younger, more athletic days, when I would let them out in the backyard, they would dart off the deck full zooms, and commence a canine wrestling match.

I’ll miss his dueling motivations between sweetness and stubbornness, and the sometimes curious outcomes those internal battles would yield.

Most of all, I’ll miss his steady, quiet presence in every part of our life, and the push he gave me to be as good of a human as he thought I might be.

Letting go of something that you love so much — and that loved you back so unreservedly — seems unbearable.

Boone was there for what was the best seven years of our lives — through job changes and new houses, through travels and trials and adventures, through the mundane rituals and routines of each day, and through getting married and building the life we wanted together. So saying goodbye leaves a Boone-sized void in our home, in our heads, and in our hearts.

He was always there. And for a dog who barely ever made a sound — his absence leaves a crushing silence.

Still, perspective matters. There are, to be sure, far worse things than losing a dog. And dogs should not be confused with parents or children or spouses or siblings. But they are family, and in that, they are irreplaceable.

We are profoundly fortunate for the time we had with Boone. And it’s a strange thing that it feels too finite, too brief, yet still traces through so many of the best and most significant things that have happened to us.

Boone was not always an easy dog. He wasn’t supposed to be, as it turned out. He tested us in so many ways, but he also taught us how to better love and be loved, without reservation or judgement. His gift to us — his purpose — was to rescue us from our own easy tendencies and comfortable habits. That’s how our pack came to be. And for that, we are infinitely grateful.

And even knowing what we know now about how Boone’s story would end, we would do it all over again in a heartbeat — every moment, big and small.

Goodbye and Godspeed, Boone Dog. We will love you forever, and you will always be a part of our pack.