In dog years most of us would be dead. I've had a few special dogs in my life but losing this particular best friend, healer - face-licker and in my case - co-parent - was particularly devastating. My son, Dylan was 7 when they met and we knew Duke for 11 of his 13 years. That's a lotta dog years for 115 lbs. of pure unconditional canine love.
I fell in love with Duke the moment I set eyes on him at a local male recovery house. He endlessly chased balls in the parking lot - barked at bikers and drunks and I was told - by Bobby the cook - had his heart broken more than once while sitting outside a resident's door. Waiting… Waiting for a buddy in recovery to come back and throw balls or just come home. Duke loved living there but the moment he saw my car or heard it pulling into the lot he raced out of the house to me and barked at the car. Waiting… Waiting to be gifted some freedom and time off to see new worlds - much like an insistent child.
Duke's black saddle accentuated by his enormous brindle legs, ears and his face appeared ferocious even when he smiled. This gentle giant was sneaked into our apartment when no dogs were allowed in the building. That was like ignoring the elephant in the room - we accomplished keeping him a secret for a year before he was green lit to visit – always sleeping in a custom made bed created by Dylan. They were brothers.
Memories of Duke make me ache. He was better than any parent or childrearing manual. If my son and I argued - Duke pushed between us – licking and softly yelping while turning his head back and forth as if to say: "Dude, she's the ride." He was the kind of dog that full body hugged you – it was better than any blanket or fireplace.
Duke had so many snapshots with us: seeing the ocean - barking at waves – hiking -playing slobberminton while camping as he caught the birdie over and over - when one of the kids would miss it while Dylan played with new friends. One boy came to me with, "Can Duke please not play with us anymore? He's spitting on the birdie." The little boy and his partner were downwind – as one hit the birdie that Duke deposited on the sand in front of them – his spit flew into their faces from an upheld racket. I gently suggested that he didn't understand his saliva was bothering them and it would really hurt Duke's feelings if he wasn't allowed to play. The kid scrunched up his face in deep thought then nodded in agreement.
Dylan’s favorite camping memory was when he was 12 and I enlisted his help to pack the car for Big Sur. Assured it was all set to go we departed and hit our camp site. The tent bag was light and I realized the poles were not there so the three of us slept on an air mattress – shivering and huddled together - trying to stay warm until leaving early for home the next day. I was not happy driving back but the two boys were.
We hiked for years in the local canyons and he helped ease a young boy's fears in testing new limits - whether it was the incline of a hill – trying out for a new sport's team – school tests or girl ones. Nightmares - both his and my own - were lessened with Duke's visits. He made us feel safe by lighting and brightening our world. This dog knew when to be bold and when to back off.
At Moorpark Park - Duke held a woman kick-boxer and her instructor frozen as he barked. I ran over and apologized – explaining that the dog thought that they were fighting. Duke hated fights. A while later a two-year-old child came up behind him and hung on his tail squealing happily as Duke just turned to look and stood there until its mother ran over and grabbed her child. Another dog may not have been as gracious.
When Dylan went to high school I would drop him off at Universal's metro station and one morning my son argued that Duke was his dog. As he got out of the car, Duke turned his head away and placed in on the back dash. No matter how sternly Dylan called his name - the dog refused to turn his head. Dylan looked hurt until I explained that Duke knew the difference between our time and his time. The dog understood we were about to go hike and this was his time - he wasn't about to give that up. A lesson I remind myself about today. Make time for yourself.
I ran away from home on my horse when I was a teenager because our house was so volatile and took my German shepherd with me. Duke calmed the waters – accentuating the highs and the lows of our growing up together and with him. My kid never ran away from home – how fortunate am I.
We were taught at a local dog fair how to massage his arthritic legs and back bringing him relief and deeper rests. I was sent to do a story on a new natural dog food store in the area. I told the owner after reviewing his baked goodies that I had a dog that I knew would come in – sniff and stand. He invited Duke to task. Duke walked from bin to bin and then stood looking around with no interest in the food. As a new customer was coming in the owner quickly handed me several gourmet bags of soft food and rushed me out the door. Duke savored those treats when we got home.
He went Trick ‘o Treating – tried to play ball with anyone he met when we were out. He’d walk up to strangers and drop a ball in front of them at the beach while we were in the water. Duke even met my mother who died the year before him. She told me she had never met a dog that was so quiet protective and kind. Duke barked on command and high-fived and he went across a small river in Big Sur with Dylan because he trusted him. Duke hated water. He was Dylan’s confidante and my ally. He was the smartest animal I’ve ever met and I’ve met a few but Duke had a different sense of purpose and sensibility about him. When he returned to the lodge I knew he felt safe and cared for by his many friends that came into and out of his life over the years. He enriched hundreds of lives.
Duke couldn’t hike any longer in 2010 with his eyes and ears dimming but he did shorter walks with me or Dylan.
After losing so much in family and friends the year before – the thought of losing our favorite four-legged family member we couldn’t really discuss because we cried trying. One day I went to the recovery house with a good friend and saw Duke and he couldn’t see or hear me well but he smelled me. He was laying in the living room of the Lodge and I sat down next to him. He burrowed his head into my lap with a deep sigh that exhaled knowing my touch and I felt he was telling me he had had enough. He hurt. Fighting a losing battle with tears streaming down my face - I asked the current manager to please let me take Duke on his last road trip as it was promised to me by the prior manager. He informed me that the dog had been chasing squirrels all morning.
Duke couldn’t get up let alone walk. I was told it was because he was so tired from all the squirrels. The manager was fourteen months sober and said he would call me if the dog got worse – that he understood he wasn’t doing that well after all but he needed him and so did the rest of the guys in the house and the house owned him.
I went home and told my now college bound son that our friend was dying and he wanted us to go steal Duke so he would have one last good trip but we knew we couldn’t. We were the first phone call whenever Duke was missing or sick. If he wasn’t with us he was walking towards the park nearby in his younger days.
Within a month I got a phone call from a girlfriend who knew us and she vented that Duke had been found lying in his own blood. He was taken to the vet.
I will never understand why a group of people would force an animal to be of service rather than to allow him the help to let go too. He deserved at the least that.
Duke died that day. They say people live on through you – I believe that is true of animals too.