The typical lifespan of a Gerberian Shepsky is 10 to 13 years, so Dharma lived a full life. It was also a mainly happy life, with the first half spent in her birthplace of Northern Ontario, accompanied by her human siblings, and the second half spent with my wife and me overseas in Europe (with visits from her siblings). She looked, and acted, a lot like a wolf. While living at our rural Ontario home, I witnessed her catch and eat a partridge and a rabbit, and I also saw her chase after an adult black bear on two occasions (evidently much more scary for me than for her). In her adopted home in the center of a small European city, she was considerably more domesticated, spending hours relaxing in front of our store-front window watching the pedestrian traffic, and occasionally barking or baring her teeth when feeling threatened by a passing child banging on the glass. Her wolfish instincts would also sometimes display themselves if she suspected that her food dish was about to be taken away from her. However, the only person she ever bit was me, when I foolishly, without warning her, tried to pull from between her teeth a dirty tissue she had scooped out of the waste basket. She quickly expressed remorse. On the whole she was extremely affectionate, and would regularly push her head against my thigh to solicit scritches. She was also very loyal, and would lie patiently outside the classroom door during the entire time my wife was giving private language lessons, no doubt enjoying the sound of her voice. Always sad whenever she was left at home alone, upon our return she would give us hugs by lifting a foreleg and partially wrapping it around our shin. She was really afraid of only one thing – loud noises (including thunder, trains, gunshots and fireworks), and we did our best to shield her from them.
I did not have an easy time, spiritually, during my first year or so overseas, and Dharma was my therapy dog. We went for daily walks, with frequent pauses so she could take in scents left by other dogs, while I made a point of smelling the roses. Strangers often commented on what a beautiful dog she was, but of course Dharma was not at all concerned about her appearance. She remembered where every cat along our numerous walking routes lived, and she would pull hard on her leash as we approached. I would occasionally dream that she was lost, and was so relieved to awaken. We had playtime every evening, during which my wife or I would steal her squeaky toy and toss it, and she would excitedly chase it down and then dare us to try to take it away again, growling threateningly and wagging her tail at the same time. She loved car rides, whether to the grocery store or into the mountains, although this became slightly problematic after she lost the strength to leap into the trunk several months ago. She strongly objected to being lifted or carried, so this was solved by folding down the split rear seat so she could enter the trunk via the back door. She experienced some bouts of arthritis, no doubt exacerbated by a run-in with a truck several years ago, but these had been largely controlled with glucosamine and chondroitin supplements. She also began to occasionally display loss of bladder control, which is a quite common problem with aging spayed female dogs. But on the whole she continued to be active (including digging excitedly for voles during a family outing just a week ago Sunday). However, early last week she suddenly became lethargic and refused all food, including her routine of an evening dental stick (she had perfect teeth) and subsequent snack of potato chips. She even turned down her number one favorite snack of canned tuna in water. Last Thursday evening was very difficult. Dharma lay motionless with her rear legs splayed out behind her, and as my wife gently supported Dharma’s heavy head in her hand, she said that she thought Dharma was dying. This was the first time we shed real tears at the prospect of losing her. She drank copious quantities of water placed in front of her, and peed most of it out where she lay. That night I slept on cushions placed on the floor beside her to keep her company. We took Dharma to the vet first thing Friday morning. By the time we got there, she had perked up a bit. The vet performed a thorough exam, including blood tests. Everything came back normal, and the vet commented that, all in all, Dharma seemed to be in quite good shape for her age. He suspected complications from arthritis, and gave Dharma a shot of cortisone, as well as prescribing anti-inflammatory tablets which we were to start giving her on Tuesday.
We returned home, much relieved, and Dharma herself rebounded nicely. She quickly became active and regained her appetite. She later settled down in the store-front window and barked at an annoying passerby, seemingly her old self. But, sadly, within two days her condition began to deteriorate again. She refused both food and water. She simply lay motionless on the laundry room floor, apparently resigned to her situation, and started exhibiting labored breathing. By the next morning, she had moved to the adjacent family room, but the labored breathing worsened. Then she arose and staggered into the hallway before collapsing at the foot of the stairs. At this point we were quite sure she was approaching the end. She did not express any signs of fear, but she did seem to be sad. Being Easter Monday, the vet’s office was closed. My wife and I felt that the most compassionate course of action would be to stay by her side and comfort her as much as possible. Amidst our own tears, we took turns stoking her and speaking lovingly to her. She managed to move outside where she lay briefly on the patio before being bothered by flies and retreating to the kitchen, where she collapsed for the last time. Shortly thereafter, her breathing became extremely shallow and slow. It was so difficult to watch as it finally ceased entirely. I was concerned that her eyes stayed open (notwithstanding my attempts to gently close them) and her tongue protruded, but I have since read that this is normal for dogs. I also felt very badly for her that she had to take this final step of her journey by herself.
In a dazed state, my wife and I buried our sweet girl in our garden, under the apple tree, our tears flowing freely. The fact that Dharma had truly enjoyed life and would have preferred to live longer, combined with my own pain of loss, made me experience anger in addition to sadness. However, I am inclined to believe that Dharma may also have felt sadness near the end because she understood that those who loved her, and whom she loved in return, would feel pain at her passing. She had depended on us for her care and sustenance, and for awhile I felt as though I had let her down. But when I thought rationally, I acknowledged that she had been very well loved and cared for, and had lived a full and long life (for dogs, but seemingly too short for us). I have been blessed with proof that Jesus lives and that he loves me. What finally brought me the most peace was a prayer I made to Jesus to love and comfort Dharma.
Until we meet again, my good girly-girl.