I’ve been privy and partner to the final breath of thousands of pets. Client’s pets. Veterinary team members’ pets. Neighbor’s pets. Family member’s pets. Shelter pets. And of course, my own pets, which for like most of you, are not only considered family members, but our kids.
On Saturday, December 15, 2018, we suddenly lost 12-year-old, grizzled black Pug, Willy, who was my daughter Mikkel’s son, granddaughter Reagan’s brother, and my wife Teresa’s and my grandchild. This is literally and figuratively what we called him and considered him.
Sometimes the final breath can’t come soon enough for a pet who’s been grievously injured and in the final agonal moments. When I think of this, what pops into my mind’s eye are hundreds of pets hit by vehicles that I’ve seen over my almost 40 year veterinary career.
When a dog who weighs under a hundred pounds (sometimes under 10) gets hit by a 3000 pound car or 6,000 pound pickup truck in motion, like Humpty Dumpty, as veterinary healthcare professionals we can’t put them back together again. The trauma is too much, the suffering unbearable, and whether they die on their own or are helped with a final grace (euthanasia), for the vast majority of pet guardians, the pet crosses the proverbial Rainbow Bridge, free of pain and free to join both their two and four-legged family members for never-ending treats, talks, walks, belly scratches, and hugs. There are no nail trims, baths, itches, illnesses, accidents, medications, or un-catchable squirrels in doggy heaven.
I first saw Willy as a tiny Pug puppy at our Almost Heaven Ranch in Northern Idaho almost 12 years before the day he died. I’m talking “fun size,” as when I went up to the barn to do winter horse chores, I literally put him in the left upper pocket of my Carhartt overalls, as if he was a black pocket square, one with two bright eyes, puppy breath fanned out with a pink tongue, and marshmallow soft foot pads. He rode there inside the “heart pocket” of a rancher’s suit.
Over the next few weeks several memorable things happened that are seared into my consciousness and heart:
- This black Pug pup wasn’t near show quality as he was undersized, with malocclusion (teeth weren’t properly aligned) and a big patch of white on his chest. He was named Willy after the Killer Whale in the hit movie, Free Willy.
- I watched the little two-pound beast attack another black Pug and fight him to a standstill protecting his family. It was his own image in a floor mirror in a hotel room.
- While Willy undoubtedly loved Mikkel the most, when he was at Almost Heaven Ranch he followed me everywhere. Upstairs, downstairs, inside, outside, he followed me, and when I stopped, he wanted to be touching me with a body part.
- I know you’ve heard of barn cats, but Willy could be called a barn dog as our two story log horse barn was one of his very favorite places on earth. With Mikkel, he lived in three different apartments, a rental home, Mikkel’s first house, and then two houses after she married her husband, Ben. Like an army brat, he lived in seven homes in his 12-years on earth. But he was at his stubby tail-wagging happiest when walking up to the barn, exploring the stalls, giving chase to the cats in and around the green Lego blocks of hay, digging through wood shavings for kitty Rocca, eating horse apples, and waiting for treats in the tack room of the barn. The stairs going up to the loft are steep, and Willy would race up them on all fours. But going down the steps he would literally just use his front paws in a moving handstand, like a Cirque du Soleil performer. Or, at other times, he’d wait expectantly at the top for us to return and pack him close to our chests down the stairs, just like how he’d once been packed around as a puppy.
- Willy, and his Pug-brother Bruce loved NECCOs! I’d sit in my massage chair and Willy and Bruce would lie over the arm of our leather couch with their front legs hanging down and stick out party-blower tongues while reeling in the multi-colored candy wafers. I could walk in from outside the house and say, “Do you want your NECCOs?” and Willy would race his brother upstairs to take his position, each consistently lining up on their designated side on the arm of the couch while nestled up beside one another.
- My daughter Mikkel can have a “blonde moment” from time-to-time (we love that about her), as happened one time in the car when she said to her new pup, “You’re just a Willard Tree.” Yeah, I know, she was thinking about a Willow Tree. That’s how he got his nickname, Tree, which is what many of us called him. I seriously doubt any of you reading this have ever heard of a dog called Tree.
I was born the day after Thanksgiving in 1954 and Tree was born two days after Turkey Day in 2006. He was Mikkel’s first child and Teresa’s and my first grandchild, and was treated as such. As part of the family, Willy went with us on road trips, riding ATVs, hikes, in boats fishing with the family, in our favorite cabin on Priest Lake, and Tree was around the tree at Christmas as he dug into his stocking and pawed open his presents.
Just before his third birthday in 2009, on November 7, he got a sister to go with his brother Bruce, when we were at the hospital to welcome Reagan into this world. From the moment Reagan pulled into Mikkel’s apartment from the hospital, and before she’d even arrived inside, Willy was there giving Reagan snuggles. To this day, Mikkel says she never saw Willy’s tail wag as enthusiastically, or Willy’s face carry as evident of a smile, as that first moment when Willy met Reagan. Willy’s love for Reagan was instant. Reagan became a branch of the Tree, a relationship that bore constant fruit.
Tree faced many health headwinds. Chronic bacterial and fungal skin infections. A severe neurological condition that would cause him to collapse and become unconscious. Skeletal issues that caused a condition called Kyphosis (hunchback), which was painful and affected his gait (he had swivel hips like Elvis).
On one occasion Willy collapsed into a state of anaphylactic shock while on an outdoor potty break for no known cause; with pale gums and a heartbeat of only 30 by the time he arrived at the emergency vet. I could go on and on beyond what is only a short list of what he endured, but just know if there was a veterinary equivalent of Consumer Reports Reliability Ratings based on breakdowns and trouble spots, Willy would have been in in “Do Not Buy” or “10 Least Reliable” category. But over his 12 years, many thousands of dollars were spent on keeping Tree healthy, both root and branch. Like most of you reading this, there wasn’t anything we wouldn’t do or any price we wouldn’t pay to keep him healthy, happy, and living a full life.
Mikkel and I both do a lot of TV and video work, and there’s nothing worse for visibility than an almost solid black little dog. But what Willy lacked in contrast he more than made up for in talent, as he loved training and was a shining example of Mikkel’s tutelage. Mikkel followed the advice of boarded veterinary behaviorists and never fed her Pugs out of food bowls but out of food puzzles/food dispensing devices.
I don’t know how many of you remember Ernest P. Worrell, a fictional character portrayed by Jim Varney, the accident prone rube from commercials and movies, but Bruce was the canine version of him. He’d just stumble over a food puzzle, try to paw it over or shake out its contents, relying on muscle over finesse.
Willy on the other hand was like a skilled safe cracker or a magician with “sleight of paw,” who would spin levels with his paws, lift off barriers with his teeth, or use his canine Gene Simmons-length tongue to flick kibble out of barriers (or clean out a jar or glass). Since Tree was part of Fear Free from the first spark, he will always stand tall as an online example of the roots of Mikkel’s teaching and training.
We knew Willy was almost certainly in the last chapter in his life about a month ago, around the time of Reagan’s ninth birthday, when he suffered a major medical collapse with persistent vomiting, inappetence, depression, and severe neurological problems that included locomotor problems and asymmetrical dilation of the pupils, symptoms so serious that Mikkel’s local veterinarian (who is extremely talented!) consulted with one of the world’s top boarded veterinary neurologists.
There wasn’t a definitive diagnosis, but all of us suspected that Willy had a brain tumor. The treatment was both high-tech and high-touch, with Mikkel’s husband Ben cooking Willy his favorite dish, eggs, and hand feeding, touching, and talking with him in a soothing voice for hour upon hour while simultaneously he was loaded up with medications that treated his symptoms and made him much more comfortable. We also prayed the prayers of battle (a medical battle in this case) as a family, added him to local prayer lists, and asked our amazing social media family to include him in their prayers. This cocktail of hope/love/compassion, where state-of-the-art meets state-of-the-heart, gave Willy a big boost and he got his appetite back and a little more kick in his step as he enjoyed Mikkel and Reagan telling them they loved him over-and-over like broken records. And yeah, treat and house rules became non-existent.
About a week ago, Mikkel and Ben left on a long-planned trip out of the country and Glamma Teresa (Reagan’s cute nickname for her grandma) went over to their house north of Seattle to babysit all three kids (Reagan, Willy, and Indy the Puggle). Willy’s appetite wasn’t very good so Teresa fed him hot turkey or chicken. She further pampered him by using her newly acquired skills as a certified pet massage therapist.
On Saturday, Teresa and the kids took off early in the morning from Western Washington for the all-day drive to our Almost Heaven Ranch in Northern Idaho. Shortly after arrival at the ranch, Willy went up with Teresa to his beloved barn to check out his territory and get a snack (both commercially made and horse-created). There was snow on the ground and Willy did a favorite activity of putting the side of his face on the ground and running his flat face along the snow like an 18-pound, 12-year-old, four-legged snowplow.
Back inside the house, exhausted from the 8-hour drive, hauling in luggage and packages, and doing inside and outside chores, Teresa and now five kids (Reagan, Willy, Indy, QT Pi, and Quixote) went upstairs to watch TV and relax. As always, Teresa had treats for the whole family, including the four-legged ones. Specifically, she gave each of the dogs a treat and each found their spot on the sofa or floor to chomp. Despite the fact that Willy has canine Billy Bob teeth and struggles to chew, he stood up on his back feet like Roy Roger’s Trigger and grabbed the treat out of Teresa’s hand, spun on his heels, plopped down by Teresa and Reagan with it in his front paws, and began to gnaw.
Suddenly Tree fell. Teresa heard the sound and at first thought he was playing, but almost instantly knew something was wrong. He paddled, vomited, and his tongue turned blue, all inside of the first 30-seconds.
Teresa raced to the telephone and called me for help (I was at a veterinary meeting in San Diego). I instructed her in CPR and she worked on him for a few minutes. I was about 1,500 miles away but it felt shockingly close as I heard Reagan’s screaming cries, “I love you Willy, don’t die, I LOVE YOU Willy, please, don’t die.” Teresa, too, was crying, pleading with God for a miracle, and breathless with lifesaving effort. But Willy was not to draw another breath.
What a way to go. At your favorite place on earth, having just visited the barn, on your dog bed, eating your favorite treat, surrounded by two people who love you and the dogs of your pack. Everyone was glad that Mikkel was far away in the Bahamas with Ben, her last memories of Willy being when he was still helping with her dog training classes at Doggy Haven near her Seattle area home, and them both showing off a bit, with Willard Tree performing his amazing repertoire of tricks.
Almost Heaven Ranch rests halfway up a mile-high mountain in extreme Northern Idaho, just 7-miles by crow from the Canadian border. The weather this December is about normal, with lows in the teens. On December 27, Teresa and I celebrated 40 years of marriage. We also celebrated Willy’s life.
Our beloved neighbor Dave came up and with pick axes, chisel bars, and sturdy shovels (the soil is extremely rocky where our pet cemetery is located, and the frost was deep) and he and I dug a grave for Willy just to the right of his brother Bruce’s grave. We dug a rectangular grave about two feet long, one foot wide, and three feet deep.
I was pretty choked up during the process and tried to make a double entendre joke about 4-feet-under, but it fell as flat as our mood. Before going in the house to get Teresa and our son, Lex, to help with the final burial, I wrapped Willy in a blanket and laid him gently in his grave in a sleeping position. Beside him, I put a little treasure box containing some special items including multiple photos of Willy throughout his life with Reagan and Mikkel, a name tag of Bruce’s, a couple of toys, a bag of treats, and then covered all of it with Willy’s oversized Christmas stocking.
When Teresa and Lex came out to the grave site, Dave stood back respectfully as the three of us took turns putting dirt in his grave. About 16 years earlier we’d all done this on top of Teresa’s dad Jim’s grave, and I have to say none of us find it comforting, but a ritual we should do. With each scoop of dirt, I thought of and passed on thanks or a blessing to Willy.
Thank you Willy for being Mikkel’s loyal little man, through an abusive first marriage, through financial challenges, through many moves. Thank you for being such a loving, loyal, friend to Reagan. Thank you for making Mikkel seem like a training genius, when in fact you were an even greater genius. Thank you for all of the joy you brought to me on our trips to the barn.
Thank you for letting me write this and share this with all of you. When this tree fell in the woods (literally and figuratively), I wanted many to hear.