Our Dixie Dog Delight

I don’t really process my thoughts all that well through verbal conversations. Most of the time inside my own head works just fine. That’s one reason I run – that’s thinkin’ time. But sometimes there’s too much to fit in there.

I wrote these thoughts out the night after our dog died. I didn’t write them out for anyone but myself. I’m not interested in a conversation; I’m not looking for anyone’s sympathy or anything else; I would actually very much rather not talk about it beyond just leaving this here and letting it go so I can move on. But over the past few years many of the high points of my life have been quite visible. With sample bias being one of my greatest enemies as a data scientist it seems appropriate that balance be provided to that, especially given how social media tends to paint an idealized picture where people have perfect lives and nothing ever goes wrong.

So I leave this here to help do that, and also for anyone else who thinks what they’re feeling is weird to maybe see that it’s not. I don’t expect anyone who’s not a dog person to understand. I am a dog person but wouldn’t have fully understood a few weeks ago and never would have expected the intensity of what I felt, or at least admitted it. There are gaps, a lot of jumping between random thoughts, and references that probably don’t make sense, because I didn’t edit this (other than adding pictures) and unless you’re me, you’re not the originally intended audience. To fill in just a few of the gaps, here’s the background.

Oh, and from living in the UK I’ve discovered that not everyone has a decent knowledge of country music. So if you don’t get the reference in the title of this post I highly recommend you treat yourself to some Alabama. The band, not the state. The state is just full of Crimson Tide and Auburn fans, and no one wants that…

Dunder Mifflin to Rocky Top

Within the first year of our marriage I took Jessi on a trip from our home in Pittsburgh to the booming metropolis of Scranton, PA (this was during the peak of “The Office” so there was some extra appeal). I told her I had to present at some sort of conference. After dropping her off at the Steamtown Mall I went instead to a local shelter and picked up a 6 month old English Shepherd. Being two southerners who had just moved to Pittsburgh my mom came up with the perfect name for her: Dixie. From that first day she was every superlative you hear thrown around about man’s best friend: faithful, loving, tenaciously playful, protective, obedient, and amazingly smart.

Dixie the pup fiercely guarding her new porch
That was tiring. Think I’ll just make myself right at home here and catch a quick nap before the next shift.

When we had to move for my job from near Washington, DC to the UK we made the incredibly tough decision to leave her in the loving care of my parents on their farm in Tennessee. It was by far the hardest part of the move. As much as we wanted to take her, it was in her best interest. She was over 10 years old and at her age we didn’t know if she could handle the stress of the move, let alone the stress of a move back and whether we would be able to find rental property that would allow her and give her the room she needs to run and play. We would be here for a couple of years, see her on all our visits home, and then reunite when we moved back and got a place where she could happily roam and play all she wanted.

One day’s notice

Last week I got an email from my mom. They had taken Dixie to the vet and they were pretty sure she had lymphoma. The rest of this is my thoughts from the following day.

When we moved to England the rational side of me knew that getting a message like that was a possibility, but the optimist side of me had completely suppressed any thought of it. Yet here it was, only 6 months after our move.

She had slowed down a bit in recent months, but she always did in the summer. She had also developed some arthritis, so not chasing down the ball quite as quickly seemed natural. But man, would she still chase down that ball. On our visit just two months earlier she had even managed some impressive frisbee catches. Now that I think about it, the last time I ever threw her a frisbee she snagged it right out of the air. I do hope someone can say something similar about me one day.

This wasn’t that actual catch, but it’s how I’ll always tell it.

So I hoped for the best, but suddenly the rational side of me was squarely on top, telling me I would never see my dog again. I got up the next morning and went about my day, a hard workout on the way into work that went pretty poorly and left me feeling like I was going to puke, whether from the workout or the news I’m not sure.

I sat there at work, trying my best to focus. I never even bothered changing out of my running gear, though. I took a break for a walk but think I forgot about lunch.

Surely I was overreacting. It wasn’t even a certainty. And it’s a dog, and she’s old. What did I think would happen? I’m supposed to be the logical, unemotional one. When did I get soft? I’m a grown man and I didn’t take it this hard when my dog died when I was a kid.

I grew up in an area where dogs were largely just there to do a job: help on the farm, or on a hunt, or as overzealous enforcers of “private property” signs (although still not as overzealous as some of their owners). If they didn’t do their job, whether by will or by ability, they had no worth. It wasn’t in a cruel sort of way, just a part of life. Most people in the area had grown up in hard times where it was tough enough to provide for people and to tend to them when they got sick, let alone dogs. If anything the cruelty was people seeing dogs that were cared for better than they could care for their kids.

So sure, worse things can happen. People get lymphoma. I can’t fathom what I would feel if something happened to Jessi or one of my kids. I can’t even pretend like I can. But something I remember getting told a number of times as a kid that really annoyed me went something along the lines of, “just be thankful horrible terrible thing X didn’t happen.” One side of that is true: we should always be grateful for what we do have. But on the other side of that, something isn’t all fine and dandy just because there’s something out there that sucks even more. It still sucks. And acknowledging that it sucks doesn’t somehow diminish those things that suck even more. Just like celebrating a great achievement doesn’t somehow diminish even greater achievements. It’s fine to celebrate what I feel like celebrating and fine to be sad about what I dang well please.

Dixie may have thought her job was to keep a vigilant watch on her ball and chase it down to the ends of the earth, but she was so much more than just there to do a job. I’m not exactly a sociable or outgoing person. I don’t really make a lot of friends, and those that I do make are mostly just that: friends. Some I might even go so far as calling good friends. But outside of Jessi the last truly great, deep friendship I had with someone I could regularly spend time with was my college roommate (oddly enough, he’s also quite furry and was very good at chasing a ball around a field). For the last decade, there was Dixie. She was my best friend, and the only thing even close.

Alright, are we done sitting now? I have important ball chasing business to attend to.
Clearly you still have much to learn if you think a baseball is going to last longer than 5 throws before I rip it to shreds.

It didn’t matter that she couldn’t speak. I don’t do much of that myself. It wasn’t necessary; like any great friend she just knew. Every single day when I got home she greeted me with an excitement that I still hope I can have about just one thing once at some point in my life. Through the depths of grad school she was there guarding the door to my office, and one of the main reasons I managed to actually get outside that claustrophobic office occasionally. For five years she was the only reason I ran at all. Ever. And despite being in a PhD program at one of the top engineering and computer science schools in the country she was still more clever than most people around me.

You think the 3 feet of snow on the ground will stop me from finding my ball? Yeah good luck with that.

But it seems there’s an additional element in dealing with the death of a dog, and I think it boils down to a feeling of responsibility. They’re so absolutely dependent on us for everything. Could we have found that something was wrong sooner? If we had been there would we have noticed some subtle change in her behavior? Speaking of us not being there, we left her and moved 4,000 miles away to England. Could that have even contributed? Whenever Jessi or I even got home late or were out of town she would go on hunger strikes until we were both safely back.

Over the last five years she had gradually had to share more of our attention. First a kid. Then twins. And all the while my work became more consuming and my runs became longer and point to point commute runs instead of laps around the neighborhood where I could take her. But she was always there. And always ready to play ball.

Is this new tiny person able to throw me my ball yet?
Ok, this time I will train them early. See, this is the ball. This is what you must learn to throw.

Even when she was a pup back in Pittsburgh I had always had this grand vision in my mind, that one day we would be able to move to the mountains somewhere where she would have plenty of room to run wherever she wanted. We could go on adventures every day. That vision has continually crept nearer and I’m actually quite hopeful that that’s our next destination. All the while I managed to convince myself that she would still be around for that, to live out her final years there.

Pine cones and sticks are also suitable replacements for balls. You may throw those to me as well. But next time, please bring my ball.
Oh wait, you brought the frisbee? That’s even better! I don’t know why you always take it back away before I can sufficiently destroy it.

After running home and then managing dinner as usual I was eventually able to get to sleep and knew that the next afternoon or evening we would hear the prognosis from the vet. Instead I was woken up early by a call in the morning. She was already gone. We barely had 24 hours from finding out there was something wrong to her taking her last breath.

In the end she did live out her final months on a farm in the mountains, with plenty of room to run and my parents giving her more attention than we ever could have and not having to go through the stress of being brought overseas to another country. And her final action was to once again remind me to get out of that claustrophobic office and go play ball or have an adventure. It’s so easy to pay attention to the urgent instead of the important, especially if the important has always still been there the next day with just as enthusiastic of a greeting.

Enjoying farm life right up to the end on her last day

But still, it sucks. It doesn’t matter if it was inevitable, and if all things considered it was peaceful and she lived a great life with a great final 6 months. I never imagined I would feel this way, or even that I could feel this way. I actually broke out in hives. Most of my body between my knees and shoulders was one giant rash. For all the unreasonably stressful things I’ve dealt with, that has never happened. I didn’t even know that’s something that could happen. My initial reaction was to think I had suddenly developed a food allergy.

Eventually that rash, like everything else, will fade. The rational side of me can be both a blessing and a curse. It can quickly shoot me up or down, but also caps how far in either direction I can go. I’ll head back up, but right now I don’t know if I even want to yet. Someone passed along to me that it’s better they go first, because we can understand and if it were the other way they can’t understand. Can understand and does understand aren’t the same thing, though, and this one seems like it’s going to take a while to get from the former to the latter.

The rest of days

This section I added just now when posting this.

The next few days were pretty rough, but as I mentioned in my original thoughts: worse things have happened and people have moved on. It will still suck, and so far I’ve moved from having it constantly on my mind, to just feeling awful and having to sometimes stop to remember why, to generally feeling ok but still frequently remembering. A few days later we took a family trip that had already been planned to explore Cornwall, which was still pretty awesome. The owners of the place we stayed at even had a border collie whose behavior and mannerisms were uncannily similar to Dixie (which was really tough but at the same time helpful).

St. Michael’s Mount was one of the coolest things we’ve seen so far in the UK. At the end of the tour they asked us for donations to restore these cannons, though. Really… you live on an island fortress passed down through your family for centuries and you’re asking me for my money to polish your cannons?

Have I still lost sleep, eaten horribly, and had my training for the NYC Marathon derailed a good bit? Of course. I even missed a couple of random UK Thursday thoughts for the first time since spring. Life happens. Hopefully leaving this here will help life move on.

One thing I did to distract myself in those 24 hours after finding out there was a problem was to set about making my list of favorite desserts, something I should have by all means done long ago but never did. Actually one of the few things that brought me joy in the following days was getting random excited messages from one of my British friends that I had sent a box of American junk food to as he went through all of them. To add a bit of a lighter note, I’ve posted that list as well. I hope that it can also help someone… of all the things I feel qualified to call myself “desert / snack food expert” would be near the top.

18 thoughts on “Our Dixie Dog Delight

  • 2019-11-01 at 12:20 PM

    I read this with my dog (Ghüs) at my feet, and I had to give him a big, long hug. He greeted that with a grunt and a sigh, clear signs that he shares my love and affection during naps. When I adopted Ghüs, I had the realization that I would have to watch him die one day (dramatic, I know…), and that nearly brought me to tears. After two years with him, I know that it is going to be one of the toughest things ever, exactly because of the responsibility you talk about. But I wouldn’t change anything. Watching the video you posted, I think you two did everything perfectly.

    Thank you for sharing! I do hope our/readers’ comments don’t prolong or add to the grieving. I hope you can take some solace in knowing we’re all now probably paying more attention to those we love, four-legged or otherwise.

    • 2019-11-01 at 1:25 PM

      Thank you, and all the best to you and Ghüs. I know that one day when we’re able to bring another dog into our life a piece of Dixie will still live on through me teaching it the things that Dixie taught me.

  • 2019-11-01 at 1:06 PM

    Are those pajama pants in the video or are you bringing back 1970s fashion with men’s plaid work pants? Or maybe they are already back in style and I’m so far out of style, I didn’t realize they were back in style! 😉

    • 2019-11-01 at 1:27 PM

      They are pajama pants, but when I worked out of my basement for the better part of 6 months I guess they were both? 🙂

  • 2019-11-01 at 1:17 PM

    Thank-you for writing this. It is a colossal coincidence that i came across it while sitting next to my dog, waiting for the vet to arrive to put him to sleep.6 days ago he was running, hiking, swimming until in an instant he was barely able to walk. Unknown to us a killer disease had been lurking inside. It’s a small mercy that he has hung on for a few days so that we could give him the send-off he deserves. He has been my shadow for 11 years. Thoughts with you. You are not alone. You will always have the memories to cherish.

    • 2019-11-01 at 1:30 PM

      Thank you, and I’m so sorry to hear that. I know the coming days will be quite tough and I do hope that this helped just a bit.

  • 2019-11-01 at 2:27 PM

    3 1/2 years ago I sat on the floor with our Jake as he died. I’ve lost family, friends, both parents and nothing hurt as bad as his death. The memories help immensely. HUGS

  • 2019-11-01 at 2:53 PM

    Such a loss. Dixie sure knew the answer to “Who’s a good girl?” and those tricks…impressive. It must have been so tough for you. Our dogs see the best in us even when we may not feel that we deserve it. Your piece has helped me find a bit of solace in the loss of my beloved border collie x lab, Walter, who suffered a terrible fall while hiking with me 3 weeks ago. I’ve had to say goodbye to a number of dogs over the course of my lifetime but saying goodbye to him was the hardest to bear. I know he lived in the moment, though, and I’m trying to remind myself of that. Go well.

    • 2019-11-01 at 4:21 PM

      Thank you, and I’m sorry to hear about Walter. I’m glad this helped a bit.

  • 2019-11-01 at 3:24 PM

    Sorry to hear your sad news, Dixie looked like such a loving and incredibly intelligent dog. I hope both this and the relentlessly poor British weather is not getting you down too much. On another note, I am glad to see you have finally visited my home county of Cornwall and enjoyed St Michael’s Mount. We have plenty of terrific coastal paths and an equal amount of amazing traditional Cornish pasties (not sure if you will know what a pasty is, they are definitely something special and worth looking up if not.) I think the only race we have in Cornwall that would even remotely challenge you is the Arc of Attrition, a gruelling winter 100 miler. It is also worth a look into if you are ever planning to swing by the area again.

    Good luck for NYC, Ross

    • 2019-11-01 at 4:25 PM

      Well, the winters are actually rather mild in the UK (minus the rain), but it’s the lack of daylight that’s the worst. Cornwall was great, and the SW Coast Path looked absolutely amazing for the small sections I got to see. And yes, we are quite familiar with pasties… first we got what claimed to be the oldest, then the runner-up to the World Pasty Championships (amazing such a thing exists), then found 1st place, then came across 3rd to complete the podium. Thank you and all the best.

  • 2019-11-03 at 4:56 PM

    This is a beautiful tribute to your best friend, And you’re right – just because worse things CAN happen, it doesn’t mean you don’t have a right to feel sadness about the bad things that DID happen. Dixie sounds like she was the best, and she’s lucky to have had a friend like you. Thanks for sharing. May her spirit be with you on every run.

  • 2019-11-06 at 11:19 AM

    I’m so sorry that you lost Dixie. She sounds like she was an amazing girl and so smart!

    We lost our wolfhound just over a month ago and he was also my best friend, I work from home so he was with me all the time. I felt and feel his loss so deeply and it does suck so bad. I have a notebook that I’ve been filling with stories and anecdotes and all the unique things that our boy did. I know that in time I’ll be able to go back and look on them with fondness but right now it’s just too difficult.

    • 2019-11-06 at 11:35 AM

      Thank you, and I’m sorry to hear about your wolfhound. I’ll bet that that notebook will be one of your most prized possessions one day!

  • 2020-01-27 at 10:32 PM

    John, such beautiful words for your girl Dixie who was so clearly loved. I lost my heart dog Bey in 2016 and it is not an exaggeration to say it wrecked me. I’ll hug my pack of three that much harder tonight – although the knowledge that I will most likely outlive them is never far from my mind, it is still, as you write, “so easy to pay attention to the urgent instead of the important, especially if the important has always still been there the next day with just as enthusiastic of a greeting.”

    Thank you for sharing your words, and your Dixie.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.