The world lost a great one last week. Sansho, an eight-year-old Karelian bear dog, succumbed to complications caused by a spinal embolism. He’s survived by his parents, Ty and Rachel Brookhart, his little brother, Wilder, and girlfriend, Bullitt.
I consider Sansho to be the most magnificent animal I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing, although I know many people would strongly disagree. He was the ultimate representation of the dog as predator and defender. Knowing Sansho was knowing trouble. I liked to joke that he was the reincarnation of Jeffrey Dahmer—a dog who took pleasure in feasting on the flesh of the innocent and who did so regularly. No animals were safe from Sansho’s thirst for blood. Back in Los Angeles, where I met him, the police had to intervene in his predilection for coyotes. He treed one of the city’s handful of mountain lions. A Fish and Game officer nearly shot him with a rifle after Sansho pinned a heard of bighorn sheep on a treacherous cliff.
It wasn’t just animals whose lives were put at risk by Sansho. There was the time someone tried to steal Ty’s car while it idled outside an art gallery with the A/C running to keep Sansho cool as he slept in the back seat. That guy will forever regret opening the door to that car. There was the time our friend Matt was carried away by a landslide on California’s Lost Coast after Sansho ran off after what we suspect was another mountain lion, forcing the three of us to separate. And there was the time a sheriff’s deputy tried to shoot Sansho and my dog Wiley, resulting in a tense standoff. Sansho was the cause, enabler, and spirit animal of many such misadventures. His presence just made everyone around him feel more primal.
My dog Wiley grew up with Sansho as his mentor. I think they met on his second camping trip, and my puppy saw that he could aspire to great things. Sansho stayed with us when Ty traveled for work, and vice versa. For a couple years, I thought that mentor/mentee dynamic would be the way of things for them, and I was happy with that, but during one sleepover a small squabble escalated into something more. Blood flew as far as the ceiling before I could pull them apart, and ever after, the two got along on a policy of mutual destruction. On camping trips, they’d draw an invisible line through the middle of the campsite, and on either side, each enjoyed total dominion. I only ever saw that line crossed once, on the eclipse trip, when Sansho threatened Wiley’s younger brother. Wiley walked over, confronted Sansho, and brought Bowie back to his side of camp with no further violence.
Spending time with Ty and Sansho helped me understand and learn to embrace Wiley’s primal side. Ty’s confidence in Sansho’s ability to make his own decisions and their mutual trust in each other served as a model for my relationship with my mutt as he progressed through adolescence and into adulthood. With their example, I learned to worry less about Wiley and trust his instincts in the outdoors.
One of the reasons Ty and I are friends is that we understand what it’s like for stuff to go wrong and to end up with your dog being one of the only good things in your life for a while. For Ty, that was the time when I loaned him a motorcycle that was clearly too tall and too heavy, shod with tires that were too slick, resulting in a torn ACL after a crash. He caught a staph infection when he went in for a replacement surgery, something doctors needed six months and six further surgeries to resolve. I remember watching Ty inject antibiotics straight into his own heart through a tube installed in his armpit, while Sansho snuggled in his lap.
It was during that time that Ty got serious with Rachel. They eventually got married on a camping trip, with Sansho serving as best man. That resulted in a human child, Wilder, who against the expectations of everyone who never understood him, Sansho immediately adopted as his own. Sansho would come home from battling coyotes, then lay there indulgently as Wilder crawled all over him and pulled his ears. That kid is going to grow up to be a very unique adult, largely because much of his first two years were spent under the tutelage of Sansho.
Just after Wilder showed up, Ty and Rachel adopted Bullitt, another Karelian, with the idea of breeding the two at some point. Ty talked a lot about creating a legacy for Sansho, and I’ve had my name down for first choice of hypothetical future offspring for years. My plan was to name mine Sonny, short for “Son of Sansho.”
Then Ty called me in late July to say Sansho was paralyzed. He’d suffered a sudden spinal embolism while playing in the woods. There was no warning—one moment, everything was normal, and then the next, Ty heard his dog barking for help. Ty thought Sansho might still recover and assured me the dog wasn’t in pain. If Sansho could reestablish control of his bowels, then maybe he could live out the rest of his years fat and spoiled by their fireplace.
But that wasn’t Sansho. A dog who lived hard and fast was never going to be happy taking an early retirement. He regained the ability to go to the bathroom outside faster than anyone expected. He started hopping around on three legs, dragging the other one so hard that it was in constant risk of infection. Ty had it amputated, and it seemed like Sansho might have at least half a life. But again, that wasn’t Sansho. Without a leg, and without full use of the back half of his body, he wasn’t ever going to kill again. Sansho didn’t live in order to be tame.
I hadn’t heard from Ty in a while—he lives in Colorado now, and I live in Montana—so I called him a few days ago to check in. “Well,” he started, “I have some bad news.” He’d found Sansho’s body—he’d succumbed to his injuries—and buried him immediately.
For a dog that wasn’t mine, I feel an enormous amount of grief over Sansho’s death. He profoundly touched my life in the time that I knew him and altered my own relationship with my dogs. I can’t imagine what Ty is feeling, even through our clumsy attempts as guys to try talking about it. My fiancée asked me last night if I think Wiley knows that Sansho is gone. Obviously, the rational part of me knows he doesn’t, but I also think he’ll notice there’s something missing the next time we all go camping together. One things’s for certain: He sure has a lot to live up to.