Losing a Dog Is the Hardest Thing
For 38 months, Rowlf brought love, slow meandering walks, and dog ice cream cones into writer Brendan Leonard's life. And now Rowlf is gone.
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My dog died Tuesday.
He had been battling lymphoma since early May, doing well with his chemo treatments, we thought, and was still having fun. We were still going for two walks every day, even though they were shorter than usual, and he was eating like a king, being fed, sometimes via spoon, by a desperate man (me), sometimes lying on the floor in front of him, who just wanted his dog to stick around for a while and would resort to anything—cooking scrambled eggs, making instant mashed potatoes at 7 a.m., cans of pulled pork, and whatever wet food he would take down. One day last week, he ate three cans of food, about 1200 calories, and I really thought he might be doing well.
Then he threw up in the morning on two consecutive days, and gradually stopped eating. On Sunday, he refused even Pupperoni. He was indifferent to most food, but he was laser focused on Pupperoni and doggy ice cream cones from Big Dipper, going into a trance until he got some in his mouth, which would then disappear in seconds. He was smart enough to spit pills out of most of the foods we hid them in—peanut butter, cottage cheese, chicken—but to get him to take CBD oil, we cut open Pupperoni sticks and dripped the oil into them, and Trojan Horsed them into his system.
When I handed him Pupperoni on Sunday and he took a bite and let it drop to the floor, I knew we had to take him back to the emergency vet. He was still moving around OK all day on Sunday, even wagging his tail, but at the vet, when he realized he was being taken back to a kennel to get IV treatments and probably spend the night, he sat down and refused to move, and that was the last time he stood up on his own. The floors at veterinarian offices are usually made to be easy to clean, but hard for old guys with arthritic hips to stand up on.
My wife, Hilary, and I left him there, hoping he’d respond to the pancreatitis treatment like he did the last time, just before his cancer diagnosis, but in the morning he wasn’t better, and had developed a fever. By the next morning, he was still not making progress, and his respiration rate had sped up. I called a vet who did in-home visits to put pets down, and we went to pick him up.
We got Rowlf in April 2019, after months of Hilary browsing websites and apps for an adoptable dog. He was seven, or eight, according to the last veterinarian he’d seen, had benign cysts on his eyes, and had done a test run with one family who thought he was “too chill.” Lucky us. We picked him up from a foster family, where he’d been staying since he’d been found wandering the streets and taken to a shelter. Just before he got into our car to leave, he looked back at the foster mom to make sure it was OK, and she said “It’s OK, you can go,” and he hopped into our car. We took him to a pet store to pick out a bed and to get him some tags. Hilary let me name him Rowlf—full name Rowlf T. Dog—after the piano-playing dog on The Muppet Show. I overestimated the reach of The Muppet Show, and instead of pronouncing it “Ralph,” most people called him something like Rolf, which I guess was appropriate for a dog owned by a guy named Brendan who’s been called Brandon his entire life.
If we were honest about it, which I never was, up until the very end, Rowlf was only young for about the first year we had him, going on decently-long hikes, and running three or four miles with me. Hilary took him up Square Top Mountain, near Denver, and almost to the summit of Grizzly Peak off Loveland Pass, but he mostly just liked to go on walks around the neighborhood. He tore his ACL in the spring of 2020, and we got him fitted for a custom brace just as the pandemic was arriving in Colorado—the first fitting appointment at the PT we didn’t wear masks, the next one we wore masks, and the third one, we weren’t allowed inside the building at all and just dropped him off for his PT session.
He was 100 percent Hilary’s dog from the start. I only half-jokingly referred to her as Alpha Human when I was talking to him, as she made the rules and he obeyed everything she taught him to do: stay out of the bedroom, stay off the couch, don’t go out past the sidewalk in our tiny front yard of our north Denver duplex.
Trying to find a dog is a funny thing. You try to find an animal that you think will fit into your idea of life, and they have zero say in the matter. You assume they’re just sitting somewhere waiting for, hopefully, a home. Then you bring them home and hope they love you. Rowlf was well-trained, or at least was very good on a leash and obedient, and we think he may have been mistreated a bit by a taller man, based on how he reacted to our tall friends at the beginning. And he loved Hilary from the start. He was 10/10 into the job of being her shadow at all times. A week or so into living with us, she closed the gate on the fence I’d just built (for Rowlf) to water some plants in the front yard, and within a minute, he was howling in the backyard (the only time he ever howled), and digging under the fence so intensely that he broke a fence plank on the bottom of the gate.
We did some version of the same walk in our Denver neighborhood twice a day: south on Columbine or Josephine from 35th all the way to 26th, turn onto 26th for a few blocks, and then head back north on one of four streets. He was never not excited to go for a walk, and I let him set the pace, and stop to sniff whatever he wanted for however long he wanted. I sometimes saw other dog owners out walking their dogs and jerking their leash to get them to keep moving, and I felt lucky to be able to have the time to let Rowlf do what he wanted. I mean, I would like to think my work and my life are important, or maybe more important than whatever a dog gets from sniffing other dogs’ urine on the street, but in the grand scheme of things, I don’t know if I have that solid of an argument.
I have never pretended to know what love is, but as far as being a dog’s human goes, I guess I just tried to help him do things that made him happy as much as I felt I could, including taking 45 minutes to walk a distance that we could do in 30 minutes. I wrote this running book last year with a version of this equation in it:
But when I look back at my dog’s life, I think maybe it works like this too:
I have made a living in adventure media for over a decade now, and when we got Rowlf, I realized we hadn’t exactly won the adventure dog lottery, as we would have if we had gotten a dog that could hammer out 12-mile mountain trail runs. He just wasn’t that dog, and I couldn’t care any less. I would like to fancy myself some sort of adventure writer, a mountain person who dabbles in writing when he can make himself sit down and type for a few hours, but in my heart I know that’s not true. Do I love carefully but efficiently scrambling across an exposed ridge a couple thousand feet above treeline, sweeping views of mountains surrounding me in every direction? I do. Do I love slowly wandering the sidewalks in my neighborhood, stopping every 10 to 30 feet so my dog can sniff a patch of grass, or a dead bird, or watch a squirrel run up a tree? All things being equal, if I had to pick one to do for the rest of my life, I’d take the dog walks. Especially if I could have Rowlf to do them with.
We moved to a smaller city in Montana in 2020, and Rowlf’s life improved in a couple ways: more off-leash time in the less-crowded trails and open space, and dog cones at Big Dipper and Dairy Queen. I tried to take him to some off-leash spots a couple times a week when I could, and as our time with him appeared to be getting shorter and shorter, almost every evening. Watching him anticipate, and then eat, ice cream, was one of my great joys of the past two years.
I think I wanted to be an adventure writer in the first place because I wanted a life that was somehow bigger than what I saw as “normal”: adrenaline, randomness, travel, stories, incredible views, a unique experience. Maybe it’s that I’ve gotten older, or soft in some way, but I fucking love my little life, doing all the stuff I talked shit about in my early twenties, probably while disdainfully spitting the phrase “white picket fence.” Because we had a dog, Hilary and I couldn’t just up and fly to Europe together, or even do a Grand Canyon river trip. Sure, we could have left Rowlf with friends, but we didn’t want to. I thought maybe at best we’d have five years with him, which is about 60 months.
We got 38 months, total. Twelve of those months he had to wear a brace on his leg for his ACL tear, which he didn’t like, but accepted, and eventually the ACL healed and we took it off altogether. For a full one of those months late last fall, I was on a road trip without Hilary and Rowlf, going from Missoula to Iowa, and then New Hampshire and New York. When I got back, Hilary swears Rowlf was more affectionate with me. I don’t know if he had really missed me while I was gone, or that he somehow knew Hilary was pregnant. Maybe both. He definitely licked me more, which was of course gross because I knew some of the things he’d eaten, but of course I didn’t care, if that was his love language. My love language to him was something like 60-90 seconds of petting first thing in the morning when I came out of the bedroom, our morning walk, pets throughout the day, our evening walk, sitting on the floor with him to try to get him to eat, and more and more in the evenings taking him to places where he could roam a little bit off-leash: The Kim Williams Trail near the University of Montana, Blue Mountain, the Sam Braxton trails up in Pattee Canyon, where the evening sunlight filters through the ponderosa pines and washes everything in an amber glow for a longer-than-normal golden hour May through September.
We all have stories about our dogs that we think reveal their personalities, or what we thought their life was about. One time Rowlf and I saw a bear in the Rattlesnake, a National Recreation area north of town, and he whined like he did on our neighborhood walks when he saw other dogs he wanted to go say hello to. One time in Denver, we let him sniff around deep in a bush for a few seconds, and a block later, Hilary realized he was walking funny, and bent down to see what was going on, only to discover he had found a fully intact chicken egg in the bush and had been gently carrying it in his mouth. When she squeezed his jaw, it dropped onto the sidewalk and cracked open, and we laughed our asses off and then told the story dozens of times over the next two years. One time he picked up a deer leg, obviously discarded by some other dog or animal, and paraded around with it as if he himself had brought down a wild deer and dismembered it like a wolf, and not the stuffed animal/house dog he was.
But mostly, at least with Rowlf, it was the not-so-notable things he did every day that made him who he was: The way he desperately needed to be acknowledged in the morning before you did anything else. The way he moved his old bones around the house to be near us, or at least Hilary, wherever we were. The way, in the last six months of his life, he had started to literally lie down on top of one of my feet when we sat down to eat dinner, and how I loved it so much I couldn’t bring myself to get up to grab the hot sauce even if I wanted to. The way he would gently bop my leg with his nose when I was washing dishes, or the way he would randomly slow during walks to turn his head and touch you with his whiskers, as if to make sure you were still there.
He used to jump into the back of the car so we could take him to a trailhead or to get ice cream, or sometimes to the hardware store, where we’d get sidetracked talking to the one lady who had two goldens at home and would feed him so many treats he’d have diarrhea the next day. As he got older, he’d just hop his front paws onto the bumper, and Hilary or I would bend down and pick up his back end and walk him into the car. In February of this year, just as I was standing up from helping him into the car, I had a back spasm, which turned out to be a bulged disc, which required two ER visits and lots of PT. One of my exercises was to do bridges on a yoga ball, lying on my back in the living room, and every single time, he would come and lie down on the rug next to me, which made it a little crowded, but of course I loved it.
His happiest place, or at least where I think he was happiest, was in a tent, between Hilary and me. He never liked it at home when I put my head down at his level or lower than his, but in a tent, lined with down-filled sleeping bags, he was in heaven, nuzzling up against one or both of us, totally out of character.
He had bad breath, or maybe just normal dog breath, didn’t seem to really care if he peed on his front legs, and was only subjected to two real baths in the 38 months he was with us, the last one at PetCo on Colfax just before the pandemic started. I always wondered if friends and family entered our house and noticed that it smelled like a not-so-hygenic dog, but mostly I figured as soon as they met Rowlf they wouldn’t care. He would bark, most of the time just once or twice, and then immediately approach whoever came in the door close enough to accept the pets, which were of course forthcoming from anyone who was worth knowing as a person, including friends coming over for dinner or a weeklong visit, the pizza delivery guy, the electrician, the plumbing and heating guys, or door-to-door salespeople. A few friends and family members really got Rowlf, I think, judging by the way they petted him—gently but attentively, not roughing him up or shaking his head, just lightly stroking his fur, the way you might soothe a sick child, but of course he wasn’t a sick child, just a slightly awkward, slightly extroverted introvert dog who loved anyone with hands, or meat products in their hands. I only introduced him to one person ever who didn’t reach out to pet him immediately, a friend who, when I said “this is Rowlf,” just said “Hi, Rowlf,” and didn’t even try to touch him. Which I thought was kind of fucked up, but I didn’t say anything. I mean even our friend who’s allergic to dogs petted Rowlf in small doses.
Rowlf didn’t play, really, and didn’t want to fetch anything, or run after a ball, or wrestle with other dogs. His tail always wagged when another dog came up, even if they were barking at him, and he’d sniff them, wag his tail, maybe sniff their butts, and move on, like he was good with just saying “hi” but not interested in talking about the weather. At the dog park, when a pack of dogs would run up to or past him, he’d start to run a few steps with them, but then return to Hilary, which was where he wanted to be. He’d sniff, maybe go off the trail for a while, but seemed to have this inner radar that told him whenever Hilary got more than 100 feet away, and he’d abandon his fun to stay close.
This is the last video I have of him running, 28 days before he died:
In those moments of awkward social interactions with other dogs at the dog park, I think I was most in love with Rowlf, because he seemed to be just like me, or who I was becoming more as I got older: Interested in others, and maybe into a bit of people-watching, but didn’t really want to get on the dance floor, and preferred to run alone, where we can follow our noses and not worry about what others were doing or how to interact with them.
When he got sick the first time this spring, I was in Washington teaching a writing workshop on a sea kayak trip, and only able to communicate with Hilary via Garmin inReach text messages, one sentence at a time, a couple times a day—I’m taking him to the vet, he has pancreatitis, he’s staying there to get fluids, looking better. Back in civilization, we talked on the phone, and Hilary told me the bad news: he had lymphoma. I had to stop in Spokane for a night to get a COVID test, and the next morning, I had a three-hour drive home, that I wished was way shorter so I could get home sooner, and way longer so I wouldn’t have to see Rowlf sick and maybe dying. He looked OK and wagged his tail when I came up onto the porch, and later that day, I just lay on the floor with my head on his back. At one point I started crying and he got up and licked my face everywhere, including the tears off my eyelids.
The next week, by the time we could get him in for chemo, he was in bad shape, and I thought he had days left, if not just hours. We got him the first round of shots, and he barely moved when we got him home, but slowly over the next few days, was up and better. Our morning walks, usually 1.3 miles, were going to be closer to a quarter-mile from now on, but that was OK, as long as he was still excited to go out on them. He steadily improved, and for a couple weeks, I didn’t worry every few hours that he was going to die. I ran around town to different grocery stores to find foods he could and would eat: egg whites, Minute Rice, canned chicken, canned beef and pork only sold at Costco, OK, whatever. I put food on a metal camping plate he ate off of, and if he wouldn’t eat, I’d put it in the fridge for later, or offer it to him on a spoon, or in my bare hand. Hilary was at this point 38 weeks pregnant and less able to get up and down off the floor, so it was my job, and I told myself it was in my blood: my mom had kept our family cocker spaniel alive for years through diabetes and blindness by basically annoying her into eating twice a day, and I could definitely do that for Rowlf.
We went back to taking him on short off-leash walks, although he started panting a lot, probably due to prednisone. The vet cut his prednisone dose in half because his back legs had started to get really weak, and it seemed to work. For about a week, he had some really good days, and several visits to get ice cream with us.
Then last Thursday, he vomited in the morning, and again on Friday. He’d still eat if I sat down and spoon-fed him, until Saturday, when he refused everything besides treats: I calculated the calories in six Pupperoni sticks, two salmon treats, and a cup of lowfat cottage cheese, and told myself he could survive on that for a while. Then Sunday, he refused to eat anything, even though he was up and following us around the house and hanging out in the shade by the shed I was working to turn into an office for Hilary, even though the miter saw was loud as hell.
On a Grand Canyon river trip I did a few years ago, one of the guys who I had just met had a dog he loved. We had no communication with the outside world for 28 days, besides a pay phone call from Phantom Ranch on day eight or so. In his one phone call, Ray found out from his friends that his dog had suddenly taken ill and died. A couple days later, Ray mentioned to me that someone on our trip had said something about him crying when he found out his dog died, as if it wasn’t something a real man would do. I said something along the lines of “Fuck whoever it was who said that.” I wouldn’t want to be on a boat with someone who couldn’t love something enough that it would make them cry when it was gone. But I don’t think a lot about how to be A Real Man as opposed to A Real Human Being, which I think is better, and also sometimes messy.
I don’t know why I still remember that part of the trip, but since Rowlf got cancer, and especially in his last few days, I have had at least 30 or 40 microbursts of tears, which I am just fine with, except when I’m trying to talk to someone because I can’t get the words to come out correctly when my throat is locked up with the grief. My friend Chandra’s dog died at 15 years old this winter, and I think about how fucked up I am by a dog we had for just over three years, and I can’t even imagine how deep the wound was for her.
By the time things got bad, Hilary was past her due date, and the baby could literally come any minute. We flew my mom up last-second, hoping that Rowlf might recover and she could pick him up from the vet and take care of him while we brought a baby into the world, and we’d come home and he’d be OK for at least a few more months. My mom arrived, and as it turned out, she got here in time to help us get through losing our dog. At one point on Tuesday, she said something like “Dogs leave a hole in your heart, but they make your heart bigger too,” which I think might look something like this:
The last time we picked Rowlf up at the vet, he came out of the back with his right front paw wrapped in tape, holding his IV catheter in place, where it had been for the past 36 hours. We walked him out to the car, where he tried to jump his front paws onto the bumper but didn’t make it. I lifted him in, and we took him straight to Big Dipper, where I parked the car in the shade, opened the back, and walked up to order one Pup Cone, please, which the young lady working said I didn’t have to pay for, so I bought a drink too so I could at least leave a tip.
I wanted Rowlf to have one last ice cream cone, which I think was his favorite thing in the world besides Hilary and maybe me if I’m lucky, but I also didn’t want him to eat it because if he ate it, I would doubt the decision we’d made to have a vet come to the house and put him down that afternoon. I knelt over the bumper and held it out to him, and he sniffed it, once, turned his head, sniffed it again, and wasn’t interested. I pulled it away and waited a few seconds, and held it out to him again, and he gently took the ball of ice cream off the top and ate it, but left the cone, which was the perfect answer, like he was grateful for the gesture, but still didn’t want to eat, which I think was his way of saying “I’m ready to go now.” I put my head down and let another burst of tears flush out of my eyes, and then we drove him home.
We spent the next three and a half hours waiting for the vet to come at 3:00, both of us sitting and lying on the floor next to him, one or both of us petting him at all times, maybe for him, or maybe for us. His breathing was accelerated almost the entire time, and in the last hour, his lungs or his throat started to rattle, and I wished simultaneously for the doctor to get there early and for him to never get there. I cried on and off the entire time, and our friends Skander and Abigail dropped by to say goodbye, and they cried too which made me cry harder, and I don’t understand how one animal could make so many people so sad.
A few minutes after three o’clock, Rowlf got his first shot, to make the pain go away, and then the IV medication to put him to sleep, and then the lethal one that took him away forever. I helped the doc carry his body out to the truck on a gurney and we talked about how to get his ashes after he was cremated in a week. I thought about things to do with the ashes, and how I didn’t want the ashes in a week, I wanted my fucking dog back in a week.
The rest of the day, I tried to act normal, even though the waves of sadness would hit me every few minutes, like I was stepping out of an air-conditioned building into 95-degree heat. My mom had said goodbye to Rowlf before the vet arrived, and sat out on the back deck while we were going through it, and she said at some point while he was being put down, the breeze started to pick up, and she assumed that was Rowlf. I know people say stuff like that all the time, but man, when it’s your dog, you want to believe it, somehow. He didn’t really love the summer heat anyway, and he left us on the first 90-degree day this year.
I texted some friends, just a few who off the top of my head regarded Rowlf as a special being, and not just their friends’ dog, and I used the phrase people use when they put their dog down: He’s not suffering anymore. Which is something we say to make ourselves feel better, and is the right thing to do because we don’t want our dog to suffer, but ending the suffering also means ending their life:
I don’t know if Rowlf could tell the baby was coming—I asked one of my friends if he thought dogs could tell when women were pregnant, and he very convincingly said, “Oh, they KNOW.” I don’t know if the baby was waiting to make his entrance until after Rowlf was gone, or if Hilary’s body needs to finish grieving before it can deliver the baby, but as of 24 hours later, he still isn’t here. This is not the way I wanted it to go, but it’s the way it’s going, I guess.
I moved Rowlf’s water dish and mat out to the back deck for now, so I don’t have to see it, and it doesn’t make a bit of difference, because I can still feel exactly where it was. Hilary said last night that people talk about it leaving a hole in your life, but it’s more like a million little holes, of all the small ways he affected our daily lives. I guess that looks something like this:
The first night we went to bed without him, I told Hilary, I don’t want to go to sleep because I don’t want to wake up and realize my dog isn’t here anymore. I know how heartbreak works, like a huge painful wound that needs time to heal, and that in a few days or weeks I’ll be a little less sad, and one day, I’ll barely be sad at all. And eventually, my memories will soften, and I’ll lose some of them, and if I live long enough, Rowlf will only be a small part of my whole life. And that feels really unfair to him, and me. I don’t want it to hurt like this forever, but I don’t want to forget him. I guess I just miss my dog.
I keep saying to Hilary that Rowlf didn’t really do anything that notable—he was just there, always wanting to be close to you. He didn’t have any hobbies, really, didn’t want to catch a frisbee or play tug, or swim. He went to the river with Hilary every single time she did a cold plunge, through spring, summer, fall, winter, and would just lay down on Z-rest mat and watch her from the bank as she waded into the freezing water for a minute or two. He did not like water, and I joked that he loved her more than anything, but if he was on the shore and he saw her drowning, he would probably just shrug and decide to go find another human. But if she went somewhere, he wanted to go—even in her inflatable kayak, which meant he would be getting at least a little wet.
Rowlf just wanted to be around Hilary, and/or me, and that was what fulfilled him. If he were human, we’d think he was clingy, or needy, but he was a dog, and maybe that’s why we elevate dogs so much: they are simpler beings, and because of that, are capable of less complicated love. I have asked in my head and out loud whether it’s love, or devotion, or a sense of duty, and Hilary shuts me up with “Rowlf LOVED you,” which is her way of telling me to stop trying to put a label on a thing and just accept it as a gift.
I’m trying to process Rowlf leaving us, and how I can be so messed up by something two feet tall, that didn’t last as long as it took me to start and finish high school, and I keep coming back to the phrase “he was just a dog.” Like he wasn’t a human being, which would arguably be much harder to lose, and he didn’t really have articulated hopes and dreams, and only affected a few dozen people in a really small way, so why does it feel like someone hit me in the chest with a sledgehammer right now? I think it’s because he was incapable of hurting me, physically or otherwise, and what he brought into my life was simple, guileless, and as it turns out, deeply affecting and necessary, and he’s irreplaceable. So yeah, he was just a dog, and I guess that’s exactly why we loved him so much.