How the dog’s 10th birthday brings up dealing with loss

My husband Jim and I lost our 13-year-old Brittany dog, Rosie, to congestive heart failure two days before my birthday in May 2006. At the time, Rosie was our only dog, and the hole she left in our lives was enormous. She was a very special dog for both of us, but especially Jim.

I couldn’t stand the silence, the lack of dog hair, the change in my routine, or the emptiness of the house or in our family. I didn’t think I could bear the enormous ache in my heart from losing Rosie. Jim was devastated and thought he needed more time to mourn the loss of his special dog.

We loved our Rosie. She and Jim were inseparable.

We loved our Rosie. She and Jim were inseparable.

But I found an excellent breeder that had strong hunting lines, and after filling out an application and having several long conversations and a visit, we went on their list for a litter that was coming up soon. We were determined to have a girl puppy.

Our puppy was a gift from God. Her mother Molly had given birth to five boys and one girl and our breeders thought she was done having puppies for that litter. The single girl was promised to another family.

But while our breeders, who soon became really close friends, were eating their supper and monitoring mother and just-born babies on closed circuit TV, the mother dog went into labor again and soon there was another baby girl. Our miracle.

We named her J&A’s Sassafras Rose Harris, call name Sassy. She was born on July 20, 2006, exactly two months after Rosie died.

Sassy is four weeks old here, cupped lovingly in Jim's hands.

Sassy is four weeks old here, cupped lovingly in Jim’s hands. It was our first visit with her.

Sassy, from birth, had her own agenda. She was a strong-willed, clever, intelligent, extremely busy puppy, who kept our breeders John and Ann on their toes during the first eight weeks of her life.

She was the antithesis of our Rosie in many ways.

After the first 48 hours of living with Sassy, I emailed Ann with the subject line “The Sassination of the Harris Household.” Sassy was a holy terror. She nipped us, chewed things she wasn’t supposed to, put a hole in the couch cushion, and tore around the house like a crazy dog — total hyper puppy.

From a grief standpoint, that was a good thing. We didn’t have much inclination to compare her to Rosie because their personalities were so different. We had to accept her for who she was.

Where Rosie was passive in many regards, and lovingly co-existed with her stuffed animals and other toys, Sassy challenged life and then conquered it — including stuffed toys, which didn’t remain stuffed for long.

Rosie was a smart girl, but Sassy’s intelligence was scary.

We played games with Sassy that would allow her to use her intelligence constructively, such as fetching certain toys by name — even certain color toys that otherwise looked the same — or sending her to find different things we would hide in the house or in the yard.

Or one of us would hide and the other would send Sassy to look for the hidden person. We nurtured her hunting instincts with training exercises outdoors. She was a “problem-solver,” able to translate and execute even fairly complicated instructions.

Her vocabulary still is larger than that of some people I know.

Toys don't stay stuffed very long with the Sassinator in the house!

Toys don’t stay stuffed very long with the Sassinator in the house!

Sassy also developed her own system of bartering for what she wants. She seems to have a hierarchy of worth assigned to her toys. If she wants something I have, she brings me a toy that she feels is of equal value to what I have. If I reject the offering, she gets a possession of higher value to offer to me.

It turns out she is much smarter about bartering than I am because when I would reject her possession of the highest value, she began stealing MY possessions and using them to barter for whatever I have that she wants — such as a skein of yarn or even my current crochet project from my work basket for a piece of whatever I am snacking on.

But Sassy had a very special mission in the world: she came into our lives to heal our broken hearts. And she did it in a way that made it impossible to deny her goal. Her intelligence demanded that we do more structured things with her. So I enrolled her in training classes.

We did puppy kindergarten, basic obedience and basic agility classes. Our trainer told me about flyball, which is a dog relay racing sport, and Sassy began competing when she was a little more than a year old.

Flyball has become Sassy’s “thing” to do. She has earned her Onyx title, which is the accumulation of 20,000 points, and is getting closer to her 30,000-point title. I tell people that I provide transportation and treats and she does the rest. She goes with our team Flyball MAINEiacs sometimes even when I can’t. She amazes me.

Flyball -- a relay racing game for dogs -- is Sassy's passion. Here, Sassy had just caught the ball from the spring-loaded box and was bringing it back to me during team practice.

Flyball — a relay racing sport for dogs — is Sassy’s passion. Here, Sassy had just caught the ball from the spring-loaded box and was bringing it back to me during team practice.

She also is a focused hunting dog and has some points toward a field title, but her independent streak has gotten in the way of that kind of competition for us. She has great hunting range and instinct, but only comes back to me when she feels like it. I have spent hours tromping through the woods, looking for her. Drives me crazy. So, we don’t do field competitions any longer.

We do hunt together though, often on my terms.

When Sassy turned 2, we added another Brittany puppy to our life. Jim — who named the dog — had just retired and was looking forward to hunting with his boy dog. I wanted a dog I could show in conformation (think scaled down Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show). Sassy seemed happy for the companionship, and Bullet, who was a much calmer puppy, brought some balance to our household.

The reason this is all coming up now is that Sassy recently marked her 10th birthday, and it’s bringing up unresolved emotions for me.

When Jim died from pancreatic cancer in December 2010, Sassy and Bullet never left my side. They mourned with me and tried to comfort me and they are an important link to Jim, and our life together.

Having Sassy’s age land in the double digits is a milemarker, and it makes me think about our Rosie and caring for senior dogs, including the ultimate decisions we have to make for them. Somehow it’s a reminder to me that death waits for all of us, and I cannot bear that it waits for her.

Plus it’s another connection to Jim that’s slowly slipping away from me. I try not to dwell there because Sassy is healthy, and it’s possible she will outlive us all.

Healthy Brittanys can live to be 15 to 17 years old.

Sassy is athletic and trim, has no apparent sight or hearing problems, has wonderful mental acuity, and is negative for tick-borne diseases. She has a few age-related lumps and bumps on her body, and her hair on her head, especially around her muzzle, is losing its orange luster and becoming grayer.

But she still is the matriarch of my “pack” of four Brittany dogs. A force to be reckoned with, she can outrun any of my younger dogs when she gets the “zoomies.” She still steals my possessions, and accumulates them in her crate. I reclaim them occasionally. We still play our special games.

Sassy and I don’t just love each other; she is my friend.

Rosie at this age developed diabetes that required her to have insulin twice a day, then lens replacement surgery for her eyes, and finally at 13 she succumbed to congestive heart failure.

I’ve had enough loss in my life to know how quickly things can change. So although she’s a healthy 10-year-old, I find myself scrutinizing Sassy’s every move, making sure she’s still OK, trying not to think about our passage into double-digit senior dog status.

I think about all of the hours Jim and I spent fishing with Sassy, and then with Bullet too. And how the two dogs would climb up on the couch to sleep near Jim, how we would take them everywhere with us, and how the four of us were a “family.”

I also think about those painful weeks between burying 13-year-old Rosie and bringing 8-week-old Sassy home that Jim and I endured together, and how Sassy changed our lives for the better — especially by widening our circle of friends to include some very special people who were to help me get through my early widowhood.

I still feel connected to Jim through Sassy and Bullet, and that means something for me as those two dogs age.

It’s really a place I cannot dally for long emotionally. With all I have endured and overcome, it’s a place where the wound of losing Jim remains very raw.

Sassy with her favorite ball toy, and Bullet.

Sassy, with her favorite ball toy, and Bullet enjoy some time in their fenced area.

Julie Harris

About Julie Harris

As a longtime employee of Bangor Daily News, I have served many roles over the years, but I now have a dream job as Community Editor. I live in Hermon with my four Brittany dogs: Sassy, Bullet, Thistle and Quincy, who keep me busy in various dog sports. I was widowed at age 51 when my husband, Jim, died of pancreatic cancer.