Invaluable lessons learned from a canine companion

Every April when I was a child I would squeeze my eyelids shut, make a wish, take a deep breath and blow out my birthday candles. Every year that wish was the same: I wanted a puppy.

I constantly begged and pestered my parents for a puppy; it had topped my Christmas list for years. From dachshunds to bulldogs, the breed didn’t matter, as long as it had four legs and could bark — I would have been happy.

My dad grew up on the family farm where they raised black Labrador retrievers for 30 years. Through his childhood there was a new litter of puppies every year chasing each other around the farmhouse. He wanted a dog almost as much as I did, but there was something standing in our way – my mom.

She grew up with four siblings and an Irish setter named Coco. Her memory of having a dog was not nearly as fond as my dad’s. She recalls driving for nearly three hours from Saskatoon to their family cabin, all five kids and two parents cramped into a green Grand Marquis, with the dog riding behind them on the trailer howling the entire way.

My mom would constantly try to talk me out of wanting a dog. She’d remind me that they smell bad, they have to be walked, they need to be brushed and they need to be bathed. But nearly every day on my way to school, I would see someone walking their dog, or playing fetch in the park. In fact, The Canadian Veterinary Journal reported that 56 per cent of Canadian households in 2009 owned a dog or cat, so having a pet must not be as bad as my mom said.

As Sunni grows older in age, I have learned to appreciate every moment that we spend together.
Photo credit: Roxanne Blackwell
After years of pleading, I won over my parents when I was 11 years old. My parents, eight-year-old sister Alexandra and I hopped into the truck and drove two hours to a kennel outside of Saskatoon. During the drive, my dad reminded us that we were only looking that day and not to be disappointed if we left without a puppy. I did try to keep that in mind, but the moment that the gate opened and the 10 nine-week-old golden retriever puppies ran towards me, I knew one of them would be coming home with us.

We chose her because she had big feet. Surprisingly enough, my mom was the one who named her — Sunni, with an “i”.

As the best day of my life was coming to an end, I sat on a chair in the kitchen as Sunni slept directly beneath me on the tile floor. My mom stood in a corner across from me, looking carefully at the puppy.

“She’s going to die some day you know,” my mom blurted out.

At the time, it was the worst thing she could have said. Tears welled in my eyes and I wondered how she could say such a terrible thing. But the truth is, she was right.

That was the real reason why my mom didn’t want to get a dog. She didn’t want any of us to get attached.

Since that day, Sunni and I have spent countless hours together. From vacations and car rides together, to sick days on the couch, she has been beside me for the last 10 years. She has more than lived up to the title of “man’s best friend.”

“At 10 years old, Sunni is nearing the end of her life. I find myself guilt-ridden for spending only a few days with her during her last years.”
—Roxanne Blackwell

I couldn’t have held back from becoming attached to her if I had tried. Like all pet owners, I know that the potential pain of loss will be more than made up for by the years of joy and love she has given me.

When I was 19, I was accepted into a Calgary university, which was a six-hour drive from my home in Saskatoon, my excitement was mixed with unhappiness at having to leave my best friend behind.

How do you tell your dog that you’re leaving but that you will be back to visit in a few months? How do you let her know that you’re all right?

During video chats with my parents, Sunni often will go in to my old bedroom and retrieve a piece of my clothing. She sits next to the computer and sometimes rests her head on my dad’s lap just listening to my voice, and other times she gets excited and brings toys to the computer. I don’t think she can see me, but I’m certain she can hear me. I like to rationalize that these video chats are important for her to know that I’m okay, but in reality I know that they are more for my own benefit of knowing that Sunni is all right.

At 10 years old, Sunni is nearing the end of her life. I find myself guilt-ridden for spending only a few days with her during her last years. My greatest fear is that I won’t be there when she finally goes.

The last time I saw her was during Christmas. After being apart for four months – our longest separation yet – I was able to spend nearly two weeks with her. On my last day in town, we took a drive out to my grandparents’ farm where my dad grew up and ran in the spacious yard chasing each other through the snow for almost an hour.

The next morning the house was empty except for Sunni and I, with my sister back at school and my parents both at work. I had said my goodbyes to them the night before, a quick hug from each of them and a promise to call to let them know I had arrived safely. The goodbyes were routine for us, and comforting, because even though I was leaving, I knew I would talk to them again.

As I loaded each bag in to my vehicle, sadness began to weigh down on me. I hadn’t said goodbye to Sunni yet, and it’s always a bit of a struggle. I still haven’t figured out the proper way to do it. How do I tell her I’m leaving, I still love you, and I will be back? The reality was, there is no way. As I carried my last load to the car, Sunni managed to run out the door and hopped in through the open passenger door, hoping for another adventure.

Already emotionally strained, I now had to physically drag her out of my car and into the house. She knew I was leaving, and she had made it pretty apparent that she didn’t want me to go without her. The entire way up the driveway I had a white-knuckled grip around her collar as she threw all 70 pounds of her weight in the opposite direction. Eventually she broke free and hopped back in to the car. I climbed my front steps, sat on the doorstep, breathing in the cold air, and sobbed. I was fighting her when we both wanted the same thing — to stay together.

Saying goodbye to Sunni when I moved away from home was easily one of the hardest goodbyes that I had to make that day.
Photo courtesy of: Roxanne Blackwell
She eventually came around when she heard me crying. We sat with my arm around her for another 15 minutes as I continued to cry. The realization had hit me: I couldn’t say goodbye to her and promise her I would return, because she might not be here when I get back. This could be the last time we were together. And although the day before had been perfect, I was only now realizing that it might have been the last walk I was ever going to take with her.

The six-hour drive back to school was a sombre one but it gave me time to think. My goodbyes with my parents had been simple, but my goodbye with Sunni was extremely difficult. The difference had been that I thought my visit with Sunni might be my last, but in reality, all visits have the potential to be final.

When my wish for a puppy was finally fulfilled, I had rightfully anticipated gaining a best friend, but I hadn’t expected the valuable lessons that I would learn from her. She has taught me to live happily in the moment, to let things go and be forgiving, and most importantly, to treat every moment as if it were your last. I can only hope that one day I will live to be as perfectly happy, and love as unconditionally, as my dog Sunni.

rblackwell@cjournal.ca