Mikey in Zion National ParkNovember 30th is Celebrate Shelter Pets Day, hosted by the Shelter Pet Project. The assignment is to chronicle the following about a great shelter pet who shares or has shared your life, detailing the pet’s name and story, sharing favorite memories, and tell the story of how you met and fell in love.

I had been thinking about sharing the story of Mikey “dude” deHaan for awhile now, after losing him nearly 3 months ago. I had already shared the lessons I learned in loving and losing him, but I had not yet shared his life (or at least the 8 months I shared of it). So this is an opportunity to do so, with the bonus of being able to help promote shelter pet day.

I would consider Mikey my soul dog, even though I haven’t had many live-in dogs in my life. He is a cliché in the sense that he truly saved me and changed my life in so many ways. But instead of just being a cliché, I will share with you what he meant to me, and the great many memories we forged in such little time. Yes, this is what you get when you adopt a dog, and yes, I am usually this verbose as will likely be apparent as you scroll this page. This story will help to back up yet another “dog who changed my life” story. Mikey didn’t have long to do it, to change my life, but he sure did. The following story contains some of the highlights of our mere eight months together, and the painful parting of ways at the end. But what I hope to communicate is the depth of what we shared, after such a short time together after adopting him into our lives. I find it pretty impressive how much this guy selflessly gave to us, how he enriched our lives, after adopting what many consider to be a “less-adoptable” dog. But he was the greatest dog, and despite the short time together, and massive financial and emotional investment at the end, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything in the world.

Choosing to Adopt

I don’t even remember making a “decision” to adopt instead of buying a dog – it was just a given. The big choice in our household was whether or not we could even have a dog. But after many years of wanting a dog, and then coming to the point where I knew I needed a dog after having life throw me some curveballs, we had to make it happen.

There were two potential obstacles in the way of bringing a dog into our life: the two of us spending long hours at work, and possibly our landlords as we only knew our cat was allowed so far. So obstacle one was easy to overcome, since we could control that one. We stopped the long hours, and decided to take the laptops home if we needed to. We had been working on that one a bit already, and we proved to ourselves over the course of several weeks that it was do-able. Then we phoned our landlords about adding a dog clause onto our rental agreement. They asked would the dog be “big”, we said “perhaps”, they said “ok.”  And that was that.

I was already searching PetFinder, so the next part was already well under way.

At the shelter: Meeting Mikey

December 23rd, 2009 was adoption day. Mikey was sheltered at Peninsula Humane Society, and was actually the first dog we saw that day. I had searched PetFinder for dogs who might not eat our cat. I ended up prioritizing dogs who seemed like they may have a tough time getting adopted – perhaps they were older, larger, black in color. However, one where barking wasn’t called out, due to our upstairs neighbor. I remember doing a search of what makes a dog hard to adopt, and that stuck in my head as I read through the listings and that is why those attributes unofficially became part of my criteria.

I short-listed four or five dogs at a few shelters in the Bay Area, and we planned to look at the other dogs who were at those particular shelters as well. So Mikey was dog number 1, since Peninsula Humane was the first to open. He was in one of the last kennels we saw, so we literally searched the entire shelter for him before I came across that medium black dog with the grey face. “Is that him?”  “I think so” (shuffle papers on kennel door) “Yep! That’s him!”  He analyzed us quietly, and approached the door where I was kneeling. He watched us for awhile, went to the outside section, I called him back and he came (not deaf, and some interest in us!)  Then a volunteer took a dog out for a walk, which passed by Mikey’s kennel. Every dog went insane… except for Mikey. He just watched the dog pass. We were amazed, since he had been in there for six weeks and wasn’t driven crazy by that… and didn’t bark.  We sat there for awhile, talking to him and watching him closely. He wandered about, lay on his kuranda bed, approached us with a tilted head. And little did we know at the time, becoming his new “people”.

Peter and I made a pact not to adopt the first dog we met, unless we had met the other dogs on our list. I told him to promise me that we would go meet at least the dogs on our list, and not even apply for any dogs we met that day if it wasn’t right – we would keep looking another day. So we pryed ourselves away from Mikey, and headed to the next shelters, the next dogs on our printed out papers. I remember one dog etched himself in my head, an older very large border collie mix with the sweetest temperament. A 10 year old pit mix was lovely, but barked up a storm at everything that moved (I had visions of being evicted if he barked all day while we worked). The main thing was, above all else, Mikey kept coming back into our heads. Every dog we looked at I thought “we have to get back to Mikey”.

So finally, after meeting the last dog on our list after making a grand circle tour between Berkeley, SF, and San Mateo, thus fulfilling our obligation to each other to meet the dogs on our list, we headed back down the peninsula to San Mateo to claim the first guy we met. Of course, I was frantic. “What if someone else adopted him!?  Hurry!!  Oh crap, why is the traffic always so horrible here?  We’re coming, Mikey!”

I think I was opening the car door before we finished parking at the shelter, and was nearly running back to his kennel. By then, there was a second dog in there with him of course and I panicked. IT’S A DIFFERENT DOG!  HE’S GONE!  Just as I was possibly about to burst into tears, Mikey’s calm face poked through the divider door between the indoor and outdoor areas, and in he walked over to the kennel “I’m here.”  Yes, there he was.

So I found his papers, and took them to the desk to arrange for a formal meeting. We waited in the get-acquainted room for the adoption counselor to lead him in, and soon they joined us. Mikey wasn’t overly interested in us, and was afraid of the tennis ball Peter bounced, but after fully examining the room he settled in a bit and sat next to me. We were briefed on how he may always be shy, or how he may change completely, how he may or may not be housebroken, may or may not be this and that, may or may not eat our cat. I asked him “Will you eat Kid?”  He looked at us. He didn’t seem to be a cat-eating dog.  “OK, sold.”  And lo and behold, he was on sale (yup, old dog… sale). We had to laugh since Julian kept updating us on the price which kept getting lower and lower — and we didn’t care in the least “sure, sure, whatever, we’ll take him! Ten bucks cheaper?  Still sold!”  Mikey was only $65. Best. Deal. Ever.

Here is our adoption story (search for “Mikey” on the page – it’s still near the top!). He also became a Peninsula Humane “cover dog”, the photo from that story was used for their newsletter magazine. How lucky was he?  He made the front cover of a magazine as a success story!

Mikey goes home

The second the adoption counselor, Julian, handed us the leash I felt a butterfly in my stomach – responsibility! Not that we weren’t expecting that of course, as we rearranged our life before deciding to adopt as it was, but it suddenly became real. This was our dog, and he was ours to look after and protect. We signed the papers, were told “we don’t know if he’ll know what a car is”, and out the door we went after a few people waved goodbye and gave him his congratulations on being adopted.

We toured the parking lot to give him a chance to potty, and off to the car we went. He hopped in and sat in the back seat like he had done it a thousand times (he probably had!), seemingly to say “lets get the heck outta here!”

Since we had no clue what size dog we would adopt, we had to make a couple stops on the way home to pick up food, bed, collar and leash. Among a few other things – somehow those few things became a packed Prius. Mikey wouldn’t go into any store – it was much too terrifying for him. But he was more than happy to squeeze into the car amongst towers of dog supplies and me.

At home there is a CAT

The first night: the floor cushion looked like a dog bed. Once we arrived home, I peeled off into the neighborhood to give him his first walk while Peter set up a baby gate. We have a cat, so we had read that you want to introduce the two beasts slowly. First in different rooms, under a door, then a gate, then cat high up on a perch calling the shots. Let’s just say it didn’t quite go as the sites wrote it would.

We have a confident, punchy cat – and that’s putting it lightly. Of course, she knew the second Mikey was in the house and wanted AT THAT DOG. Mikey trotted into the house, and into the living room, wheeled around to look at us with a grin and his first tail wag. That was pure joy, right there, for us. I had a dog who just found out he was home. He then spotted my husbands floor cushion, which looks an awful lot like a dog bed, and he plopped into the cushion like it was his long lost bed (see photo, left).Kid behind the baby gate - non-plussed

Meanwhile, Kid was yelling in the bedroom and trying to pull the door off its hinges (even with one of us in there), making life horrible and putting the dog on edge. So we decided to go to step 2 with the baby gate. Well she turned from a cat who was just annoying into the cat from hell, trying to pull the gate down, pull herself under the gate… pretty much everything other than jump over the gate. Mikey learnt pretty quickly “this cat is evil”, and Kid just wanted to smell that dog or maybe just on the other side of the gate.

So after a long night of a howling cat, first in the bedroom and then chucked out after she almost tore the door down.  I was on the couch, Mikey was on the floor next to the couch staring at me, and Kid was a constant pest. The following morning, I gave up and opened the gate. After all of the mayhem, she walked over to Mikey (I sat next to him to “guard” him), sniffed him, and hopped onto the couch and curled into a meatloaf. I think it was a mind game – to let me know I had a sleepless night for absolutely no reason whatsoever.

All I knew is that could have went a lot better, but considering everything, the introduction went pretty well indeed. However, Mikey was permanently afraid of Kid the evil cat and growled under his breath whenever she entered the room until the very last day they were together.

A couple weeks to change our lives

Since it was our Christmas break, we had two weeks to get to know each other. Those weeks were filled with dog walk after dog walk, and the weather was terrific, and the days were long and relaxed. It was perhaps the best Christmas break ever.  I remember some very sore muscles, and many many hours of walks every single day in order to settle him in and reduce his anxiety. Plus, it was great exercise. However, we realized we overdid it one day when we walked nearly to the Golden Gate bridge and back (taking the long way there!), which was probably around 8 miles. Poor guy had a little bit of a limp on his (we discovered) “bum” leg when we returned. OK… 8 miles was too much.

But it was near the end of those weeks, or maybe a bit later, that I remember a “click”… that sudden realization that your life has changed a lot.  For the better.  That you have the answer, and the answer is dogs. It was when I was reading a book in bed, with Mikey splayed across my legs, and he gazed up at me with this look of love and trust. And I looked back at him with the same. I felt this feeling of how could a dog like this be in a shelter for so long (over six weeks), and how many more dogs like this are in shelters for long periods of time. How could he be considered less desirable just because of his size, age, shyness, and fur color? But he was, somehow. And it wasn’t much work at all to improve his shyness, and his fur was so easy to care for. And little did I know at the time that things get much, much worse for other dogs.

But he quickly made me realize I had to learn about dogs, and help dogs who needed helping. That was the moment I realized it, and it left me in tears.

Mikey on Christmas day, content in his new home

Recuperating and training

Mikey, happy at Ocean BeachSo we took many walks those first couple weeks, and afterwards of course, to help Mikey settle in and de-stress. Mikey was a very shy dog when we first adopted him, and this was the beginning of the road to recovery. He was still “growing” right to the last month we had him. Confidence building is a long and slow road – but a very rewarding one, indeed. Seeing the little changes over time are fun to watch for.

It was also because he wouldn’t potty on leash. The first day he didn’t do anything for 24 hours. After that, we had to wait another 36 (!!) hours for him to potty again. It was like that for a week, and then we might reach two potty breaks per day, if we were lucky. We only had one accident, but we took lots of walks just in case.

I remember, very well, the first time he ever marked anything – it was months after we adopted him. We were at Ocean Beach and he marked a stump. I wanted to jump up and down!  I exclaimed “he’s going to start pottying on leash soon!”  And sure enough, on our walk home he lifted his leg on a bush. And that was that – he started to mark EVERYTHING.

We did offleash training those first couple weeks too, on a long line. He did pretty well, well enough I trusted him, but it’s always a leap of faith to unclip him at the offleash beach – there always has to be a first time. I remember that so vividly as well, as he looked at me, ran off in a huge arc as my heart raised into my throat… but then he arced back and ran right to my knees as I breathed a sigh of relief. He had the happiest look on his face, a face I saw for the first time that day.

Getting a good recall was work though, and a great education for me. Mikey was a super-sniffer. Once he started in on a smell, everything else disappeared and his ears turned off. Other dogs could come up and smell his rump, and he wouldn’t even glance at them. You could almost see the other dog shrug and leave. So there wasn’t a hope in hell that my calling him would trump that scent. Mikey also became much more friendly, and although there were very few dogs on the beach on our morning walks (starting at 6:30am), he had a couple favorites we saw regularly. One of whom, Plato, he would always want to run off at even if he was half a beach away or in the water (Mikey didn’t like the ocean – but it was worth braving if Plato was there). I didn’t like this though, and I also wanted him to come even if he was smelling something, so we had some work to do.

The first bit was to start calling him before he ran to greet a dog at distance. I wanted him to learn he could visit, but only when I was close, then we would continue walking. So to do this, I would call him back when he was 4 feet ahead, 8 feet, 10 feet, etc until we were at the distance he could greet the other dog. This made him very used to being recalled, and since I was close by I had more control.

Secondly, the recall “term” was consistent. I said it exactly the same way every single time. And jackpot-ed/threw a party for excellent recalls. After all, he has to want to come to me –can’t make it negative!

But perhaps even more important was to call when I knew I would be successful. This was pretty easy at the beach when I knew he was still listening to me instead of being more interested in or running at the other dog (I could never let him reach “gallop” pace, or the recall wouldn’t work in those early phases).  This was key for the problem of when he was on a smell. What I had to do was learn to watch his ears. He would shift his ears when he was listening for where we were, I learnt. When he did that, if I called him, he would come. If I missed it, he was busy smelling again.  As soon as I timed it right, with his ears, I had a solid recall.

And when he learnt that it was fun to gallop back to me, he got even better at it. Once he burst through a crowd taking photos of the Golden Gate bridge too fast, and I was almost embarrassed he was so good at recall. He startled people running to sit at my knees with such speed!

When we first adopted Mikey, he didn’t know any training words – or at least in English, or with us. We took him to training class, and he was the only senior in attendance, and also the only shy dog. He quickly gained the reputation of the dog with the most work to do (didn’t know sit, down, anything), but also the most sensitive so he was a pro at leave-it. It was my first experience with “modern” dog training (training our childhood dog was the old-school dominance training), and while 3 classes doesn’t achieve too much, it was a good start at our relationship. And it was interesting to watch him try to join in a puppy play time at the end of the sessions, where he growled from the sidelines completely unsure of how (but definitely wanting) to join in. Later at home he learned all the classics: sit, down, up (stand). Without any training he did leave-its, and waits. He was a very well behaved boy.

But as much as he loved his buddy Plato at the beach (and a couple other dogs), he wasn’t all that interested in most dogs and definitely didn’t want to play. In fact, in all our months together, he only played twice and with the same one puppy – Marcel – at the beach. They were about the same size at the time, and Marcel had a certain energy so I suppose they clicked. It was breathtaking to watch, as he never played and yet ran and leaped and chased for nearly ten minutes with this one puppy who got him to play. It was perfection, them swapping chaser and chasee. And he ended it when he was tired, simply giving the signal he had enough. In fact, after that I did see him try to initiate play with one other dog, who ignored him (what he usually did to all other dogs!). I’m eternally thankful I had the experience to watch him play with another dog, thank you to Marcel for that.

The dog who didn’t woof

Mikey rarely barked. For many months after we adopted him, we only suspected a couple barks when he was around other dogs – and even then we weren’t sure whether the bark came from him or not. The only time he woofed was under his breath while sleeping – it was this muffled WOOFwoofwoofwoofwoofwoofwoof….. woofwoofwoofwoofwoof….. WOOFwoofwoofwoofwoof… while his feet “ran”. I always wondered where he was and what he was doing, since he never woofed while he was awake!  It must have been very exciting, whatever it was.

A couple weeks before he died, he did woof in the middle of the night. I was half asleep, and thought he was sleep-woofing so I nudged him to be quiet. Then he did another WOOF!!!  and I woke up. He was sitting right up, staring towards the window. I got up, and went to the window, peeking out. There were people on the hill behind our backyard!  I went over to the bed, and pet his head “gooood dog!!!”—he was very proud of his alert bark! And we were both quite concerned about what those people were doing on the hill.

He also let out an “uuuuf” under his breath when we passed a VERY odd looking (for a dog) paraglider about 50 feet away while walking towards a beach. For something that unusual to elicit only a kind-of-woof, Mikey was an extremely calm dog. He would circle-wag with excitement with the best of them, but was calm when it was time to be zen.

The dog who loved kids (and adults too)

Mikey was very shy, or rather, particularly cautious when we first adopted him. He only willingly approached people (of his own accord, we never asked him to), once he learned from gradual experience that they had treats and were generally OK. I think he observed us being cordial to these other people, and knew he didn’t need to worry as much. After some time, we’d see him trot over to people and sit at their feet – sometimes they were surfers or without a dog, and found it rather amusing or unusual. “What does he want?” you’d sometimes hear them say. Once he went over to a woman who was sitting on the beach talking on her cell. He sat next to her looking out at the ocean like she was, and she started to pet and pet and pet him. We saw him glance at us a couple times, so we just stopped and waited about 100 feet away while she got her dog fix, and they enjoyed the experience. After about five minutes, we called him over so we could continue the walk!

But we were pleasantly surprised that he loved kids. Instead of being cautious, he seemed to almost “go to work” to invite the kids in, in a very patient way. The first couple times we closely monitored the situation – but you could see him soften and turn into this patient marshmallow of a dog. And how he loved to “kiss”. This was entirely fortunate, because we were certainly surprised at the number of parents who would usher their kids over to him without asking us if he was OK with children (even when he was walking behind us, and we didn’t see it happen)! They would pat his back, touch his tail, and he would patiently sit there and lick their hands and face (our usual warning “he’ll give kisses!”)

We figure he may have had a previous life with children in the household – it would also make sense as he was very good at catching tossed treats mid-air!

Mikey catching cheese mid-air, something he already knew how to do!

The dog who loved us coming home

Mikey didn’t have separation anxiety, but of course he was happen when we did come home. We were careful to “just leave” when we left, and not make a huge deal of coming home. But arriving home was still joyous for both of us – it’s hard to hide that emotion when you miss your dog all day at work, and then get home to a wagging tail and a pine in his throat. So every day, coming through the door, I opened the gate (we separated Kid and Mikey since he was more relaxed when she didn’t harass him), and sat on the floor to calmly greet them both. Sometimes, as much as he disliked Kid, Mikey would even lick her face (she had no reaction at all). Here is half of that:

I think this is one of the things I miss the most. It was the same every day, and it was just wonderful to hear that “thump” of the recliner hitting the wall as I was coming up the stairs, and to see him waiting behind that gate with the wagging tail through the crack of the door as I opened it.

I always imagined him spending the day on his recliner. He loved it tremendously, much to the displeasure of our cat who loved it prior to his arrival (and who reclaimed it the day he left for the hospital… hours after he left, in fact). His picture hangs over that recliner, it was truly his spot in the house.

The dog who adored running the sand dunes

One of Mikey’s great joys, perhaps his greatest joy, were the sand dunes at Fort Funston. It wasn’t the other dogs, or even the beach there. He got all giddy as soon as the sand was sloped into a hill that he could run up and down. It elicited a goofy puppy grin, and zoomies galore. We could just give the enthusiastic “GO RUN!” while pointing, and he would zoom down the hill and arc back in a tremendous circle back up the hill to where we stood. He would roll in the plants and then spring up and be off at full speed again. It was a joy to experience. Here’s what it looked like:

While he loved to run like that on the dunes, we never really saw it many other places. Sometimes he would run at the beach, but we had to teach him to even chase the ball (as well as bring it back, of course). Enthusiastically yelling “BRING IT BACK!!! BRING IT BACK!!!” seemed to distract him enough to keep the ball in his month… it took weeks before he brought it all the way back.

Fetching a ball on Ocean Beach

And he would run back at full speed off of blind recalls (when he was, say, in a bush – he would burst out of it mid-air and tear back to us at full-speed. But it was really hills. He adored running down hills.

The dog who loved ice cream… and stinky smells too

Mikey liked food, of course. I don’t know if we ever fed him food he adored, sad to say. I sure wish we tried harder, since he hated the first kind of kibble we gave him. I regret not giving him home-made food like we do now. But we did discover, while in Kanab, Utah, that he absolutely loved ice cream. We took Mikey out for ice-cream on a wonderful, warm summer night. We had never given him ice cream, or human food from a table for that matter. Peter bought us a cone to share, and on a whim I passed it down to Mikey. He looked at me as in “you made a mistake, you never give me people food”, but took a lick. And then another. And then started gulping down the ice cream as fast as his tongue would allow. I passed it back to Peter, then me, and then I glanced down at Mikey… he was standing there with the biggest sloppy dog grin I had EVER seen on his face, his tail wagging like crazy “My turn!!!”  We repeated passing it between the three of us until the ice cream was gone, and he was the happiest dog in Kanab that night I’m sure.  Eating that ice cream was possibly the happiest I had ever seen him, and that memory is etched into my head forever.

But he also loved the stinky smells, as dogs usually do. On a beautiful summer weekend day, we headed out to East Bay to help our friend Tareq look at an open house and provide some feedback on it. We took Mikey along, and Tareq even held onto him as we toured the open house. After that, we went hiking in an open area in East Bay where you can let your dog off-leash. The off-leash area also houses cattle, and because of that, a lot of cow pies. We had no problem passing cattle with Mikey – they seemed curious about each other, but nothing more. But when we stopped to drink some water and turned our back for no more than 5 seconds, Mikey ran back up to us covered snout to tail in cow pie and grinning ear to ear.

Many thanks to Tareq who helped us rinse off Mikey in a stream, as that would have been one long car ride home!

A dog who didn’t really love the cat, or jerk dogs

There are some things that Mikey did not like, and probably at the top of the list was our cat, Kid. Kid was always assertive with Mikey, but she was really “in his face” about it. She wouldn’t let him pass her in the hall. She would make him walk slowly around the house. He wouldn’t look at her in the eye, or she would get angry about it. The only things that he stood up for were his bed, and his dental treats. That would elicit a growl and perhaps a flashing of “I have teeth” if she approached. Did it work?  Of course not. She would walk over to sniff his teeth.

Kid tended to guard me too, or at least blame the dog for things that happened even if he wasn’t around. One night I was preparing his dinner, and he was patiently waiting in the dining room (this was the same each night). I accidently dropped the fork onto the kitchen floor, which made a very loud noise and I gasped since it hit my foot first. As soon as that happened, Kid appeared out of nowhere flying through the kitchen at full speed and flew at Mikey in the dining room and chased him away. He ran off with his tail tucked, Kid right behind him meowing at his rump.

Another time it was also initiated by careless humans. Peter and I neglected to pick up a couple of dirty dinner plates from the front room, as we went back to the office to check on something online. In our absence, Mikey felt it was his duty to clean the residue from the plates. We heard loud clanging of dog-tags-on-dinner-plate and forks being jostled around from the front room and came running. But Kid beat us to it. We arrived on the scene to a dog sitting with his head hanging, with a cat sitting in front of him with one raised paw. No hissing, meowing, or swatting. Simply the threat of a raised paw. As soon as we arrived, Mikey ran behind our legs, and kid stalked off.

The only other thing Mikey didn’t care for were jerky, or threatening, dogs. We never met many, as our walk times were typically so early in the morning and we knew most of the dogs we saw. But from time to time, of course, there would be dogs he simply didn’t want to have anything to do with and they were usually the ones clearly giving the signals that Mikey was rather astute in his assessment. This made it so easy on us – he would just stick by our side, ignoring the dog like he couldn’t see it (although you knew he was well aware of every movement it made!)

A memorable such encounter happened at Ocean Beach, and the other dog was a bit larger than Mikey. Mikey was maybe 20 feet off to my side sniffing something and around the same time we both spotted the other dog quite far off. I glanced back at Mikey and he had noticed the other dog but decided to pretend he had never seen it. Not a good sign — although I loved that part about him – the odd time he would ignore possible”jerk” dogs like he never saw them, and it typically worked that they’d ignore him back. But this time the other dog was still approaching us and there wasn’t an associated human in sight.

I quickly noticed the following bad signals in the other dog: extremely stiff body (like his legs barely had knees while walking – a “peg leg” walk), wide open round eyes, intent stare on my dog, closed mouth, straight line approach across the beach towards my dog. Mikey was still intently sniffing the ground pretending he’s invisible. Crap.

Upon seeing this pretty much textbook “bad news dog” (thank goodness I was reading a book on dog behavior, and quickly recognized these were all serious signs), I immediately went into action with happy “baby” talk, doing everything to focus this dog on me. “Hey buddy, whosa good dog?!?  Hey buddy look, TREATS!  Go find! Gooooood dooooog – you’re so handsome!!” I carried on like this, trying to make sure my body was loose and relaxed and otherwise calm, confident (shoulders back), and making a sideways maneuver between my dog and this other dog and watching him looking sideways. The other dog gave me several very quick, short, but utterly serious closed-mouth-large-eye glances, yet slowed his approach toward my dog. Eventually I think I utterly confused (or distracted) him with the happy talk, and finally after what felt like a very long time the dog looked at me straight in the eye and let out this big very very loud SIIIIGGGH of decompression as he opened his mouth, relaxed (eyes and body), and took a few steps towards me instead (I remember that reaction so clearly like I can see it on video today!). Success. I threw some treats and got my dog out of there, so I don’t know what that dog did after that point (I actually don’t remember much about getting my guy out of there – as soon as the other dog relaxed we were gone). But it was one dog-dog interaction, and potentially worse human-dog interaction, I very happily avoided!

A human who loved time with her dog

Mikey at Ocean BeachOur time together changed my life in so many ways. My stress was vastly reduced, so much so that people who were work acquaintances actually noticed that I was happier, calmer, and handled stress so much better than before. No longer did I let things bug me nearly as much. I just didn’t care about them. I believe the regular routine, and increased outdoor activity, worked wonders as well.

Every morning we went to the beach, which happens to be an off-leash area. The off-leash activity worked its wonders on Mikey, who enjoyed it immensely. It also let him keep his distance when he wanted to, or approach people of his own accord (assuming I let him, of course). Allowing him to proceed at his own pace was tremendous, and something not quite as easily achieved on a leash in more urban areas where you have less control over people walking nearby, sounds, cars, crazy kids, and the like. The beach did wonders for us both, as we were out of bed at 6:25 and on the road about 10 minutes later for our hour+ walk. I never thought I’d be a morning person, but it was easy with a dog in tow.

After we came home, we’d wait a bit and then it’d be breakfast time. Not long after, we’d have to go to work and Mikey would hit the recliner before we left – a long face hanging off the edge of the recliner seat.

Each evening, after greeting each other, I would get ready for our evening walk or jog. It was usually a jog, since he did so well at that pace (ignoring all the smells). Instead of 30 stops-for-smells, jogging reduced it to a few at the beginning, middle, and end of the jog when I’d allow him to sniff away to his hearts content. The jog was a great relaxer, as I’d come home tired, have dinner, and then we would relax on the couch – typically with Mikey splayed out between my knees. Sometimes up on my chest (he was over 40lbs!). But we loved that together time, and it was especially great after a nice long jog.

Weekends revolved around volunteering and taking Mikey out on outings. We did many of the off-leash fire roads in North Bay open areas, Pulgas Ridge a few times, down the peninsula to Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz (which have poor off-leash areas, or none at all), and a trip or two to East Bay (where we had our cow-pie incident). We never went anywhere significant without him, he was always patiently in the back seat, patiently waiting for me to leash him up to hop out of the car (since he would eat the leash if we left it on, we discovered), always such a well behaved boy (who cares about a few broken leashes!). The weekend wasn’t complete without some excursion with our guy.

Overall, life was just better with a dog by your hip, taking the long way home.

A final week

I never knew the “lasts” when they were happening, but for some reason I can remember many of them. Our last vacation was our first (to Best Friends in Utah), and included some incredibly rich memories, such as the previously-mentioned ice cream, and visiting Angel’s Rest. And the great Welactin oil spill (all over a bag) resulted in numerous stains I still discover. How that fish oil managed to get onto clothing I never took to Utah I’ll never know. But I must smile, since it was a tremendous trip indeed with a spectacular dog.

Our last “day trip” was to Santa Cruz on a glorious day, and included another beloved ice-cream outing where he actually stole the entire top off of the cone (chomp!!)  One man made a surprising and unusual comment in passing that day, without even stopping “I can tell your dog is sweet. I only need to look at him to tell that he’s the sweetest dog.”  How true.

Mikey at Santa Cruz

Our last trip to Fort Funston, on that last weekend of non-illness, was particularly memorable. We did a huge long walk that was made up of dunes, beach, and trail hiking. Near the end of the walk, we decided to try and find a “new” way up the hill, instead of doing the sand-stairs (a particularly aggressive set of stairs that aren’t sized for human or dog but instead giants, and number over 200). Going through bushes, we encountered a hill that was nearly cliff climbing rather than walking – and led us under and over logs, through trees, and ended up on a golf course instead of in the park. We turned around to return down the cliff, and suddenly Mikey perked up because “hey, that’s a HUGE HILL TO ZOOM DOWN!!!”  So he wound it up and went running, as we both sort of gasped due to how steep and huge that hill actually was. Near the bottom he ended up doing somersaults tail-over-head, as we truly gasped. Then he bounced up, whipped around, and faced us with an exuberant tail and look on his face “best… hill… EVER!”

On our last walk to Ocean Beach, I had to run back to the house for something. When I got back to the street to catch up to Mikey and Peter, I can remember watching them and etching the sight of them walking down the street into my head, “I don’t want to forget this.”  Mikey was bouncing next to Peter, his ears flopping up and down, the odd glance up at Peter to check in. I remember that silhouette of man-and-dog. It was the last time we went to the beach.

The last walk was like any other walk. Mikey would have already been quite ill at the time, but you wouldn’t know it from the walk. It was our 10 year anniversary, so we went for a walk together instead of my usual jog, and Mikey trotted along at a good clip without anything that seemed particularly unusual. He coughed once near the end of the walk, but nothing that couldn’t be explained by having a piece of grass tickling his throat. He was himself. A man stopped his car to ask for directions for a meal, which resulted in a 10 minute conversation about life. About improving your life, and meaningfulness – he was leaving the nearby hospital after stopping there to help veterans. We got his card as I have a couple OCD issues I wouldn’t mind working on – I thought there was a sign we met him, and he even said that afterwards “Sometimes you meet people for a reason.” I haven’t contacted him yet, knowing that was our final walk. But I know I probably should.

It all gets back to living in the moment, like our dogs do. Never take time for granted, and make every day the best. All of those things happened in the very last week I had with my Mikey dude – and I never knew it at the time. I didn’t realize I was living life so well with my guy until he passed away, but it’s something I’m now conscious of, so I never forget to enjoy my dog every moment I have.

The illness

This is the part I didn’t really want to get to, but here we are. And it’s important, since knowing the signs of illness and what to not shrug off is valuable. I’ll apologize in advance for any typos, since I probably won’t read through this after writing through it. For awhile anyway.

According to our specialist, Mikey probably fell ill mid-week, although his first symptom was Friday morning. He vomited a little bit of mucus. This wasn’t too unusual, as he had vomited a few times before – and remarkably similar appearance, too – and it never turned into anything, he always just shrugged it off. Dogs are designed to puke, so I didn’t worry too much.

Friday night’s walk was regular (although a walk instead of our jog, as Peter and I had been out to dinner), and we fed him dinner but that night we didn’t watch him eat as we had eaten out. After some wine, I fell asleep. We didn’t notice he had left his dinner pretty much untouched until the following morning. I remember exclaiming “boy you ate fast!” and I fell asleep not long after.

The next morning we noticed the symptoms – the uneaten dinner, and Mikey’s disinterest in a morning walk and of course breakfast. We called the vet right away, and had an appointment for that morning. The vet noticed a slight anemic appearance to his gums, and a slight heart murmur, although noted that he didn’t need an emergency visit or to panic yet. To watch him, and call if anything changed. I figured we didn’t need to panic, as he also said we could leave on our vacation still, which we were supposed to do that very afternoon (we delayed it, of course, wanting to watch him and be near vets – just in case).

Mikey slept most of that day, but went out to potty in the yard. He even ate some lunch – baby food fed to him on a spoon. I was unbelievably tired myself, to a very unusual level, and we napped together on the bed.  To this day I wonder if it was somehow a sign of sorts. It was an unusual kind of tired, and how he would have been feeling as well, being so anemic.

He ate again that night, still in bed. I hand fed him chicken with rice and chicken baby food. He growled at Kid when she entered the room, I took him out to the back yard (he had no problems with the stairs), and we feel asleep afterwards. But I was worried about him. He panted before he jumped into the bed, and that was unusual. I didn’t like it. But it was fortunate he did that, because I wasn’t able to sleep because of it – and I kept waking up to check on him. Around 3am, I turned on the light and I didn’t like what I saw. He was breathing funny, really fast and I could hear this wheeze come out of him. And he just looked… weird. I didn’t like his shape. So I frantically called the emergency vet using the number I never wanted to have to use. The vet answered, and told us to bring him in right away.

We had to lift him off the bed, since he really didn’t want to get off of it, but as soon as we did I almost second-guessed that he was sick. He walked just fine, trotted down the stairs and across the street and down the hill to the car and hopped right in the back (we were parked a block away due to a marathon). He peed no problem.

But once at the vet, he seemed lethargic again… or mopey. It was really the vets reaction that shook me though – the exclamation about the gums, that were pretty much white by then. And since he had to tend to a more critical patient, his comment to ring that bell if anything happened – anything. The dire tone really shook me up, even though we didn’t yet know how serious things were. And they were – his hemocrit was at 14% instead of 50%. You’re supposed to have 50% worth of red blood cells, and poor dude barely had 15%. He was barely hanging on, and yet he still pulled back when they tried to take him in for a transfusion to save his life.

Mikey wilted while we waited – nothing happened, but he just seemed to care less and less about being in that building. They took him back to examine him, and then brought Mikey back out to us. The vet came out not long after and let us know what was going on – auto-immune hemolytic anemia. That it was a serious case. That the chances weren’t great. I had written this article for Best Friends a couple months earlier about this same, rare, scary disease – and from the second I heard him say those words, I kept hearing myself say “but Tigs is OK… but Tigs is OK” go through my head. Tigs made it, Mikey would too.

What was strange at the time, that although I knew what it was, and I knew how serious it was, but it didn’t hit me until the (empty) car ride home that my dogs life was on the line. It’s possible that we’d never see him again every time we left him, including just then. THAT is why the nurse was so insistent that we take our time. This is real. It hit me that it was real, it was really happening this time – to me.

I can’t really describe how horrible the next three days were. We went and picked him up to go to the specialist vet after he had his transfusion, and he wagged his tail as soon as he saw us. They said it had been solidly tucked the entire time, but boy was he raring to get out of there. When I talked to the nurse, I’ll never forget that he was staring at me… and then he hit his head to my thigh and started to whine and wag his tail with the eyes that said “LETS GET OUT OF HERE!!!” and he practically ran through the glass to get out to the waiting car.

Our first and last facing-the-camera-together photo.But we had to drive him to the next spot. I held him in the back seat, and I knew. I knew that it may be the last time. I took my camera, since I also knew we had no photos together, and I knew we had to take some. When we drove in the morning, the sun came through the windows at this one spot and it warmed us, and I’ll never forget that time as I held him. It makes me weep as I type this. At that point he turned and licked my face, and I remember trying so hard not to lose it. Those three days were like that – the lowest you can possibly go, feeling like you’ve lost your life. And brief glimmers of hope that you’ll make it through – trying to be strong enough to make it through the worst possible battle, for your guy. Waiting for the next phone call, to hear how he is. And the pit of your stomach dropping every time you hear that horrible ring tone.

It was three days of researching what you can, and then bringing yourself to tears as you read that your dog has the laundry list of signs on the “poor prognosis” list. Then trying so hard to distract yourself with cleaning so you don’t sit there stewing and bawling. Cleaning the house for when Mikey comes home. Buying special waterproof beds so he can leak due to his heavy load of drugs. Turning the dining room into a nursing area, for your sick dog. And rearranging all the furniture so the house didn’t look the same, reminding you of how empty it is because he’s not there.

We got to visit him about half an hour after we dropped him off. And we got to visit him a couple hours before he died. Our first visit upset him so much that it took them a very long time to calm him down enough to give him treatment, which frightened me to pressure them into letting me visit him again. I don’t know if it was the right choice, but… how can you know. They felt it wouldn’t be good, but I can’t think about how he must have felt.

Exactly 3 days after I first woke up and saw him wheezing on our bed, I woke up with an intense feeling of dread. I knew it was bad. Minutes later, that horrible ringtone filled the room, and I knew. I knew exactly what it was – the vet was calling to say to get in there, things weren’t good. I remember panicking. Driving in. Bolting into the vet. They had him on a table, he was having strokes in his head and his lungs, and I looked into his eyes, searching for the answer.  He wasn’t hurting, but he was probably confused. They asked if we wanted to choose euthanasia. I was looking for the answer in his eyes, did he want to fight, and I couldn’t find it. I don’t know why – I always thought I would know… but the fact I didn’t know was all I had to go on, at that time. I saw him – I knew that. He was there, and he knew it was me, I knew that for sure. He as still there – and that’s all I could tell in regards to it not being time, yet.

We couldn’t stay there with him, and that angered me, made me sick. In my distress, I couldn’t make them allow me, they absolutely wouldn’t do it. Which was particularly difficult, not just because of our circumstance, but because my greatest fear over those horrible three days was not being there if he suddenly passed.

So we had to wait for three, horrible, long hours in our freezing cold car in a sketchy neighborhood on Potrero Hill. The cops came around to ensure that I was not a prostitute (something they immediately realized upon seeing me – I think I actually blurted out “my dog is DYING, NO I’m not a prostitute” to the cop. No, I was not in my right mind. I think the only reason I made it through those three hours was with something Melissa Lipani told me on the phone the previous day “One minute at a time, one hour at a time, one day at a time.”  I was taking it minute by minute. I saw every minute pass on that digital clock – and how Mikey always stared at me, looking at my face for what I wanted to do, I stared at that yellow window to the room where he lay so ill and dying. And it was as close as I could possibly be. And I sent every single positive thought, hoping he would pull through.

As soon as the lobby opened, we were there. Not long after, the night doctor took us through to see him – she said he was resting “more comfortably” – which gave me that glimmer of hope. But that hope was gone when I actually saw him myself. I felt he was worse. It was about an hour later when our regular doctor checked in. He ushered us into the room, after examining Mikey, and it was at that point he told us there was no longer hope. He had seen dogs like this, and they never pulled through. And that Mikey was now suffering. Knowing it was time was like the world crumbling away, just giving way under your feet. I felt my stomach turn upside down… but it was like everything shifted sideways, and fell onto the floor. And poof, it was gone. And I will say that the most important role in my life came next, being there as Mikey passed. It was by far the most difficult thing I ever had to do, but without a question I had to be there (although I fully understand and respect those who cannot do it – there was just some reason my head told me I had to be). And thank god I was, as I knew I would be devastated were I not able to be had I not been there in time. But oh how I wish it was peaceful, because AIHA in this manner isn’t at all (I was on a floor hanging into an oxygen tank holding a tube to his mouth), but I know he knew I was there. And I sat there thanking him a million times for everything he gave us, before collapsing on the vet’s floor when it was over.

The last photo

The aftermath

I know he knew I was there, because later in the day, he gave me a sign. Eventually we had to leave the house, and wander around places like Target to get out of the memory for a bit. I was losing it. And that helped, but I started losing it again when we were heading home. My eyes couldn’t see anything for miles, since I was weeping and it was pitch dark outside. But then an intense calm, peacefulness came over me. I started to smile, and feel that he was OK, and that things would be OK. I kept saying “he’s here and he’s fine!”, and I realized we were at that moment passing by Fort Funston, where he ran on the dunes. I had no clue where we were (even what route we were taking home, my husband was driving) when we passed by, but at that exact moment that happened.

That was the fourth time something of that nature happened to me. The first time, I felt perhaps it was a weird coincidence. But by then, by now, I do believe there is something there. Mikey smacked me across the head with it that night, and the earlier night too when I woke up.  For that reason, I believe he knew I was there at the end, and while I was waiting in the car, and that I probably did make the right decision to fight just a little bit longer – to have a chance. I believe that you do make the right decisions, that they are there to help us on our way – even if it seems impossible to read at the time.

And Mikey lives on, running those Funston dunes, greeting new dogs on the bridge, especially the poor AIHA dogs like himself. He has great company, and I know he’ll introduce me to them someday when it’s my time too.

The legacy

Our time was so short together, it was full of “firsts-and-lasts”, and “never was’s” – and that’s what sucks the most. First-and-last vacation together (Utah), first-and-last vet visit, first-and-last photo together, first-and-last trip to a cow field. And we never took that trip to somewhere in north bay to stay overnight somewhere, we never got to do therapy training and therapy work together, we never made it to our CBA courses together, we never made it to that river-canoe trip, we never made it to a lake to try and swim in together. We never made it to Best Friends again. Neither of our sets of parents met him… in fact, none of our family ever did.

Here’s one. Mikey never had a visitor to the house that wasn’t our vet (who came three times). That’s the happenin’ deHaan house – three visitors in 8 months, and it was only the vet we paid to make a housecall!

But enough about that.

Mikey helped me see how empty my life was, before I had a dog by my hip, waiting for me to get home, waiting on a soft blanket instead of in a cold kennel. He came into my life wanting to teach me a lesson about work life balance, and wanting me to know that there are other dogs out there who need to be helped out – on the internet, help get a little training, go out for a walk, know that someone cares about them. That there are rights to be fought for, legislation to beat, money to be donated. That life still goes on even when there is hellishly difficult stuff to go through. That life doesn’t revolve around a software release, that there is more meaning to be had. That life is short, and you don’t get a re-do. Oddly enough, the first thing I questioned after he passed was my volunteering. How I regretted doing it, and not spending each of those hours with him. But of course, that was ridiculous as that is what he inspired me to do from the outset. But that is where your mind goes after losing a dog.

He taught me so much in those eight months, I learned my lessons, he hopefully had a great time, then it was his time to go. I don’t know why. Maybe he was needed somewhere else, or maybe I was needed by someone else. Because I sure learnt some intense lessons while he was sick, and after he passed – and maybe I needed to know those lessons now, instead of later. We’ll never know, but I assure you Mikey: I listened, I heard, and I understood. Your life was not in vain – it was a life well lived, and a life that changed my own for many years to come. You were my first own dog. And you always will be. It felt like I always knew you from that second you looked into my eyes and we formed that bond, lounging on that bed that cold winters day last January. I think I always did know you – and I assure you, you will always be in my heart little dude.

I love you. And that recliner, although it presently beholds a certain cat named Kid, will always be your spot. Thank you for what you gave to us. You were a very, very good boy.


Special thanks to mom for listening through the tears, and to Melissa Lipani and the VetNet community for their incredible support.  If you would like to help find a cure for AIHA, check out this page for information on donating to Meisha’s Hope. 100% of your funds go towards finding a cure for this horrible disease.

And of course, a great big thank you to the community of volunteers, rescues, fosters and animal welfare advocates for all of the tireless work you do for animals in need. Without you, many more would be facing hard times or death.

And last but certainly not least: thanks to all of those who chose to adopt a homeless animal.

About Author

Jen deHaan is graphic designer, small business owner, and dog person living in Bay Area, California. Jen enjoys learning about dog training and behavior, and has taken several courses and seminars since 2010. She also contributes articles to leading websites, such as Victoria Stilwell's Positively . It all started with a great dog called Mikey (aka "dude"), loved and lost but remembered forever. Jen also runs a freelance business focusing on graphic, web, and UI design at FoundPixel, and a small business creating hand crafted dog products at Stylish Canine.