It has been almost two months since our dog, Mo, passed away. Talking about his death has come easier to me than writing about it. When talking I can make light of this experience – about how he gave us more time with him than we expected, and how he exited this world as gracefully as he lived in it. I can help others who are faced with this same heartache by sharing my experience and the resources I discovered throughout the process. But the truth is that I miss him and that I am not OK with his death. I’m angry about it, and sad, and even a little relieved. I feel guilty because I could never do enough for him and at a loss because our time is gone.
Mourning a dog isn’t easy, and it shouldn’t be. It’s a complex mix of emotions, every bit as complicated as the dog himself. In raising our dogs we put ourselves into them, so they reflect part of us. It only makes sense that we feel the pain of losing a part of ourselves when they go. But for all the pain they cause, they give us so much more: A greater example to live by. A joy unmatched. An innocence humanly unnatainable. A uniqueness all their own.
There will only ever be one Mo. And while I am so sad to have lost him, I am grateful to have known him.
My favorite part about training dogs is that you get to know a dog very well in the process. Dogs are fun to know. You find out what motivates them, their quirks, and even their sense of humor. I find it fascinating that it is even possible to communicate with a different species. It’s depicted as magical in so many stories because it really is. And while their lips don’t move like in the movies, you can learn a lot about a dog if you know how to listen.
Mo was more than my friend and family member. He was my partner. We trained together, taught together, explored together, played together, and snuggled together. He helped me get through some tough days, and I did the same for him. Needless to say, I knew Mo about as well as you can know a dog. He truly was my co-pilot.
Mo’s biggest gift was people. People were drawn to him. They had to pet the cool mohawk ridge on his back and hug his big sweet dopey head. He was drawn to them too, in a comforting, gentle, and charmingly egotistical way. He knew that every person needed a little Mo in their life, and he knew exactly how much to give. Whether he was maintaining a considerate distance or gently laying all 70 of his pounds directly on them; he always knew how to make someone feel important, and yet they were completely at his service. They never thought to question his breed, a Pit Bull/Rhodesian Ridgeback/Lab mix(?), or whether or not he was nice. Instead they would ask me if I did his fur like that; how had I trained him to be so great (as if I could take all the credit); where had I found such a nice dog.
He was approximately four years old when he adopted us one humid spring evening. Heavy heartworm positive, covered in bugs, and thin; he looked like a junk yard mutt following us home. We should have been scared, but he posed no threat. We called him Mo for short, but gave him an array of full and official sounding names over the years. Mohawk, Mo P. Dog, Mo of Backyardsville, and Mo Bear, to name a few. It was intended to be a temporary name since we didn’t intend to keep him.
I put him up for adoption with a local rescue at first, attempting to stick to my two dog limit and just be his foster parent. I watched from my training center with a critical eye as people questioned his qualifications for becoming their dog. It was so frustrating. How could they not see that he was the nicest dog a family could ever want? Then one night I took him home and we realized the irony. Mo knew it from day one. He had moved in and created a room of his own in our hearts. It was a space we didn’t know we had until we couldn’t imagine life without him.
In the beginning he went through heartworm treatment and we nursed him back to health. He often woke up in the middle of the night crying from the muscle aches. I would massage him back to sleep and silently curse the people that would neglect such a gentle soul. Then it was Giardia. Then irritable bowel syndrome. Let’s just say that for a street dog, Mo had one expensive butt.
We fed him well and watched him rapidly transform. His nose went from black to pink. His fur reddened and smoothed. He gained weight and his dashing good looks were undeniable. He became younger and brighter right before our eyes. Once we got beyond his initial issues, he gave us eight years of excellent health.
Soon he had bursts of goofy energy that comically contrasted with his mellow demeanor. Like a light switch that you could turn on and off, Mo would go from the world’s laziest hound, to a leaping, frolicking zoomie uber dork when prompted. He was not a sick dog or a neglected dog anymore. He was our big, blonde, handsome dude. Stoic, and mellow, yet full of personality and play.
We did discover some challenges under that seemingly easy facade. The streets had not made him a tough dog, but rather a dog who had tasted luxury and did not plan on going back. More than five minutes outside would have him yerping at the back door like he was running from monsters. The sound of Mo’s bark made me want to tear my ears off. Learning to ignore it was something I never quite mastered.
In addition to his ear piercing crybaby bark, Mo currently holds the title as the absolute most difficult dog that I have ever had to leash train. As a trainer who specializes in Pit Bulls and other strong dogs, this really says something. While he progressed through the initial stages of heavy pulling pretty quickly, he would never quite let go of getting something he wanted. With the determination of a car salesman, he would take any opportunity he could to take advantage and move closer to his goal. He was a great negotiater and a shameless opportunist.
Mo was not a dog you could trust off-leash either (see: opportunist). I spent years working with him on recall, but we still managed to lose track of him to a skunk or deer trail every now and then. Obedient most of the time, he would wait until we got just comfortable enough to trust him before bounding off into the wilderness freely, scaring the crap out of us. He would come back eventually, but not before he sent us on a muddy uphill hike, reminding us that 1) he was in far better shape than us, and 2) that confident and fearless streak of his came with a price.
He demanded creativity from me in all of his training. At the time it drove me nuts. Later I would thank him for it. My experience with him has helped me train countless dogs successfully over the years.
A perfect dog he was not. All dogs take work. Despite his challenges Mo still deserves credit for being surprisingly well-behaved from day one. He never destroyed a single thing in our house, he came potty trained, and he was confident and cool enough to go anywhere that we wanted to take him. He didn’t even jump on people. A delicate lick from him was the dearest and rarest compliment, as he was always such a gentleman. Despite whatever neglect he suffered as a young dog, he was as solid as they come and a poster boy for why people should consider adopting mature, older dogs. They are not broken. They are not trash. Often times, just like Mo, they are solid gold just waiting to be discovered.
Mo’s gift for people naturally made him my teaching dog. I took him to elementary schools, high school auditoriums, and community events. He helped me educate people about dog safety, the benefits of science-based training, and the value of rescuing dogs. Later he served as a canine assistant for the Healing Species of Texas – a role model for compassion and non-violence in schools and detention centers. He became my therapy dog visiting assisted living centers and other venues in the community. An elderly facility that we were regulars at would throw him a monthly “birthday” party, after which we would visit some of the patients who were in hospice care. Many of the alzheimers patients would remember him when he returned. His gentle and giving nature gave a lot of people who could no longer have pets an opportunity for contact, affection, and sorely missed animal companionship.
Mo eventually retired from therapy work and enjoyed his golden years lounging about. I loved my work with him so much that it nearly broke my heart to stop. I vowed to become involved with training and working with therapy dogs on a more permanent basis. Eventually this led me to working with the Pit Crew therapy dog program as their trainer and manager. It has been some of the most rewarding work that I have done. All of this thanks to Mo.
Our lives changed a lot over the past four years, and Mo rode the wave with his usual grace. My daughter brought me even closer to him as I watched him bond with her without hestitation. At first he just offered her his companionship and patience. Then his love for her grew as she got older. They shared snuggles at first, then a few carrots, then tea parties and, of course Mo’s favorite: tea biscuits.
It’s a strange thing to say that Mo is gone. I had become quite used to the world with him by my side. I still look at the couch expecting him to be there, chasing squirrels in his sleep. I look for his big square head hogging up my pillow when I wake in the morning, his snoring pink nose in my ear. I even caught myself planning a career day event with him in mind, forgetting entirely that my faithful kid-loving co-pilot wouldn’t be able to join me on these adventures anymore.
Of all of the things that Mo taught me, the one that stands out the most is the fact that our hearts are never full. Just when we feel like there’s no vacancy, a dog like him comes along and shows us how to love more. We lost a lot when he left this place. A sick dog. A healthy dog. A leash puller. A flight risk. A whiner. A comedian. A stray. An opportunist. A salesman. A mutt. A handsome beast. A pillow. An egomaniac. A friend of mine. A friend to many. The best dog a family could hope for.
Cancer took him quickly. He awoke that day seemingly fine, and by lunch he let us know he was ready. It was clearly time for him to go, and for that I will thank him endlessly. The doctor came to our home swiftly and gave him peace. The above photo was taken in his last hours with us.
We had him cremated and keep him close, except for the few ashes that we sprinkled at his favorite spot in Houston. It is a secret spot where he loved to swim and explore in the woods – with or without our permission. We had a quiet cermony for him there and planted a tree with his ashes in a spot with a view of the pond and the woods. Many dogs will pee on that tree, but it will always be his.
Farewell good friend. Thanks for all of the adventures and love. Sincerely, your friend. Your partner. Your human. Crystal
Crystal Dunn is the Training Director and Founder of Leaps N’ Hounds