Lessons From Dawn

July 3, 2013  

Dawn taught her family about grace, love, and courage

By Kathleen Corby

I lost my 15-year-old dog this year; she was three months away from turning 16. She was a beautiful, blue-brindle stubby dog. I adopted her from my local county animal shelter 11 years ago. Little did I know when I brought her into my home she would change my life and become my heart.

I had just moved back to my hometown after living in California for almost 20 years. I lived in a small, country town with my husband. All my friends and business contacts were still in California. So to fill my spare time I offered my graphic design services and my time to our local county animal shelter, the Dutchess County SPCA. I was not looking to adopt; I saw all the dogs as my companions.

Then one day when I arrived to walk the dogs, I opened the door to the kennels and this beautiful girl stood before me. The tag on the cage read: Dawn, blue-brindle Staffordshire Terrier, 2 years old, no dogs, no cats, no children. The instant she saw me, she moved to the front of her cage and sat quietly and patiently while the other dogs barked their greetings. Dawn was the most beautiful dog I had ever seen. She seemed small for a pit bull type dog, and she had a sweet face and bright eyes. Her brindled coat was covered in scars – large patches of furless skin – and she had chewed her front feet in distress until they bled.

I met her at the end of autumn, and Dawn was not into walking in the cold, so I would invite her into my car, turn on the heat and wrap her in my big old beach towel. On the first day in the car, she sat in my passenger seat and looked directly ahead. She wouldn’t give me much notice, but I could see she was enjoying the warmth and company. By the second day she looked at me from the corner of her eye with her head facing forward (a look that became her signature sneaky-peek look). By the third day she heaved a heavy sigh and leaned into me with her full body weight, and by the fourth day she covered my face with kisses, placed her paw across my chest and somehow we both knew we had a connection.

Long story short, I adopted Dawn.

Home at Last
From the minute she entered our home, she never had an accident, she never picked from an open trash can, never snitched off a countertop or table, she never chewed anything but her bones, and she mostly stayed off furniture where wasn’t allowed – she was such a good girl.

I would like to take credit for this behavior but I can’t. While we did attend obedience classes, her behavior in the house was just Dawn being Dawn. She wanted to please. This is not to say that she didn’t have a few issues – she did.

But that’s an entirely different story.

The first visit to the vet was interesting. I learned Dawn wasn’t 2 years old but rather closer to 5. Her teeth were cracked, fractured or in total decay. This caused her breath to have a delightful fishy odor. Her ears had an infection that would probably reoccur for her entire life. She had a heart murmur that was more serious than the vet would like to see in a dog of her age, and I was told her existing scars would never heal. It appeared the hair follicles were damaged beyond repair. At the end of the exam, the vet looked at me with such sorrow, as if I wouldn’t want her after hearing all this information. I told him that if Dawn lived just one day with me, it would be good a day and it would be worth it. So we left the office, living one day at a time.

With time and love came healing.

Her ears cleared up, the heart murmur was never a problem and never became worse. Best of all, her coat returned to its original, blue-brindle, velvety beauty with only one dime-sized scar that remained on the center of her back over her hips. It just goes to show you what love and care can do.

Love can heal – and heal she did.

A New Dawn
Funny how one single dog can change your life.

I’ve shared my life with a pet since I was 3. I have loved them all. Dawn was different – special. Our relationship was like none other. I attribute some of this to her being a pit bull type dog. So trusting, loyal to a fault, sweet, funny, intelligent, amazing companions. Dawn was all this and she had a quiet strength within her.

Working from my home as a graphic designer, Dawn and I were together 24/7. We were two peas in a pod. We were rarely apart for 11 years, something I had never experienced with another living creature. As a graphic designer, she was my muse. Dawn has graced many a shelter brochure cover as well as being the inspiration for my annual holiday card featuring her sleigh riding, skating in Central Park and flying through the air on a snow board to name a few. These cards were quite funny because as an Elderbull, Dawn’s hind legs were very weak, but I knew that in Dawn’s mind, she really believed she could do everything she was portraying on those cards.

The Dog With A Thousand Lives
When Dawn was diagnosed with cancer, I was devastated. Small tumors were removed from her hind legs along with all the extra tissue around the tumors. She lost muscle mass and her hind legs became skinny. But this didn’t stop her, she was cancer free for now and that was all that mattered. While under the anesthesia, the vet also extracted seven teeth – improving her breath and digestive system. A few years later the cancer returned one more time, causing the left side of her to face to swell up like she had a tennis ball in her cheek. I never thought she would make it through the night to enter into surgery the next morning. She did, and without complaint. Dawn returned home with a scar beginning in the center of ear and running down her cheek to her chin. Even this, with time, healed. Nothing could stop her.

As an Elderbull she was at her very best. I love to remember Dawn in her later years.

She was always a good girl.

Dawn taught me how to adjust and roll with the changes life throws at you. Due to her weakened legs, our walks became shorter, our lunch breaks in the sun became breaks in the shade, and her crunchy dog treats became “soakers” softened by a good soak in warm water. Dawn’s eyesight weakened and her hearing went, but she kept on going. Dawn even survived one more life-threatening emergency surgery at about age 13. The vets called her “The Dog With A Thousand Lives.”

Nothing could stop her.

Nothing could stop her, but even Elderbulls eventually slow down. Dawn’s hind legs faltered. The diagnosis: bone spurs facing up and into her spine along with spinal and bone degeneration. Lots of talk for a slow process that continued to weaken her hind legs and cause pain that we controlled with medication. Dawn even underwent some acupuncture to help until there was no point in continuing. For her last two years, I walked her in a sheepskin lined “sling” to support her failing hind legs. We built ramps over porch stairs. We placed rubber mats and rugs over every hardwood surface to help her walk in the house on her own without slipping. When the time came, I carried her lovingly up and down our stairs to go to bed. For an independent girl, this was a big thing to give up, and she did it with such dignity and trust and love in me that I do not have the words to explain what it felt like each time I lifted her old body up into my arms.

Up to her last day, Dawn still loved to go outside, walk as far as she could, and then she would stop and, facing into the breeze, she would sniff the world before her. She was content to stand for 10 minutes sniffing the wind, interpreting the world. These were my happiest days. There was such beauty in her ritual, such beauty in her strength. Because of these strolls in our yard, I met everyone in my neighborhood as they passed us by and stopped to chat. The little dog who was afraid of so much in her youth was happy to have strangers stop and inquire about her condition and give her a soft, understanding, gentle pat. Dawn had come so far. Nothing could stop her.

I lost Dawn on January 28 in the middle of the worst winter I can remember. It was all so cold. But I found warmth in the life lessons Dawn taught me. She taught me that love and loyalty are all that really matter in the end. She taught me the importance of true love, friendship, patience, grace, dignity, strength and courage. She taught me to take my time, to stand outside and look up towards the sky with your nose to the wind and enjoy the day – each and every day. Simple pleasures are the best. I will never forget her.

In Dawn’s memory I now volunteer at a pit bull rescue/shelter 15 minutes from my home called Animal Farm Foundation. The silly, loving shelter dogs at AFF keep teaching me new lessons each day, and I know Dawn would like this.

This article was originally published on August 29, 2011.

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