Despite the tears and feeling like there’s a hole in my chest, I actually feel pretty lucky.
For the past seven years my shadow was a goofy orange dog named Jackson. I am so fortunate to have had the opportunity to earn his friendship and enjoy his companionship. Last week my best friend and teacher passed away, but not before imparting a couple more lessons.
When I first adopted Jackson, I was an inexperienced dog owner who planned on a couple walks a day, a big bag of food and maybe a new toy every now and then. If I hadn’t stopped to observe Jackson and give him an opportunity to be himself, it probably would have remained that way.
The first house rule that Jackson was supposed to learn was that dogs sleep on the floor. For weeks, that’s the way it went. The second rule was if you needed to chew, chew on a rawhide bone. Jackson wouldn’t even go near them. One night as we were going to bed Jackson picked up a rawhide bone and followed me upstairs. I figured he needed a snack. As I reached to turn out the light, Jackson dropped the bone onto my bed. As soon as I picked up the bone Jackson jumped up on the bed and settled in next to me. He cut me deal, and I unknowingly accepted the bargain. It wasn’t so bad; I felt safe and loved even if a little crowded.
His leash aggression with other dogs was uncontrollable. We consulted trainers and tried using a prong collar, which only made matters worse. In the end, it was the gentle phrase, “Okay, let’s go” that would encourage Jackson to disregard the other dogs. Violence just begets violence.
Early on in our relationship, Jackson attacked my pant leg when I got too close to his food bowl. His food guarding was resolved through hand feeding treats and meals. Later when Jackson had treats he could not get out of a toy, he’d bring the toy over to me for my assistance. Patience earns trust.
Jackson’s illness was already evident when the oncologist informed us it was lymphoma and he had less than a year to live. Jackson had lost all interest in food, walks and even interacting. I coaxed him back to the food bowl with real food and he got stronger, regaining his appetite and zest for life. A year later, after I studied canine nutrition and started my own dog food company, the oncologist said, “I don’t get to tell people this very often - you don’t need to come back.” Jackson remained in remission for another three years. Good nutrition is the key component of good health.
I was used to Jackson’s nonstop barking when he was alerting me to someone walking by, a squirrel in the tree or the neighbors cat taunting him on the other side of the fence. When Gregory moved in with his three small dogs, Jackson added another bark to his repertoire; one quick bark, followed by silence. When I’d go to the door, I’d find our Chihuahua, Duncan, shivering at the doorstop. Days later when Jackson was in the basement I heard the exact same bark. Going downstairs I found Jackson ready with a toy, eager to play. After this occurred repeatedly, the meaning became clear: Jackson was calling me. Just like with Han Solo and Chewbacca, communication doesn’t require speaking the same language, but it does require listening.
As Jackson’s kidneys and liver began to fail, he had incredible difficulty walking or even standing. After consulting with our vet, we learned it would be just days before his body would finally shut down. I took him home and fed him dinner by hand and showered him with treats. My heart broke as I chaperoned him around the yard so he could relieve himself. As I massaged his elderly body, it became apparent that Jackson was doing his best to endure his condition, but he was miserable and scared. I spent the remainder of the night giving him neck and ear rubs, telling him what a great dog he was. It was one of the most beautiful and painful nights of my life. The next day we said goodbye. Jackson fell asleep looking into my eyes, with one paw wrapped around my arm. Sometimes making others comfortable means doing things that are uncomfortable for you.
Now the house often seems like a room is missing. There’s no barking and no tail wildly hitting against my legs. Jackson’s bed is empty and his collar hangs near the door. I miss him but have come to realize just because he is no longer with me, doesn’t mean I have to stop loving him.
Jackson wasn’t just a dog, he was my best friend. I love you Jackson.