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June 12, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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From the archives: Dean Rutz, Part 1 -- Saying goodbye to Sandy

Editors note: Seattle Times photographer Dean Rutz wrote in December about losing his beloved Samoyed in a touching post titled, "Saying Goodbye to Sandy." It is being published again today as the first of a three-part series of essays Rutz has written about his dogs.

deansandy1.jpg Sandy and I are pictured a few weeks after I adopted her from the Seattle Interbay shelter in 1996. Photo by Don Preisler

A dog is typically euthanized with two shots: the first puts the animal to sleep and the second stops its heart.

The veterinarian had just given Sandy the first shot when I panicked. It was all suddenly real. I was about to lose my best friend. I wasn't ready to say goodbye.

"We only have a few moments left together, and I need to tell you something," I said as I pulled her close and whispered in her ear,"I love you."

And almost as quickly she was gone.

Sandy and I were meant to be together.

I never intended to adopt a dog. But another photographer at the Times, Betty Udesen, had rescued a stray and delivered him to the Seattle Interbay shelter in 1996. Knowing my affinity for dogs, she begged me to adopt him.

Why not? I had just bought my first home. But by the time I got to the shelter his owners had reclaimed him.

What the heck, I'll get a dog anyway, I said to myself. And I looked through the kennels for a good fit.

Being a guy, I thought I needed a dog that fit my guy-ness. Maybe a German shepherd or a Labrador or a cattle dog. I looked at every dog they had.

I finally found an Aussie that I thought had possibilities. But there was something odd about that dog -- a behavioral problem -- but I couldn't quite put my finger on it.

"Oh, it's just because it's been in the kennel," my girlfriend at the time said.

No, there was something else. Let me pull out another dog and I'll show you what I mean.

I walked to another kennel that held two young dogs, and I asked handlers to let me take out the German shepherd puppy.

sandysandy.jpg

The other dog, however, would have none of it. A Samoyed of sorts, she jumped up and down and pushed the shepherd out of the way, as if to say, "you don't want to talk to him!" She was so insistent that I thought, fine, why not. This was just my "control" dog anyway, meant to prove a point.

I wasn't looking for a froufrou female. A little white fur ball was not my idea of a man's dog, which is why I preferred the shepherd. But for the purposes of my experiment she would do fine.

Even as she matured, Sandy, right, really never showed outward evidence of age. Her eyes and smile were as bright at age 12, shown right, as they were when she was a baby. Photo by Karen Ducey

Handlers opened the kennel, and she rushed out and laid belly-up at my feet.

That got my attention.

I asked the shelter handlers where this dog had come from. They said they found her wandering West Seattle, somewhere near the Junction, and guessed that she might be a full grown American Eskimo. (The vet, however, pegged her age at under 6 months and declared her to be a Samoyed.)

We ran up and down the alley, and all the while she paced herself at my side, making eye contact and waiting to see what I might do next.

After a few minutes I went back inside and told my girlfriend, "I think I've found my dog."

A few days later, after she had been spayed, Sandy finally came home with me. It was the weekend of July Fourth, what I like to refer to as "Sandy's Independence Day."

When I picked her up at the clinic, she was still under the influence of anesthesia. She couldn't walk straight and didn't appear to be completely lucid.

I put her in the back of my Jeep, where she immediately fell asleep. I carried her into the house and placed her on my lap in the living room. She shortly woke up, looked at me and began wildly wagging her tail -- before drifting off once more.

And with that a bond was formed.

Sandy changed my life. If I'm being honest, up until that point I was bored and lonely.

Sure, I had a job, but that was all I had. I found myself routinely traveling because there was nothing that grounded me at home.

But in the space of two months I bought my first house and I got my first dog, and there was suddenly a reason to come home.

Sandy needed me. Not just to walk her and feed her, but to play with her and teach her and be her best friend. I was everything to her, and she made me feel that way each time I came home and watched her bark and dance in the living room.

The feeling became mutual.

I named her Sandy after my favorite dog while growing up in the suburbs of Chicago. It's funny, because the first time I told that story to my parents they both looked at each other and said, "We had a dog named Sandy?"

sandyonback.jpgWhen she was very young, Sandy preferred to sleep on the couch next to me, always choosing the highest point she could reach -- typically the seat cushions. Photo by Dean Rutz

Sandy quickly became a legend in the neighborhood. In those days on Ravenna Avenue, across from Dahl Playfield, she made friends instantly, particularly among the older folks who lived on my street.

Three doors down, Virgil and Frances Crosby, both in their 80s, adopted Sandy as their own. Any time I couldn't find her, I'd walk onto the porch and call her name. Virgil's door would be open, and Sandy would come trotting out with that self-satisfied look of having been given far too many treats.

Virgil had many reasons to love Sandy. One morning he called sobbing and said he feared Frances had died. We ran to his house, where we found Virgil standing beside Frances, who lay motionless in bed. I froze, not really knowing what to do.

But Sandy knew. She jumped onto the bed and lay next to Frances, gently licking her hand. After a few moments, Virgil and I were both stunned to see that hand raise and reach out as if to pet the dog. Frances was not dead, and Sandy instinctively must have known that.

From that day on, whenever the ice cream truck rolled through, Virgil would buy ice cream for the neighborhood, and he always made sure to buy one extra vanilla for Sandy.

sandywork1.jpgIn the first few years we were together, Sandy often came to work with me. She always made herself the center of the conversation and loved meeting people in the newsroom - and the food they kept in their trash cans.
Photo by Alan Berner

In those days I worked the middle shift at The Times, often leaving the office at 2 a.m. That meant Sandy's last walk before bed was well after 2.

It actually was a comfort for my elderly neighbors. Virgil in particular took to putting dog cookies on his front stoop, knowing that if they were gone by morning Sandy must have come to call and that the two of us had looked in on his house in the wee hours.

Sandy was up to the challenge. More than once she chased teens from behind the synagogue in those early hours. They had no idea she just wanted to play; they decided it was better to leave instead.

Once while walking in the middle of the night, Sandy stopped and barked wildly at something faraway in the park.

Crazy dog, I thought. Let's go! But she wouldn't budge.

Moments later a Seattle Police cruiser rolled up. Great. Another off-leash ticket, I thought. Sandy had already cost me -- OK, I cost us -- about $200 in fines.

The officer walked right past me to the dog. "What do you see, girl?" she said.

"What's going on?" I asked the officer.

"We're looking for a carjacker, and I'm guessing I know where he's hiding" the officer replied.

And soon more units were on the scene. Sandy and I walked home never knowing whether they found their suspect. But I like to think they did.

sandyrug1.jpgMy entire extended family fell in love with Sandy and would offer to watch her when I was out of town. My nephew, Gus, interacted with her pretty much the same way I did. Photo by Dean Rutz

In 2001 I moved out of the city and into a bigger house in the north suburbs. It was a hard move for Sandy initially because she had become so social that the quiet and calm of a dead-end street seemed to depressed her. I put a dog door on the living room slider so she could come and go on the upstairs deck as she pleased. Later, a beach umbrella was added so Sandy would have a cool place to lie.

Quickly, she blended in and cultivated new friends. With an unusually good vocabulary, Sandy knew what "cookie" meant. When the neighbors across the street -- Bill and Linda -- began freely giving them away, she would sprint to their front door to be treated. It was a trick Sandy later taught all the dogs in the family. Sandy knew a soft touch.

By now our family numbered five: Sandy and I, my soon-to-be wife Karen, her dog Tucker, and Dillon, a shepherd-lab mix, who had joined us in March of 2003 and became Sandy's shadow.

Thumbnail image for SANDYdeankaren1.jpgTell me a dog can't smile. Dillon, left, Sandy and Tucker, bottom, were The Three Amigos. They were loved, they were happy, and they added so much to our family. It's sad to me that two of the three are gone. Photo by Elaine
Thompson

I first noticed a growth on Sandy's hindquarters around 2005, when she was 9. The growth was biopsied, and the diagnosis was inconclusive. It certainly didn't appear to be cancerous to the doctor, and I did nothing about it.

Sandy's tumor continued to grow and was repeatedly biopsied; the results always coming back as blood and fatty tissue. Now, well past the age of 10, I didn't think surgery was the best option.

It was Tucker who would die first. One St. Patrick's day the little guy began shrieking. An MRI revealed three bulging discs in his lower spine. He came out of surgery with his back end paralyzed. He never recovered and died in our home almost a year later with all of us at his side. That in itself is a story for another day.

Sandy too was now in decline. She had difficulty walking. The tumor on her back end was growing, now slightly bigger than a baseball. She struggled with the stairs she once bound up and down with ease and had a hard time bending to potty.

She was 14 now. But she still was the matriarch of the family.

At nights when Karen would dawdle coming to bed, Sandy would quietly herd her into the bedroom. She would stay between her and the empty living room, always the last to come to bed. She would lay in the hallway outside the bedroom door, where she could see us and the rest of the house.

Thumbnail image for sandydillion1.jpgDillon adored Sandy and tried to engage her in play, right, every chance he got. He was deferential to her authority, never touching her dinner
dish or toys.
Photo by Dean Rutz

Karen was first to notice a change in that behavior. At some point, Sandy could no longer get comfortable, and she changed locations in the house throughout the night.
Then, while across the street talking with a neighbor one day, we both saw Sandy seize, fall over and roll down a hill into a tree.

It was the beginning of the end.

Sandy and I were almost weekly visitors to the vet as we tried to figure out exactly what was wrong. Her appetite was good, but she was increasingly restless. She had difficulty voiding her bowels. Her spine was fusing.

While her spirit was strong, her body was fading, and Karen suggested it might be time to put her down. I adamantly refused, preferring instead to work with the vet to make her more comfortable. I was certain we could.

But her mobility was failing. One morning we awoke to cries. Trying to get back in through the dog door, Sandy had fallen. Her knees buckled beneath her, and she was stuck in the door. We picked her up and things appeared all right, but they clearly were not.

A few mornings later, we awoke to discover that Sandy's tumor had burst.

While the tumor itself would never have killed her, it was apparent we had turned the corner I had long feared.

"Are we at the end?" I asked the vet, tears now welling in my eyes. He said nothing for a few moments. "We can prescribe some drugs to make her comfortable."

I knew what that meant, but still I didn't know what to do. Karen felt as strongly about putting her down as I felt about delaying it.

The next morning I had an assignment for the Times to photograph a pet-adoption event in Bothell. I couldn't function. Throughout the room people were playing with the dogs, falling in love and taking them home to start new lives together. All the while mine felt like it was ending.

Karen and I slept in the living room with Sandy that night, watching her fidget, wander and struggle to find comfort.

Thumbnail image for sandyend.JPGThe sun
shined brightly on Sandy
in the hour before she died. The
burst tumor can be seen at right. Even in that
painful moment, there was
a beauty she encompassed. Photo by
Dean Rutz

The next morning was a Monday, December 13, 2010 to be exact. For all the rain we'd been having, the skies parted and the sun shone brightly on Sandy's deck. She looked fine to me, although Karen became more insistent we move forward on a plan to put her to sleep.

I sat in the living room, watching Sandy on the deck. She suddenly turned around and began licking at her wound.

It finally registered with me that she was in pain. And in that very instant I picked up the phone and called the vet to ask if he could make time to come over. He said he would be there in an hour.

I began to weep. An hour? How do you say goodbye to 15 years in one hour's time?

Karen and I sat with Sandy on the deck in the cold air and warm sun. It was a beautiful day. Karen cooked a hamburger for her. And we just held her. There was nothing left to do.

The vet came, and we talked about what would happen. He was very patient and considerate; he was the same vet who put Tucker to sleep.

Dillon sat next to Sandy. I believe he understood what was happening. He did nothing. Just sat over her and watched silently.

"This dog has an old soul," the vet said of Dillon.

The first shot did indeed put Sandy to sleep, but she felt the second. The second shot goes directly into the vein, typically in the dog's rear leg.

Sandy raised her head and looked back at the vet. "It's OK," I said. "It's OK." And she laid her head down with us almost nose to nose. "I love you, I love you, I love you," I repeated until the light was gone from her eyes, which was very quickly.

And that was it.

We sat with her for a while before wrapping her body in a sheet and carrying her to the vet's car. I wouldn't let Dillon see that part. We didn't when Tucker died either. I've been told that animals understand death, but the disposal of the body can be confusing.

I know Dillon knew she was dead. Inseparable for years, he did not react when she was gone. Not immediately, anyway.

I carried her out to the car, and petted her one last time before closing the door. The doctor put his arm around my shoulders and then drove away.

The sun that shined so warmly on us gave way to clouds. And it rained.

It's part of the deal that love and loss go together. I knew that the day I adopted her. But, now almost a year later, I still miss her so much, and I feel guilty about everything that I did -- and didn't do. From not having the tumor removed to not putting her down sooner to putting her down at all. I still don't quite know how to feel. And sometimes I still cry.

That's the part I never bargained on.

Coming Wednesday: Gracie's four months of bliss.


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