Over a week has passed since our dearest dog friend, Leo, left us, creating a break in the rhythm of our lives that will persist for a long time to come. We constantly find ourselves doing little things based on the expectation that he is there – a subtle adjustment of a foot, stepping down from a stairway, so as not to disturb him, opening a door carefully, glancing towards where he is lying to check that he’s ok – and though the frequency is diminishing somewhat as finality sets in, these moments remain startling, and intense. We’ve lost friends and family before, so we understand grieving, and know that we are fully engaged in it once again. Mercifully, Leo’s end came swiftly, though the preceding weeks were certainly difficult for him. He remained aware and alert throughout, following us around with his head and bright eyes, until the ravages of his 124 (human) years old body finally consumed him. It was the end of a remarkable life that, one might say, was about as good as it can get.
Leo came to us as a Christmas puppy from our friend Oonagh for our daughter Anna; we picked him up in Sointula, and brought him to Hanson Island in our boat. He was a very cute little black and white thing, a mix of Border Collie & Husky, perfect for orca folk, but a source of immediate irritation to our much older dog Fred, whose easy life was suddenly threatened. Fred’s swift reaction was to take Leo on a long walk into the forest and abandon him. Fortunately, on a forced-march search, Fred twitched his head at a certain point along the path to Dong Chong Bay, and though he pretended innocence, the jig was up and Leo was found, deep in the woods, scrambling over logs, and very happy to be rescued. After that, Leo & Fred became inseparable, and though it was never clear that Fred was more than tolerant of Leo, it was very clear that he was Leo’s hero, someone to be admired and followed to the end. That attitude almost got Leo a very short life. Both he and Fred were shot while (probably) chasing deer somewhere on the island, Fred in a hind foot and Leo in a front shoulder. They were gone for two days, and despite searching, we couldn’t find them; then at the end of the 3rd day, they came limping out of the forest & across the beach, together, and very hurt. We rushed them into (animal) hospital, where Fred was treated and Leo offered a choice; amputation, or a lengthy trip to Vancouver, and a chance. We took the latter, and Leo ended up in the hands of a fabulous orthopaedic surgeon, who saved his leg and gave him his life.
For a year afterwards, Leo wore an external bar with attachments to internal pins that held his leg together, took scary doses of antibiotics, and underwent daily hydrotherapy sessions, with enormous patience for a dog who turned out to possess a fundamental dislike of water. We took him on a long car trip to San Diego, pursuing our dreams for Corky’s return to her family, stopping along the way for Leo’s treatments. He understood immediately what he needed to do… sit beside the car’s front wheel while Helena balanced a bag of water on the hood and directed a stream over Leo’s leg. When we got to Sea World, we left Leo in the car in the vast parking lot while we went inside to visit Corky and talk to Sea World officials, two of whom were the chief vet & curator. When they heard we had left Leo in the car, they told us about the casualties that occur when people leave their pets inside cars on hot days, and we all trudged out to the parking lot to visit Leo. He was fine, and soon became a source of great interest as we told his story. It turned out that his surgeon was famous even in far away San Diego, so though we didn’t succeed for Corky, we gained great hope for Leo. Eventually, he recovered pretty much totally, and became a very normal dog, loving and loyal to his closest friends, who included a very small group he agreed to go on walks with, besotted by a little black female named Shadow, who visited much too rarely, and became entirely uncaring of anything that walked on more than two legs. Given that we have deer on Hanson Island, who covet our garden, Leo was a disappointment in the guard dog department. He slept inside at night while Fred was alive, because we couldn’t trust them to be both outside at night, so Fred did all the deer guarding while Leo slept.
When Leo finally got the job, it turned out he couldn’t care less about it, and judging from the footprints around the spot he lay in, was quite content to gaze up at deer with fond eyes while they carefully stepped over him during the night. Leo’s care-less attitude led us to a serious of ineffective deer counter measures, including encircling our compound with electric fencing (it worked, sortof, until one brave soul found out that enduring a little pain brought great rewards) and having our assistants chase them away during the night. We even tried firing flares at them, always missing, and risking starting a forest fire, so we soon gave that up. Eventually, we found a simple solution, protecting our gardens with a wall of seine web that opens easily during the day, and allows us to sleep soundly. Leo, of course, always slept well, and though he was a pathetic guarder of deer, he was a great guarder of people, providing us with early warnings of people approaching from the water in boats and kayaks, and from the land through the forest. He had a fearsome bark, which he aimed rather indiscriminately in his old age, as his eyesight and hearing faded, so we often got to feel it too, until we came within smelling or touching distance, and then everything was fine.
Leo had the softest ears ever, so sensuously lovely to run one’s hand through, and he understood English to an uncanny, almost eerie degree. Asking him to do something was simple, as long as the words were spoken gently, no big deal for a dog perhaps, but then there were occasions that absolutely dumbfounded us. Once, when we were at CP (our “outcamp” on Cracroft island) Leo was resting under a bench in the shelter while Helena was looking at log book entries. The VHF radio was on, as usual, so we could keep track of the conversation among whale watchers, the volume was turned fairly low, so it didn’t intrude too much. Then we got a call from our friend Hayley, who was out in a boat, telling us she was near the Sophias and would soon be stopping by. During the brief conversation, Leo got up casually, exited the shelter and walked down the stairs to the deck, then across to the edge, where he sat down, looking exactly towards where Hayley was coming from, waiting. Go figure.
Around here, the number 16 holds special significance. It’s Corky’s number, and the day of our daughter’s birthday. Rounded, it also turned out to be the number of years Leo lived to (he’d be 16 this November); and it’s the number of our all-time favourite hockey player. Leo was a Hockey Dog, an avid fan of the Canucks. Quite possibly, this was because he got a biscuit every time the Canucks scored, 2 if it was a Trevor Linden goal. Game time was full of excitement for Leo. He would lie in front of the television set, with his back to it, listening with a perfect sense of which team had scored, and leaping to his feet or sitting up waiting for his reward when it was a Canuck goal. Games will not be the same without Leo, or Trevor for that matter.
Though he had a healthy disdain for dog tricks – he never fetched a stick in his entire life – Leo could be coerced, or bribed. Showing him his leash was good enough to get him going where he didn’t want to, and towards the end we encouraged him to look forward to his next meal by adding treats to his regular fare. But he was a dogs’ dog too. When we took him on car trips, his ears perked up to every dog he saw from inside the car, even the oddest looking, and from clear across the street. Visiting dogs, especially females, always perked him up, and he was especially enthusiastic about little dogs. One of them, Ricky, who is quite possibly the fastest thing on four feet, ran Leo so ragged in his older age that he lay down and slept for days after a visit, harboring a smile as he slept, and reliving races through the woods in his dreams.
And then there was the ‘I am not a crook” look, that Leo did better than Richard Nixon. We seldom understood the explicit origin, but the signs were clear… both ears down with slit eyes, usually head to the ground. Leo’s ears were as telltale as sign posts, everything being ok when one was up and one down, the up ear moving adroitly in response to the sounds around. When both ears were up, something was up, and Leo was fully alert. It turned out that he died with both ears up, quite possibly because he was wondering what was coming next.
His burial was a brief ceremony full of loss and regret. We carried him on his favourite poof and placed him in a hole we’d dug in a mossy spot in the woods, beside Freddy; we gave him his food bowl, with a day’s rations topped by a ‘snausage’, and a dish of water; his bowl was engraved “Leo, 1993-2009” on one side and “softest ears ever, best friend” on the other; then we covered his beautiful body with a blue towel and poof cover we’d used to keep him warm in his last days, and added dirt, topping it with mossy chunks from the first layer we’d dug. We stood around him, telling a few stories, like the ones here, and then, as a tribute to the end of a watch, 8 of us each rang a bell. When the sound faded, we were each left alone with our thoughts.
Going lonely into another day, candles still burning in our Leo shrine.