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February 12, 2012 at 9:00 AM

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Heart dogs: Alexandra Day and Zubi

Have you ever had one of those special animals in your life that you couldn't have lived without? Who taught you more about living and loving than any other worldly creature? These are heart dogs, once-in-a-lifetime treasures that nest in our hearts and stay forever. In a fitting celebration of them this Valentine's Day week, The Seattle Times pet blog asked seven local dog people to remember and honor their heart dogs in essays and photos.

Alexandra Day is the pseudonym for Sandra Louise Woodward Darling. She is the Seattle author and illustrator of "Good Dog, Carl" and the rest of the beloved Carl books. The Darlings' own dog, a Rottweiler named Toby, was the model for the book's main character. Since then, four other Darling Rottweilers have posed as Carl in the 11 sequels and three First Readers: the late Arambarri, Zabala, who was an Our Best Friends therapy dog; Zubiaga, also a service dog; and now a young Zulaica. She is pictured above with Zubiaga, known as Zubi.

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By Alexandra Day

A better dog than Zabala would be hard to find.

As the third "Carl" he made bookstore appearances, went to conferences with me and helped me persuade Children' Hospital to start a dog-visitation program. We went to hospitals all over the United States and Canada, and I can tell remarkable stories about children who spoke for the first time in six months, raised supposedly paralyzed hands to pet him; of dying children whose parents wept on his neck. His death was . . . well, all owners of beloved dogs know what the loss is like.

I am of the "get a new puppy right away" school. I find the presence of a new little life very uplifting and comforting. But it turned out that I could have a half brother of Zabala's if I was willing to wait a few months for a litter to be born.

I waited.

Rottweiler puppies are fat little balls of fluffy black and brown fur. I visited the adorable babies often. Did I pick one or did he pick me? I have no idea, but from the beginning there was a bond of trust and understanding between us. We named him Zubiaga, which quickly got shortened to Zubi.

When Zubi was about 5 months old, we had a terrible automobile accident while my husband, son, Zubi and I were driving in Canada. The car hit some gravel, plunged off the road, hit a granite rock, turned a somersault and landed upright on top of the rock.

alexandrapuppy.jpgAfter a stunned moment in which we realized that thanks to Volvo safety engineers and surely a guardian angel, we were all more or less all right, we opened the door. Zubi shot out like a canine cannonball and disappeared. My son thought he crossed into a rather wild meridian between the divided highway, but wasn't sure. I was on the other side of the car and didn't see him go.

An ambulance called by a passing truck driver took my son and husband off to be checked over, but I wouldn't go. I had to find my dog.

A sympathetic young Mountie stayed with me for hours. We drove the highway for miles, calling, calling. No sign of him. We followed a motorist's report of an animal crouched in a rock crevice miles down the highway but found nothing.

I finally had to accompany our destroyed car to the next town and rent another, so by the time I returned to the scene of the accident, it was getting late. I parked the car and started again, walking and calling his name.

An hour passed and then another. I was beginning to panic. What would he do at night? Suppose he wasn't in the meridian after all, but off in the woods that stretched on either side of the highway? He was only a young dog, and there were bears in those woods.

Then, in the gathering dusk, I saw him, coming slowly but steadily back to where he had left us.

I sometimes wonder what passing motorists thought of that weeping woman passionately embracing an ecstatic dog atop a granite outcropping in the Canadian north woods.

It is a measure of our bond and his great soul that he was willing not only to get back into a car with me, but onto an airplane.

The airline people, bless their hearts, gave us a place on first class when they heard our story, and only Zubi's putting his head in my lap when the engines roared beneath him, gave testimony to the apprehension he must have felt.

The rest of our life together was, fortunately, not so dramatic, but it was eventful.

Zubi traveled with me and stayed in fancy hotels (he loved room service, and the hotel chefs always saved him bones, which I made him eat in the bathtub to save the rugs.) He entertained hundreds of children and adults. He performed on television and had a movie made of him.

He astonished audiences by being able to do math problems. He didn't seem to be getting any signals from me for the answers. Maybe it was mental telepathy -- I wouldn't have put it past him.

And he spent many hours being a dog: lying at my feet while I worked, playing with our family and friends, swimming with us or joyfully leaping after balls.

People talk about "closure" at a death. But Zubi's life is really not closed. For all of us lucky people who knew and loved him, the memory of that bright spirit continues to illumine our lives.

Coming Monday: Former Seattle resident David Frei (the voice of Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, which airs Monday and Tuesday nights) writes about one of his therapy dogs, Belle.

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