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June 13, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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Dean Rutz Part 2: Gracie's four months of bliss

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 was published again yesterday as the first of a three-part series of essays Rutz has written about his dogs. Today Rutz writes about Gracie.

deangraciepawsUp.jpgA roll in the grass: Gracie had lived most of her life in a small concrete kennel, unable to move, run or play. So it shouldn't have been much of a surprise that when she finally got out she loved to roll in the grass and chase a toy. Photo by Karen Ducey

Dean_RUTZmug.jpgKaren and I were emotionally drained.

It had only been a few hours since Sandy had died as my wife and I sat together in our now too-quiet living room.

Across the room on the couch beneath the window sat Dillon and Gracie. The latter was a big black Labrador/Great Dane mix whom we had come to foster just a few months earlier.

At first I didn't notice. I was overwhelmed by the loss of my 15-year old Samoyed, and I wasn't really paying attention. But at some point I saw that Gracie was looking straight up in the air.

After a few moments, I started doing that thing we all do: I started looking up at the ceiling with her. What is she looking at? She kept looking up, and I kept looking up, and then Karen started looking up too.

"Gracie?" I said. She didn't respond.

After a few moments I walked over to the couch to see if I could tell what she was looking at. And as I looked into her eyes I was horrified to see that they had receded into her skull.

Gracie was blind. And the shock of Sandy's death was replaced by something sudden and fearful.
Gracie was a rescue in the truest sense of the word.

One day in early 2010 a cable installer working on a North Tacoma home found the 90-pound dog chained inside of a 4-foot-square kennel, barely able to move. It was apparent to him this was her normal situation.

Big smile: In the early pictures of Gracie made in her kennel, there was little life or spark in her eyes. That all changed when she came to live with us. Photo by Karen Ducey

And looking inside her kennel the cable guy saw two bins of rancid hamburger buns -- her apparent diet -- and a five-gallon white bucket of algae-filled water.

Appalled, the repairman alerted the state chapter of the rescue Dogs Deserve Better (DDB). Ashley George with DDB verified Gracie's living conditions and approached her owners about releasing the dog to her. They said they didn't want her anymore, and Ashley left with Gracie.

DDB initially placed Gracie with a bachelor in Seattle, but after two weeks he decided he couldn't care for her. Kelly Page, who at that time ran the state chapter of DDB, contacted Karen about fostering Gracie until a more permanent home could be found. We agreed to take her.

"Gracie" was a tragically funny name for a dog who wasn't the least bit graceful. But a lot of that wasn't her fault. About 10-years old and a physically huge dog, it was clear confinement stunted her development.

At the park, she would want to run and play, but she would stumble and fall over every time she tried to corner. Her back end had relatively little muscle because she had been, for however long she was confined, unable to stand or move inside her kennel.

When she drank , she submerged her entire face into the water dish, and then splashed and drooled all over the floor -- presumably from drinking from a five-gallon bucket for years.

She was anything but graceful. And she was a first-class goof too.

Despite her physical limitations, Gracie loved the park. And although she could not keep pace with the other dogs, a tremendous joy poured from her with the opportunity to move freely for what may have been the first time in her life.

In a little more than one month on a good diet and routine exercise, Gracie dropped almost 10 pounds and she began to develop muscle in her back end.

She no longer stood crooked, with her rear drooping. And the smile on her face -- yes, dogs can smile -- was the biggest, goofiest thing we'd ever seen.

She quickly assimilated into our household. She loved being tucked in at night and found a spot at the foot of our bed.

Sandy taught her to run across the street when neighbors Bill and Linda came out and beg for a cookie.

Initially, they were startled by this behemoth bouncing awkwardly across the street. But everybody came to love Gracie because, despite her lack of manners, grace or coordination, she was a genuine lover. And everyone watched with wonder as she developed into a real dog.

deangracuedillon.JPG Buddies: Dillon wasn't immediately sure what to think about Gracie, but eventually they began hanging out together - comfortable with the companionship. Photo by Dean Rutz

After a few months, however, we began to see signs that there was something wrong. We just never realized how wrong it was.

The first episode occurred at the park.

Gracie got out of the car, and suddenly she had difficulty standing. All four legs spread out as if to keep herself from falling, which she did.

She appeared to be experiencing some kind of vertigo. But the episode passed fairly quickly, and she appeared fine.

In Sandy's final months, when she had her massive seizure, the vet told me it was not uncommon for all dogs to seize at least once in their lives. It might never be repeated. And so we did nothing more at that time.

The second time it happened was more frightening. It was in our living room and Gracie began flailing.

If you've ever seen the appalling video of animals suffering from "mad cow" disease, it was a similar kind of physical distress. She stumbled and fell and suffered, and she began foaming at the mouth. The vomiting was intense.

We rushed to the vet, where they gave her intravenous fluids and tried to assess her illness.

But like before, her episode cleared quickly and the doctors were left scratching their heads as to what might have been wrong. Their best guess was a vestibular disorder, or she possibly had eaten something toxic. But it was only a guess.

The episode was repeated a time or two again, with Gracie snapping out of it quickly.

graciecar.jpg Ready to ride: Freedom was more than escaping her kennel. It meant going places, and feeling the wind in her face - something she couldn't seem to get enough of. If there was an open car door, chances were Gracie would jump in it. Photo by Karen Ducey

Flash forward to the couch. Gracie was clearly blind, and Karen and I knew that this was something far more serious than just vertigo.

Her head was pointed straight up as she sat motionless. I touched her face, and she put her head into my hands. And it struck me that this had happened to her before, and the comfort of being held took away her fear as she patiently waited for the episode to pass.
She put the full weight of her head in my hands and didn't move.

We, however, were completely freaked out. With Sandy having just died, Gracie's condition created a sense of panic.

I called my longtime friend Don, whose wife Lisa is a veterinarian at the University of California, Davis. It was impossible for Dr. Lisa to diagnose long distance and over the phone. But after a while she concluded the likely root of Gracie's problem was a brain tumor. And she surmised her eyes had receded into her head because the tumor was pressing on her brainstem.

It was a guess, but it was something with which our vet later concurred.

After about 45-minutes, Gracie's eyes suddenly returned to their normal position, and her sight was restored. And again she behaved as if nothing had happened. Or rather, that this had happened before, and, like before, it had passed.

But as had happened with Sandy, we knew we had just turned a corner.

Six days later -- Dec. 19 -- and six days after Sandy died, Karen took the dogs to the park while I was at work.

Shortly after arriving, Gracie suffered a massive episode, much greater than any previous event.

Given Gracie's size, it was a struggle for Karen to get her into the car. And when she got home she couldn't get Gracie out. Karen opened the back hatch of her car to let air in, made Gracie comfortable, brought her water and waited for the episode to pass like it always had: 30, 40, or 50 minutes tops.

But hours passed, and Gracie was not getting better. And Karen took her back to the emergency vet. I left work and went to meet her and Dillon there.

When I arrived they were alone in the lobby. After a while, we were taken to an exam room where we sat for more than an hour, waiting to talk with the vet.

They eventually told us pretty much what Dr. Lisa had surmised: it was a brain tumor and it was time to put Gracie down.

That was something we were not prepared for.

We were frustrated too. We had been at the vet for several hours and still hadn't seen her. After insisting, we were taken into the back where Gracie was confined in an all-too-small kennel. Clearly suffering, clearly unhappy.

And it was clear to us that the doctors were merely waiting for us to give them the OK to euthanize her.

We did not agree initially to put her to sleep. We asked for, and were given, an exam room to stay with her.

We got her out of her kennel, and she struggled to stay upright. She made it into the exam room and slumped over on her side. She was in distress. But if she was going to die, it was going to be with us and not alone in some backroom of a cold vet's clinic.

It was a miserable experience for everyone. Karen contacted both Ashley and Kelly at DDB, and they all agreed it was time to put Gracie to sleep.

It had been half a day since Gracie's episode had begun. "She may snap out of it, but you'll be back here next week" to put her down, the vet said.

Karen never felt good about the decision. She wanted Gracie to come home, and, if she had to be put to sleep, better it be done there as we had done with Sandy, and Tucker before her. But Gracie was not getting better. And Ashley and Kelly asked that we wait to proceed until they could both arrived.

Gracie had not taken food or water all day. I offered her a bowl of water, and she lapped it up. I got more. She drank everything. We found some food, and she took it as well. It felt merciful -- a last gesture of kindness we could offer her.

Ashley and Kelly arrived, distraught. This was a dog everyone had fought for.

For the first time she was in a loving home.

For the first time she was free.

And now she was dying just four months after being liberated.

For everything she had been through, this was a tragedy.

As the vet came into the room I took Dillon out to sit with the receptionist. With Sandy having died six days earlier, it was too much for us to bear, much less him. I didn't want him to experience this again so soon.

Gracie died quietly on the floor of the vet's office, surrounded by the women who rescued her from her shameful neglect. All petting her; all crying. The despair was that much deeper precisely because it was not fair.

But Gracie was gone. And in the space of six days we had gone from three dogs to one.

And that one -- Dillon -- took it very hard.

Coming Thursday: Dillon comes full circle.

Most Popular Comments
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There's a prime spot in heaven for people like Dean Rutz and his wife who nurture and ... MORE
Wow. This story is so familiar and tears at my heart and tears my eyes. I'm so happy... MORE
Aww man, that was extremely hard to read. Had a dog slowly die of cancer. Many tears... MORE

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