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June 14, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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Dean Rutz, Part 3: Dillon comes full circle

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 Tuesday as the first of a three-part series of essays Rutz has written about his dogs. On Wednesday, Rutz wrote about Gracie's four months of bliss. Today, Rutz tells us what happened next for his family's lone dog, Dillon.

gracie and gang christmas.jpg
The Rutz gang: For a brief time after Tucker died, our family numbered five again. Karen and myself, Gracie (left), Sandy (below) and Dillon. But it was a very short period. Within a few weeks of this picture being made - and six days apart - Gracie and Sandy would die.

Dillon had never lived without another dog a day in his life.

In early 2003, my girlfriend at the time thought we should get another dog to be a companion to us and Sandy, who had become lonely since we moved out of the city two years earlier.

Quite spontaneously, we drove to the shelter in downtown Everett to see what dogs might be available for adoption.

deandillionbabyIMG0050.jpgBaby Dillon: Twelve-weeks old and Dillon, right, was all ears. Photo by Dean Rutz

Near the front door, two tiny, 12-week-old puppies were huddled in the back of their kennel, seemingly afraid of their surroundings. The worker there told us the two siblings, a German Shepherd and Lab-mix, were part of a litter of eight. They were dropped at the shelter because the pair were not as gregarious and rambunctious as their littermates and, therefore, were less desirable for adoption.

A couple behind us were interested in the pair as well, so both dogs were placed in a room with all of us sitting on the floor, at opposite ends of the space. We let the two pups make the decision. One gravitated to us; the other to the couple.

An hour later both couples walked out with a puppy. We named ours Dillon. Dilly for short.

Dillon was apprehensive and shy, and his face looked so sad, even as a puppy. But he loved Sandy from the start, and it was clear she loved him.

She was patient with his playfulness and gave him cues on how to behave. She would let him mercilessly jump on her and wrestle, often rolling her over on her back and rolling her around. And when he got out of hand she let him know with a bark or a snarl - never hurting him but getting her point across.

This made Dillon easy to train. Any command we gave to big sister, little brother would mimic.

deandillonthekids.jpgBonded: Dillon had never lived one day without Sandy. It was more than a bond. Sandy did as much to train him as I ever did. Photo by Dean Rutz

Even so, Dilly was a disaster for the first eight months. I had never seen a case of separation anxiety as severe.

We had tried to crate train him, but he destroyed three crates, bending the bars or chewing through the plastic latches that held the doors shut.

Still, we persisted, and I thought the third was best built for that purpose. However, when I was gone one day briefly, I came home to find the front metal door so bent that it was too dangerous to leave him in the crate any longer. I was worried he would bend it enough to get his head out, and then hurt himself when he became stuck.

So, we lived for a while with bad behavior that included tearing up the carpet and tunneling - quite literally tunneling - through a bed to the box spring. Add to that one destroyed electric razor and a chewed up iPod.

Yes, Dillon had severe anxiety for the first few months. But it did ease, and it eased because he bonded to Sandy, following her around the house and taking her cues for pottying, begging and where in the yard to rest.

Dillon never touched Sandy's dinner dish. He was deferential to her authority despite growing much bigger and stronger than she.

As she began to age he also became her protector, placing himself between Sandy and any dog that showed interest in dominating her. It was not done in an aggressive way; Dillon has never picked a fight. But he made it clear that the dog would have to go through him to get to her.

When it became apparent we would lose Sandy, I wondered how Dillon would react. I began to see Dillon warm to Gracie, our Great Dane/Lab foster. And I thought perhaps that would help him get through.

After Sandy died, I didn't initially see a behavior change in Dillon. As with Tucker's death a year before, he seemed to understand something unspoken; neither was ever coming back.

But Gracie's sudden death six days after Sandy's was a trauma with which none of us was prepared to deal.

deandillonhappyboy.jpgSnuggle bear: Despite being a fairly big dog, with a ferocious bark, Dillon is actually a gentle soul. It's hard to be intimidated by a dog that, when he's happy, carries a teddy bear with him. and uses it for a pillow. Photo by Dean Rutz

Two nights later my wife, Karen, and I left the house for a few hours, leaving Dillon alone. As we returned, we could hear Dillon down the block, barking from the deck.

That was unusual. The only time Dillon ever barked was when someone came to the house. Our neighbor, Linda, said he had been barking and crying.

I asked Linda if she would keep an eye on Dillon while we were at work and let us know how much and for how long he was making noise.

We knew we had a problem. But how big a problem we didn't know until a few days later when Linda called me at work.

"Can you hear him?" Linda said holding her phone up to the air. I could hear from her porch across the street Dillon barking - and howling.

It was the most mournful howl I had heard from a dog.

"I'm not angry," Linda said, becoming emotional herself. "I'm just so sad."

She knew why he was howling, and so did I. And it broke my heart.

We didn't know what to do. Having lost three dogs in one year, we wanted to wait to get another dog. But we were concerned about the obvious pain Dillon was suffering. He was alone, and it seemed almost too much for him to bear.

As seems to often happen, "something" found us.

A friend who operates an Eastside shelter said she had a dog she needed help placing, and we were introduced to Alice.

Deaf, diabetic, arthritic, semi-blind and generally a wreck of a dog, Alice was a 13-year-old chow mix of some kind. But she was sweet as could be, so we took her on.

The impact on Dillon was immediate.

Overnight he calmed. Even though he didn't know Alice -- and had nothing in common with a geriatric dog -- he was content to have a friend in the house.

The barking stopped.

We weren't really sure if the two were a good match. They seemed to have very little to do with each other. Alice could hardly walk, and Dillon, 8-years old now, still had a lot of energy. But slowly the same behavior that Dillon had shown with Sandy became part of how he treated Alice.

We took to feeding them separately because Alice would wolf her food down, then walk over to Dillon as he ate. Dillon would step aside and let her have whatever she wanted.
With Alice aging quickly, Dillon became her protector too.

Alice's advanced age gave her very little quality life with us, and trips to the vet became as routine as they were with Sandy.

On one visit to Dr. Frank, our vet in Monroe, Dillon sat in one corner of the exam room quietly while the doctor checked Alice out. At one point Dr. Frank needed to roll Alice over on her back -- a move that was uncomfortable for her.

At that moment, Dillon got up and put himself between Alice and Dr. Frank, licking his face to the point of becoming a nuisance. Both Dr. Frank and I knew that Dillon was saying, in the only way he knew how, "please, don't hurt her."

It was a behavior we would now see repeated frequently, whether at the doctor's office or the park. Sadly, this was not a relationship meant to last.

Alice faded quickly this spring, a little more than a year after she arrived, developing a neurological disorder Dr. Frank likened to paralysis. She stopped walking because she didn't have the strength and because, as Dr. Frank said, "she can't find her back legs in space or time." She would will herself to walk by starting her front legs, hoping the back would follow.

Alice died Saturday, April 14.

And again, Dillon was all alone.

Our little family that had numbered to five for the past few years was down to three. And we wondered what lay ahead for us -- and for Dillon.

Knowing that we would lose Alice, I took a week off in hopes of helping Dillon transition. We had underestimated how much Sandy and Gracie dying so close together had affected him. We wanted to do right by him this time.

The very first morning after Alice's death we went to an off-leash beach where Dillon could run and swim. On our way home we stopped at the grocery store. When we came out, a woman parked next to our car, said, "your dog has been howling."

Once again, Dillon was mourning.

At home he would lie in Alice's place in the hallway.

He stopped eating.

And he was sullen.

Dillon had never been alone -- nor been the No. 1 dog. He had always taken a back seat to an alpha dog, or the infirmed dog who needed more attention than he did. He was always OK about that. It's something I've always marveled at, actually.

Consequently, he never learned to be No. 1 because he never had to be.

The difference for Dillon this time, though, was I was home for the first three days after Alice's death. We would go on walks, and he would get his treats, and he would be tucked in at night as if life went on - which it did.

On the fourth day I began leaving the house for short spurts while Linda across the street listened: A bark or two the first day, but that was all.

I started leaving him for longer periods of time on subsequent days. Quiet.

Three weeks later I started to see his confidence return. He was happy chasing his friends at the park, and he exhibited an unbridled joy when Linda had cookies for him.
He was learning to be alone and slowly growing comfortable in his own skin.

At some point I had hoped we would adopt another dog and Dillon would do for it what Sandy had done for him. But neither Karen and I expected it to be very soon.

But again, "something" found us. Something quite unexpected.

While we had never gone looking for another Sandy, Karen and I did contact Ron Manor at Northwest Samoyed Rescue about getting on their list as a potential foster home. But for two years only nibbles had come our way -- an occasional contact about a dog that ended up being rescued by someone else.

Then, on May 23, Ron wrote again about a dog he had been tracking on Craigslist. We contacted her foster caregiver and made arrangements to meet her.

Four days later, "Misha" came home with us. It was love at first sight. Call it a brush with serendipity.

Two-years old, 45-pounds and very nearly a spitting image of Sandy, Misha and Dillon became instant friends, playing in the front yard of the foster caregiver's home.

It wasn't because she was a Samoyed and looked like Sandy. Dillon has met other Sammies before and had no apparent reaction.

But something about Misha clicked. It clicked with all of us.

She was sweet, gentle, sharp as a tack, and we all knew there probably would never be a better fit than what we were seeing right there.

The entire ride home Dillon sat in the front seat with me - Karen in back with Misha - and he smiled that goofy grin only a dog can smile. The entire ride home.

As I look at cellphone video of Sandy and Dillon playing nine years ago and compare it with cellphone video made today, I can't help but feel we've come full circle.

Happy. Some inexplicable emotion that I've missed ever since Sandy died. Maybe Karen and Dillon felt it too.

Misha is not Sandy. She is her own dog with her own quirks and problems. It will take considerable work to help her become everything she can be.

But she will get there, and it will be in no small part because of Dillon. She will learn to take her cues from him, and he will teach her how to be a good dog.

It is something I hope she will pass on to the dog that follows him.

I will forever miss Sandy. But today all of us are happy.

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