~Chapter One: The Early Years~

I had wanted a dog for over a year. My parents had told me to start researching breeds of dogs and how to care for them and I had a few library books to help me get an idea of the type of dog I wanted. I knew I wanted a big dog that had a lot of energy and playfulness. Our neighbors and classmates, the Smaaladens, got a yellow lab puppy a few weeks before my birthday, and another classmate got a brother from the same litter. They would bring them after school sometimes and I knew it was the exact breed of dog I wanted.

            A couple weeks later it was the week of my birthday. I had stayed the night and my friend Seth’s house and both of my parents came to pick me up in their SUV. I got into the car and we drove about a mile down the road before they pulled the car over. “We got a little something for you, why don’t you go open up the back” my dad said. I ran around to the back not fully sure what to expect and opened up the hatch. I saw something moving and there in a kennel was the most perfect yellow lab pup I could imagine- squirming and squeaking, filled with excitement. I took him out of the kennel and rode with him on my lap the rest of the way home. The level of joy I felt that first day getting Champ never lessened; coming home from work each day, watching him sleep at night, seeing his old clumsy gait on walks with a big stuffed animal in his mouth . . . he always warmed my heart and melted away whatever cares and worries I had been holding onto.

~

            Champ spent his first couple months sleeping in my bed, it was a 15 year olds dream . . . outside of the several nights I had to carry him outside and scold him for peeing on the bed or floor. When we finally had him start sleeping downstairs in his kennel he would whine and whimper for hours. Something Champ kept with him from the time he was a pup until his death was that he wanted to be with his family and as long as he was with them life was how it was supposed to be. I would have to come downstairs and comfort him, but it was still a struggle sleeping somewhere where he couldn’t see his family. Eventually I moved to a room out in the garage and from then on he slept right next to my bed.

            Champ was a great dog to train. He was smart, and with some dedication from mom and the rest of us he was soon an extremely well behaved dog. It was so fun to train him to “sit” and “stay” on our linoleum kitchen floor. He would squirm and let out his little squeaky whimpers, hardly able to contain his energy. At first that little butt just couldn’t stay on the floor and he would come bounding after us, knowing he was supposed to stay, but unable to see us right there in front of him without running up to say “hi.”

            That energy continued throughout his first few years of life, and although he was well trained and obedient he had a hard time sitting still when a lot of people were around him. We got to the point where we would drive around the block with him running beside the car just to get some of his energy out. He loved running so much that it became a daily thing. One of us would get into the car and he would come up to the window and start barking, “Let’s go!” As soon as he thought we were ready to go he would peel off down the driveway and dirt road. At certain crossroads along the way he would stop and bark some more; it was as if he were telling us “hurry up and choose a direction so I can keep running!” He ran with such grace, his front and back legs moving as two units. Whenever I would give the car a little more gas he would hear the engine rev and run faster to try to stay ahead. Curious how fast he was going I clocked him one day and he reached 33mph, I was so proud!

            He would go to the beach, on camping trips, to soccer games, and anywhere else we could take him. He’d even ride on the Sea-Doo, although he was always a bit uneasy about it. During high school, when I was really focused on soccer Champ was my at home personal trainer. He loved trying to get the soccer ball from me, so I would work on my dribbling skills in the front yard and he would be my defender.

~

            Shortly after Katie, my sister Jill’s daughter, was born Pat and Jill came over to spend the night. They were in the upstairs room furthest down the hallway. The upstairs was off limits and Champ never tested that rule. But the night they stayed over, after everyone was asleep, Champ dutifully went up the stairs, down the hallway, and stationed himself across the doorpost. He stayed there all night, seeing it as his responsibility to keep little Katie safe. Katie was the first little girl he got to protect and care for, but it was to be a theme that carried through the rest of his life.

~

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 ~Chapter Two: The Middle Years~

            I graduated high school and it was time to leave for college. I went to school in Canada and was living in dorms, so there was no possibility of bringing Champ with me. Our family moved from Suquamish to Poulsbo the same month that I left for college, and without the big yard and with mom, dad, and Kaylee’s busy schedules it just wasn’t the best fit for him. After a few months they made the decision to move him in with our former neighbors.

            Champ had developed a special bond with our neighbors who would take him on walks every day and to the Suquamish Post Office where Champ became a local celebrity. Many residents of Suquamish knew Champ and marveled how he would obediently lay waiting outside the Post Office door until his Elizabeth and Gracie came back out with their mom. When we still lived in Suquamish, little Elizabeth would come down to our house and ask if she could take Champ for a walk. She called me “Champ’s brother” and called dad “Champ’s daddy.” The second Champ saw Elizabeth he would light up. She would let out a little squeal, “Champ!” and he would come running over. One of the funny things about Champ was that when he got really excited to see someone his big tail would wag so hard that it would swing his hips side to side making it difficult for him to walk.

            One day Elizabeth’s mother Shenti came back from the beach and let us know that Champ was a bit scratched and bruised up. When they were walking on the beach two Chows had come up and were growling and threatening Shenti and Elizabeth. Champ had went after both of them, protecting what were now becoming his “family.” Elizabeth and her younger sister Gracie had become Champ’s “girls” and for the rest of his life every time he heard the voice or laughter of a little girl he would perk up, find her, and shower her with kisses and affection.

            We knew that they would provide a good home and a good life for Champ while I was away at college.

~

            Julie and I met and started dating our first semester of college. When she came home for the weekend to meet my family I told her she had to meet my dog. We went out to Suquamish, picked up an excited Champ, and took him to the beach. I had Julie hold onto him while I got a head start swimming out to the dock. She held him back the best should could, but he soon broke free and took off in the water to rescue his boy. I always had to make sure to beat him to the dock or he would scratch me up frantically trying to “rescue me.” After swimming we played in the sand and half buried Champ, we still have the picture of him looking at the camera with an open-mouthed grin and my arms around him, he was in heaven. He took instantly to Julie, but at the time part of the affection was due to him recognizing that she was my “girl” and meant a lot to me. He would get so excited to see me on those visits it was hard for him to be still for a moment. Julie loved him. I remember telling her that as wonderful of a dog as he was when we played with him she still hadn’t gotten to experience my favorite part of having him- those times when he was tired out at the end of the day and I could just lie there with my arms around him and feel all the worries, cares, and frustrations melt away as I felt his unconditional love, his soft, thick neck, and his velvety ears.

            One of the hardest things was leaving him after our visits. I would say my goodbyes and get into the car to go. Champ would stand on the dirt road watching me drive away with the saddest look imaginable, hoping I would give him the command “Champ, come.” Everything in me wanted to throw him in the car and take him with me, but I knew I couldn’t.

~

            When we moved back from college we decided we had to have him back, as great a home as he had been at I couldn’t bear the thought of not having my dog back, and Julie was already in love with him. I brought it up to Shenti the next time we visited and said they could keep him for the rest of the month to have a chance to say their goodbyes. Shenti told me that she would have put up a fight to keep him, but every time I came back from college and visited him Champ would be depressed for the next few days. She knew that although they were now very much a part of his family, he still felt that he was my dog.

            When we took Champ back he took to Julie immediately- she very quickly shifted from being my girl (who he cared about because she was important to me) to being “his girl.” He loved playing with her in a way that became unique to the two of them and was so affectionate to her that he would give her ten kisses to every one I got. With the move Champ also got the chance to greatly increase the size of his “family,” soon taking the Taylor family in as his own. He especially liked going over to the sliding glass door where he could count on treats and loving affection from Julie’s mother, Jean, who like mom, was gifted at spoiling our puppy. Another addition to the family was Julie’s sister Janna’s dog “Joey” who Champ quickly took under his wing. They were soon showing off their dual tricks, simultaneously holding treats on their noses and flipping them into their mouths. Before Joey, Champ didn’t wrestle much with other dogs. He loved to play “chase,” but it wasn’t until Joey that Champ really started to wrestle. Champ would bite at Joey’s neck so much that at first we thought he was hurting him. But we checked and Joey was happy as could be and perfectly fine, except that his neck was soaking wet from Champ’s play bites. The two dogs would have a blast together. As Champ got older he would have to bark at Joey when play time was over and the old dog needed some rest.

~

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Chapter 3: The Twilight Years

            When he was about 9 years old we took Champ to the Taylor’s beach cabin in Olympia. We had just gotten him a life jacket and had him swim alongside us while we kayaked to test it out. That was the first time it really sunk in that our puppy was transitioning into old age. It took nearly two weeks for him to recover. It got so bad that he couldn’t sleep at night and would randomly jump up from the floor yelping like he had been stung. One night Julie got up to try to help him and the pain was so bad that in a panic he peed and bit her. We started to wonder if we were seeing Champ’s final days. His hips were causing him so much pain that he couldn’t turn right. Julie and I had a joke at the time: “How does Champ turn right?” “Left, left, left.” We began to carefully regulate his activity level and soon he learned his limitations and began regulating himself. It soon looked like we might have several years of life left with him.

~

Champ became a sort of mascot for our circle of friends at grad school. He was there for late night get-togethers at our place, bonfires at Golden Gardens, and several camping trips- always making new friends. Throughout the craziness of going through grad school as a married couple Julie and I always had Champ there for us to keep us grounded when there seemed to be no ground beneath our feet, no light at the end of the tunnel, and papers and expectations we didn’t think we were capable of. Champ took a lot of angst out of us those few years and transfigured it into peace and assurance.

~

            Having Champ for 14 years, something I got to see was the development of his capacity to express himself. In his last few years Champ began to smile. Many people say it is impossible for a dog to smile and for the first 9 years of Champ’s life I would agree. But in his last years the sides of Champ’s mouth would lift upwards in a way they hadn’t before. He would typically make this expression when he was lying on the floor, content, with family members nearby. He would often fall asleep with the expression on his face. Another distinct way of expressing himself was when Julie or I were lying on the ground petting or hugging him, Champ would occasionally let out a faint whimper or groan with each breath, it was as if he could hardly contain the love and joy he felt.

            Julie and I took him to the Taylor’s cabin in Olympia for a weekend celebrating our five year anniversary. We were watching a movie during the evening and Champ began moving around and trying to get our attention. Julie finally got up to (she assumed) take him out to the bathroom. Instead he walked straight to the bedroom where his blanket was folded up on the floor. Assuming he wanted to go to bed she left him and returned to the movie. But Champ followed her and continued to try to get our attention. Julie followed him again, and this time when he went to the bedroom he looked at the blanket, then at Julie, then back to the blanket. She got the hint, brought the blanket in and put it next to the couch we were laying on. He immediately plopped down on his “bed” and fell asleep with a contented sigh.

~

Aging is an interesting process, and for a dog like Champ who had a competition level physique and athleticism for most of his life it was quite a change. Beginning at around 9 Champ’s hips began to develop arthritis. The dog that used to jump onto dad’s oversized tire 2500 Ram Diesel truck bed began to need boosts after a tiring day and later boosts when the day had just started. In his last year he would not try to get into the back of our VW until we were ready to lift or boost him. It was the same going up stairs. In the final 6 months I would boost him up our apartment stairs nearly every time. He knew his limitations, he knew when he needed help, and he knew that we were there for him. The added assistance he needed was easily as endearing as the help he had needed as a puppy to learn how to sit still. There was something so powerful about having Champ come to the point where the only way he could continue living the full life he had always lived was by relying on us for help. He got to the point where that help became a part of his daily functioning and he expected it. It was a gift to be able to give that to a dog that had given us so much in life.

            In his last couple years of life Champ’s body declined, his arthritis increased, and his once graceful movements transformed into a clumsy, lumbering gait. Rather than being a sad decline, it was an endearing transition. When he would “run” to greet us it was strikingly similar to the clumsy, uncoordinated movements of a puppy; he was getting old, but he still had a joyful spark that stayed with him until the end. He loved to carry around his giant stuffed animal “Nala” until his very last day. It was so big that he could hardly see when he held it in his mouth because it covered most of his eyes. He would often be unable to get down the stairs because he couldn’t see them and would have to drop the stuffed animal in my hand and climb to the bottom of the stairs before anxiously grabbing it in his mouth again. Up until the last days of his life people often couldn’t tell if he was young or old. The white face made them think he was old, but the clumsy, playful gait and his youthful spark made them think he might still be a young dog. I always thought of him as “my old puppy” because he never lost that youthfulness so distinctive of younger dogs.

~

            One of the gifts Champ offered in his last couple years of life was getting to love and play with several of the boys at the group home I work at. I would occasionally have Julie drop him off at a park so that the boys could get a chance to play with him. One of the boys took to Champ so much that his final request before he moved on to his new foster home was to get pictures we had taken of him and Champ playing “chase” at the park together on a thumb drive so he could remember him. On his final day at the group home I took him one last time to say “goodbye” to Champ and to take him for a walk. The boy’s hugs and tears showed me that Champ had had as much of an impact on his life as any of us staff. There is something about the unconditional, undemanding love of a dog that a boy needs.

~

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~Chapter Four: Saying Goodbye~

            We knew that Champ was in the twilight of his life, but we didn’t know if he had a few months or a couple years left. His sight and hearing were declining rapidly, and he was slowing down a lot, but he was still enjoying life so much that we felt that he’d still be happy and filled with life if he were to completely lose both senses.

            Needless to say, we didn’t expect Sunday night to arrive so abruptly. Champ came to our church softball game as he did every Sunday. He loved to lie right next to the bench, soaking up the sun and the attention. When I subbed out for a couple innings Julie’s godmother, Melinda, told me that seeing Champ each Sunday always made her want a dog. We had a barbecue at our apartment after the game and Champ was at his best, snuggling on the carpet with new friends and showing off his repertoire of tricks like holding treats on his nose.

            Soon after the barbecue had ended Champ started to get anxious and whimper in pain. He had had some overeating problems before, so at first we didn’t make too much of it. But He continued to struggle and Julie suggested I take him for a walk. When we got back he continued to struggle, now groaning in severe pain, attempting to vomit with no results. I went about doing other things hoping his stomach would settle down. But something prompted me, “Go comfort your dog.” I went to his bed where Julie had just been tending to him. I lied down and held him in my arms. He let me comfort him, but he was in such severe pain that every couple minutes he would get up and lie down on his other side to try to decrease the pain. I could feel his stomach swelling and was getting worried. Julie was looking up symptoms and called the emergency veterinary hospital out of concern. They said it sounded serious and to bring him in. We took him in, not thinking that moments later we would have to make a decision on his life.

When we got to the clinic they took him back and several minutes later had us come into a private room to meet with the vet. He told us that Champ’s stomach had twisted and it was a “black and white” issue- immediate surgery or he would die. We had discussed finances and I asked what we were looking at financially . . . he said accounting for his age, a minimum of $4,500. It was more than we could afford, especially considering his age. But I couldn’t make the call on my own, even with such a high number it hurt too much to make a definitive call on my dog’s life on my own, and all Julie could think about was comforting and being there for her puppy. I called my dad and after three tries he picked up. I tearfully broke the news, told him the situation and our options and asked him to tell me what to do. He told me what I already knew, but it was comforting not having to carry all of that weight alone.

I went back to the table where Julie was comforting Champ and they were shaving him in preparation for surgery, “we have to let him go” I said. We both broke down. They took us to a private room and after puncturing Champ’s stomach to give us a few more minutes, brought him in. He was drugged and in pain, but the moment he saw us his tail started wagging, you just couldn’t stop that thing when he saw his family. Although it was about the only thing moving, he was wagging it so hard that the vet cautioned us several times to keep a hold of him so he didn’t knock himself off the bed. We got to wrap our arms around Champ and be there for the final minutes of his life. He was fully conscious and so happy to be with us that the only sign of pain was him trying to stretch out his stomach to relieve the pressure. We wrapped our arms around his neck, kissed him, and told him how much we loved him and would miss him and how great a dog he had been to us.

As the vet came in to administer the final shot Champ looked like he was already beginning to let go. Those final few minutes I got to look into his eyes and comfort him as he had comforted me so many times. I held his gaze and continued to tell him how much I loved him and would miss him as the life passed out of him. Before he left this earth I got to give him a big kiss on the snout. He was with his “girl” and his “boy” and he was content. It was a good way to say goodbye.

~Chapter Five: All Those Painful Spots

Champ had the softest ears and neck imaginable. I always loved to wrap my arms around him and bury my face into his neck. He usually had a musty smell to his coat that was clean but didn’t smell like shampoo. It was always a euphoric feeling to have my arms around his neck and smell that scent.

After he died I picked up his blankets to try to find that smell. The blankets smelled like Champ, but they didn’t have that musty smell. What I’ve come to realize is that the only way I could experience that smell was by burying my face into his neck. It’s a smell that only came with being close to Champ.

~

It’s hard to accept that there is no more present and no more future that we will share with Champ. We have so many beautiful memories with our old puppy, but they will now drift into the past and live on as memories, our present with Champion has come to an end.

~

            As we mourn over Champ’s death the thing Julie and I long for the most is to have our comforter to ease the pain, to love us, and to be there for us to wrap our arms around him so that we can feel that it will all be okay. But for this mourning process it is to our comforter that we are saying goodbye. That big soft neck and velvety ears, those big paws, and big soft tongue have completed their task and we will miss them immensely.

~

Champ, you showed us the unconditional love of God, and we now put you to rest and return you to the immense love of our Creator from which you came as such a wonderful, wonderful gift. My sweet little puppy, may your memory be eternal, and may we one day meet again in a new Creation; a new heaven and a new earth.

~

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