February 10th 2012 was an extremely tough day for our family. We had to make the decision to put down our 11 year old chocolate lab Sully. This has been especially tough for Tracy and I as Sully was our first “child” having arrived in our house in May of 2002. Not quite a year before our daughter Emily.
Sully was a rescue dog from the Labrador Education and Rescue Network (L.E.A.R.N.). In the fall of 2001 we contacted LEARN to inquire about possible lab adoption and to put our name on the list. We wanted a younger chocolate lab that needed a good home. A representative from LEARN came out to interview us to see if we would be an acceptable home for an adoption. This was in October and we didn’t hear anything until the following April.
I was up in the central part of Wisconsin with my father for a turkey hunt/spring walleye getaway. When we were out on the river fishing, my cell phone rang and I let it go to voice mail. After checking the message, I found out it was LEARN with a possible dog for us to adopt. By this time, I had in my own mind, convinced myself that not adopting a dog might be the best. We had just put in our yard and having built a new house, I didn’t want to bring in a dog that would chew up our house. I thought about erasing the message (a move that is pointed out to me on many occasions) but decided to talk to Tracy when I got home and see what she thought. Well we went to Rockford IL where the foster family lived to see him. After taking him for a walk, we decided to adopt him. The foster family said that Sully stood at the door after we left. So I guess in a way he knew we were the ones.
Let’s backtrack a bit. Sully’s story about his birth and the 1st year of his life is unknown. Sully was picked up running the streets of downtown Chicago near Grant Park, by the animal control. He had been “on the lam” for a while as he was gaunt and thin, almost emaciated. The best guess we have is he was a cute puppy who got too big for the apartment living in down town Chicago and was left to run or he got away from his owners who then didn’t bother to look for him. No one had filed a report of a missing chocolate lab. His life and ours were about to change. A volunteer from LEARN was driving into Chicago to pick up a yellow lab that had been surrendered to a shelter. Apparently the owners who surrendered the dog had a change of heart and were allowed to take the dog back. The volunteer got to the shelter and the yellow lab they were supposed to pick up was gone. The director of the shelter then suggested that the volunteer take in a thin chocolate lab that had just come off the streets back with him instead. This of course, was our Sully.
Sully stayed with the foster family in Rockford for a little over a month. While there, the volunteers assessed his behavior and health to see if he would be a good candidate for adoption. He was given veterinary care and put on a diet to slowly get him back to a healthy weight. We are truly thankful for the great volunteers at LEARN, the foster family’s who take these dogs in, and the veterinarians who care for them.
Not knowing how Sully would react to a new home, we purchased a crate for him to sleep in at night and to keep him confined when we were gone. Sully hated going in his crate and we really didn’t like having him in it. After about a month, Tracy and I decided to see how he would be at night. He was great! Eventually he became comfortable with his bed that we kept in our room. We slowly introduced him to being left alone in the house outside of his crate. First we tried 30 minutes, then 1 hour, 2 hours 4 hours, and eventually all day. He never chewed a thing or got into any trouble (other than finding his way up on our bed and the couch!)
Sully was a runner. This explains why he was running the streets in the first place. He did get away on us a couple of times but thankfully he was caught and leashed every time by a neighbor who called us from the phone number on his tag. I had always hoped to hunt with him but that wasn’t going to happen until he could be trusted off leash. In the summer of 2002, we ordered an e collar. I took him to an open field and let him go. He took off running but soon found out that I could still reach out and “touch him” electronically. This was the last time Sully would try and run away. I’d like to think that after time, Sully also started to become part of our family and in doing so; he didn’t see the point in running away. He was family.
Sully wasn’t the only surprise of 2002. In May, Tracy came downstairs when I was tiling the floor to our new basement bathroom and announced that we were expecting. So many things run through your mind. Will I be a good parent? Can we make it on one income? And naturally, how will Sully respond to a new member of our “pack”? Emily was born 01/06/03. I took home her birthing cap and some other items on the night before we left the hospital so he could smell them. When we brought her home in the car carrier, Sully was naturally curious but gentle. He was the same when Matthew came along a little over 3 years later. He knew what was going on. Tracy had quit working in early December 2002. She was home with Sully every day since.
I took Sully pheasant hunting on several occasions. I was concerned when we first got him that he might be sensitive to loud noises. Thankfully, that was never the case. Firing a shotgun, the vacuum, thunderstorms and fireworks never really bothered him. In fact, Sully liked to be vacuumed with the shop vac. I’d like to say Sully was a master hunter but he was not. He did have a great nose for birds and loved being out in the field. He had a drive that wouldn’t quit. Sully did manage to bag several birds on our various outings to Scuppernong Nature Area and he probably would have gotten more had his master been able to shoot better. When he was 5, we found that he had a slightly dysplastic left hip and a joint mouse in his right front shoulder. This caused him a lot of discomfort and soreness after hunting out in the field. Much to Sully’s sadness, we felt it best to retire him from his hunting duties.
Sully always loved being outside in his yard. Once we solved the running away issue, he was my constant companion while doing yard work. He had the peculiar habit when I was cutting grass to move his toy from where I had cut, to the part of the lawn that still needed cutting. He knew I would have to stop and throw the toy. Watching him play in the first snow of the year was always a treat. Sully always acted as if it was the first time he had ever seen snow. We called him “snow pup”. But that wasn’t unusual for him as he loved the simple things in life like lying in the sun, rolling in the grass, playing in the sprinkler, and hunting for critters. Many rabbits and squirrels were chased out of the yard (a few were even caught) and unfortunately one skunk. There were many birds that nested in the trees and shrubs around the house that used Sully’s fur as construction material.
The neighbor kids all got to know Sully by name. He liked to greet them as they came off the bus from school (and sometimes take their hat and/or mittens). He also was the “welcome wagon” greeting everyone who came by the house when walking through the neighborhood pulling wagons with kids or pushing strollers. He also “assisted” in handing out the treats to the kids for Halloween. Halloween 2011 was the last time he would perform this duty.
It was in November that we noticed a change in Sully. He would sit and bark for no reason, have trouble getting around the house, experience tremors, lack of coordination and frequent house accidents. In all our years up to this time, there was maybe one time he had an accident in the house and that was our fault. We think he had a bout of vestibular disease but after getting over that, we could notice that something had really changed. We soon found out that Sully was suffering from cognitive disorder. (Dementia in dogs.) It has been extremely difficult for us to watching his mind betray him while he is still physically in good shape. Clearly the dog we knew was leaving us and being replaced by a shell of the wonderful dog we knew so well and loved so dearly.
It is with heavy hearts that we took him to the vet for the last time. I suppose I can take some comfort in knowing that he no longer is confused. All I know is I’m going to miss my friend. Our entire family will. We could not have asked for a kindlier, gentler, absolute sweetheart of a dog. It has been our tremendous privilege to be his owners. Sully has taught us to love unconditionally, take pleasure in the simplest of things, and to be thankful for everything no matter how trivial. His love is a treasure that will remain in our hearts forever and our lives have been enriched because of his companionship.
So long faithful friend, until we meet again….