Moonlight Walks with the Zen Master: Four Life Lessons I Learned from my Dog Apache

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This week I had to say goodbye to one of my confidants and greatest supporters, my 13 year-old Australian Cattle Dog Mutt, Apache. Today is Valentine’s Day, and this is my love letter to him and my gratitude for all he taught me about living a great life.

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We rescued Apache from Denver’s largest animal shelter when he was nine months old in 2005. My kids were little; just 7, 4 and one year. We all gathered in the meet-and-greet room, and Apache was on his best behavior. We brought him home, and I immediately became his human.

He grew up with our boys. Camping, hiking, playing fetch. He tolerated me putting him in costumes for Halloween and seemed to appreciate the different bandanas I’d bring back from my travels around the globe.

In 2012 Apache suffered a major stroke. One night, we came home from karate class to find him completely paralyzed in his pen. Randy carried his limp body to the animal hospital, but they said there was nothing they could do. Together we stayed up with him all night believing that when morning came we would need to put him down. We all shed our tears of goodbye, but Apache had other plans.

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The vet gave us hope that he might recover, and after a vigorous course of acupuncture and blood injection treatment, we started to see signs of improvement. One day we were sitting in the waiting room of the veterinarian clinic and a poodle came prancing in; Apache’s tail shot up, and I knew we were on the road to recovery. After about six weeks of treatment, we had him back about 75% -- the ribcage forward was fine, but his hind legs walked like a drunken sailor. We all were just so happy he bounced back.

I have always said my dogs are a big part of my mental health. I am a huge fan of animal assisted therapy and believe an animal’s care can be life-saving for many. Here are four of the many life lessons he taught me in our almost 13 years together:

1)     Unconditional love is a gift


No matter what time of the night I returned from many various road trips, Apache would be there, enthusiastically greeting me at the door. Because the stroke left him mostly incontinent, this almost always meant a great big puddle of pee. Cleaning up after him was just a small price to pay for the love I received.

In the mornings when I was taking care of my daily personal business he would come hunt me down to kiss me incessantly and “snout” my hand so I would pet him. If he saw me pull out my suitcase he would bark and growl following me all the way to the door.

For his birthday I bought him a nice big orthopedic bed, but he preferred to sleep on the floor next to me, so he could be closer to me.

My great protector, and loyal friend, I will cherish the fact that you loved me no matter what.


2)     Finding patience to be fully present is a discipline

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Before Apache had his stroke, he used to be my running dog. He’d come out on the trails with me for early morning training runs and make sure I was safe from any mountain lions or bears. After the stroke he became my walking dog. It would often take us an hour to walk a mile. This practice became a highlight for both us. He would do a little happy dance every time he saw me pouring my morning coffee, because he knew what came next.

Patience is not my virtue, and Apache forced me to slow down. During our predawn moonlit strolls, he refused to walk with a leash and stopped at every important bush, rock and tree to mark his territory. While I waited for him, I learned to smell the earth a little more deeply, notice the shooting stars a little more often, and hear the gentle flow of water pulsing through the creek across the street I would otherwise miss.

Every day he’d test me by meandering down some driveway or stopping longer than usual to decipher which of the neighbor’s dogs had come through his territory. I would lament, “Come on, Apache! I’ve got things to do!” And he would look up at me with eyes that said, “Sorry, Momma, you’re on Apache time now.”

During our walks, I’d practice my gratitude reflections and set my intentions for the day. Always starting with how much I appreciated my time with my Grand Old Man and his fluffer-nutter-face brother Rocky Doodles. It was a perfect way to start my days. No matter how busy I thought I was, this ritual would not be sacrificed.

My lovely meanderer, thanks for making me commit to slowing down and getting focused on what is right in front of me.

3)     Hunkering down with the family and close friends is what life is really about.

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We own a cabin up in Grand Lake, right on the border of Rocky Mountain National Park. Whenever we get the chance – at least once a month – our family retreats to this special place. We play games, put puzzles together, watch movies, sleep in, hike and eat. We leave the busyness of our daily lives behind and just enjoy rest and each other.

Apache loved this place, and when he saw us packing up to head for the hills, a huge smile would come over his face. Every time we walked around our community lake, I too felt an incredible sense of awe for the majestic beauty of the place. On his last day Apache and I did this 1.5 mile walk together, and he was joyous. Perky ears and a steady cadence all the way. I am so thankful for this, one of our last moments together.

My fierce family first fanatic, you always had your priorities straight.

4)     Grief is sacred.

By the time we returned home from the cabin on Sunday night, Apache’s health was in steep decline. His back legs gave out, and we had to carry him inside. I prepared the family that this day might be his last. After the kids went to bed, I pulled up a sleeping bag next to him on the floor, held his paws and kissed his snout all night. I looked into his eyes and thanked him for being such a great dog. I let him know it was okay to let go and run free again. I asked all the pets that preceded him to greet him on the other side of the rainbow bridge. I whispered in his ear, “We had such a great time.”

Then it was time to wake the kids. We circled around him, all of us sitting on my bedroom floor. Next to Apache in the center of the circle, big pile of used tissues grew, a monument to our love. This moment  was a sacred coming together for our little family, to bid farewell to our precious companion.

My cherished companion, thank you for walking with me in this life, I will see you on the other side.


Sally Spencer-Thomas