The week had started rough. It was the week I had learned that my friend, student, teammate, and American hero, Chris Kyle had been killed. In the wake of the tragedy, I was asked by a local TV station to share my thoughts and memories about Chris. Hit with the flu the morning I was going on air, the moment is now forever seared into my memory a degree more bitter – if that’s even possible – than I ever could have imagined it to be.
Fueled by my grief, and by the stress of the week’s events, my illness pushed me into the following Wednesday, where I had woken in a state of depression like I’ve never experienced before. I tried to press on, convincing myself that I had no excuse for self-pity. I knew I had to pull myself out of bed. I knew I had to get back to work. But I was still entangled in my grief and my illness and I couldn’t quite manage yet.
I spent the day alternating between hydrating my exhausted body, and sleeping so soundly, the Earth could have shook and it would not have had the strength to pry open my heavy eyes. I woke the next morning, rested and optimistic, hopeful that the day would be something better than a disaster.
Taking Another Hit
As I tried to get my head straight and return to work, my wife walked into my office with tears in her eyes.
“I think we have to put Zoe down”, she said, her voice filled with emotion.
Determined to keep things in perspective, and to actually get some work done, I stood up and explained to her the importance of honoring Zoe’s life by waiting until Friday afternoon (after work) before we did it.
“I don’t know.” she said.
Callous and clear that a dog’s life is relatively insignificant as compared to both current events and obligations, I followed her to the backyard to placate her concerns so I could get back to work.
Ears down, shaking in a pool of slobber staining the pavers, Zoe looks back at me with that look.
“Dad… what’s happening to me?” her eyes pleaded. She gave me that look a dog gives when they think they’re in trouble, but this time it meant “Why does it hurt? Please stop the pain”.
It was time.
Ending The Pain
Now I’m more sensitive than a 8th grade girl standing alone against the wall at a school dance. But when the shit hits the fan and things get dramatic, I become steady, calm, and calculated. I’m known as the guy who holds it together in an emergency. And now, it was “Go Time”. The mental switch got flipped and I immediately moved into action, organizing my every thought and action around ending Zoe’s pain, quickly and efficiently.
The vet arrived at the house and all of the questions required to confirm the inevitable were asked and answered. Steady and sincere, as if this were the first time these questions had been asked, the vet responded like a politician.
“I don’t thinks” & “maybes” were mixed in with a rock solid commitment to not commit to any real answer that could mean anything besides “It’s your decision… not mine”.
Like a trial lawyer, I quickly put the words my wife needed to hear into the mouth of the vet so that she’d never question the terminal prognosis and never have to second guess our decision to put Zoe down. This decision would rest on my shoulders, because I knew it would forever burn in her heart.
The vet lifted Zoe’s massive front paw and shaved her thick, German Shepherd fur to expose her vein. Though she was weak and shaking on the outside, I could see that her insides still pumped with a mix of vinegar and adrenaline. A not so subtle reminder of the fierce way she protected our family.
Zoe lifted her nose to my wife Belisa, confirming that her “Person” was still safe, while offering to absorb any and all fear that Belisa may have had in the moment. A final act of service. Satisfied of Belisa’s safety, Zoe went to sleep. The prick of the needle was the last pain she would ever feel.
Of course the grief immediately gripped the family and pulled everyone down….everyone except me. I still had my game face on. But as time passed and the family’s emotions began to settle, mine began to creep in. As expected, I felt some sorrow, but not like most.
It was what happened over the next several months that I was completely unprepared for.
Nobody’s Got My Back
We had gotten Zoe right before I was going to deploy overseas, and immediately after we had lost a family member to violence. For the family, Zoe was to be a pet. For me, it was more pragmatic. She was to protect my family when I was gone.
I never thought losing a dog was all that big of a deal, and I thought those that made it so were a bit ridiculous. In the months preceding Zoe’s departure, if you would have asked me if I was going to get another dog, I would have replied “Nothing with a heart beat is getting added to this house”. I had already began to see Zoe as just another thing to take care of. She, in my eyes, no longer had a purpose because now, I was home.
Many of you might hate me for this, but I must confess that I was, in a way, ready to see her go. I had, like many spoiled Americans, begun to take the protection she gave me for granted. This never swayed her commitment one bit.
I was now home and I no longer thought she was needed for protection. Then the days, weeks, and months began to go by, and the symptoms of her absence began to reveal themselves. That cold feeling of having your “six” exposed began to creep in. Nobody was on watch anymore. Hyper-vigilance returned and my personal reaction to losing Zoe began to go sideways.
What I Hadn’t Realized
There is some debate as to whether or not a dog helps with things such as PTSD or hyper-vigilance, and I suppose from a psychological standpoint, that may take a while to figure out. From a tactical standpoint, the protection and comfort that a real dog can provide is without question unparalleled, and for those of us born a “Sheep Dog,” something we should be taking seriously.
I know there are a lot of people who’ve become complacent in their personal safety and protection, thinking that the odds of something really happening to them are low. For those types, I would ask this question: Aren’t the odds of “nothing” happening in the course of a lifetime even lower?
Those with true “disorders” are the ones who are so complacent, that they do nothing to protect themselves or their family.
“Baaaaaaa!” – Sheep.
With their keen senses, dogs are basically on alert 24 /7. More than once, Zoe woke me from a deep sleep to inform me that either there was a dangerous intruder lurking near our house, or maybe there was just a squirrel. No doubt, 99% of the time it was always a squirrel, but we don’t train for the 99% of time when things are normal. We prepare for the 1% of the time when they are not. I’ll take the inconvenience of a few false alarms to make sure I’m ready for the real one.
Zoe as an alert system was unbeatable, and when she was no longer there, the realization that someone could get into our house without us knowing became very real… and it began to affect me and my family in ways I never would have thought.
Picking Up My Game
For months I resisted the urge to get another dog. I’d pragmatically cite example after of example of why we were too busy to get another dog. Then, one day, my wife shared with me that she had never felt the same without Zoe, and that she no longer slept well without her. And when she confided in me her fears, I ultimately knew it was time.
This time would be different though. We were going to get a dog that was to be more than just a show of force. I would bring in the fiercest protector I could find. After doing my due diligence, I set my sights on a Belgian Malinois that I planned to raise and train for home protection. I reached out to my former teammate Mike Ritland who runs Trikos International and several weeks later, “Indy” arrived… and the healing finally began.
Despite my arrogance, Zoe always had my “6”. It was her death that made me realize how important she was, not only for our safety, but to our feeling of safety.
I guess Zoe’s true final act of service was her death, and the wake up call it shot into my heart.
How About You?
Admittedly, I used to laugh at some of the dopey dog stories people told. But after the lessons Zoe taught me, not only in life, but in death as well, I will gladly admit I was wrong. Dogs can be more than just pets or companions. With their keen senses, they can be more effective than a traditional alarm system, making them not only our friends, but our protectors as we find comfort in their simple presence.
- What psychological benefits has a dog brought to you?
- What do you think about dogs as an alert system?
- What would you say to someone thinking about getting a protection dog?
- What are your thoughts for someone thinking about getting a Belgian Malinois?