Thursday, March 22, 2012

Dixie the Airedale Dog

I remember it was Labor Day weekend, 2001, and I was sitting on the back deck of our house in Catonsville, MD. My relationship in a shambles and rapidly unraveling. I said to my soon to be ex-fiancee,"Okay, who gets the dog?" Her reply was "You can have it." And that's how Dixie, the Airedale dog, came to be fully mine. She was about 2 months old at the time. We had driven to Buffalo, NY in early July to get her, the product of Tara and Dominik. Dominik was the 2000 Airedale of the year. Dixie was the last of the litter, born on May 5, 2001. She died today in my arms, March 22, 2012, just a couple months shy of her eleventh birthday.

Dixie and I went through a lot over those eleven years. She was bitten by a copperhead snake in August 2002 and contracted Lyme disease that December. We had been on our usual five mile hike that Sunday morning in August, taking the Panther Branch Trail along the Gunpowder River in the Hereford area of Baltimore County. We had just crossed over a meadow, heading back into the woods when Dixie, ahead of me by about 60 feet, stopped to smell something in the trail. All of a sudden she jumped about 5' in the air, came down and ran around behind me. I looked at her, at the coiled up snake in the trail and back at her. Dixie's eyes were glazing over, she was drooling and panting heavily. Picking her up, I carried all 50 pounds of her two miles out of the woods to the car. When we got to the emergency vet hospital about two hours later, the treating vet told me the snake must not have injected its venom into her, rather only biting her to get her away from it. If the snake had, the vet said, Dixie would have been dead before I got her out of the woods.

On another trek on a different Sunday along that same trail, Dixie had her first encounter with a horse. When the riders came into view, coming up the trail we were going down, Dixie stopped, barked, then stood up on her hind legs and stretched herself as tall as she possibly could, her front paws extended skyward. Coming down onto all fours, she ran around behind me and started barking. The horses ignored her and the riders laughed. It was pretty funny. After that, whenever we'd see horses, she ignored them.

Dixie developed Lyme disease in December 2002. We were hiking through 6" of snow on a warm winter's day at Double Rock Park in Parkville, MD. Two days later I noticed she was kind of lethargic and stiff. The vet felt all around her and found, deep in her shoulder, a deer tick literally the size of a pinhead. A biopsy of the tick and a blood test confirmed it. Nine years later, at the Tufts Veterinary School, I was told the impact of the Lyme was end stage arthritis in every joint in all four legs. The Lyme had also caused her to have hypothyroidism and a heart murmur.

One time when we were walking along a trail in the Fork area of Baltimore County, Dixie took off after a fox. A few minutes went by and all of a sudden this fox came racing out of the woods and turned onto the trail, toward me. When the fox realized I was there, all four of its legs starting churning pell-mell. It reminded me of the roadrunner with Wile E. Coyote hot on its tail. The fox finally got its feet in gear and took off up-trail. Moments later Dixie came charging out of the woods, frantically crossing back and forth over the trail, trying to catch the fox' scent. I was able to leash her and calm her down. The fox was long gone.

I remember the first time Dixie got a haircut. It was done by a breeder who also showed dogs. She told me that Dixie was a prime example of her breed, but because her two front lower teeth were slightly crooked, she would always be a runner-up, never getting the blue ribbon. Since I was never going to show her I didn't care about that slight imperfection; however, I did take a class in Airedale grooming, bought all my own equipment and bathed and groomed her myself. I have always liked the show cut on an Airedale and Dixie always looked like a champion.

Dixie had a wonderful, sweet disposition. She was good around kids, the elderly and would let both pull and tug on her without a complaint. One of her favorite activities was to chase squirrels. One day she finally cornered a squirrel in the yard of the house I owned in Parkville, MD. She was so excited but didn't know what to do next because it was the thrill of the hunt she liked; she didn't want to eat it. For a few moments there was a stand-off and then the squirrel zigged and took off like a rocket. Dixie shook herself and walked off, as if to say - "I let it get away." One time Dixie was not looking where she was walking and ran into a pole. She stopped, shook herself and then looked at me as if to say, "What? I didn't see anything happen. Did you?"

One time, after moving to MA, we were taking a neighborhood walk. I had Dixie on a retractable leash and she went up to and put her nose under a parked SUV. All of a sudden she backed out with a cat attached to her face. The cat jumped off and Dixie turned away. The cat jumped on Dixie's back, bit her on the shoulders and then jumped off. I started pulling Dixie away and the cat jumped on Dixie's haunches and bit her and then jumped off. As I was pulling Dixie away, I kicked at the cat. The cat jumped on my leg and bit me several times. Dixie and I both had to go through the full series of rabies shots. The cat was never found and I got a letter from the town animal control putting Dixie into quarantine for 30 days!

Dixie has been my best friend and my constant companion for over ten years. Together we waded many streams, hiked many trails and traveled many miles. She went places with me dogs weren't allowed to go but her regal manner, disposition and looks got us past.

The last few years of her life were really hard on her, and me. It finally got to the point of her not being able to walk, not wanting to be touched because it hurt her too bad. I couldn't groom her, she just wanted to be left alone. Her immune system became so compromised that whenever I left her outside in the yard, from lying down she would get a rash and would itch and scratch.

Two years ago, the cats Gus and Ollie came into her life. She loved them and they all enjoyed playing together. I think the two cats helped extend Dixie's life as they gave her a reason to live. The three of them would tease and swat and rub against each other. At the end, Dixie could only lay there and look at them. She would bark like crazy when she heard one of them at the door, telling us to let them in. To the end, she guarded the house and its occupants, even though she couldn't get up and wouldn't have been able to do much.

Through her obvious pain and discomfort and inability to move, she would wag her tail and look at me with the unconditional love only a dog can give. Dixie was the love of my life. We got each other over the rough spots of life for a decade.

I decided to have her cremated. My plan is to carry a little bit of her ashes with me as I go on the hikes that I know she would have wanted to go on and leave a little bit of her on the trail along with my footprints. Dixie, the Airedale dog: The best friend a person could ever want to have.