Sharon Peters says, “Memories are tribute to my beloved, departed dog Rufus.”

In this touching article from USA Today, Pet Talk’s Sharon Peters memorializes her boy, Rufus.

Rufus, my gentle warrior, is gone.

He resolutely fought his way back from paralysis after a spinal cord stroke last year, eventually regaining the ability to walk miles every day. And just a few weeks ago, he gamely readjusted his gait to accommodate a reduced-size rear foot after a toe amputation to remove a large tumor.

He could not, however, overcome the brain tumor that filled his head with swirling, tilting images of what was up and what was down, robbing him of his ability to know how to place his feet solidly on what had always been the ground.

And so, last week I said goodbye to the sweet old guy who filled my heart and world with love. His absence is huge. And almost unbearable.

We met at an animal shelter, dog-love at first sight

Rufus and I met one Saturday 3½ years ago when I was dropping off cans for recycling at the animal shelter. A ragtag bunch of little kids exploded from the doors of a nearby minivan and swarmed around a rangy wolf-looking creature being led by a shelter employee to the exercise area. The squealing kids wrapped themselves around the dog, patting his long snout and pulling his ears, then they drifted noisily away like locusts, leaving the big dog staring wistfully after them.

I approached the dogwalker, curious about why she had seemed so unconcerned about the mob job that had just descended on a presumably stressed shelter dog. She smiled and said she had utter confidence in this stray that had arrived weeks ago and had won over the staff with his gentle demeanor. And then, voice quaking, she said that since he was so big and old (9 to 11, probably), he was nearly out of time.

I’d planned to get a playmate for Jasper, my high-energy 2-year-old mutt, probably a young-ish dog. But this old one reached me in ways I can’t explain even now, and I dashed home to collect Jasper to make sure they’d get along. All good. Big Brown got his reprieve.

I know nothing of his first decade, but many things revealed themselves over time: Rufus was unfailingly sweet-natured and mannerly, he loved deep snow and long hikes, and he was practically worshipful of children. He would spot a kid blocks away and his thick banner of a tail would sweep back and forth with joy. If he sensed a kid was frightened, he’d drop to the ground to make himself smaller and gaze up with a tenderness even scared kids recognized. Over time he developed something of a reputation, becoming the neighborhood go-to dog for parents with kids possessed of dog fear. His success rate was 100%.

Rufus was terrified of thunderstorms and squeaky toys, wouldn’t chase balls or sticks, and was only mildly interested in food. His one demonstration of stubbornness would appear intermittently when he wasn’t ready to enter the house when called to do so. He’d eye me calling from the porch, a conflicted look would cross his face, and then he’d turn his back to me — as if convinced that ignoring me while not actually making eye contact was somehow a lesser act of defiance.

3,000 miles of walks, and a nose muzzle every morning

In our years together, we walked or hiked no fewer than 3,000 miles; made regular visits to Melanie and Fred’s place in remote Montana, where he roamed the wildlands and rolled happily in elk poop; and welcomed many dog buddies into our circle. Every morning he charted a course that allowed him to give a nose nuzzle to Gracie, the golden who lives behind a fence a block away.

Early in March he suddenly didn’t know how to place his feet. He would hold his head at a cock-eyed angle close to the ground, as if to confirm where the ground was. The veterinarian and I hoped it was vestibular syndrome, an inner-ear malfunction similar to vertigo, which hits some old dogs and leaves them unable to tell where the ever-tilting ground is. It’s unnerving and anxiety-provoking. But dogs adjust to the new reality of where things are within a week or so and go on to live normal lives.

That’s what we hoped for. But although Rufus had four really good days (prompting hope) over the next four weeks, the descent was essentially unremitting. An MRI would have shown conclusively whether it was a stroke rather than a tumor, but since he was now 13 or 14 years old with smoldering liver issues, I wouldn’t subject him to yet another procedure merely to obtain an absolute diagnosis when there wasn’t an intervention that could improve his life. We tried prednisone briefly on the chance that maybe there was some brain inflammation. Nothing.

When outside in open spaces, he could tilt his head far enough to eventually find his footing, and he would walk happily, if lopsidedly, his tail swinging (although turns were awkward and in his last days he often couldn’t find his way back if he veered off trail a few steps). But being inside with walls and doorways was awful for him. He couldn’t manage two steps without tipping over; he had to be carried to the door and down the porch steps. He ate and drank lying down so he wouldn’t throw up.

Last week, the vet said we had tried everything.

Rufus may have been able to live a while longer. It’s possible he could have died in his sleep, graciously eliminating the need for me to make the decision every pet owner dreads.

It’s also possible that he would begin having seizures or strokes, that his recent ravenous need for food would obliterate the pleasure he still felt when there was a stiff wind in his face or when he caught the scent of fox. It was probable there could be profound behavior changes, even aggression.

Those things I could not allow. For every day I’d had him, he had adhered to what I eventually came to regard as The Rufus Code: Walk gently and quietly through life, be polite and kind to all you meet, demand nothing, and revel in every happy moment that comes your way.

One last time together, atop a ridge with a mountain view

Last Wednesday, soon after the vet said there was no chance for improvement, the dogs and I went for a walk, Rufus with his poor head cranked off at the horrible angle that made him a little more secure about where the ground was. We sat atop a ridge with a view of the mountains — the place that, because of the sweeping vista, I think, seemed less off-kilter and soothed him. He sat quietly, sniffing the air, leaning up against me. And as we ambled home, I cried and came to terms with the fact that it was time.

Rufus ate a pork chop with relish. We lay on the rug in the front hall that had been his command post for nearly four years, the door open so he could feel the cold wind that had suddenly slammed in from the mountains.

The vet arrived at the exact moment one of those fierce, brief, Rocky Mountain spring snowstorms did. Rufus watched the snow, and he died as it drifted across the porch and onto his nose.

As he was carried for the final time from the home he infused with quiet love, the storm stopped as abruptly as it had started.

No words of comfort help very much in a time like this. But I cling to these, written by my friend Connie, who knew him well: “I know in my heart that Rufus is where there are lots of children to play with, where the ground is down and the sky is up, and thunder is just a blip in the memory.”

The day after he died, I took his collar and leash and 10 big bags of dog and cat food to the local pet food pantry that helps financially wounded owners keep their animals.

On that day, in that way, when the sky was vivid blue and the fields dusted with snow, my sweet, generous Rufus, who had spent every day I knew him paying it forward, did it one last time.


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