The Rainbow Bridge

This document is a description of the dogs I have lived with and loved since I became an adult.

The first dog we got was Cosmo, named by his rescue after Cosmo Kramer on the television show Seinfield. He was very gangly when we got him at 10 months, terrified of magazines, highly strung, with frequent vomiting and diarrhea. Undoubtedly my wife would have gotten rid of him given a chance, but I was determined to keep him. I’d been wanting my own dog since I was in college (starting back in the late Devonian) and had been waiting nearly 30 years to get one. I wanted a fairly big dog. My wife thought German Shepards looked scary , so we ended up with Cosmo, a smooth collie. He was everything I hoped he’d be – smart, trainable, and loving. His gastric problems lasted most of the first year, and I think were the result of a very traumatic puppyhood. I went through gallons of Nature’s Miracle (literally). He eventually grew to about 75-80 lbs, pretty big for a collie.

Cosmo, the first morning after we got him. 5 Years later Ryan (on right) would describe the evening Cosmo arrived as the best of his life.

A friend of my wife’s came over for dinner after we’d had Cosmo for a bit over a year and brought her basenji Odie. Cosmo played with Odie for hours. We decided Cosmo wanted a playmate, so we got another smooth collie from a rescue. Mandy was a sweet (but emaciated) dog who was 45 lbs when we got her: her ideal weight was 70 – 75 lbs. She was frightened of women (unusual in a rescue, they are usually frightened by men). She was not very trainable, but she could escape from anything if she wanted to. She was very loving and devoted to me. But after we’d had her a bit over 2 years she had kidney failure at the young age of 5 years. I wept many tears, but I euthanized her.

Cosmo and Mandy at a local park.

We all missed Mandy, but no one missed her more than Cosmo. He adored the ground she walked on, and he went into a deep funk. He mourned her for many months. Those who claim that dogs don’t mourn are idiots or fools. Chris Bach, the nationally famous dog trainer, told me that if Cosmo appeared to mourn it was because I was not a sufficiently dominant leader. She should know better.

We finally decided to get another dog, another smooth collie. Harley was not very bright, but he was full of energy and always wanted to party. He was terrified of anything stick-like, and of newspapers. He was friendly with people but didn’t care for other dogs. It took several years for him to bond to Cosmo, and vice versa. He was more trainable than Mandy, but not as bright. Mandy wanted a loving, quiet life: Harley wanted to live in a frat house and party non-stop. When he was about 5 he started having back problems, due to a diseased disk. I put him on an anti-inflammatory and stopped carting with him. He deteriorated slowly, but before when he turned 7 I knew he wasn’t going to last another 2 years. In the end, it was not his disk that did him in, he got cancer. He started bleeding sporadically from the nose, and went weak and anemic. This time my daughter came with when I brought him in to the vet’s to euthanize. He was not quite 8.

Cosmo and Harley at home

My friend who had gotten us hooked up with Cosmo was a breeder. When her bitch was about to whelp she asked me if I wanted one of the pups (she ended up with 10 puppies!). I declined, because I doubted Harley would enjoy having a puppy around, and he was already somewhat infirm. Nearly 5 months after the bitch whelped I put Harley down. My wife had announced she didn’t want a rescue, she wanted a dog with known good genetics. I called my friend just before I put Harley down: it turned out she still had 3 puppies. Two could be conformance champions, the other was sound but had ears that were too floppy for conformation. I knew her genetics would be good, so I asked if we could purchase the puppy with the floppy ears. I warned her that I would have the dog neutered very quickly, and my friend agreed. That dog is Suki, named by my son and daughter. Suki is Japanese for “beloved one”.

Suki: 55 lbs of pure energy at the dog park moving at the speed of light

At one year Suki was far and away the most athletic dog I’ve owned. She’s nearly as smart as Cosmo. Suki clearly believes that every human on the planet is wonderful, and the universe is a very friendly place. She is generally very happy to train, and is partially responsible for Cosmo coming out of his (fairly modest) depression over losing Harley. It has been strange for me to have a dog that did not start out traumatized.

Cosmo and Suki at the dog park (with some human and canine friends)

In 2005, many months after Suki came to live with us I started teaching her to cart. Shortly after starting her training I was chatting with someone in the dog park who invited me to bring my dogs to their mushing club. Cosmo, who had been carting for years, instantly despised mushing. Suki thought she’d died and gone to heaven. We got into mushing in a big way. By two years later Cosmo was looking very old, appearing near death (and suffering from bullying by Suki). I convinced my wife to allow me to add another dog to our menagerie and I began looking for an adult dog. I tested a lot of collies for interest in mushing but ended up getting a Samoyed my kids named Zephyr (after the Greek god for the west wind). Zephyr was about 15 months old when we got him, a stray from Calumet City that reeked from the garbage in which he’d apparently been scavenging for months. Zephyr has been a ray of sunshine. Suki stopped bullying Cosmo, and Zephyr and Suki play with such ferocity they look ready to kill each other. Zephyr and Suki now comprise my mushing team, and when they get going it is a delight to see. We entered our first race in December 2007 and finished a respectable 10th (in a field of 25) despite their relatively diminutive size compared to the other dogs, and despite the fact that we were running against 4 dog teams comprised mostly of dogs bred to do just that job.

Cosmo, Suki, and Zephyr hanging together in the snow (waiting for treats)

In early 2009 Cosmo, just over 11 years old, began declining. By early March it appeared his time had come. The vets couldn’t pin down the cause: why was he succumbing to every infection that presented itself, why was he suddenly so thirsty, why was he having so much trouble digesting food? In early March I had scheduled his euthanizing; but then he had a partial recovery. He was lethargic, but not as lethargic. He gained back much of his weight (thanks to copious quantities of rice cooked in broth, white bread, and mashed potatos). But by June he appeared to be uncomfortable much of the time, and I finally brought him in to the vet and put him down. Cosmo was the first dog I ever trained, the first dog my wife or kids had lived with. He’d seen my son leave first grade and complete half of high school, my daughter leave grammar school and finish half of college. Cosmo has been gone about 2 weeks as I write this, and it seems that Suki and Zephyr have finally stopped grieving. Suki in particular surprised me: when Cosmo needed to go out near the end she would come get someone, and stopped pushing him aside when we pet him. Her grief seemed to run deeper than Zephyr’s.

In late 2010 Zephyr went in to liver failure. A lot of money and a week in an ICU brought Zephyr back to the land of the living. Suki was depressed the whole time Zephyr was in the hospital, and joyous when he returned. After a long convalescence Zephyr seemed to fully recover, and we returned to pulling sports at the end of the 2010-2011 season. By late 2011 it became obvious that Suki was no longer enjoying pulling, so my entire team was comprised of a single Samoyed.

In May 2012, however, Zephyr's liver problems unexpectedly returned, and this time we could not save him. After a short illness he died. There is a painful hole in all our lives as none of us anticipated Zephyr's departure, but Suki is especially wounded. Zephyr seemed in robust good health, then barely a week later he was dead.

After five months of searching we found another dog from Rover Rescue.

Here is our dog Vita,relaxing in the snow.

She is part Golden Retriever, maybe some Husky, and maybe some Sheba Inu. She is an awesome mushing dog. She and Suki aren't great pals, although they seemed to have worked out an agreement. Suki just seems … old. I'm not sure how much of that is due to her retirement from mushing (she gets a lot less exercise), her arthritis, or her missing her buddy Zephyr. Suki tried bossing Vita around and grossly overplayed her hand; now Vita is clearly top dog.

On 22 June we went to O'Hare airport and picked up our new dog, a Samoyed rescue from Utah. The lady who placed him thought he was going to be a difficult placement because he was so high energy. As a nod to our much missed Zephyr we named him Gusty. He was underweight, his fur was in poor condition due to poor nutrition, but his attitude charmed us all. His skills in harness were truly incredible, and poor Vita was having trouble keeping up.

In late July 2014 Suki died. When I left for work in the morning she seemed distressed; shortly after I left for work my wife brought her to our vet. She died shortly after arriving at the clinic from spleen torsion.

By 2017 we had moved to California. Vita decided she was too old to mush, and so like many old mushing dogs she was enthusiastic about running for about a quarter mile, and no further. But Gusty seemed to love running more and more every year. Here we are as the lone entrant in the skijoring category for the lone certified race in California. We finished with a pretty respectable time … which technically means we are the championship skijoring team for California in 2017.

Here is Gusty out of the starting chute in Chester, CA.

Gusty is so excited about running that if I start preparing to leave for mushing while he is eating food, he will leave the food. We have mushed by the ocean, in the high desert, in the mountains … anywhere it is flat enough and cool enough.

I don’t think dogs are nearly as stupid as most people think. Cosmo remembered Mandy when I brought Mandy’s nylon collar upstairs 5 years after she died. At least, he certainly seemed surprisingly interested in the smell. All the dogs we’ve brought into the house have figured out in minutes that I am “the boss”. As my wife’s attitude towards dogs has changed, they’ve responded appropriately. The doggie IQ tests I’ve seen test for human intelligence in dogs, which seems to me a very poor model. A more reasonable test, I think, is how quickly dogs are able to learn what they need to know to make their lives better. They learn that very quickly indeed: who to avoid, who to seek out, what to do publicly, what to do privately, how to read the moods of the humans who swarm around them and what behaviors will obtain the things they crave (like treats).

I have friends who will not own another dog because the memory of the devastation brought on by the death of an earlier canine friend is so painful. I cannot criticize them for that. But I can say that the joy I feel when my wolfish partner expresses unabashed, unconfused, unapologetic love for me is one of the sweetest things in my life. Catholics are taught that dogs have mortal souls, and so cannot go to heaven. If that is true then there can be no perfect heaven because it could not be perfect without dogs.

I grieve deeply for the dogs I have lost. But I will not let the pain of that loss be what I most remember. I do not regret any dog I have brought into my life, and believe that they have made me a better person for having shared time with me. I will not soon forget Cosmo & Mandy quietly instructing me that shouting at my kids was not appropriate behavior, nor how Cosmo pointed out a meteor in the evening sky: nor can I forget Mandy’s lesson on how to approach an unruly errant youngster (in her instance, the neighbor’s poorly behaved puppy). Harley and Mandy both taught me things about trust and Harley was quite instructive on how to deal with age’s infirmaries. Zephyr's lust for life was infectious. Suki taught me to respect the power and limits of education and to never, ever underestimate the emotional depth of a dog. Dogs make excellent teachers because they are both loving and guileless.

Gary Hughes-Fenchel December 2005 and Jan 2008 and June 2009 and February 2013 and ...