You know the movie Good Will Hunting? There’s a scene where Matt Damon says to therapist Robin Williams that maybe he doesn’t want to call the woman with whom he had a great first date. Maybe, he doesn’t want the reality of her to overtake the perfection of her after their single date. Robin Williams tells him that perfection isn’t where you find the good stuff about a person. He shares that his own deceased wife farted in her sleep and never realized it. He never had the heart to tell her so he always told her it was the dog. It’s a great scene.

As they are laughing to tears about Robin Williams’ farting wife, the line I remember most comes next. Robin Williams says, “Ah, Will, that’s the good stuff.”

Black Lab puppy in fall leaves.
Solstice. Three months old and on her very first walk.

He didn’t miss all the ways his wife was perfect, but the wonderful nuanced ways she was imperfect. And individual. And uniquely herself.

I introduced my pup Solstice in a post when we first got on the road, but there I told the story of her adoption, her name and her personality. Today, it’s about what I’ll remember most. It’s about the good stuff.

“I Never Had to Call Someone So Fast”

When I adopted Solstice, she was my first dog as an adult. Like I do with most things I know nothing about, I did research. I bought a Dummies book about Labrador Retrievers and several training books. And I diligently read all the brochures and watched the DVD I got from animal control.

The information from animal control said that to help a pound pup bond, you should look into her eyes. Even though Solstice was a puppy—so not the typical pound animal who lost a known home—I took the instructions to heart. Every night before bed, I’d lay next to her and we’d look into each other’s eyes for one or two minutes.

To this day, I don’t know if that’s what caused her to over bond to me. Or if it was just her. But she did not like separation. To say the least.

Black Lab.
Separation was not permitted, even when I took a bath. If I let her, she’d be in the tub with me.

Before my job allowed us to bring our dogs to work, I didn’t like leaving her at home all day while I worked so decided to try doggy daycare. I was on the wait-list about 10 months before they had an opening.

Before she could attend, I first had to take her in for the staff to evaluate, to see if she’d be a good fit for their facility. The assessment lasted about 30 minutes and, after, they said Solstice was a dog with instigator energy. She’d approach a group of dogs, stir them up. Then leave.

Later as I thought about it, I decided it was a fair assessment. She often riled groups of dogs at the dog park. A minute later, she’d be done and we’d continue on with our walk. She never stuck around for the chaos she created.

But doggy daycare was willing to give her a chance. And we scheduled a trial day.

Black Lab with red, white and blue collar with stars.
One of her best lit pictures where you can see her brown eyes distinct from her black fur.

I got up early that day to get her to the facility. I dropped her off and drove 10 minutes to work.

When I arrived at work, the message light on my phone was blinking. Yep, doggy daycare asking me to return to pick up my dog. I talked to the owner who said she’d been in business 10 years and never called an owner so fast.

And the problem wasn’t that her instigator energy caused problems among the other dogs. The problem was she tried to take down their door, to dig through their cinder block walls to get back to me. They tried to engage her with other dogs, toys and attention. But nothing worked. She would not be distracted in her laser-like determination to be with her person. Separation was not an option.

But if you look on the positive side, I never once worried about her running off, never lost her at the dog park or on any off-leash walk.

Doggy Daycare: FAIL. Stuck by Her Mama: SUCCESS.

My Favorite Solstice Story

Another common aspect of dog behavior, I learned from my reading, is “humping.” Most of the time, it has nothing to do with procreation. Young litter mates will do it to each other. It’s their way to establish dominance. Solstice did it throughout her life, but especially in her younger years. She did it to both dogs and people.

Black Lab coming out of a stream.

Hiking on an Alaska summer day. She loved water whether a lake or a stream or a puddle. She walked through every puddle we ever passed.

One time my sister and I were watching a friend’s four-year-old. The little girl was laying on my living room floor watching a movie when Solstice started up with her humping nonsense. I yelled at her to stop.

The little girl didn’t like Solstice getting scolded. How do you explain humping to a kid that age? After thinking about it for a second, I told her that people were the boss of dogs. Dogs can’t be the boss of people. And when Solstice did that behavior, she was trying to be the boss.

A few minutes later, Solstice started humping the girl again. So sterner still, I told Solstice to stop and took her by the scruff of her neck.

The little girl, distressed, turned to me and said, “It’s okay. Solstice can be the boss of me.”

Ah, Will, that’s the good stuff.

December 2018

Solstice vomited on November 30, 2018. And, while I didn’t know it at the time, that was the first day on her path to the end. Six vet appointments in four different states, thousands of dollars in tests and medicine could not get her off that path. All the love I had to give could not get her off that path.

If saving her were possible, she be here now, head on my lap looking up with her big brown eyes asking if it’s time for another adventure.

Black Lab with two tennis balls at her feet.
Look, mom. I’m Queen of finding lost balls at the dog park. And carrying two in my mouth at once.

In the past five months she had a lot of bad days but she would rally and have good ones. Every time we were in a stretch of good ones, I would tell myself she was better. I would tell myself we have a couple years left.

But I knew. I knew.

The truth is she never fully recovered. Despite the rallies, when things started going bad again two weeks ago, I knew there wasn’t going to be another rally. I don’t know how I knew. But I did.

In the end, she’d lost 25 pounds. Her bones jutted out from beneath her skin and she hadn’t eaten a single morsel of food 10 days before her last day. Walks didn’t interest her, not even short ones.

Dog, Solstice, sitting in grass next to a portable desk.
I had no idea when I snapped this photo, Solstice only had a month left to live. We sat outside in a northern Alabama campground. She watched the world go by while I worked. Always by my side.

Every time I woke up, I would look to see if she was still breathing. In the last days, when I looked over I felt torn about what I wanted to find. It’s so strange to wish to find her not breathing at the same time desperately hoping she still was.

We were in a lovely Tennessee State Park and Solstice spent her last days laying in the leaves and dirt outside, sniffing the air whenever she wasn’t sleeping. She loved it as much as a dog that sick can.

May 2, 2019

My sister flew into Nashville on May 1, and Solstice and I drove to pick her up. My sister hadn’t seen her since February and saw a drastic decline. Because I was with her every day, I knew she’d gone downhill but hadn’t noticed how drastic it was. How really terrible she looked. But ever faithful, Solstice wagged her tail when she saw my sister.

We talked about it that night and decided to make an appointment the next day to get the vet’s opinion. Even though I’d only been in the area a week, I’d already taken Solstice to that vet’s office plus had talked to him two other times over the phone.

I feel so lucky to have gotten such a fantastic caring vet (Greenview Veterinary in Hohenwald, Tennessee). Dr. Hensley took one look at Solstice and said she was completely dehydrated and that’s why her face was sunk in. He said in just a week, he could see a marked decline in her and her appearance.

So, one thing I’d been wrestling with since she got sick five months earlier was deciding when it was time. Would I know? On the one hand I didn’t want her to suffer but on the other I wanted every last minute I could have with her.

He said two thing that really helped…

  • “To ask Solstice to stay for another two days, you have to be clear that you would not be asking for her sake, that would be for you.”
  • “Solstice has done her job here for you and now it’s time for you to let me do my job for Solstice.”

That, along with everything else he said, made things easier. Well, easier for an impossibly hard situation.

I said, “Okay, we’re ready.”

The Final Irony

And in a final cosmic gotcha moment, May 2nd is also Kitty’s birthday. She turned 16 on the day Solstice took her last breath.

Those two never liked each other. They simply tolerated the other’s presence. Solstice treated the cat like a play toy to bite, torment and general keep as far away from me as possible.

Black Lab with paw on top of a cat.
I was so happy I had my phone nearby when this one happened. Solstice was sleeping, rolled over and picked up her head. Can you see? Solstice actually rolled over on Kitty. Both still not acknowledging the other.

Considering the cat was in my house first, from her point of view, she totally got shafted on the day that Solstice got adopted. And every day since.

So, I have to smile a little to think Solstice’s last act was to ruin Kitty’s birthday. One last gotcha.

Goodbye, Solstice

My sister put it best. She said we had four thousand good days with Solstice, a million good moments and memories. Then we had one bad day. One excruciatingly painful sucky bad day.

At the end, as my tears fell on her face, I told her she was a good dog, that I loved her and that I’d miss her every day.

It’s supposed to get easier as the days go on. I know it will. I’m counting on it. I look forward to the day when I think about her with a smile on my face and not with tears in my eyes. It’s not today because today I am sad beyond words to express just how sad. And it won’t be tomorrow. But the day will come.

Solstice was found wandering at three months old on a busy street in Anchorage before she was taken to animal control. Except for those three months, she has been mine. We lived more than 10 years together in Alaska where her life was dog walks, birthday parties, sitting on the balcony watching the world go by, snow diving and summer swimming. We hiked, walked, camped and she came to work with me for a few years.

Then 18 months ago, she joined me for the journey of a lifetime and even bigger adventures. As a road dog, we traveled 25,000 miles together. On the road, Solstice got her first tick, met a litter of kittens, saw the Pacific Ocean, walked in the desert, visited National Monuments and State Parks, went nose-to-nose with a baby calf, walked up to a waterfall–twice, barked at thunderstorms and peed in 21 different states. It wasn’t long enough but it sure was a great life.

Happy Adventures and Farewell, my best good girl.

Black Lab in sitting in grass in front of a big tree.

Solstice: June 21, 2007 – May 2, 2019