Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast
My niece walking my 110 pound Rottweiler, Mickey, many years ago. Mickey would normally drag anyone walking her, but she just knew to be gentle with my niece.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Grievance with Grief

Since posting about the passing of my boy, Bradum, I’ve received numerous messages of condolences and support, all of which I greatly appreciate.  One message, though, caught me off guard.  A social media friend sent me a note asking how I deal with the grief of losing a pet.  You see, my friend had lost his dog just five days after Bradum had passed, and it impacted him so much so that tears would flow without warning.  It took a long, pre-sunrise walk with Carly for me to sum up my response to his query. Even now I’m not sure I answered him in a way that helped. How does one explain how they handle grief and what is the best way to comfort someone who is grieving, especially when they live a great distance away?

Before I share my response to his inquiry, I must state that part of what hit me with his note wasn’t his question itself but that he would ask me.  Am I an expert on the topic of grief at the loss of a dog? God, I hope not, but after losing seven dogs in twenty-two years, perhaps I have a little more experience than others.  I will share what I can and hope it helps my friend and any others who face the void left when a beloved pet dies.
To give justice to my answer I need to go back to when I was a kid on the ranch.  Death was a part of everyday activities.  I remember helping my parents attempt to save an orphaned calf, only to walk up in the morning to bottle feed it and find its lifeless body.  With livestock there was some level of detachment but not much, at least not for me.  I worked with these animals, and my brothers and I helped raise some of the orphaned calves, only to end up selling them for slaughter.  I don’t regret those events: it was simply life on the ranch.  When you add to that the game hunting my family did, it raised my awareness of the fragility of life all the more.  Seeing something die is one thing but to take a life is another. I’m thankful my dad taught my brothers and I that we must respect the animals we hunt, even thanking them for the meat they provide after the kill. Though my dad got into trophy hunting it was never my thing; I hunt to put meat in the freezer.  The old adage that you can’t eat antlers is one I still live by.  Though I enjoy hunting, the act of taking a life never fills me with pleasure.  Rather, it is a job, a task that needs to be done and I ensure I perform the task as efficiently as possible.  Nothing twists my emotions more than having to walk up to a wounded animal, to look it in the eyes, and then to have to finish it off.  It is a mix of emotions for me: on one side, sadness that the animal suffered in any way and on the other, anger that my first shot wasn’t effective in preventing that suffering. 

I know that my emotional connection with the animals I hunted came from an incident that occurred long before I could hunt.  I was in grade school when the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks asked if we would foster a fawn deer and antelope that had been orphaned when their mothers had been killed.  The policy nowadays would be that the babies be euthanized, but back then the FWP had a facility where orphans were kept, almost like a zoo.  At the time they were out of space at the facility so they asked my dad if we could help.  I remember bottle feeding both animals, but without their mothers their chances of survival were slim.  Sure enough, the deer died first, then the antelope.  I remember seeing the antelope fawn take its last breath and it haunted me in ways I still can’t describe.  It wasn’t a fear of death, mind you, but the full acceptance of how fleeting life can be.

Now, these stories were about animals I didn’t have much connection to yet I still felt somber at their ends.  When our family dogs passed away, though, I really experienced true grief. In high school and college, I was spared such grief by not having any dogs of my own.  It wasn’t until 1994, when I got my first two dogs, that I bonded with animals whose ends caused an extreme impact.  Taz went first, suddenly and without warning at age four.  I still don’t know what happened, I just know that I was devastated.  When Mickey’s turn came after ten years, I had tried to prepare myself, but her passing left me depressed and prone to sudden tears at just the mention of her name months later.  I used to be ashamed of this and never shared the reality with anyone.  It was when I was talking with a good friend and fellow Rottweiler owner, that I saw I was not alone in my emotional connection with a pet.  My friend was and still is in law enforcement and is one of the toughest people I know; however, for more than a year after the passing of his female Rottweiler, a dog that was a part of his wedding, my friend still teared up when talking about her.   This helped me to realize that my grief was normal and even stronger with dogs because of one thing - time.  You see, when my dad died I grieved but not nearly to the depth I did when Mickey died.  This wasn’t because I didn’t love my dad -  far from it -  it was just that I had spent so much more time with my dog than I had my dad in the years prior to his passing. The sudden absence of Mickey from my life was more of a shock to my system. 

As time went on, I took in more rescues and experienced loss upon each of their passing’s.  Most dogs I adopted were older so my time with them was short.  There was one stretch in which I lost three dogs in three years.  This compounded loss felt as if I had been repeatedly hit in the gut without the opportunity to catch my breath.  Still, I learned from it. 

One lesson I learned was to pre-plan for having to put a dog down. Having a plan helped offset the shock a little when the time came.  Also, by pre-planning, I pre-grieved.  What does this even mean? Well, when my girl Belle had bone cancer I knew I would have to set a date to have her put down before her leg became so weak that the bone broke.  Mentally and physically, besides her leg, she was in good health.  Still, I had made the decision that Belle would go with dignity and that I would pull her from the game before the cancer beat her.  The problem with this plan was that for the three weeks leading up to it, my mind dwelt on what was coming.  I would sob late at night as she snored next to me, knowing that soon I would have to end her life.  Yet those weeks of grieving before the event helped somewhat.  The pain of the act itself was as severe as always, even the few days afterwards were hard, but I bounced back faster than I had before.  Why? I believe it was because I had already released much of my sadness.   

The above was part of my answer to my friend: pre-planning and pre-grieving.  But the biggest thing that helped me through such times was still having another dog in my home.  The other dog was grieving, as was I, at the loss of their pack member and they looked to me as the alpha to lead on.  That remaining life, that companion, still needed me to walk them, to feed them, and to love them.  This, in my experience, is probably the best cure for the loss of a pet
Carly and I on an early morning hike last weekend.
Since Bradum’s passing, Carly and I have been working through this process, with my efforts on building her confidence and focusing on getting some of her remaining issues resolved.  When the time comes, when the right dog needs a home, my pack, and my heart will be ready to take them in, all the while knowing that at some point I will have to say goodbye.  I guess that is what life is really all about, hellos and goodbyes.  We can count how blessed we are by how many of those hellos and goodbyes we experience with both the people and the animals we love.

If you want to know more about my efforts as a writer, be sure to check out my Facebook and Twitter pages.  You can also learn more about me at my website  There you can also purchase my first novel, Stranger’s Dance.  For those outside North America, Stranger's Dance is available through Amazon UK and Amazon JP in both Kindle and paperback.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Comfort Zone

“Here are the classifieds, find a job. You aren’t spending your summer watching TV.” My mom tossed the newspaper in front of me, and her tone made it clear her command wasn’t simply a suggestion. It was my first summer in Oregon with my mom and stepdad, the result of my parents’ divorce five years earlier and due to the fact that mom had gotten a job in Gresham, Oregon.  All my prior summers had been work-filled on the ranch, starting in the spring with branding and moving cattle to high country pasture at the top of MacDonald Pass. Once the cattle were gone, I was busy irrigating every day after school until summer break started.  Once summer commenced, preparing equipment for haying season went into high gear.  July was filled with weeks of putting up hay, and the rest of the summer was made up of fence repairs and other tasks necessary to maintain a ranch. It all came full circle when the cattle were brought back to the ranch.  In Oregon there were no such demands on my time, much to my enjoyment, at least until the moment that newspaper landed in front of me like a prison sentence.

“There are a lot of restaurants looking for dishwashers or waiters,” Mom opined from the kitchen.  I mumbled my disfavor at those possibilities and opened up the classified ads to see what options existed. Row after row of jobs, some with good pay, greeted me, but only one caught my eye. Buck bales, clean stalls and a number to call.  Mom came over to check my progress.

“Find anything?” She asked as she dried her hands on a dish towel.

“Yeah, I’ll call this one tomorrow morning,” I said, pointing to the ad.

“Why that one? There have to be better jobs out there.”

“Because that one will be around animals and it’ll be out in the country.  Why would I want to flip burgers if I could do ranch work instead?” 

Mom shook her head and left.  My stubborn nature had long been known to her so she chose not to fight my decision, content that I would at least be doing something that didn’t involve the TV or playing hoops with the neighborhood kids. 

The phone call the next morning put me into contact with an elderly man named Kernel, who had a Simmental cattle and Appaloosa horse ranch south of town. Though a good five inches shorter than me, Kernel carried his nearly seventy-year-old frame as though he stood ten feet tall.  I learned later that he was a retired school teacher and still taught driver’s education courses, which explained the calm but confident demeanor he projected. With a faded yellow ball cap tilted to one side, Kernel gave me a tour of his small spread while telling me what was expected for the job.  The first duty would be to clean the six stalls in the barn each morning, followed by feeding and watering his prize Appaloosa horses.  When that was complete I would be expected to help load forty-five-pound hay bales onto a trailer pulled by a Chevy truck that looked like it was one gear shift from the junkyard.
When he was done explaining the duties, he asked if I wanted the job.

“When can I start?” I answered.

“Right now if you want.” He pointed me to the barn. “You know you’re the first local kid to answer my ad.  I usually only get the migrant workers.  The kids around here would rather wait tables; seems it is cooler to do that than shovel manure and buck bales. Why you doing it?”

I shared that I had grown up on a ranch, so working around horses and cows was as comfortable to me as anything.  Kernel nodded his head and the deal was done.

For three summers and a few Christmas breaks, I worked for Kernel.  I don’t know how many tons of hay I bucked or how many wheelbarrows full of horse manure I mucked, but it was all good.  After the first month, I apparently earned enough of Kernel’s trust that he asked if I would go with him to horse auctions around the state.  Jumping at the chance, I said yes, though I later learned that Kernel just wanted me to tag along so he could have someone drive him home since the auctions ended late and he tended to doze off that far into the evening. Still, it was fun to be around cowboys, ranchers, and the simple, almost forgotten world of rural America. For summers away from my beloved Montana, I truly did enjoy my time working for Kernel.

One of my fondest memories of those summers were the battles that ensued between myself and Kernel’s horse, Rock.  The big stud Appaloosa was a proud and mischievous cuss who challenged me the first time I dared enter his stall.  Growing up with horses, I was never afraid but knew well enough to pick my battles and not become careless around the fifteen-hundred-pound equine attitude problem. 

After several weeks, Rock accepted me, and we fell into a morning routine that, to this day, makes me smile when thinking about it.  After cleaning stalls, I would toss a couple bales of hay down from the loft to feed all of the horses.  They knew what was happening the moment I started to climb the ladder, so by the time I had climbed back down and was cutting bale strings, the whole herd was excited.  Carrying armfuls of hay to each manger, I would go down the line until I came to Rock’s stall.  Now, here is where things became interesting.  You see, Rock was a little impatient and had a nasty habit of biting if his breakfast wasn’t served quickly enough.  Rock’s bite wasn’t just a playful nibble; it was a full on bite that would leave one heck of a mark.  After learning this painful lesson for the first time, the following day I waited for Rock to lean out to try and grab my arm. Then, with a quick flick, I slapped his nose.  The slap wasn’t strong but it contained enough force to cause Rock to pull back and shake his head in annoyance.  This would go on a few times before he would back off, allowing me to finish delivering his meal in peace.   

As the daily battle between Rock and I occurred, and I realized that Rock was actually enjoying the game.  He would try different approaches in his sneaky horse-like attempts at gaining the upper hand.  Each time, I would insert my counterattack and the volley would be exchanged prior to me placing hay in the manger. 

One day while feeding, I was unaware that Kernel was watching us.  As I got to Rock’s stall, the game started in earnest and Rock was a bit more cantankerous than normal, though I now suspect it was because he knew his rider was present.  After two attempted bites by the horse and my retaliatory slaps to his nose, I heard a voice boom behind me.

“What the hell are you doing picking on my horse?!” 

I turned, wide-eyed, figuring I was about to be fired at best or have my butt kicked at worst.  Yet, when I glanced at Kernel, I spied a glint in his eye that betrayed his false gruffness. 

“He started it,” I said, pointing to Rock.

 “Yeah, I don’t doubt it.  Rock has a knack for that.” Kernel laughed.

It was in that moment I knew I had found my perfect summer job.  Following the three summers I worked for Kernel, I had to say goodbye as I headed off to attend school at Montana State University.  I never saw Kernel or Rock again, but I’m thankful I got to know both of them. Mostly, though, I’m thankful I went with my gut in choosing that job over what everyone else my age was doing.  Perhaps that is the lesson in it all.  Hard work, doing something you love, really isn’t hard work at all.  In fact, it is a blessing compared to doing easy work that you hate.

My battles with Rock were an inspiration for the relationship between Jim and Comanche, characters in my second novel, Lost Horse Park. I’m currently finishing its final edits and will be soliciting publishing agents later this month. If you want to know more about my efforts as a writer, be sure to check out my Facebook and Twitter pages.  You can also learn more about me at my website  There you can also purchase my first novel, Stranger’s Dance.  

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

One in a Million

“Of all the animals I get to work on, Rottweilers are the hardest.  They just don’t let you know when they’re hurting and when they do it’s too late.”  Dr. Spencer Anderson spoke with a downcast face as he walked into the exam room on Monday morning, August 1, 2016. He knew the moment he saw my old Rottweiler, Bradum, that things were not good.  We had been trying for a month to figure out why he had digestive issues.  All the usual treatments and exams had failed to produce any definitive results. Then, in just twelve hours, my boy declined in energy and awareness.  At the end of two hours at the veterinary hospital, a diagnosis of Lymphoma was determined to be the most likely culprit.  Bradum was shutting down.  Spencer, a dear friend, has always been upfront with me in providing options, as he knows I’ve been down this road many times, the last three with him there assisting my pets in passing. I knew that anything we did would be a long shot, and I wasn’t going to put my boy through that, preferring, as always, to let my dogs go out with some dignity.  They are Rottweilers after all.
Handsome Bradum
I got Bradum in March 2012 from Big Sky Rottweiler because his family was moving and unable to take him with them.  I wish I could take credit for his wonderful obedience and social skills but I can’t.  He came to me about as perfect as a dog can be. I might have polished a few things and switched his commands to German, but really, he was about as good a dog as I could have hoped for.

At six-years-old and 120 pounds, he was a burst of energy and vitality that had been absent in my life for quite some time.  My last senior dog, Griz, had passed a month prior, after thirteen wonderful years with me.  My remaining dog, Grace, was nearly blind and partially crippled from an injury that occurred long before I adopted her.  Bradum, though, was the rough and tumble goofball that I hadn’t enjoyed in many years.  Games of tug were his favorite pastime, and his growls and exuberance only added to the fun.  Any visiting guest was greeted by Bradum with a big tug rope in his mouth, the invitation very clear.  Few turned him down.

I don’t know if Bradum had come from special breeding, I just know he was a special dog.  Yes, I know all dogs are special, but on occasion one stands out among the rest.  Everyone who met Bradum, even fellow Rottweiler owners, commented on how amazing Bradum was. 

“One in a million,” a friend said, describing Bradum after their first meeting.  Yes, I tend to agree.  Though I never did any advanced training with Bradum, I’m confident he could have been a great therapy dog.  I know this because I used Bradum to teach kids how to approach dogs safely for the Bozeman Police Department at many of their events.  I also used him as my demo dog when teaching classes to law enforcement and animal control officers.  Each time Bradum was the inevitable hit of the show.  His massive size and intimidating head and markings were all quickly ignored by anyone who met him as his butt wiggled excitedly to say hi.
Bradum with Bozeman Police Dept. Animal Control Officers, JD and Connie

Bradum getting loved on by the kids at National Night Out

Using Bradum to teach kids how to safely approach dogs at a law enforcement event

Teaching a class with Bradum and Carly

For four years, five months and six days, Bradum was my closest friend.  Even after his pushy and rather annoying little sister, Carly, arrived, Bradum still managed to be the center of my pack.  He was the calm, confident one who helped balance the chaos of my world and Carly’s intensity.  If it wasn’t for Bradum’s tolerant yet dominant persona, it would have been difficult to get Carly to the point she is at now.  Having such a steady rock in the pack makes working with a challenging member so much easier.  For that I will be forever grateful to Bradum.
Bradum and Carly shortly after I adopted her

As I saw Bradum’s muzzle grow grey over the last year, I knew my time with him was limited.  Having owned Rottweilers since 1994, I know that anything over eight years of age is a blessing.  The dreaded cancer is so prevalent amongst the breed. At age eleven, I had hoped for perhaps one or two more years with Bradum but that was not to be.  The decline happened so quickly, as is often the case with dogs, that there wasn’t much I could do about it other than prepare as best I could. Even as Spencer was running the final blood work, I was looking up information for pet cremation services in the valley.  I have been down this road too many times and I knew the decision I was going to have to make. Spencer didn’t try to talk me out of it; he knew it was the right decision as well.  As he left to prepare a shot to try and make Bradum more comfortable until he came to my house that evening to assist with the farewell, many of the staff members poked their heads into the room, asking if I needed anything before I left.  Some just coming into the room to pet Bradum and say goodbye. When I was ready to go they let me walk Bradum out through the back to avoid the waiting room.  Several of the staff struggled to hold back tears, as did I. 

Once home, Bradum collapsed in the laundry room, exhausted from the morning and the short walk from the car.  Carly took up a guard position outside the laundry room door.  She knew something was wrong. After a while, Bradum had the energy to get up for a drink then to walk a few feet into the dining room, where he slept some more.  This was the pattern throughout the day.  Walk a little way, rest.  Friends and family stopped by.  When my stepdad came, Bradum wagged his tail for the first time the entire day.  He really loved his Grandpa Phil.  More people stopped by.  Bradum had the energy to greet visitors, but he often needed to sit or lay down after just a minute or so.  Between visitors I cried, usually when Bradum had retired to a section of tile where he couldn’t see me.  Carly was confused, going from being on the couch next to me to a place on the floor from which she could see both Bradum and I. 
Bradum loved Grandpa Phil
As the time drew near, Carly became more hyper-vigilant, her protection instinct coming out in full force as my mom arrived, followed by my friend Mike. Her normal friendly greeting at the door was replaced with deep barks and growls until I allowed each person in.  She did the same when Spencer arrived, though by then I had her on a leash. 

Bradum had retired to the tile in the laundry room at this point.  That was where he would end things.  I had no interest in trying to coax him out to the living room where the guests were.  I wanted him to go on his terms.  Like a true Rottweiler, Bradum clung to life as hard as he had his tug rope.  It took a double dose of sedative before he finally slept long enough for the fatal drugs to be administered.  I was lying next to him, whispering in his ear, telling him to go get his tug.  His face twitched as I spoke.  God, I hope he was playing tug in his dreams at that moment.
Heavy breaths.
Deep sigh.
Bradum, End of Watch:
1-AUG-16, 1922hrs.
After letting Carly sniff her brother and then allowing my mom some time with Bradum, my closest friends, Mike and Brett, helped me place Bradum on a litter left by Spencer, who had departed after confirming that Bradum was gone.  Spencer prefers to leave people to grieve as long as needed.  With the care and respect due a Rottweiler, my friends placed the large tug that I had near Bradum on the litter with him. They then carried him to Brett’s truck, and he and I drove Bradum to the crematorium.  Bradum’s largest and newest tug went with him as was only fitting.  I hope he is playing with some of the other dogs with that tug.  I know I will miss those games as much as anything else. 

Rest easy Bradum, I'll see you soon.

Troy B. Kechely