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For Gunner, With All My Love

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Some of you already know, but I made the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make on Friday 10.30.15. I made the decision to put my sweet boy to sleep and set him free from his old body.

I had been struggling with this decision for quite awhile and everyone told me I would just know when it was time. I prayed they were right. I prayed Gunner would tell me when it was time, though he was such a stubborn, crotchety old boy that I knew he probably wouldn’t. There were a few moments during his last days where he would  lick my hands clean, then lay his head on my lap and I knew it really was time. It was such a faint feeling though, because I didn’t want to see it. I didn’t want it to be time yet and I kept my doubts strong.

His accidents grew more frequent and he almost couldn’t get up the ramp anymore to go outside. The nerve damage in his rear end had made it so hard for him to move around. The length of our boat was about as many steps as he could take before he would lay down and rest again. When he stopped eating his food, I knew his body was shutting down.

My sweet boy was 14.5 years old and his poor body just couldn’t keep up with his mind anymore. I know in my heart it was the best thing for him and it would have been selfish of me to keep him here any longer. Still, I wonder everyday if I made the right decision. I’ve lost loved ones in the past, but losing Gunner hurt so much more. He was my baby. I took care of him like he was my child.

I still can’t believe he is gone… I never knew my heart could hurt so much.

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I want to share the story of our time together.

It was the summer of my Senior year in high school, 2001. I had been wanting a large-breed puppy and had always grew up around dogs. My mom called me one day to tell me about this Weimaraner that needed a home. The breeder had just died of a heart attack and no one had found her, the momma dog or the puppies for three days. The breeder’s friend owned a kennel in Snohomish, Washington where she took the puppies in to find homes for them. Four whole months later, all but one had found homes.

This little boy was lanky and shy. He timidly came out to greet me in the parking lot. I was told that he was the last to get picked because of how big his feet were, meaning he was going to be the biggest one of the litter. How big could he really get? His floppy ears went past the end of his little nose and his little butt was so skinny. His legs were long but he was still so tiny.

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I just couldn’t leave him there! I just couldn’t bare to see his little sad face turn away from another stranger that didn’t want him. From that moment on he was glued to my side. I crate trained him early on but it only took a few nights for him to melt my heart enough to have him sleeping under the covers with me. Everyone knows weims are like velco, and that he was.

I left this little ball of energy with my grandparents for my first year of college at Western Washington University while I lived in the dorms. I would come home on the weekends to do laundry and see my sweet boy. He was so mischievous! His weim-crimes were frustrating but so loveable at the same time. He chewed a hole in the drywall once. I got him the toughest chew toys I could find and did what I could to train him and get him the exercise he needed. He loved to swim, chase the geese in our backyard and play with his toys. Most of my pictures from the early days are in photo books back in California but I have hundreds of pictures of him snuggled up in piles of clean laundry, on the couch and on my pillows. If you’ve ever been around Weimaraners, you know just how human they think they are. He loved popcorn and Cheetos, especially when my grandpa would sneak them to him.

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During the remaining years of college, I lived in houses with roomates and Gunner came up to Bellingham, WA to live with me. I remember there was this one lake we would go to and he would swim for hours retrieving sticks I threw for him. He loved every minute. He was like a small pony galloping around. I always felt safe with him by my side. It was a lot of responsibility to have him while working and going to school full time, but I think it was good for me. He kept me in line, as I did for him.

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After college we moved out to the countryside in Blaine, WA and lived on 20 acres. At one point we had a total of 6 dogs, 21 puppies, and 9 goats. Gunner loved his brothers and sisters – Magnum, Ayla, Missy, Aaron, Gage, and temporarily Remmi and Boone. During these years he learned to hunt and went for several-week long training camps with some other hunting dogs. He got a taste for what he was bred to do. Running through the tall grass and open fields chasing birds was what he loved the most. He could run so fast! He was so lean and shiny and muscly back then.

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A series of circumstances brought us down to Huntington Beach, California in the summer of 2008. Him and I soon found a little studio apartment in Costa Mesa where we grew to love the warm weather and sandy beaches. Another move to San Diego allowed us to finally meet Peter and Betsy in April of 2011. Ever since, it has been non-stop adventure!!

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We’ve taken several trips to Baja California, Mexico. We went camping in the Eastern Sierras where Gunner ran wild through the cow patties along the riverbed and roamed around near the campsite. We took a road trip up to see my family in Washington. We took the dogs through an Old Gold Mine and Peter had to carry Gunner up a tall rickety ladder. He’s gone swimming in the SoCal surf with his daddy and he went to the office with me to work on the weekends. He always loved going in the car, wherever we went. The adventures were endless.

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He was 12 when Peter and I decided to buy a boat and sail through the Caribbean. We knew he was getting old and that eventually the day would come when we would have to say goodbye, but there was never a doubt in our minds that he would come with us on our biggest adventure yet. We sold and donated most of our belongings, packed up the rest and drove across the country to our new home aboard a sailboat in Punta Gorda, Florida. It was that year that I first remember noticing his back feet drag a little during our evening runs. I found this amazing harness that made getting him on and off the boat a breeze. After four months on the dock we untied the lines for good and headed to the Bahamas!

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We sailed through the Bahamas, past Turks and Caicos, along the North coast of the Dominican Republic, South coast of Puerto Rico, USVI, BVI and all the way down the Eastern Caribbean island chain to Grenada for our first hurricane season on the boat. We returned to the Virgin Islands that winter, back to Grenada this year and back to the Virgins again just a few weeks ago for a total of 5,000 nautical miles. Gunner got to run and swim on so many beaches and he smelled so many good smells on all the islands we visited. He ate fresh sashimi on many passages with us, said hello to some turtles and iguanas, and lived out his retirement by our sides 24/7 as we sailed around Where The Coconuts Grow.

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Luckily we were able to get him back to USVI where it feels most like home to us. We made a few trips to the vet and finally I decided it was time. For Gunner’s last dinner he got to eat fresh Mahi Mahi and sleep on the bed with us all night long. We stayed at a dock where we could run the air-conditioning all night and I swear he didn’t move a muscle. I cuddled with him the whole time.

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In the morning he got a bacon cheeseburger and fries for breakfast. I was so glad he had enough of an appetite for one more special treat. We had rented a car and drove him to a nice grassy place by the water where I let him walk around (only about 20 minutes) until he couldn’t take another step. He sniffed every single bush and tree. Then he rolled around in the grass before eating three mini cheeseburgers and some more fries for lunch. He knew something was different this day. I could finally see that he was ready. Staying was just too hard.

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We climbed back in the air-conditioned car, made a stop at a peaceful place by the beach and drove to the vet’s office. Up in the trees where we parked there were yellow and white butterflies everywhere! It was almost magical. Though I knew in my heart it was time, nothing could have prepared me for how much my heart would hurt from that moment forward.

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Everyone tells me I gave him an amazing life filled with love but it’s so hard to focus on the love when the pain is so thick. I didn’t want him to suffer anymore than he did already so I keep reminding myself that it was because of the love that we had for each other that I made the decision when I did.

Betsy is sad too. Her brother was her partner in crime and cuddle-buddy. She loved him so much. In the last few days I’ve found her sleeping in Gunner’s spot on the bed and even sleeping on the ground by the bed where he liked to lay. Just yesterday she was in the galley just standing there facing the corner. I don’t know what she was doing but that was his favorite place to be, probably because it felt like his crate. We are giving her some extra attention, knowing she is just as sad as us.

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Most of our sailing adventures are catalogued here on this blog, but there is still so much I haven’t posted yet. Eventually I’ll get around to posting all the pictures, but in the meantime I’ve put together a slide-show gallery of some of my favorite photos of Mister, my sweet, sweet boy:

For Gunner, With All My Love…

Thank you so much to everyone that has reached out with love and support. It truly does help to hear your stories – to know we are not alone but also to give us hope that someday our love for Gunner will help the heartache fade away… Even if we don’t respond, please know your words and prayers are appreciated during this hard time for our little family.

 

8 Reasons Why We Love The Help ‘Em Up Harness

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When we first moved aboard Mary Christine two years ago, it was an immediate challenge to safely get our biggest dog on and off the boat. For the first few months we lived at the dock which was relatively easy to help him in and out. We knew, however, that dock life wouldn’t last long and sooner or later we were going to have to figure out how to get all 75 lbs of him down into the dinghy and again back up from the dinghy while floating around at anchor.

Gunner was 12 at the time and we could already tell he was having trouble jumping as well as he used to in his younger years. Getting up onto the bed was harder for him and we knew it would only get worse as time went on. Luckily, I remembered a special harness my Grandmother had found years before while researching slings and lifting tools for her sweet little dachshund, Sophie, who’s back end had been paralyzed.

Blue Dog Designs makes a special patented hip lift harness called Help ‘Em Up with a front end handle and removable back end handle with two different styles for males and females. I determined from their sizing chart that Gunner would need a large and even though Betsy was still pretty young and agile, I ordered her a medium. I knew Betsy didn’t really need to wear a harness all the time, and she definitely didn’t have any mobility issues, but we decided that having some extra ‘hand-holds’ on her while under way would be very helpful.

The very minute we received them in the mail, Gunner began wearing the front half of the harness 24/7. We unclip the back half when not in use to prevent any chafe or discomfort while he is sleeping and moving around throughout the day.

These harnesses are definitely not cheap, running an average price of around $100 each but they are absolutely worth their weight in gold!! This harness is the single most necessary item I could ever recommend for anyone with large dog on a boat, or for any dog with mobility issues. Though Blue Dog Designs sponsored us with a small discount to write an honest review, I don’t receive any compensation for recommending this product.  I am so forever grateful for what it has done for us that I feel it’s my duty to spread the word to anyone that may also want to give their dog a little ‘help up’!

Here are 8 reasons why we love the Help ’em up Harness:

1. THEY’RE BREATHABLE

We live in the tropics where the hot sun is always beating down on us. I needed a solution for Gunner and Betsy that would cover the smallest amount of surface area on their bodies, yet still have all the proper supports. This design has neoprene pads lined with air flow material, allowing our babies to wear the full harness yet not be too hot.

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2. ALL MATERIALS ARE MARINE GRADE

Living on a boat in the marine air makes everything susceptible to corrosion. I was a bit concerned on how long the harness would last in this environment but after two years of hard use, there is no sign of deterioration. The stainless steel is marine grade and all the stitching is very durable. The straps and fasteners are high quality. You get what you pay for, and when you live on a boat this is very important!

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3. CAREFULLY DESIGNED SUPPORT POINTS

The adjustable nylon straps allow for a perfect fit. The edging on the pads are made with micro fleece and the pads themselves are made of neoprene. The straps are covered with neoprene sleeves to protect against chafe. The pelvic pad under the hip lift is adjustable and very soft. The support points are designed to distribute the weight perfectly and with gentle pads in all the right places, eliminating stress on joints in a comfortable and non-invasive way.

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4. OKAY FOR LONG-TERM USE

Although it’s best to remove the hip lift part of the harness at night or whenever possible to avoid chafe or discomfort, it is totally safe to leave it on as well. Our dogs like to curl up in a ball to get cozy and the straps do pull a bit differently when they are laying down but they never seem to be uncomfortable.

“What makes this dog harness truly unique is it’s designed to stay on your dog for extended periods of time. Unlike towels, slings or leashes that need to be rigged with each use, or ramps that have to be moved or adjusted, our harness is right at hand, whenever you need it. We believe if support isn’t there when your dog needs it, it’s just too late.” -Blue Dog Designs

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5. SAFETY IS KEY

Just like kids, pets are fast, wiggly, and they are often just out of reach. With the Help ‘Em Up Harness, they think they are out of reach but you have an extra handle to grab at the last second keeping them safe! Extra handles are important on a boat because we’re always in motion. The dogs have pretty good balance but there’s always a chance of an unexpected wave to send them flying. This harness is perfect for a little extra piece of mind.

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6. TRICKY LIFTING

Whether it’s getting the dogs over the lifelines to go swimming or to get on and off a dock, two handles are better than one! We’ve used the harnesses in some precarious places.

Also on a safety note, if our dogs were to fall overboard, we would be able to safely lift them back on board with this harness. It wouldn’t slip off like a traditional harness might, injuring them in the process. Gunner has slipped off the dock twice in the last two years and luckily he was wearing his harness so we had something to grab onto getting him out of the water. Bad things can happen and it’s always best to be prepared.

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One of the most important reasons it’s imperative that we have one of these for Gunner is to get him on and off the boat. It’s what everyone wants to know . Lifting a 75 lb dog on and off of a sailboat is ‘tricky’ to say the least.

Betsy doesn’t have any trouble jumping straight from the dinghy up on the deck of our boat all by herself, however she is almost 9 years old and sooner or later that big jump will be difficult for her. When that time comes, this is how we will Help Her Up:

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Gunner thinks he can make the jump still, but in reality there is no way that could ever happen anymore. At 14 years old, his back legs just don’t work. The key is that he actually wants to get up on the boat (or down into the dinghy) which helps tremendously. He initiates the process with a little forward momentum and gets his front legs up on the tube of the dinghy.

I can’t quite reach the main handle on the front half of his harness so I just grab the side of it instead. For this maneuver, it’s fine, though not ideal for all lifts. Peter lifts the rear handle and scoops him up on deck. The back end isn’t any more difficult than the front end, thanks to this harness. I swear it’s magic how weightless they feel when you use the hip lift!

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7. LESS PHYSICAL STRESS – for us and the dogs!

The dogs don’t hurt themselves trying to jump on their own, but most importantly we don’t throw our backs out trying to lift the dogs. Before Gunner started wearing the Help ‘Em Up harness, I would bend over, slip my arm under his belly, and hoist him up on the bed. It became a painful process for me trying to get all 75 lbs of him up off the floor. At the time we still had a Toyota 4-Runner and getting him into the back of the truck was just as hard on my lower back.

With the hip lift, I can remain upright as I give him a little boost. I can’t even find the right words to describe how much of a difference it makes, but it’s a night and day difference for sure.

8. RANGE OF MOTION

No doubt, we have an active lifestyle. Our dogs are active and they go everywhere with us. Though Gunner’s mobility issues from old age have recently limited his activity level, he still likes going on adventures. Even small ones.

Our first two years have been filled with many trips to the beach to go swimming or exploration missions on a new island. It’s wonderful that our dogs can wear the Help ‘Em Up harness during all of their regular activities without it getting in the way or being a nuisance at all. They both have very tolerant personalities but if it were uncomfortable in the slightest, they would both be trying to chew it off. I’ve always noticed a complete range of motion while they have the harnesses on which is reassuring to me that I’m not forcing them to wear something they don’t like.

In fact, the harness does much more than protect their regular range of motion. It actually increases the range of motion for Gunner! Within the last few months he has gotten to a point where he cannot walk more than a few steps without his back legs giving out and folding under him. The degenerative neurological damage that has affected him has made it so that he can only walk normally if I am carrying his back legs with the hip lift when we go for a walk. He tires quickly but as soon as I give a little lift, his front end speeds up as if he knows he isn’t being held back anymore. He can practically run faster than I can if I’m holding the hip lift. Without the harness, my heart breaks watching him try to go explore the nearby bushes and grass.

It was just a few months ago he could run wild down the beach on his own…

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It’s so hard for me to describe the miracles that these harnesses have created for us. We’ve been able to safely and comfortably bring our dogs wherever we go as we travel around the Caribbean Where The Coconuts Grow!

Be sure to check out Help ‘Em Up by Blue Dog Designs, or contact me for more questions!

 

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Denali: More Than Just A Viral Video

This morning I woke up to make coffee, then sat down to check my messages on the computer. I kept seeing this video called ‘Denali’ appear in my feed. Normally I don’t stream videos because of the bandwidth it takes to watch them, however I had a feeling this would be worth the data. It’s about this surfer/photographer, Ben Moon, who (together with a director and cinematographer) made a gorgeous video dedicated to his dog, Denali. (The article on littlethings.com gives a little more perspective and background on the video, as well as why it is is narrated by the point of view of Denali. Check it out HERE.)

I hit play and waited for the video to load. Sure enough, within the first two minutes my eyes were welling up. With tears streaming down my face, I clicked to share this post with you.
It’s more than just a viral video that will make you cry too. It’s more than incredible photography and cinematography. It’s more than a love story between a man and his dog.
This is a video that hits home for me with impeccable timing. Take a few moments to watch the video and come back to read why I shared this.

Though Gunner was 12 when we first brought him to the boat, we knew the day would come, eventually, when he would need to say goodbye. Over the last few months it’s become apparent to Peter and I that Gunner’s days are numbered. 

He’s been my sweet boy since the summer of my senior year in high school. He went off to college with me and guarded our home when I went off to work. He’s been on many adventures with me and I never considered even for a second that he was too old or too big to come with us when we made the decision to move onto a sailboat and sail away.

I’m not gonna lie… It’s not easy having a 75 lb Weimaraner on a sailboat, let alone a senior dog who is having trouble with his hips and his bowels. He can still hold his bladder well but he’s quickly losing the ability to know when he needs to go #2. We’re keeping him on a tight routine for trips outside to go potty on deck and it’s still mostly manageable but we know the situation isn’t going to get any better. Accidents happen when we’re least prepared, like when we are sleeping, or when we are trying to anchor, or even when guests are coming to visit.

I’ve been struggling how to write about this for awhile now. How do you know when it’s time? How do you know how much pain they are in? HOW DO YOU KNOW?!!?

I’ve never been through this with an old dog before. I’ve never been the one to have to make the decision. I can only pray that Gunner will make it for me and let me know, as Denali did for Ben Moon.

Until then, we show him as much love as we can each and every day.