Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Lessons learned from The Duke

Sometime in the fall of 2003 a friend of Brother Paul’s was driving from Colorado to California and had contacted Paul about stopping and spending the night at their house en route.  No problem, and the guy showed up in the early evening….and brought a guest.  Somewhere in the plains of eastern Utah he had driven past a small dog chowing on some road kill and the fact that there were no homes for miles made him spin around and go back to see what was up with this dog, that turned out to be a big puppy.  I don’t remember all the details about any attempts to find a local home, but the end result was that the puppy got a free hitch to Salt Lake City and, as it turns out, a new lease on a great life. 

The only catch of the nice guy picking up the dog was that he didn’t actually want a dog, and made it very clear that SLC was the end of the ride.  Paul and Janette already had a great dog and even as that dog was getting on in years there were no plans to get another.  The friend left in the morning quite pleased that he had saved the dog, and Paul and Janette were left wondering what they were going to do with this skinny, happy puppy.  They tried to get us to take him but we had long before decided that our lifestyle was not dog-appropriate, and they gamely contacted other potential dog folks for a couple of days.  I finally said something to the effect of “look, this seems like a nice dog, Kiva is not only pretty old but is pure white and this one is jet black so you get a bit of the yin/yang deal going on, and because Kiva’s nickname was (appropriately) The King and this dog was picked up in Duschesne (“Du-shane”) he is undoubtedly The Duke!”  By this time the puppy had endeared himself to all (but The King) and indeed he stuck around.

Duke had it good, and he knew it.  His humans were great, and even though the old white guy was a bit ornery, he could teach a lot about human-management, and Duke clearly absorbed it all.  It wasn’t long before Duke became a strapping lad himself, and when Kiva died unexpectedly a year or so later, the rightful heir gracefully assumed the throne. 

Everyone thinks their dog is great/the best/the smartest, but not even being one of his formal humans and as one who grew up with a lot of amazing dogs, I think it’s safe to say that Duke was The Best.  If for no other reason than I learned a lot from The Duke.

Like a lot of medium-big dogs, he was a good strong runner and loved to get out on adventures, and like most dogs, he loved to charge hard.  But his pace and charging was always a function of his human; he was happy to chug along behind patiently biding his time, but when you moved aside and said “Go!” he’d blast past with literally huge grin on face and absolutely tear down the trail…but not too far, ‘cause he wanted to get back and hang with you as well.  I remember well one night when we went skate skiing (well, he joined me; a remarkable dog, but not that remarkable) and I didn’t want him behind me with my pole tips and ski tails flinging around his zone, so I told him to go ahead, and he stayed 20 feet in front of me, and with my headlamp I saw the glow of his eyes turn back to confirm I was still tracking with him at almost exactly 1 minute intervals.  Recreating with Duke has always been a great reminder to (try, at least) be a good partner and keep good tabs on who you’re with and how they are doing, but when the appropriate opportunity arises, charge hard with a huge grin. 

Ironically, as good an athlete as he was, he wasn’t a good scrambler.  When the going got rocky and technical, the Duke got….weenie.  But the brilliant thing is that he didn’t care.  No whining; he’d just stop and look at you and basically say: “This is too tough for me.  I need help here” with no shame to that whatsoever.   Once over the obstacle, he’d bound away happier than before.  I really admired his ability to be acutely aware of his abilities and have a total lack of any insecurities about abilities that were beyond him, and marveled at the pleasure he received from being helped.  It was a good reminder to me to charge hard, but don’t go beyond my means, and if others are better/stronger/faster and/or can help me, that’s great and I’ll be as thankful as he was to have good partners. 
"man, slot canyons are challenging!"
 We had the good fortune to dog-sit the Duke many times over the years as his primary humans would (inexplicably!) go on some non-dog friendly trip, and Ash would ride to work with Duke running alongside.  Because he lived in a less-busy area Ash was a little worried about how he would do near more cars, but she quickly realized that he was fine:  he clearly recognized the hazards.  He pretty much told her “look, I get it:  cars are bad!  I will be predictable and stable in this chaotic environment.”  A great reminder to me that predictability and stability in the face of unfamiliar chaos are great characteristics to maintain. 

Whenever we’d go to visit the Duke and his humans he’d always grab one of his stuffed toys and bring it to us.  I honestly don’t think he really liked stuffed toys that much for himself (he was happy to give it up, and if you let him keep it he dropped it pretty quickly) but the fact that he honored our entrances by bringing us a gift was so damn endearing, and it made us feel special and welcome in his home.  a great trait, and Ash and I try to emulate it. 

As his muzzle greyed more and he wasn’t blasting down the trail quite as fast, he still loved to get out.  But in a variation on his younger years, he didn’t mind being behind:  “this is my speed, and I’m ok with it. I’ll catch up eventually, and no one cares.” He aged as gracefully as anyone I’ve seen, and as mine own muzzle greys, I’d be well-served to keep that in mind. 

Recently in a valiant attempt to keep his back legs strong enough to keep him ambulating his humans got him into a PT program that get him onto an underwater treadmill to keep his legs moving without his full weight. But as much as Duke loved exercise and charging, indoor activities on machines were absolutely no substitute for racing around outside on trails, and he let his humans know!  Hear hear, Sir Duke.

This past week The Duke’s humans made the inevitable decision to provide for him what we all wish we could do for our peers whose quality of life has diminished to an untenable level.  As rational beings that typically live about 7 times as long as a dog it’s what we sign up for eventually when we get a cute puppy, but it's still damn hard.   He was The Best Dog, and he’ll be sorely missed, but for me I hope his lessons live on.  Thanks to Paul and Janette for helping Duke to be such an important member of our community. 


  1. Duke was a great partner and buddy and we shared a lot of great adventures, some fresh cutthroat, and (one time only) a sleeping bag and minimalist thermarest. I forgave him for chewing up my sandals and he forgave me for hucking him off a cornice onto a bed surface when that was the only safe way down. He taught me that recovering from ACL surgery sucks but you don't have much choice and if you lick the wound you are going to get a collar put on, lessons that I later put to good use. Godspeed, Duke, and I'll keep trying to be the person you thought I was.

  2. Thank you Tom for such a great tribute. He love you and Ash beyond words. He will be missed. JD

  3. What a wonderful tribute Tom. Dana, Ruffwear pack

  4. What amazing joy (and later sadness) these great pals can bring to us! I’m sorry for your loss. I hope you cherish the many great memories that good Duke brought to you. In my dreams, he’d be romping with my old buddy Hailey in their full youthful vigor right now.