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  • Mark Shupe


The following is a long post. There are only two kinds of people who should invest the time to read it. Those who don't like dogs.

And those who do.

I had always hated dogs. I found them noisy, painfully, rambunctious, disturbing creatures that caused more trouble then they were worth. If it had been up to me I would never have gotten one.

But then in the midst of family turmoil with a number of company moves across the country, I thought a dog might help us through tough times.

I had no idea how true this would be.

The family was shocked when I suggested getting one. They didn't believe me. They thought I wasn't sincere. But I persisted and they began to believe. We almost bought a snarky little Yorkie at market mall in Calgary, because the family was sure I would renege on the promise and wanted to seal the deal quickly. The older boy convinced everyone this wasn't the case and with a lot of research helped us decide on a West Highland Terrier, a Westie. I had never heard of such a beast. But that decision wold change everything.

Thunder and I guarding the street from Thunder's perch.

We gathered together in our 2009 Tucson, smaller that the current model, but big enough to fit the family at that time. (It wouldn't now, with two muscle men of boys who tower over me, and a daughter who also towers over me if I slouch.) We drove to a breeder at a farm south of Edmonton. It was a beautiful spot, well-landscaped, greenery everywhere. We were taken to a pen with a number of Westies. They were all jumping up to greet the humans that came to visit. One of my fears for a dog was the guilt of bringing him home from the natural world and making him a captive. and yet they seemed so excited to see the humans. My original instinct was to get a female, to be less rambunctious. But after some research, I learned the more behaved Westie was the male. Perhaps there is a social commentary there but I dare not make it. We were narrowed down to two choices, one overly rambunctious, yappy, dog, that the owners tried to convince us to take.

And my little buddy.

There was no choice. My little buddy, was calmer, but had an intelligence and sensitivity in his eyes, I still can't forget. We held off the rhetoric, and chose the dog we all agreed was right for us.

We could not be more right. For 13 years, he has been the centre of everything of our family, binding us together, sometimes frustrating us chasing magpies or fedex trucks or his favourite, the snowplow, but always making us glow inside with his warm greetings. We never trained him properly, but it didn't seem to matter. He generally had better manners that most humans. Certainly more than people who ride bicycles regularly.

In the ride home in the Tucson that August in 2009, he was so scared and I felt so guilty for taking him from his home. We discussed a name and one son suggested Thunder. The name would be prophetic. A lightning storm proceeded, and the flashes of lightning were the same colour as his fur coating.

Thunder it was. The irony was to the end, Thunder was afraid of thunder. And when it came, it tore my heart to see him shaking.

We all bonded with him immediately. I made the kids sign a contract outlining their duties, though my wife bonded so deeply with him, she took over the majority of their contractual obligations.

The next day we went to a walkathon and the number of people who said he was the cutest thing they'd ever seen, was more than the number of people who say I eat too much chocolate. I felt uncomfortable when he took to his natural habit of digging in the dirt in a public place, but also guilty that I was depriving him of his natural instinct.

In a few days, he seemed to relax and be comfortable with us. Quickly, he became a formal member of the family, the fourth child we had once wanted. It was long past the time when the kids would run to greet me when I got home after work, and having him wagging his tail fervently and jumping up on me after a tough day would never grow old. I felt so guilty when we had him on a leash.

That first winter with him, we went to the what was then the Delta lodge in Kananaskis, perhaps the best place in Canadian Rockies to spend the days before Christmas. It was a place that gave us some comfort from missing the Maritimes. I was still feeling guilty for keeping Thunder captive and not allowing enough exercise. The family was all out for activities, and I was alone with him, feeling bad he'd been deserted. I started running around the two level loft accommodation to give him a workout. I chased him, he chased me. It was like a vaudeville routine in an old movie. It was a lot of fun, until he led me through an obstacle course that ended with me thumping my foot into my ridiculously old and heavy ski boot. I went down in a lot of pain, then feigned normalcy when my family returned.

I went skiing unknown that a dastardly shale of purple was travelling up my leg from my toe. I would learn later I'd broken the toe.

From then on, in moments of frustration, my little buddy was the toe breaker.

The toe breaker sometimes played favourites. There were no politics with him. He told it like he was. Somedays when we returned from an errand, he would run to greet both my wife and I, sometimes only my wife and never look at me. Other times, he would insist only on me taking him for a walk, especially when he was younger and more energetic and wanted to go longer. I could never be offended, as his moods were temporary and he was forever a pal.

I wrote silly poems about him. I made up songs to sing to him. (he cared about them as much as songs I made up for my mother in her final years.) Although he did have the manners to turn his head and lift his ear toward me even if only as a courtesy.

He was the friendliest of fellows. But he hated Fedex trucks. How he distinguished them from other similar trucks, not labelled Fedex I'll never know. He wasn't big on german shepherds, nor magpies. I'd always try to separate myself from him, when he was barking at the magpies, cause those evil things harbour grudges, and remember faces. I didn’t want to be part of that circle.

Thunder was cute, and furry and sheddy. and the thing that I learned most about him that I never expected to learn about a dog? He was a complete emotional being who couldn't hide his feelings. I saw him angry and happy and bored. I saw him scared and silly and amorous. He liked to be petted, and have his belly rubbed. He liked to go for walks three times a day. Sometimes four. Despite the Fedex trucks, he was generally well mannered. He was happy and handsome and worldly, and often better manicured than I would hope to be. His coat certainly fit him better than any garment I have ever worn. He was generally fearless, would not stand down to bigger dogs, nor even bigger Fedex trucks. He could differentiate the sound of a pickup truck from any other type of Vehicle. And did not like it.

But when he was scared of thunder and lightning; the vet, or the thought of going to the vet, he would shake in tiny waves of vibrations that would melt my heart.

They say a dog can know two hundred words and has the intelligence of a two year old child. It feels about right.

The worst of all was when he was scared. If you saw him tremble with fear and did not feel your heart stop, you are less human than he.

He was the center of family attention. He brought us together. And he created no jealously when he drew all that attention. He had more nicknames than members of our family, “tundi”, “poozi”, “mo mo”, “critter kristofferson”.

Some people said I did a shoddy job on this costume but I thought I looked a lot like my little buddy.

He became my wife’s constant companion when the children and I were too busy. But he was always my little buddy and he could always make me smile.

I write these words now, on an emergency trip home from France so I could be with him and the family in his final moments.

Five years ago we had a terrible scare when we learned he had a tumour of sorts causing him pain. The vet bill was shockingly outrageous, but there was no choice. It was not time for my little buddy to go, or were we ready to let him leave.

The vets told me the growth sometimes happened with males who weren’t neutered. It was a decision I alone had borne. I am wracked with guilt I had not done enough research, but I could not bare the thought of him being neutered. Turns out, if you don't with male dogs, Westies for sure, they have a tendency for growth. We had the operation. It was a success, and he was back to himself.

But slowly overtime complications grew, until the last few weeks he's been showing some discomfort. To be clear, he was still his loveable cute self, but you could tell there was a tiny amount of distress. He was almost 13, and we knew we had better prepare ourselves.

Just not so soon.

He was doing well when we went to Hawaii and put him in the kennel that we had previously used and that he had done well in. This time things were not so well. The kennel sometimes posted photos, and we saw several where my poor little buddy, for lack of a better term had gone feral. For those of you who know the Richard Adams book Shardik, in one photo he looks like Shardik on the cover, gone completely rabid.

He was sick when we brought him back from the kennel; coincidentally, a neighbours’ Westie was sick as well. I thought maybe there was something he had eaten, poison, or maybe he had contracted covid which the press had recently said was traceable to dogs. He seemed to get better as I prepared for a trip to France. My brother was supposed to go with me but he was not feeling well and had to cancel. My spouse decided she could join me later as our daughter could cover Thunder as her college year came to an end.

So tired of covid, getting bored in retirement, and tired of endless discussions about heart health, I went to France assuming my little buddy was on the mend. His demeanour and energy suggested he was no where near the end.

I boarded my plane, trepidatious about traveling alone, if only for a short while, in Europe during covid. It wasn't the best of trips from the start, thought the weather was glorious compared to the winter snow of April in Calgary. Wednesday was a half decent day of touring, but when I talked to my wife, my little buddy had taken a turn for the worse. His illness wasn't temporary.

She needed to take him to the vet. They suggested he needed some tests and an ultrasound at prices that left my mouth aghast. We agreed to this ransom, he was my little buddy, and he was left overnight. I was in Paris with plans to go to Strasbourg. I wasn't sure what to do. My gut said it was just an illness, but I didn’t want to take chances, and reviewed every option for getting home early.

Now would be the time to say how atrociously awful air canada search tools are. They keep asking me for feedback. I keep telling them how to improve in surveys and they keep ignoring my advice. I was ready to cancel the train trip to Strasbourg, while we waited for results. The vet assistant told us he had a good night, and blood tests were normal. I was feeling things were going to be okay. My wife sounded relieved.

The kicker was I discovered there was a train from Strasbourg main train station that went straight to the Paris airport, and cheaper than a taxi to Charles de Gaulle airport from downtown Paris.That made the decision easier.

The single prominent feature of Strasbourg is a humongous cathedral that looks like an Edwardian cyber punk fantasy. It is tall and iron, and appears full of gears. It was also the tallest structure in christendom until the 1900's. I climbed the cathedral tower thinking maybe my little buddy was on the mend.

After climbing the tower, I went inside the cathedral proper where beautiful stained glass windows that rival those in the cathedral in Chartres decorate the inside.

Many of the pews and chairs in the cathedral were roped off. So I kneeled in the middle of the open floor, and prayed for the life of my poor little buddy. As it turned out that day, the intended receiver of my prayer was either indifferent or unmoved to change a minor detail of his internal plans.

The vet did not call us all day, although the remaining tests were completed early according to the assistant who was sworn to secrecy as if a member of some secret society. My spouse explained she had a flight to France, I had a complicated journey home if I needed to return. We waited all today on pins and needles as opportunities for flights and rail connections and deadlines for cancellations for hotels etc. came and went. The vet had a habit of contacting patients at end of day, said the assistant. Regardless of importance or consequence or seriousness as it turned out.

We assumed they were not contacting us because the matter was not serious. Then near midnight in Strasbourg, I got the call from my wife.

The news was bad. Thunder's little insides were a tumourous mess. An operation would not help, no matter the cost. He was in pain and it was getting worse. His time was winding down no matter our own desires. The only thing we could do was make his passing peaceful. The vet suggested we should not wait. He should be eased of his suffering by the morrow.

It was past midnight by the time I disconnected with my spouse. I contacted the airline concierge. The first person said there was little to be done. I found another concierge, a dog lover as it turns out. She found a flight for two days hence.

Thumder hangimg in the mancave with me watching Dr. Who which we both enjoyed.

I was not going to let my little buddy suffer that long nor not be with him or my wife at the end.

I got on my iPad and searched every flight imaginable. By a streak of luck, I discovered it was easier to book a new flight than change the old one. So I did. A flight from Paris to Frankfurt to Calgary. Leaving Paris at 9.

I looked at my watch. It was 4 am. If I packed quickly. If I sprinted to the train station I could make the first train back to Paris. I could catch the flight.

I could be with my little buddy.

I booked the flight as quickly as I could. I booked the train ticket. I jammed my suitcase full. I left the hotel but did not check out. I’d already paid for the next night.

I didn’t care. I ran further and faster than any day since my second heart attack.

The sweat poured from my forehead as I dragged my luggage over Strasbourg’s cobbled streets. I glanced at my watch frequently to ensure I could make it on time.

I made it to the train station just as they announced the platform departure.

I had a seat to myself. I let my spouse know I was coming, that she would not be alone. If the train was on time, I would make the plane. It would be tight, but I would make the plane. The internet connection was bad on the train, but I picked seats on the plane, I checked in. For the length of the train ride, I worked furiously to ensure all the logistics were in place to get me home.

I dashed off the plane, hurried through security and made it on my flight. I had barely a chance to catch my breath on the flight to Frankfurt before the change of planes and a nine hour flight ahead.

It was then that the adrenaline slipped away and the sadness took over. I set to write these words. The flight crew saw I was distraught and I told them my story. They brought me a card signed by the crew and pilots expressing their condolences..

I was thankful in my grief on the most miserable flight I have ever taken.


I was dizzy with nausea and I was crying as we entered the vet hospital. My wife had picked me up at the airport; we made the briefest of stops at our house and then gone straight to the vet hospital. It was a cold over cast day last April 22 with large wet snowflakes stinging my face as we went inside.

A staff member took us into a small bedroom sized room with a small sofa. We waited a few more minutes in silence and they carried our little dog into the room. They put him down, and he was able to walk a little. He greeted us as friendly as ever if with not the same energy. His belly was shaven and he had lost weight, but seemed himself if maybe distant. He was still sniffing, but tired.

I normally didn't like it when he licked me but I was covered in salt from all the sweating on the way home, and he kept licking the salt. My wife held him in her arms and he seemed so sad and yet comfortable to be back with her. He was the family dog, but he was especially her dog.

But lost in all the family dynamics, he was my dog too. The only dog I had ever had, the only one I will ever have because he could never be replaced. The dog that had taught me all about dogs and changed my perspective forever.

She put him down and at one point he peed on the carpet. He didn't give us the normal look that he gave when he wanted to go for a walk or needed to go outside to pee. He no longer had the strength for his normal good manners. At one point he wanted to sit in my lap and I held him for some time. After awhile he tired and went to make his nest out of his blanket. I realized I was wearing a north face fleece jacket that was covered in his hair as he would often curl up in it. My wife had complained when I left on the trip to France it was too dirty and covered with hair to take on the trip, but now I’m glad I did. I gave it to him along with the blanket, knowing it would be cremated with him.

When the time came to let him go, we had to press a button to let the doctor know we were ready. I didn't want my spouse to have to do it, but I must not have pressed hard enough because the doctor did not come and she pressed it again. The doctor came in as Thunder sat in his nest. The doctor explained Thunder had several complications in his intestinal system. One large growth, lymph nodes inflamed, several other issues that I couldn't comprehend. The pain medications were relieving some of his pain, but it was only going to get worse quickly, even though he seemed rather okay. (although his rear was a mess; I won’t describe it further.) She said it would be a very complicated operation to try and fix and too much too ask of a 13 year old dog. We certainly did not want him to suffer any more. To this moment, I resisted sending the vet away, thinking we must be able to do something.

But none of us can stop the inevitable.

Thunder in better days, smirking cause he had stolen my chair.

There was already an IV inserted in his little black and white paw. The doctor inserted an anesthetic chemical into the IV and begin to let it flow. I gave him my little buddy a piece of cheddar which he loved and he ate it with a weakened gusto. It often upset his stomach, but I guess it didn’t matter now. He certainly enjoyed the cheese and made to come for a another piece, but in mid-motion, his little body slumped into a position of sleep and suddenly he was at rest and in peace. It was as quick as when I went under anesthetic for bypass surgery and felt nothing. And then one more tube of clear fluid, the vet checking vital signs. Within seconds, she said, “He is asleep, His heart has stopped beating.” He lay there, looking only asleep, peaceful. He felt the same to the touch. We stayed for awhile, my north face coat wrapped around him. After sometime, we said out last good- bye. We left the room, knowing an absence that would never be filled.

Of all the things I will miss about Thunder, I think I will miss most of all the way he would lean his head to the side if listening as if trying to understand, more human than most humans I know.

Good bye my little buddy. You made everything better.

At the end, all I can say is I think you were a better person than I could ever be. You brought more joy to more people than I could ever dream of doing. I am not jealous of you for that. On the contrary, I am proud to have been part of your life.

It is not going to be easy without you.

Despite my own grief and sadness, the one solace we could take was that Thunder’s end was as painless and dignified as it could be. It’s a shame we don’t treat humans the same way.

This was written one year ago today, April 22, 2022.

The grief continues.

Thunder May 21 2009- April 22 2022

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30. Apr. 2023

Oh my heart breaks for both of you, all of you. Everyone who has loved a dog, really. I am glad you were his lightning in this thunderstorm, from beginning to end. He wasn't captive, he was family and exactly where he needed to be. Now he is running wild and wanting to be within your home again but knows he is forever in your hearts. Very touching and glad you were able share your grief and sweet memories with us. Sarah

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