"Dogs’ lives are short, too short, but you know that going in. You know the pain is coming, you’re going to lose a dog, and there’s going to be great anguish, so you live fully in the moment with him, never fail to share his joy or delight in his innocence, because you can’t support the illusion that a dog can be your lifelong companion. There’s such beauty in the hard honesty of that, in accepting and giving love while always aware that it comes with an unbearable price.” Author Dean Koontz
Poet Khalil Gibran once said “when you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” While it's hard to find a silver lining in the depths of grief, the truth is that it's a great privilege to have loved something so fiercely that its loss makes you feel as if the entire world has collapsed.
This is the story of that kind of love.
In early 2012, I had just given up my first Great Dane, Luna, to my ex-boyfriend, and I asked my fellow Dane-owning friends Marty & Francine to keep an ear to the ground for any Great Danes who needed a home.
Almost overnight, the unofficial but very real Dane network sprang into action, and I was put in touch with a breeder who had a dog available for adoption. His name was Jackson and he was being re-homed by his first family because he could not show due to mild front leg lameness. There was only one problem – he was 13 months old. I didn’t want a young dog with puppy behaviors; I wanted a mature dog who would not chew my shoes or have accidents in my small apartment. However, breeder Cyndi assured me that Jackson was an “easy keeper” who wouldn’t terrorize my life like a typical giant puppy. In addition, she offered to take him back if he was any trouble.
Within days I picked him up a few hours from town. I clearly remember the first time I saw him. He was so majestic and handsome. I patted his neck and the first thing I blurted out was “he’s so soft”… a comment that I would hear a thousand times throughout his life. There was a disconnect between what you expected his fur to feel like and what it actually felt like – it was just so soft, more like a baby bunny than a giant dog.
He leapt into the back of the SUV without hesitation, and later than night climbed into my bed and right into my heart. I woke up that first morning with his big chin on my shoulder – he didn’t quite get the idea of “my side” vs. “his side” of the bed. It was a concept he would never grasp: to sleep with Jackson was to sleep on a tiny sliver of the king sized bed while he stretched out over the rest of it.
I was more than ready for a canine family member. I was a single, 30 years old, and living alone in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. I had busy days as an employee of a big Malibu corporation, but lonely nights and weekends until Jackson came along to fill them up. We walked in the mornings and went to the dog park in the evenings. On weekends we’d stroll around Santa Monica’s Pacific Park, or drive down to the Long Beach or Huntington Beach dog beaches.
I enrolled Jackson in beginning obedience class. It was too easy for him. Despite not having any previous formal training, he was the star of the class, and went on to complete advanced classes and earn his Canine Good Citizen certification. People thought we must have practiced a lot. We didn’t. He intuitively just understood what I wanted. His recall was always rock-solid: no matter the situation, he came bounding over when I called him. “Stay” was easy for him too, and we would often walk to CVS and he waited patiently outside while I went in. I was always so proud of his behavior. Always.
Jackson was a head turner and a traffic stopper. People would pull over to the side of the road just to get a closer look at him. On a busy Saturday it could take us an hour to walk one block because of all the people who wanted to stop to pet him, take pictures, and ask questions. “How much does he weigh?” “Do you have a saddle for that thing?” And my personal favorite…”wow, your house must be huge.” My apartment was 800 square feet.
Once we went window-shopping in the Santa Monica Promenade. That was a mistake. We were soon surrounded by a throng of tourists, all wanting photos. Jackson was usually happy to oblige, but this time there were just too many people. They completely encircled us and everyone was trying to touch him. He got scared and shrank down with his tail between his legs. An employee at the Michael Kors shop noticed what was happening and ushered us into the store and locked the doors behind us so Jackson could catch his breath. We hid in the back of the store while security came and broke up the crowd. This is a true story. Jackson was a bona fide rock star.
I didn’t think it was fair to leave him alone all day while I worked, so I signed him up for a hiking group. He would be picked up each morning and ride in a van with about 10 other dogs. They hiked off-leash in the Santa Monica Mountains for a couple hours and then he was returned home to rest. He adored his hikers Brian and Beth and would whine softly in excitement as soon as he saw their van coming down the street to pick him up.
Once I got a call from Brian when I was at work, something that had never happened before. “Jackson got bit,” he said. No big deal, I thought, dogs sometimes bite each other. I’m sure it was just a misunderstanding. What did I need to do to patch him up?
“I think it was a rattlesnake,” Brian continued.
Oh my God. I immediately devolved into a wrecking ball of adrenaline. I ran to my car and flew down the Pacific Coast Highway, tears blinding my vision. I met Brian at an emergency pet hospital where Jackson was already inside. He was critical and they wouldn’t let me see him. I signed the forms and went back to my apartment alone. It was one of the worst nights I’ve ever had.
There was only about 45 minutes from the time Jackson was bit until he received the rattlesnake antivenin. Brian’s quick reaction—and his ability to somehow run 10 dogs, one critically wounded, out of the mountains and back to civilization—saved Jackson’s life.
Happily, he was back to normal within a couple weeks, and back to hiking and socializing. He came with me to brunches, dinners, and happy hours, where he was content to snooze at my feet, occasionally lifting his head for a snack or an ear rub. Sometimes he accompanied me on dates – I made it clear to all suitors that Jackson and I were a package deal.
Jackson chose Chris as his dad. They loved each other immediately. When Chris and I first started dating, we kept it a secret at our office. But when Jackson visited the office he greeted Chris so effusively that he threatened to give us away. Far from being jealous, Jackson was excited about turning our little family of two into three.
Dogs weren’t technically allowed at the office, but I made every excuse to bring him along. He made a special appearance every Halloween, and one year helped our team win 1st place for our Scooby Doo costumes. No one in history has ever done that costume better.
There is an iconic photo of Kate Moss with a Great Dane on a beach, and I’ve always been obsessed with it. For Christmas one year, Chris gifted me a photo shoot with L.A. fashion photographer Paige Craig. Is it odd to take pictures with your dog on the beach? No. It is weird to get professional hair and makeup and styling that included a white gown, and then take pictures with your dog on the beach? Definitely. Totally weird. But I will treasure those photos for the rest of my life.
We added Spencer the cat to the family with the intention of providing a friend for Jackson. Neither cat nor dog had much experience with the opposite species, but they took to each other immediately. Jackson was the epitome of kindness. I never saw him be anything but gentle and friendly to another creature. Spencer loved lying all over Jackson. The positions we routinely found them napping in were heartwarming and hilarious.
In 2014 we moved from Los Angeles out to the middle of nowhere. For the first time we had a big house and yard and enough room to add another Dane to the family. My only requirement was that the new puppy share Jackson’s incredible temperament, so I asked his breeder Cyndi for a relative. Jackson’s sister Riley had a litter, and 10-week old Oakley, Jackson’s nephew, soon joined our family, ending Jackson’s time as an only dog.
Jackson took his role of big brother and uncle seriously, as I knew he would. He taught Oakley how to do all the important things: play tug of war, sunbathe in the grass, roll over for belly rubs, go on hikes, and stretch out for long naps. It was clear from the beginning that Oakley wanted to be just like Jackson when he grew up, and Jackson was pleased to show him the ropes.
After I got re-involved in horses, “the boys” got to spend a lot of time at the barn, and Jackson was friendly with the horses, donkeys, and all other animals. Oakley liked to get underfoot, but Jackson preferred to find a sunny spot to bask in and watch the action from a distance. At a certain point it seemed like he wasn’t enjoying the barn as much as he used to. I actually asked an animal communicator about it (I know, I know). Jackson told the communicator that a horse nipped him once when I wasn’t looking, and he wasn’t sure it was safe for him there. He said he’d rather hold down the fort at home. That was the end of his barn excursions, but he loved to sniff me all over each time I returned, deeply inhaling all those horse smells.
Oakley got very sick when he was only a year old. He was in and out of the hospital and needed 24/7 care. Jackson stood by patiently, never upset at not being the center of attention. I believe that Jackson’s love and support helped Oakley eventually recover. He was always so happy when Oakley came home from the hospital. Oakley and Jackson consistently greeted each other first, before either of them greeted any humans. They never once fought, not even a warning growl. They shared toys, treats, and human attention with grace, love, and respect for each other.
Jackson hated grooming and veterinarians. He tolerated being brushed, but would slink away to the other room at the sight of nail clippers or q-tips. He allowed the cat to clean his ears (gross!), but did not appreciate humans doing it. He did not like baths. He especially hated vet visits. He would hide his face in the corner, or attempt to crawl under a chair in hopes that he wouldn’t be spotted.
Jackson loved riding in the car and especially enjoyed putting his head out of the window and letting his big jowls flop in the wind. If he heard a siren, without fail he mimicked the sound, howling loudly to help sound the alarm. He was nothing if not a responsible, caring citizen.
Jackson was a sophisticated, well-traveled gentleman. He accompanied me on long road trips to Louisiana and Texas. He visited San Francisco, even getting an Uber ride, and he saw the great redwood forests in Northern California. He stayed in more swanky hotels than most humans. Because of his perfect temperament, he was welcomed nearly everywhere.
With Jackson, my life never felt incomplete. For a while he was my only family on the West Coast, and he was more than enough. After all, it’s hard to feel lonely with 200 pounds of dog pushing you to the corner of the bed.
Two years ago, I noticed that Jackson wasn’t seeing as well as before. If he dropped a treat it took him a few minutes to find it again. On walks he would sometimes run into a shrub or fire hydrant. When we visited the new house for the first time, he walked straight into the pool. He just never saw it. But dogs aren’t like humans, and he mostly got around fine without his sight. Of course we went to a canine eye doctor, but there was nothing they could do for him.
In retrospect, I should have known his time was near. A year ago he became completely unable to jump into the car. So we bought him a ramp. Shortly thereafter, even getting up the ramp became a struggle. He did it for me, but would whine and pant with anxiety. So we simply quit taking non-essential trips. In the mornings he was often very stiff and gimpy on his front legs. His dog sitters were worried about him. The housekeepers asked if he was okay. “Oh he’s totally fine,” I chirped. “Just a bit of arthritis.”
Finally, one week before he passed, I decided he should stay home from walks for a while. He would get only a few houses down and then find a grassy spot to lie down on his back, smiling, tongue out, entertaining as always…but not interested in moving. We would all sit down together and wait for him to be ready to go again. “Just taking a break,” I’d tell passers-by. So I decided to keep him home from walks for a week or so, thinking he just needed some rest, in addition to the usual prescription anti-inflammatories, Adequan, and every over the counter joint supplement on the market.
A few days before he passed away, after watching him struggle to pull himself up onto his favorite spot on the couch, I went over and rubbed his ears. He was hilarious – when you hit the right spot he’d go “mmmmmm, mmmmmm,” just like a human would. I told him he was perfect (something I told him pretty much every day of his life), and I told him that I didn’t personally believe it was anywhere near time, but that if he needed to go, I would understand and it would be okay.
Even though I said words, I just didn’t comprehend how worn down his body was, because his heart and soul was exactly the same as ever. The same emphatic tail thumps, the same effusive greetings, even though he had stopped standing for homecomings. The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak.
On Friday, May 25, he roused himself for meals, potty breaks, and sunbathing, as per usual, and he even played a bit with Oakley. On Saturday, May 26, he woke up but couldn’t stand. He had lost all use of his hind legs. He got breakfast in bed, then shared a pizza with me around lunch time while I waited for a miracle and snuggled with him on the floor. Oakley stayed close by.
Chris rushed home from out of town, and we got him to the nearest emergency vet hospital. The kind veterinarian patiently went over the possibilities of what could be wrong. None of the potential diagnoses had a cure. There was little chance of him ever standing up again. The right decision was crystal clear. Devastating, but clear. Jackson went to sleep for the last time with his big gray face on my lap.
Some refer to Great Danes as the “Heartbreak Breed” because of their notoriously short lifespans. It was a question I regularly received from strangers: “you know they don’t live very long, right?” Yes, I knew. All of the knowledge in the world doesn’t make it any easier. Those who have lost a beloved animal know that “devastating” doesn’t even begin to describe it. Words fail.
I once heard musician Tim McGraw say about his wife “you can’t be around her without falling in love with her.” I always felt that perfectly described Jackson. You couldn’t be around him without falling in love with him. Some couldn’t even drive by him on the street without falling in love, and pulling their car over, and inevitably commenting on the softness of his fur.
The world is less noble and less majestic without him in it.
Rest in peace my perfect angel.