One of the Seven Sacred Rites of the Lakota Sioux Tribes is Wanagi Wicagluha or the Keeping of the Spirit. The Lakota believe that the souls of the dead stay near to the family for a year after death. During this time, the family actively mourns their loss. At the end of the year, a celebratory feast is held, and the family sponsors a “give-away” in honor of their lost loved one. Stories are told to remember all that was best about the departed. Gifts are given freely to everyone who attends.
One year ago I lost my heart-dog, Ray the Vicktory Dog. His death was sudden and shocking. I have felt the burden and grief every day since. Today, I am marking the end of a year of formal grieving. And in his honor, I will be sharing my tale of a little brown dog. Not a fighting dog. Not a victim of the most infamous fighting ring in America. Just a goofy, doofus of a dog who became the heart of my family.
I met Ray at DogTown headquarters. I had stopped in to pick up a prescription for my office dog. Dog caregivers would often bring shy or scared dogs to HQ to interact with visitors and volunteers, so it wasn’t unusual to see them hanging around the lobby. As I was awaiting my turn at the counter I turned and saw several caregivers clustered around a little brown dog. Of course, I had to go over and meet this handsome little pocket Pittie. I knelt down on the floor and Ray came right to me. He sat his butt down on my lap, and I fell in love. There was just something about this boy who loved people so much. He had a little of glint of the devil in his eyes, and I have always been a sucker for the bad boys.
Kevin and I decided to take Ray on as a project dog, to help him earn his Canine Good Citizenship certification so that he could finally go home to a family of his own. We both felt this goofy little dog deserved a chance to be adopted. We wanted to know he would someday be able to sleep on a couch and have zoomies in his own yard. We knew that anyone who met him, who saw his zest for life, would end up falling for him. Somewhere in the weeks and months we spent working with him, we fell victim to his charms ourselves. The goal continued to be to help Ray get his CGC, but now the game plan had changed. He had already become part of our family and we wanted to be the ones to give him the life he deserved.
Ray had some pretty significant training issues. He lacked leash manners. He was just so exuberant; he wanted to pull us along with him. Ray was also somewhat reactive to dogs. Not as much as some of the VDogs…but he definitely had issues. Most of his problem was based in fear. Every dog he had ever had experience with wanted to kill him. It was much safer to act tough, and try to scare the strange dogs away.
His trainer, Kevin, and I sat down and came up with an action plan. It was up to us to figure out a way to motivate Ray to WANT to follow our lead. The failure was never his…..it was ours. We hadn’t yet found a way to make doing things our way more rewarding than doing things his way.
Source: Justyne Moore
Eventually we discovered the key, Ray passed his Canine Good Citizenship test, and we applied to adopt him. The court had placed some stringent requirements for adopting a Vicktory dog. Kevin and I both had to have Federal background checks, our home had to have six-foot fencing, and we had to have liability insurance. Even more daunting was the fact that the sanctuary had an agreement not to adopt any of the VDogs into the county where we lived. If we wanted to adopt Ray, we were going to have to move. So we did, across the state border into Arizona.
Source: Justyne Moore
We took our little naughty brown dog home. After the court-ordered foster period of 6 months, we all signed adoption papers, including Ray who paw-printed the paperwork right along with us.
Every day with Ray was a day of firsts. He had no idea what a home was like. He didn’t understand the dishwasher or the vacuum cleaner. As a matter of fact, he was downright destructive his first few weeks at home as he learned to navigate this new environment. I think the damage tally for the first month included one door, a set of blinds, several dog beds and the carpet.
When Ray met someone, they became part of his family. And the longer he had known them, the more excited he would get to see them. He would spy a former caregiver or good friend, and his whole body would wag, his tongue would hang out, his ears would be flat against his head, and he would sport the biggest Pittie grin ever seen. If I had to leave him for any reason, he would greet me this way every time I came back……as if we’d been parted for eons. It is an amazing feeling to be loved like that. I never felt as if I was half as good a person as my dog thought I was.
Whenever Ray would become frightened, which was usually because of a sound like thunder, or beeping, he would scale to the highest point he could reach. Once, when our smoke detectors went off, he burst through the door, into the garage, and scaled the built in shelving to the ceiling. It took me 20 minutes to figure out how to get him down.
Ray was a champion killer of stuffies. He would get his BarkBox toy each month and have it “destuffed” before I could even leave the room. He took such pleasure in pulling out every last piece of fluff. He made sure to wrest every ounce of pleasure out of every monthly box.
Ray only had a couple of years at home with us, but in that time he changed who I am as a person. I went from being someone who was somewhat skeptical about Pit Bull Terrier-type dogs to a fierce advocate. Ray taught me patience, and that sometimes routine is the fastest way to earn a dog’s trust. His lessons have helped us teach other dogs how to become loving companions, conquering the demons of their past.
I never felt as if Ray were just our dog. From the very beginning he showed that he was more than just a pet. It was as if he felt he had a mission to meet and touch as many people as he could. When we would be having lunch on the deck at the sanctuary, he would watch intently for people coming out to take a seat. He’d stand, his ears would fold back, and his tail would start tentatively wagging side to side. His yearning expression pulled people in again and again. I am eternally grateful for all the people who set down their plates to come over and give him a pat and a kind word.
Ray suffered from Babesia, which is a blood parasite that fighting dogs commonly pass through deep puncture wounds. It can be managed and treated, but never cured. Many affected dogs end up having problems with their spleen, as it filters out the Babesia cells in the bloodstream. Ray’s spleen had become misshapen and dysfunctional, causing severe anemia. The only recommendation his vets could make was to remove the offending organ to help him have a chance at a higher quality of life. We made the decision to have his spleen removed in May of 2015.
Ray made it through surgery like a champ. His doctor called me and said he had done incredibly well under anesthesia, and his anemia was already improving. She sounded happy that he was recovering so quickly. I was instructed to go home, get a good night’s sleep, and come pick him up in the morning.
At about 11:00 that night, our phone rang. When I looked at the caller ID and saw it was the clinic, I knew it wasn’t going to be good. Ray had thrown a blood-clot and died almost instantly. My sense of loss was immediate and overwhelming. I can understand the Native American tradition of cutting ones hair when a loved one dies. There is a need for a gesture that physically displays your pain to the world.
Ray’s placement service was attended by more people than I could count. Our little brown dog had made an impact on so many people, and they wanted to help us honor his passing. Even today people are stopping to visit his resting spot. I may not see them, but I know they’ve been there because there are new memory stones on his marker. One of our traditions is to lay a small rock or other memento every time we visit a departed companion.
I can never repay what that little brown dog did for me. Ray brought me out of my shell, and introduced countless people into my life. He gave me a purpose and helped me find my voice. He inspired me to start writing again, something I hadn’t done since college.
Ray’s legacy was to show the world that he was a victim, not a perpetrator. Given the choice, he would have always opted for comfort over combat. His short life helped to forever improve life for Pit Bulls, and especially fighting dogs, across the country.
In Ray’s honor, a CafePress store has been set-up to help fund-raise for other Pit Bull Terrier dog-type rescues. All profits will be evenly split between Best Friends Animal Society where Ray first found love and a gentle hand, Lucas County Pit Crew, the organization responsible for saving his sister Turtle and brother Bosco, Jasmine’s House Rescue, which actually pulled and networked Turtle, ColoRADogs, where his brother Bubba was adopted from, and Dogs Deserve Better, the group which has honored all the Vicktory Dogs by planting memorial trees.
My year of mourning is over. It is time to move on. RIP my naughty little boy. Wait for me at the bridge. I know I will see you, ears folded back, tail swinging madly, grinning that incredible smile, so happy to see me once again.
Featured image via Sylvia Elzafon