Living with a DingoBy Kris Saknussemm
August 05, 2010
The mastiff and I went out to visit a grave today. This is Luciano, technically the sometime girlfriend’s dog, who has been living with me for the last few years. He’s getting on a bit now from when this picture was taken, but he’s still a wiggly boy. And he was great company and a life sustaining force for a very special dog-my totem spirit, the dingo Gyp, who’s buried in one of the loveliest places I know-as befits a life of adventure, courage and dignity, right up to the end.
16 dog years is a lot of human living, but Gyp was always a soul of both greater and deeper experience than her years-and always a dog that embraced and barked at tomorrow. Snouty, feisty, loving, prideful, caring, devoted. A model citizen of the spirit, while retaining a contrarian, female, individual sense of attitude and joy in being.
She had survived an early brush with a fast moving car and being tied up on a short rope and left abandoned in the pouring rain to be rescued by the local ranger who brought her into my life at age 1.
She would go on to survive a brutal spike thorn that threatened to blind her in one eye, a fall down a mine shaft, getting lost in the deep bush, two dislocated legs, a painfully dislocated jaw, a bite from a red-bellied black snake and a close call with a huge and deadly brown snake (one of the most subtle and yet fear-inspiring creatures you can encounter in the Australian landscape).
She would also endure and triumph over one of the most vicious and aggressive lymphomas on record. In the space of two hours, a lump the size of a ping-pong ball became a heated lump the size of a baseball-and kept growing. The emergency surgery was massive, delicate and traumatic. As were the two years of advanced chemotherapy that ultimately saved her life.
She is now in the international veterinarian scientific literature and has helped inspire hundreds of people around the world to invest in the best treatment possible to protect the lives of their companion animals.
She prevailed in that crisis through strength of spirit and the will to live, insisting on the regular but slowed down walk even with the drainage tube from the surgery still in place.
At this point in her life it was like a great athlete struck down. She could catch a line drive tennis ball 9 times out of 10. It was impossible to get a ball past her on the ground-she was the ultimate shortstop. She could outrun every other kind of dog except a pure racing greyhound and could easily outswim any breed of dog, including the water savvy hunting dogs. She literally hydroplaned in the water-a particularly amazing feat in that she was more than a year old before she learned to swim.
At the beach she was an intrepid surfer, hurling herself into the waves to retrieve a ball and then with some real deftness, riding the waves back in…always barking vigorously to have the ball thrown once more. And once more. And again.
Her tremendous level of physical fitness no doubt aided greatly in her battle with cancer, but it was her spirit that pulled her through. I still recall too vividly, the glow of her puddles of bile in the moonlight in the back yard, when she got sick from the drugs. The trembling that would set in. The endless thirst. The fits that came and went, dismissed it would seem by a more powerful imperative to persist and thrive.
Against all odds and to the shock of the specialist who treated her, she went on to have several more lives. Together, we literally walked ourselves into the landscape in several different areas. I’m sure with the right eyes, if you were to go there now, you would still see us…part of the rocks and the trees. A golden-red dingo blending in with the sandstone, and me following behind.
She adapted to a new environment when we moved from the town out onto the farm, my country property called The Chimneys, in old Australian gold rush land. She learned how not to disturb either free-range hens, the Anglo-Nubian goats, or the rather plump and overfed Suffolk sheep (who turned out to be a financial disaster)-and was in fact protective of them, keeping the local foxes at bay.
She was good with horses, children of all ages (except one little girl whose shoes smelled of her pet hamster), and she wisely never chased the kangaroos, although she could leap the fences with ease.
Post-cancer, her native athleticism returned with force. She ran down two rabbits (just try it, those little fluffs are fast)-and she caught mice-on pine floorboards no less. How many dogs are good mousers? Her strength of swimming was undiminished, such that I could take her to our local lake and have her torpedo past me-as I swam with the aid of fins.
Always calm in canoes and kayaks (knowing sensibly that she was being transported like a queen on a Nile barge), she acquainted me with what will forever be the best smell of all…the gorgeous scent of wet dog in the back seat on a summer afternoon.
She did however, have a weakness for marsh fowl, rather silly looking black birds with spindly legs and orange feet (that make an unfortunate squeaking whistle). Once that whistle was heard, Gyp was uncontrollable, more than capable of leaping off a six foot river bank in pursuit-and once on the Loddon River we thought she was a goner when she ended up in a maze of dense reeds-a place where many other dogs would have drowned. She didn’t of course, and returned with a look of delight as if wanting to relive the adventure immediately.
Over the years, she weathered emotional human conflict too. When the separation and divorce proceedings began, she loyally stood by me, keeping up the routine, providing solace-and then doing all she could in greeting and intermingling with the social situations that the awkwardness of my dating experiences led to.
She laid out nearby while I painted in the garage, she leapt on the bed when the massive thunderstorms would rock the windows, she walked with me in the mist of the old goldminer’s graveyard. (I would be curious to know how many miles I walked with her over the years.)
She went on, late in life, having been “the” dog and “the only child” for so many years, to integrate happily and totally with the large (and huge-hearted) mastiff and a conniving but forgiving, uncoordinated cat with an enormous sense of confidence but a curious psychological confusion about being a cat-as opposed to a dog.
This was yet another golden period and Gyp savored it and contributed to it with a completeness of conviction. She got over her female jealousy very quickly and bonded with Karen, the new girlfriend, adjusting to the mixed family with great participation and enjoyment.
Before leaving The Chimneys, a place I once vowed I would never sell, Gyp showed some of her inner spirit in a very striking way one morning. A few days earlier, two police officers had appeared at the back door inquiring about a dog attack on the angora goats on the hill above me. I said my dogs were innocent-and they were fortunately asleep on their respective couch and chair at the time! But the police assured me that they weren’t pointing fingers-the culprit dogs had been seen-a “boxer” and a larger terrier. I’d never seen such dogs around I said.
Two days later, while returning from our morning walk I did see a large terrier on the overgrown side road that marks the property boundary-and no “boxer” but a large scarred, feral brindle pit bull. Both dogs were bloody from a fresh attack on the goats-and when the mastiff made a charge, he was surprised by the ferocity of the pit bull, who would’ve had his throat-if Gyp hadn’t intervened. An aging sprung legged dingo made for that pit bull at full force and gave me the chance to get in close enough to wallop the beast with Luci’s chain lead. Together, we drove them off, Gyp wincing with the pain of the exertion, but teetering to the back door under her own power. I would seriously liken the incident to an old woman taking on a Mike Tyson capable street thug in open combat. She committed totally to the fray, sensing perhaps the potentially desperate nature of the violence that Luci thought was ceremony. The pit bull was not going to back off because he was on someone else’s property-Gyp knew that. She knew it was a live fight. It was the most powerful display of raw courage and focused aggression I’ve ever seen. And she was very smart in her attack. If we say dogs behave according to instinct, we need to allow also for individual strategy.
The final phase of her life had so many sub-phases…my move off the land into a small town again, with all its small town noises and routines. Kids passing on the way to school, garbage trucks and postmen (postmen!).
Gyp sat with me on the newspapers I spread out while I painted my office in the cottage without the heat or electricity on yet. She overcame her prejudice against lawn mowers. She was saved yet again by my lovely neighbor Viv, an older Irish woman who got her off the street when she snuck out before the garage door was installed.
She embraced a whole new era in a very different environment. She put up with failing back legs, stone deaf ears (unless of course if there was a food wrapper being opened). She had one epileptic seizure that required medication that made her groggy for weeks and an operation to remove abscessed teeth, and she put up with the indignity of having to be helped into the car.
But she never once lost herself. She remained beautiful, albeit a bit snowier than in her ruddy golden youth. No one who ever saw her could guess her significant age.
From the moment I laid eyes on her, to the moment I said goodbye, she lived a seamless life of being herself. A perfect life. A life that keeps giving.
A Dingo’s Legacy
Here are some of the important lessons I’ve learned or at least am trying to learn, which Gyp taught me:
If the car door is open, always jump in without waiting to be asked. The journey, however long it is will be better for your company, and the destination will be more memorable because you are there.
Risk being reproached to be included, and let others feel you are being included, even though you know you are really the one leading.
Interaction is life. It’s all right to stand up for yourself in a pack, but the pack, the connection with others is what makes us who we are. We come to know ourselves only truly through others.
Rest and give yourself over to lazing and dreaming to gather energy for interaction. Relationships give much but demand much. In quiet moments, take the time to be quiet and store reserves.
When caught napping, always make the other party feel like an intruder and a sneaky voyeur. Then forgive them and let them know they can redeem themselves.
Let others redeem themselves.
Don’t hold standards for yourself. Either internalize them and be them-or let them go.
Resist the urge to hide gratitude. Wag your tail.
Develop a reputation. It’s like expanding your territory.
Don’t depend on your reputation. Your territory is wherever you feel comfortable.
When you play with someone, you both become bigger-a composite being, which though intermittent is always real and vital, and waiting to come forth again.
Chasing things is OK. And often, not catching them is even better.
Crave affection-by giving affection.
When afraid and in trouble, have faith that someone or something will come to your aid-even if the rescue ends up coming from inside yourself.
Even if you have trouble walking-especially if you have trouble walking-remember the importance of wiggling.
Just because you’ve already devoured two fat chicken necks doesn’t mean you should let the cat enjoy his tiny one in peace. He’d be worried if you didn’t have a go at him. Keep up appearances well enough, and substance follows. The old woman with kidney disease on the corner may draw secret inner strength from seeing you out on a walk, even if you’re limping.
Walking ends up being limping very well. Limp well.
Be alert to the sounds, smells and sights around you, and know that you too are part of the scene-when you bark, where you walk, the scents you leave behind-all important elements of the whole. We all should be better witnesses, but no one is ever just an observer.
There will never be enough swims, runs, fresh rabbit and nights out under the stars beside a bonfire. There will never be enough cool fresh autumn evenings…chasing a scent amongst the tombstones…of those who had memories and dreams too.
Be missed terribly when you appear to go. Give your blessing to those who will miss you. We all lose each other every time we’re out of sight. Who knows how near and constant we remain-all the time-for all time.
The light is suddenly so poignant
and the air so gentle, we both
instinctively stand motionless
spreading out our shadows,
becoming what we are,
mingling when we move again.
Spirits playing in each other’s bodies
even as they disappear.
Some people get it, some people don’t.
This must have been very tough to write. I have a 14 year-old sheltie/lab mix (in the end, she looks like a very slender, all-black border collie). She is stone deaf and has survived cancer twice (at 8 and 11–no chemo, just surgery).
It bums me out that I can’t let her off-leash anymore (she can’t hear me call her back), but even though her body has not failed her orthopedically, I think she’s fairly content to lounge around the house at this point.
Retirees (or is it pensioners to you?) have that right, I think.
I totally get it. Here’s to Gyp.
Thanks Becky. The deafness was possibly the biggest hurdle. I remember letting her out sometimes at night…and then having to wander around in the cold clapping my hands off!
What a beautiful piece, Kris.
Beautiful Gyp. You must miss her terribly. This bought tears to my eyes.
Lovely. Just lovely.
Thank you Zara. It was a devastating loss, but I feel her always with me still. The one epileptic fit that signaled the end was the hardest to bear. I’d worked years ago in a disabled environment where such fits were the norm for folks every day. But with people, they get used to it and can intellectualize what’s happening. With animals, it’s just pure trauma. I feel good though knowing that her life was about as loving and whole as a life can be–and at her burial there was a real community gathering (a Buddhist monk, a Catholic priest, a white witch, a psychiatrist, a vet, scientists, artists, and of course lots of dogs). She was loved by many. The meticulous detailing of her response to the chemo regimen has also helped refine the major cancer protocol for animals and may also assist in the treatment of humans. I was very proud to receive the case study from the University of Wisconsin’s head of vet medicine with the note GYP – FEMALE DINGO – SUCCESSFUL. He presented that in Belgium. The girl got around.
Beautiful Kris! There are no creatures like great dogs. A lifelong lover myself, this comes at a time when my wonderful and vibrant golden Joey has just been diagnosed w/ a torn left rear ACL. They’d perform surgery immediately, were it not for suspicion that he has a tumor in his right front armpit area or neck vertebrae. The ACL would be 6 months of recovery, and if he’s only got a year or even less to live, probably not worth the intrusiveness and indignity of a knife’s repercussions. So he – we – are dealing w/ many of the same issues you so poignantly illuminate. Hope to get some definition soon.
What did Twain say about dogs and heaven, “Heaven goes by favor; if it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.” And Thurber: “If I have any beliefs about immortality, it is that certain dogs I have known will go to heaven, and very, very few persons.” And Will Rogers: If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.”
Oh how you loved Gyp – and how she must have loved you. I bet you couldn’t write this without tears in your eyes; perhaps even having to stop every so often to have a big sob.
I had a beautiful dog for 14.5 years. We went everywhere together. She was my shadow. And so, so loved…and although she’s been gone now for many years, I still tear up every time I see her photo or think of her.
Only dog people get it….
All the people I personally have come to admire and love in some way deeply value the relationship with animals, and dogs in particular. They are very special creatures. Luciano, the major mastiff, is on my feet right now. He was such a good friend and supporter of Gyp in her old age. Everything that even hints at some “nobility of spirit” I’ve learned from these creatures. And I’m reminded that for whatever achievements I may put on my resume, I’m really in my heart most proud of but two things in my whole life–I buried Gyp and my friend and business partner David with honor. I wept openly on both occasions–but I said the things that needed saying, and I’d done everything I could for both of them. David’s wife went with me to visit Gyp’s grave, and then we went to his. Not forgotten.
Wow. Beautiful. I wish someone will write something like that about me when I pass away…
It was a funny thing at the “service”…all these people there for a dog, I did wonder myself if my own passing would be so missed.
Oh yeah… my tail is wagging. Great description of a wonderful life-force. I must go and pet my old Shepherd, and his, deaf-blind Terrier wife. Thank you.
May I ask about the ancestry? A dingo?
Oh Kris, this just killed me. Sobbing at my desk at lunch isn’t my normal behavior, but Gyp was worth it. What a moving tribute to an undoubtedly wonderful companion. I especially love Gyp’s lessons.
“If the car door is open, always jump in without waiting to be asked. The journey, however long it is will be better for your company, and the destination will be more memorable because you are there.”
“Resist the urge to hide gratitude. Wag your tail.”
My condolences to you and Luciano.
Thanks very much Dana. Luciano occasionally gets lonely at night and feels the need to come in and sleep on the bed. He’s a good snuggler though. I know he played an important role in keeping Gyp as youthful as she was for so long. His temperment was the perfect match.
@dwoz…dingos are the wild dogs of Australia. It’s believed they came over with traders on rafts from Thailand and the steppes of Asia about 12,000 years ago. Many of the northern tribes of Aboriginals domesticated them, and venerate them. Despite the fact that Aboriginal culture dates back at least 40,000 years (and some people are now saying much longer), many tribal myths attribute the “bringing of language” to the dingo, and they are the totemic animal associated with the capacity for telepathic knowledge over great distances and all things that fall under the heading of intuition. Dingos are both protected here and also hunted by farmers–there is kind of a love-hate relationship with them in the Outback. Where I live, dingos became legal to own and became interbred (I think Gyp had some cattle dog in her). Many believe that dingos don’t bark, they howl like wolves. This is true if they are raised among themselves. But they can bark and end up behaving just like domestic dogs if raised by humans. They are unusually intelligent and have a very high level of interaction. And as with some of the famous breeds used for farm work, they demonstrate a curious degree of strategic, individual thinking. Their hearing is exceptional and they have a scenting capacity that rivals a good hunting dog. I also noticed that Gyp never once showed any sign of fear in the face of even much larger male dogs. She was never one to start trouble, but she would never back off or fawn. A natural aristocrat.
tell me more about the “bringing of language” story?
For a short time, I had an Australian Cattle dog, it might have had some dingo in it. It was not impressed with us, it ran away incessantly, until finally it found someone it wanted to stay with.
When I say “ran away” I mean we would find the inscrutable creature 15 miles away.
I thought the Dingo was like the coyote. Although I suppose a coyote can breed with a domesticated dog…
This nearly had me in tears. While I really have nothing against cats, I’ve alwaus been a dog person (okay, and a reptile person, and a rodent person, and a bird person….sorry, cats, you’re on the bottom of the list) and this just cut right to the bone. Gyp sounds like she was a wonderful dog, and I completely agree with her policy re: chicken necks.
Also, the Chimneys is a fabulous-looking bit of property. Damned if I wouldn’t like to put my boots up and enjoy a cold beer on that porch chair.
I appreciate that Matt. The Chimneys was indeed the ultimate porch destination. Endlessly changing light in the trees and hills, with the wedgetail eagles circling overhead. I was very sorry to have to give it up. There were several Chinese miners from the Gold Rush buried on the property, the ruins of a quartz crushing operation, a pine tree an American black sailor had planted to commemorate the death of Abe Lincoln, and a resident wombat, which Gyp was good friends with.
Despite the fact that Aboriginal culture greatly pre-dates the arrival of the dingo in Australia, some of the major tribal myths still insist the dingos are the givers of language. It’s hard to make sense of this in Western terms, because one is often talking to very old people whose native language is very complex and whose exposure to English has been mediated (or forced) by religious institutions and govt bodies. But, what I can gather is that the dingo is symbolically assigned the role of a kind of socialized form of language–in other words, language directly intended to connect with others, as opposed to an internal code to help organize one’s own thoughts. There is also the sense (which is pretty subtle and sophisticated) that as you communicate, so do you understand. The dingo seems to represent a larger notion of outbound communication as inward mode of perception. Anthropologists believe that in practical terms, the introduction of the dingo signaled more exposure to the outer world for Aborginals and more inter-tribal trade based interaction. The dogs actively helped in hunting–they mingled–and so did the people more fully. I think in modern techno-influenced terms, we would see them as kind of protocol that changed culture and then was retro-mythologized.
Kris, what a beautiful tribute to your dear Gyp. Reading this took me through a range of many wonderful, and some painful, emotions that come with knowing that human/canine bond. Sweet memories of Bailee, Jed, Chipper, Champ, Jesse and Amber poured over me as I read.
Your description of Gyp reminds me very much of my dear Kailee, a 5-year old chocolate lab that we almost lost last year to a traumatic injury resulting from the enthusiasm and speed with which she runs and retrieves. Fortunately, her spirit and love for life (along with some amazing surgeons and many good thoughts and prayers from awesome family, friends and fellow dog lovers – including Dana) won over the tree branch that impaled her. Kailee’s strength and resilience, like your Gyp’s, amazes me.
The picture above of the two of you is beautiful, simply beautiful! You can just feel the love and respect between the man and his dog. Thank you for sharing your story of a life well-lived with Gyp. You express it so perfectly. It’s always a pleasure to hear from or know someone who has experienced the transcendent bond between us and our beloved dogs.
Oh, and the lessons learned… love them!
I appreciate that Karen. Kailee sounds wonderful. There truly is something transcendent in these bonds.
It’s such a sadness when pets and animal companions go – especially one who was as close to you as Gyp. I think the most comfort we can draw is that while there is so much sadness in the world for animals – and there really is; some of the statistics are heartbreaking – the ones we bring into our homes have lives that are so often filled with love and grace, and who can ask for more than that?
That’s right S.S. I’ve drawn a lot of comfort knowing that Gyp was one life I did everything right by. My only perfect relationship. I felt her blessing when I buried her. “No one could’ve done more.” I hear and feel that still.
This is beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. Thank you.
You brought Gyp’s eternal and extraordinary spirit into my life. I’m honored to be touched by her and you.
Thank you for these lessons. I’ll be sharing what you wrote here with others.
Thank you, Jessica. Glad you appreciated it.
My small rat terrier lay next to me on the futon as I read this piece. We’ve been honored with two Kerry Blue Terriers and three Airedales sharing their personalities with us. They all lived into their teens because we spared no expense when something went wrong. It was a joy to read of your passion and appreciation for what Gyp brought to your life. RIP Gyp.
Patty, Gyp in her youth kept an old Airedale named Riley sprightly and young. She’d go over next door and romp with him till he’d be so tuckered. Then they’d snuggle together.
The monitor has gone blurry after reading this piece. My German Shepherd, Tova, has taught me so much about life and loving. Your Gyp was (and is, really) a remarkable gal who was very lucky, and loved, indeed.
Thanks, Laura. All paws unite!
I am going to share this wherever I can K. You had me all misty eyed.Somewhere Gyp must be smiling and wagging her tail . From the day I saw that Display picture I know I would find her somewhere and today watching her warmth radiates so beautifully.
K Thanks for sharing her memories with us.
Thanks T. She was an immensely special soul. The only creature of any kind that I can say I honestly always did the right thing by. Interestingly, no one ever, not even the fastest passing stranger, ever mistook her for a male dog. There was something essentially female about her that everyone sensed whether they looked more closely or not. And she stood by me with that kind of mythological female loyalty at its best. But she was a fierce competitor. To play hide and seek with her was to enter into her world. To swim. Her courage in health, combat, illness…I don’t think I will ever have such a window into a lost wild as she gave me. I think of her defending our ewes when they were birthing. I could’ve sworn she said aloud, “The fox is there. 50 meters.”
She also identified an electricity meter man who’d been assaulting women in the area. She was tuff. The Aboriginals believe dingos can speak to the mind in humans. I genuinely believe that’s true. I heard, “That’s the guy. Don’t let him close.” That man was later arrested for two rapes. We all see so little really. We all need help.
🙂 It is a pleasure to know her K. Being a woman I can understand what you talking about . I saw the female element the moment I looked at her. Wish we had even a fraction of her flowing in our veins. Life would have been worth living.
True , we see so little and absorb even less even if see and we call ourselves superior.
Gyp is inspirational I learned something from her today maybe her spirit drew me here. As you once said ” when the student is ready the teacher appears”.
Thanks Gyp. Always have that warm smile on your face where ever you are .
We all have those “teachers” who show us, in retrospect, that we were ready for certain lessons.
Oh, to be so supple and ready all the time. You have an open spirit, T. The only people of lasting interest have been the perpetual students. We’re always learning…until we’re a nice dogwood tree overlooking a lovely view.
What a gorgeous tribute and great lessons gleaned.
Thank you for sharing. I just reached instinctively under the table to pet my own dog, Ezra Pound, to whom I will read them aloud. He’ll agree.
Ezra Pound is a wonderful name for a dog. Thanks Mat. These special creatures. They hold communities together.
That was just lovely Kris. Nothing could be better. I just loved your memoir. I had pets when I was a child but losing them to the natural cycle of life hurt so I never had a pet after that. Of course, whenever I go to a friend’s place they are surprised that I bond so well even with unknown dogs. An old bond I suppose.
I hope to keep track of you.
One of the most beautiful pieces of writing I have happened upon in a long time. Genuine and perfect, thanks for putting this out there.
Thanks so much, Susie. She was a very special spirit. I appreciate that you enjoyed.
What an absolutely stunning tribute to an amazing-sounding companion, Kris! You were so lucky to have her – as was she to have you.
Thank you very much Wendy.
[…] Living with a Dingo […]
[…] – Almost too much to tell there. My dingo Gyp and my mastiff Luciano (and Tom the cat) have been extremely close spiritual companions…and also […]
Oh Kris, I can’t tell you how much this has helped me. My cheeks are wet, my eyes still brimming. I lost my beautiful dingo X German shepherd only six weeks ago. That first photo on this page could be her, it’s an amazing likeness. She came to me at five weeks of age because her mother stopped feeding her and her 11 (yes, you read that right!) siblings, and was my constant companion right through until two months shy of her 15th birthday, in good geriatric health but with eyesight fading.
I know the true connection and love you have shared with precious Gyp, I had the same fantastic bond with my beautiful, loyal, precious and so very clever girl. We howled at many a full moon together 🙂 I spent more time with her than I have anybody or anything or even any place in my entire life and can’t think of a single moment she ever annoyed me. Not one.
And whether too soon or perfectly timed, another dingo X is about to come into my world. I’m rescuing her from a life of boredom and frustration at being locked in a suburban, grass-less back yard. She is one year old, the same age as Gyp was when she came into your world. And it’s that, and the fact that Gyp settled perfectly into your life, that has given me the boost I needed today. The niggling doubts about taking on a dingo with history when everything else I have read tells me how difficult it they are to re-home have gone. I doubt no more, and will embark on this new relationship fully committed to being the absolute best human I can possibly be for her.
Who knows if you’ll even see this Kris, your last response was 6 years ago. Whether you do or not, I still wish to register my heartfelt thanks for coming across this beautiful tribute. RIP beautiful, precious girls, Chills and Gyp. And may Luciano still be alive and enjoying the good fortune of having found you as a companion.