Falco died 10 years ago on July 13, 2006. There is still a hole in my heart. It has healed around the edges, but the void is still there. This is the message I sent to the volunteer search and rescue group (Front Range Rescue Dogs – FRRD) that we had worked with at the time…
Falco turned eleven last April. He had been slowly declining for the last couple years. A couple weeks ago I tried to write a retirement announcement for Falco, but it was too difficult to finish. Besides, I thought, FRRD might be short-handed some weekend this summer when help is needed, and he would surely be willing and able to get out and work his butt off, as he usually did. He was pretty slow at home, but always found another gear to shift into when search work came up.
This morning I took him to the vet to have a “benign” but bothersome tumor removed from his gum, along with one of his canine teeth around which the tumor had wrapped. The operation went fairly well, but he lost a lot of blood because it was not clotting very well. They gave him a unit of blood during the surgery, and afterward struggled to stop the bleeding from his palette. Eventually they put him under again to go in and try to cauterize the area as best they could and applied considerable amounts of clotting gel. They rounded up the last 2 available units of blood in the region, and filled him up again, but the bleeding persisted, and he died on the operating table around 7pm this evening (July 13, 2006).
When Falco was 18 months old, he had passed his D4 trailing test and was about ready for an operational trailing test, mostly waiting for his handler to become operational and gain some experience. By the time I was ready, we tried a trailing test, but in the words of many, “The dog passed but the handler failed.” More work for the handler, as usual, but then he got blasted by an unfortunate over-vaccination incident, and a month later developed a debilitating auto-immune disease called perianal fistula. We tried another trailing test, but soon decided to take him out of training to try to recover his health. We learned that this condition did not have a good prognosis, and they gave him about 6 miserable months to live unless we resorted to powerful drugs that could also be debilitating. We tried the drugs for a few months, but they led to an enlarged spleen that nearly killed him. It was a long story, but eventually we switched his diet to raw meat and veggies and treated him with homeopathy, and we slowly learned how to manage his health.
When we returned to search work, it seemed that he never missed a beat, but rather than continue the stressful work of trailing, we switched to air scent. Falco’s reaction was, “Man, this is tons of fun!” and soon we passed the tests and became operational.
I recount this history, partly because I am mourning and it is therapeutic, but also to illustrate the irrepressible spirit this dog demonstrated. Against all odds he lived 9 years past his deadline, and lived the last of those years as a hard-working SAR dog.
I cannot count the number of nights we were out in the mountains searching for some lost stranger, but both thoroughly enjoying the time we were together, both in our element. I will never forget the hundreds of hours of training and searching with him. During the last year or so, he would continue to work hard for me, despite the fact that it wore him out thoroughly. For example, when searching for Jeff Christensen at RMNP last year, we were helicoptered to the top of Fairchild Mountain and he searched a long day above timberline, then slept for 3 days, then went out again for another long day working his hardest, but catching catnaps (falling asleep) while Steve and I stopped to study the map. Back at the parking lot at the end of the day, Steve and I had finished searching, but it was Falco who impressed Jeff’s dad by alerting on his truck that happened to have some of Jeff’s scent-saturated gear in the back. I am convinced that he would have worked himself to death if I asked him to. With the strangest irony, the guy we helped locate and rescue from the St Vrain River three years ago just sent me an email this morning recalling that incident.
Marcel said, “He was my best friend. When I needed someone to talk to, I would go to Falco and he would always listen.” Well, that’s what I used to do too. Renee will miss his daily company and watchful baby-sitting services for our boys as they play in our foothills backyard. I will (sort of) miss his annoying whining and barking from the back of the truck, only because it spoke of his undying energy to get out and get to work. Renee, Marcel, Joel and I will greatly miss his loyalty and affection.
“There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it in tact, you must give your heart to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the coffin or casket of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.… We shall draw nearer to God, not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to Him; throwing away all defensive armor. If our hearts need to be broken, and if He chooses this as the way in which they should break, so be it.”
~ C.S. Lewis (from “The Four Loves”)