Bonding with a Broken Heart

Story and Photos Contributed by Ruffwear Ambassador Maria Christina Schultz

Puppies are hard to resist, especially for dog lovers like me. But plopped in the grass in my neighbor’s backyard – surrounded by six chubby puppies who needed homes – I deliberated. At long last, our pack – Kona, Riley and me – was perfect, and I was hesitant to disrupt the balance. That’s when something else flew into the picture. A hummingbird.

The tiny creatures were special to my mom, and since we lost her five years ago, they’ve meant a lot to my family and me – all of us seeing them at unexpected and significant moments. I hadn’t seen one all summer, and so I knew in my heart my mom was there, trying to tell me something. Maybe she knew of the losses and gains that lurked in my future. Maybe a new puppy was meant to be.

This is the story of how three lives came together at just the right and wrong time – a girl who’d wound herself so tight around my heart I could not have believed it, a baby boy who’d fill the space she left behind, and me, heartbroken me.

It had been a great spring! We’d spent it celebrating birthdays. Riley turned 12, and Kona turned 7. “Happy Birthday, girlfriend,” I whispered to her, as the sun poked its way through the blinds that morning. “We’re going to have so much fun!” I remember how grateful I felt.

In classic Kona style, we’d overdone it. We hiked, took a Burley cart ride, and paddled, just her and me, howling together in the middle of the lake, taking selfies, and catching frisbees. Reliable and predictable, she was more content on the paddleboard than Riley ever had been. She had endurance, athleticism, and a remarkable loyalty to me.

When Kona’s brown eyes looked at me, something moved in my soul. I knew that no matter where we were or what we were doing, she’d always choose me over anything, and protect me. It’s difficult to describe the incredible bond we shared. She was my heart dog.

Three months after our epic birthday weekend, my perfect Kona was diagnosed with cancer, and our world came crashing down.

It all happened too fast. One day her gums were pale and she was lethargic. Then came the vet visits, bloodwork, medications and specialists. After a massive scary surgery, came the biopsy results and the word that ripped out my heart: Hemangiosarcoma. It’s an aggressive cancer that attacks the spleen.

Kona was given two months to live. And I was angry.

At 7, she was in the prime of her life, and we still had big plans – bike trips and overnight hikes, and those adorable puppies. If we were to get a new dog, I’d need Kona to help me train him. Older dogs, especially remarkable ones like Riley and Kona, are wonderful teachers, and Kona was magnificent with puppies.

I was surprised when my husband said we should get one. Even if the next member of our pack only got to know Kona for two months, he said, he’d learn so much from her. It would give Kona and me a job – training a young one – to distract us from the inevitable. And we’d be embracing life, maintaining a forward momentum, despite the pain that lay ahead.

It was hard for me to argue his case. I called my neighbor the next day. It just so happened there was one male left who needed a home.

But the new puppy – we named him Bodie – did not get two months with Kona. He got six days.

Three weeks after the surgery Kona started internally bleeding again, and I could not let her suffer. It was unexpected, awful, and the hardest decision I’d ever made. I still needed that girl, but I loved her too much. I thanked her for all she had done for me by giving her one more day of overdoing it, and said goodbye with the dignity she deserved.

Through the fog of grief that followed, reality made itself known. With all my heart, I wanted my perfect Kona back by my side. Instead, I had a biting, jumping, not-all-that-into-cuddling monster of a puppy. I’d need to start from scratch, training and socializing, and building a bond, all with a broken heart.

Most mornings, I just wanted to stay in bed, bury my tears in Riley’s coat and beg for the pain to go away. But that wasn’t an option with Bodie.

It was Riley who carried me. He picked up Kona’s jobs, following me around the house, waiting by the door for me to come home, sleeping closer to me, letting me hold him. And something else, something even more shocking. It had taken almost a year for Riley to let down his guard and play with Kona, and though he was much older now, he took Bodie under his wing.

I have to remind myself every day that bonds like the ones I’ve had with Riley and Kona take a long time to form, and Bodie isn’t even six months. As much as I’d like to sugar-coat everything Kona was a pain in the butt as a pup just like him. He’s testing me daily. Even as a dog trainer who knows all the puppy stages inside and out, I break down inside every time Bodie does something Kona would never have done. It’s really hard.

But here’s where it’s not hard. He’s just a puppy! He’s silly and fluffy, crazy and cute. He makes me laugh every single day. He plays with Riley and my heart melts. Teaching him and watching him learn is rewarding, and it’s in these moments I forget how sad I still am, how much I miss Kona. Bodie is a beautiful distraction.

He’s confident, athletic, brave, charming, and has all the potential to be another adventure buddy. I know someday he’ll choose to stay close to me on trails, and not jump off my paddleboard every five minutes. I just need to be patient. Bonds take time.

The universe sent me this dog, and I bet I’ll learn as many lessons from him as he learns from me.

I know my mom was there that day in my neighbor’s yard. She knew I was going to need Bodie. My mom was always right. I hope months from now, when Bodie and I are inseparable, she’ll be back to check on us, when the hummingbirds return in the spring.

20 thoughts

  1. Your story is one I believe so many of us can understand. You have moved me to tears because I’ve been where you were and are now. Your experience is tough and filled with love at the same time. Treasure what you have now because it too will pass too quickly. Thank you for sharing. You remind me to treasure every moment.

  2. I cried when I read your article. I lost my Aussie, Rosie, at 11 years after a short battle with very aggressive cancer. She was my heart dog, and 10 months later my heart is still broken. I am hoping to heal and eventually begin a new journey with another wonderful Aussie. Thank you for sharing both the pain and the joy.

  3. I feel your pain I am in the same boat!! Except for that my heart dog died of osteosarcoma almost 5 months to the day when my new boy was born!! It’s been difficult, yet like you my Marlee was sent to me to heal my heart and grow with him. It’s so difficult to love and still feel the loss and such a big hole in my heart!!

  4. Thank you for sharing, Kona, Riley, and you have been a huge inspiration for me and my girl Kira. In the last year she was diagnosed with an age related heart issue that keeps us from some adventures. When looking for ways to keep active and adventuring together, I came across your post on SUP with dogs and Kira and I were off on our new adventures. She took right to it. We have even added the cart and bike to our adventure list as well. Kona will be remembered as we take to the trails and water. Thank you so much for sharing with us and I’m am deeply moved by Kona’s passing. My condolences to you and your pack. Blessings and peace.

    1. Jennifer,
      Knowing Kona has inspired other other dogs and their humans to find more adventures also helps heal my heart. Thank you for sharing and Happy New Year!

  5. If any one can help mend a broken heart it is an Aussie puppy. Thank you for sharing your story. HSA is such a horrible disease and research is now ongoing with our wonderful breed. Hope to hear of your adventures in the future. God bless!

  6. My dear sweet friend, Kona left paw prints on all of our hearts. She was amazing. But so are you. Bodie is a bonus, he melts all of our hearts. Bodie has Riley to teach and guide him physically while Kona takes over spiritually. She will teach Bodie exactly how to love on you and support you in whatever you need. He’s a beautiful pup and he is going to be amazing, trust me. If you can train Sophie to paddle board, you my dear can do anything.

  7. Embrace Life and Keep the Momentum Forward…Love that and so very sorry about Kona. Those of us who have pets know that one day will come. We’re bonded forever in their grace and memory. Thank you for sharing. Best with Bodie and Riley

  8. Beautiful. I was lucky to meet Kona (and Riley) at a SUP class with Maria in 2016 with my then 6 month old Norbert. Nothing will replace that sweet girl, but am glad you have Bodie to bring a new doganality into your pack! I had lost my beautiful Earhart just a month before Norbert came bounding into my life. New pups are never a replacement, but they can certainly make room in your heart, even when it’s still broken. I look forward to hearing of your new adventures!

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