S a m a n t i c shttp://www.potomacvalleysams.com/Samantics.html

Twilight of a Dog

by Tamara Somerville  © 2016

If you have been fortunate to have a beloved pet grow old in your care, then you have had many occasions to ponder the phenomenon of time -- particularly how in hindsight it passes so quickly.  The perception is sharpened in the first-hand observance of a life of a dog -- a species whose lifetime is, at best, about one-sixth the duration of the average lifespan of people. 

Samoyeds are born weighing ounces, begin walking around two weeks of age, running at four weeks, are full height in a year and at their physical peak from 2-5 years of age. At age seven, Samoyeds are regarded by veterinarians as “seniors” and classified in AKC conformation shows as “veterans.” 

Yet Samoyeds -- especially physically-fit Samoyeds -- are unusually deceptive in their aging.   Strangers can be completely bamboozled by an apparently ageless Samoyed, as I have had people she has just met guess that Gidget was three years old, when she was in fact over thirteen. The grey hair which becomes evident in other breeds, is never evident on a Samoyed.  And so the two Samoyeds who have aged in my care -- Buck and Gidget -- did not visibly age, to me, until around their tenth years when I could see them slowing down and being affected by arthritis. 

Gidget was born on June 9, 2002.  I would not meet her until that August while on vacation in Colorado, a trip hurriedly planned during my summer-of-grief when I was reeling from the April passing of my first Samoyed, Buck, at the age of 13 1/2, and the subsequent tragic demise (congenital liver shunt) of a puppy, Thatcher, who had been born during the night Buck died and perished during her ninth week. 

It was shortly before boarding the plane to Colorado that I had decided to tempt fate yet again and get another Samoyed puppy.  Thatcher’s breeder was helping in my search and while friends and I were in Steamboat Springs, called to let me know that Gidget, then known as “Pink Girl,” and two of her brothers (“Blue Boy” and “Green Boy”) were available and, conveniently, located north of Denver.  Gidget’s breeder, Marnie Grube, kindly allowed me to visit and on my second visit agreed to let Gidg return with me to Washington, D.C..   And so she did, in a “sherpa bag” at my feet on the American Airlines flight home.  

With Buck’s (1988-2002) and Thatcher’s (April-June) lives and deaths still vivid in my thoughts, I did not take even Gidget’s earliest days, weeks and months for granted.  Buck had taught me that an entire lifetime can seem to have passed in a rushed blur.  Thatcher — and the horrors of 9/11 the year before — had taught that every day is a gift not to be taken for granted. 

I had inherited Buck, as a 4-year old, from a roommate.  Thatcher and Gidget were my first puppies.  I immersed myself in Gidget’s upbringing, reading books on puppy-rearing and brought her to work with me every day — one of the luxuries of my position then as the Republican Staff Director of the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Rules and Administration. 

The U.S. Senate is an institution and community steeped in time.  It is a place, replete with its own zip code, removed from modern American society in its reverence for seniority and -- notwithstanding the presence of dogs and Ted Cruz -- decorum.  It is also a great place to socialize a dog.  Between the elected and non-elected in the Senate community and the legions of tourists, constituents and lobbyists who she met in the hallways, elevators and surrounding parks, Gidg was thoroughly socialized at a very young age. 

In the best tradition of Samoyeds, Gidget loved people and people loved her, at first sight.  In the elevator outside Senator Hillary Clinton’s office, voices with thick New York City accents would exclaim in faux amazement at baby-Gidg perched in my arms:  “Is… it … REAL?”  Her acquaintance with Ted Kennedy began during an afternoon walk when his distinctive booming voice emerged from the Dirksen Senate Office Building as he proclaimed: “What a MAGNIFICENT dog — may I give her a treat?” And then he reached into his suit jacket to retrieve one of the treats that he routinely carried for his  Portuguese Water Dogs that he brought to work everyday.  And thus did all those sordid Chappaquiddick books I’d read in the 1980s begin to recede a bit from my assessment of the Senator.  He was a dog person.  Several years later, Gidg and I stood on the curb on Constitution Avenue while Senator Kennedy’s funeral procession drove by.

A photograph of 4-month old Gidget adorably crouched on the Capitol lawn was enlarged to a 3’ x 4’ poster board for display in the Senate chamber during the 2002 debate on the bipartisan Help America Vote Act.  Senators Mitch McConnell (R-KY), my boss, and Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT) both referenced Gidget’s image in observing that under their legislation dogs would no longer be able to be registered to vote, no matter how adorable.  In those and subsequent instances, Gidget was immortalized in the Congressional Record.

It is ironic, or perhaps perfectly logical, that in this era of rampant, extreme partisanship and cynicism toward America’s democratic institutions, the U.S. Senate — and living in a crime-ridden city — trained Gidg to be a therapy dog who loves everyone. 

When Gidget began her five-year stint as a certified therapy dog visiting patients at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Virginia, it was largely thanks to the Senate that she was perfectly comfortable riding in the elevators and interacting in myriad situations with people she encountered in the hospital.  She astounded me and observers with her intuitiveness toward the needs and desires of patients and their families.  She actually did more “therapy work” with people in the hospital garage and lobby than in the patient rooms where she was assigned — in the pediatric oncology, psychiatric and high-risk perinatal wards.  These visits were, to say the least, profound experiences for me.  In the car after our visits, I began a habit of praying for those who we met before turning the ignition to drive home.  

As extraordinary as these aspects of Gidget’s life have been, my fondest memories are of our daily walks in our neighborhood and our frequent adventures in bikejoring, dogscootering, boating, hiking and camping.   And our vacations together — by ourselves and with friends -- especially our month-long cross-country roadtrip that included a week in the Tetons and Yellowstone.  It was after that trip that I traded in my Miata for a Honda Element, so that Gidget would have more room and we could more easily go camping. 

The Element -- a.k.a “Gidgmobile” -- also ferried the scooters and bicycles that Gidg would pull, in lieu of sledding.  I had never in my life ridden a scooter before purchasing one in 2003 for the purpose of Gidget participating in “dryland excursions.”  I vividly recall taking that scooter (Blauwerk’s “The Willy” with 20” wheels), sans Gidg, to the schoolyard across the street to discover whether I could operate the thing.  I had not ridden a bicycle since high school when, in 2006, I bought the first of several bicycles so Gidg and I could go “bikejoring.”  Four scooters, five bicycles and 13 years later I know that I’ll be riding, bikejoring and scootering for the rest of my life.  All because of Gidget.

With my first Samoyed, Buck, I have no recollection of contemplating her death until shortly after she turned 13 years old and a routine health test indicated liver disease.  With Gidg, I was from the get-go mindful of the fragility and brevity of life, especially her’s. 

And so I tried not to put off until theoretical tomorrows that which we could do today.    

On October 17, 2011, when Gidget was in emergency surgery from bloat (gastric dilatation volvulus) at the age of nine, I was anguished by the prospect of losing her but simultaneously comforted knowing that she’d had a fun, active and consequential life.  In fact, when she bloated we were on vacation in the Outer Banks of North Carolina — with our friends John and Brenda Mantz and Gidget’s dog friends Darcy, Arlo and Blaze.  That morning we’d enjoyed a glorious walk on the beach while the sun rose over the Atlantic ocean.  Gidget hadn’t languished her life away in the backyard.  She’d had a life of adventure and exploration. 

As I write this, Gidget’s 14th birthday has come and gone and she’s laying next to me napping in apparent contentment.  Her appetite remains strong, she can still climb stairs, jump into the Gidgmobile and walk three miles, albeit at a leisurely pace.  On our longer walks I bring the DoggyRide stroller-bike trailer that I bought a few years ago so I’d have it when she needed it.  She’s ridden in it once so far, this spring toward the end of a 4-mile walk on the C&O Canal. 

She didn’t like the stroller.  Gidget’s always been a lead dog — a fiercely competitive lead dog — and that spirit does not easily reconcile with getting pushed along in a stroller. 

Two months ago, her semi-annual wellness tests tested my nerves as I steeled myself for bad news.  Liver and kidney values are particularly worrisome as dogs age.   But it was all good news.  Great news, actually, positive results across the board.  So I let myself exult in this latest reprieve, confident that Gidg and I would be together another season or two and even hopeful for another year.

Gidget’s aging has not been without effect.  In my mind, her life is organized around scooter-bikejor seasons which extend from around October through March.  It was the winter of 2013-14 — Gidg was eleven — that I recall her sammy “zoom-zoom” notably diminishing on our bikejoring outings on the C&O.  She could still cover five miles with no problems, but not nearly as quickly as she once had.  At her peak fitness, Gidget would pull me on a scooter from the house to the Lincoln Memorial and back — precisely six miles.   Her top speeds typically occurred around the Washington Monument — 23 m.p.h. being the fastest I can recall seeing on the bike computer.  During the winter of 2014-15, Gidg could still do five miles but at barely a fast walking or trotting pace.  She didn’t seem to mind, and was as crazy excited as ever to be harnessed and hooked up to the bike.

I had never made a big deal over Gidget’s birthdays, until she turned 13.  But I was mindful that it could well be her last birthday (Buck had not made it to 14) and I wanted to remember it and share it with friends in person and on Facebook.  Her sammy pal, Arlo, had turned 13 the month before and his Samoyedmom, Brenda, and I decided to do a dual celebration of their lives.  Replete with a personalized birthday cake, colorful plates, hats, noisemakers and signage from The Party Store, we staged and thoroughly photographed the party.  Some of their sammy buddies attended, too. 

With heightened awareness that every event could be the last one Gidget experiences, the poignancy of her participation tugs at my heart.  She did not bikejor this past winter so effectively retired from that sport shortly before she turned 13.  I cannot now remember precisely the last time she bikejored.  I did not know then that it would be her last time.  

One adventure that Gidg loved as a youngster and which she can do just as well and with just as much gusto, is boating.  Riding in the front of our inflatable Sevylor Colorado canoe has always been a tremendous joy for her.  She still jumps in the boat when it is not yet in the water.  Recently she had the added excitement of boating in a new place:  the C&O Canal.  We’d scootered, biked and hiked the C&O towpath countless times but until this month had never actually paddled on the canal.  Now we have.  I have a number of new paddling destinations planned for this summer and fall.  So long as she has breath, she can lay in the bow of our boat and enjoy an adventure. 

Gidget just this past weekend experienced another “first” when she caught up to a cat at the alpaca farm where we were staying for a few days.  After unsuccessfully stalking cats seemingly her entire life — she was usually leashed when she saw them — she was seemingly perplexed when she finally got close enough to sniff Leroy the barn-cat.  He was unconcerned, perhaps because her top-speed these days is a fast-shuffle, and she kept chasing him all weekend.  Made her happy, which made me happy.

So I don’t know how much time we have left together.  I know that I will suffer crushing, frightful grief when she is gone, as I did when Buck and Thatcher passed.  But life for anyone, human or animal, is a roller-coaster — if we’re lucky a long one — and my grief will be soothed with the knowledge that Gidg and I had spent a lot of time together at the peaks.  

When he neared death, Albert Einstein, who had spent a lot of time contemplating time, stated simply:  “It is time to go.”  At some point in the next year, Gidget likely will convey that same message, in her own way.  It will be a tremendous comfort to know that she will long be remembered, by many.  


~ Addendum ~

August 18, 2016 @ 8:00 a.m. --  Twenty hours ago, Gidget arrived at her BFFs, “The Blues Sisters,” for a play-date.  She was very happy, especially when the three of them got to split a rotisserie chicken.  A few hours later she jumped in the car to go home, where she ate her dinner and had a nap.  It had been a good week, as she was especially frisky during the evenings and flung her indoor soccer ball at me to play with her.  Twelve hours ago, while walking to the kitchen where her elevated food and water bowl stood, Gidget became severely uncoordinated to the point she could not stand.  I rushed her to the emergency room.  After several more such episodes and tests indicating cardiac malfunction and at least one mass on her liver or spleen, her attending physician concurred in a decision to euthanize.  But first, Gidget and I had a last visit with me sitting on the floor of an exam room while she stood so I could give her the final armpit rubs and ear rubs that she had always savored. 

I looked into her eyes, studied her expression and listened to her slightly labored breath.   It was time to let her go.

7-year old Gidget on a four-mile snow-trek during the glorious 2009-10 winter of Snowpocalypse & Snowmageddon

Gidget’s sunrise beach walk on the day she bloated  (October 17, 2011)

“Pink Girl” at 6 weeks old.

Our first night in Denver

Gidg @ work

Gidget’s BPFs

Five months old




Mt. Adams


Douthat State Park

Mt. St. Helens 2004

Gidg at 4 months in the photo that was used on the Senate floor during the 2002 debate over election reform legislation.




Five years


Eight years

Leroy & Gidget (June, 2016)