Dear Shep,

As I write this, which is somewhere between Friday night and Saturday morning, you are clinging to life. Everyone believes you’re going to make it, but the problem with you is that no one who has ever met you hasn’t loved you; and therefore, they pull for you. They root for you, they hope for you, because you are one of the greatest dogs they have ever met, and sometimes that means that their emotions get in the way of logic. I believe you’ll make it, but I have to prepare myself for the possibility that I’ve felt your warmth for the final time.

If you understand English or Human at all, you’ve heard your vet, Aunt Katrina, say many times to her technicians, that you are the most amazing Shepherd she’s ever met, and while you have no idea how many shepherds she’s met, mainly because you think you’re the only one on Earth, that is quite a compliment.

I should probably back up. I know that you can’t really read this and even if I said it to you out-loud you would have no idea what the hell I was saying. But what’s amazing about most dogs, and especially you, is that you would absolutely understand the emotions and sentiment I was trying to convey. So for now, let’s pretend that you’re sitting at a coffee table, with your legs crossed and your reading glasses on (because you are old) while you sip on some coffee and peruse the morning news on your Lablet…I mean tablet…get it? A lab is a dog, like you, Shep. I know, I know, labs are stupid but the joke works…just go with it like you always have, buddy.

Shep, I almost lost you this weekend for the second time in two years. In fact, it was almost exactly 24 months ago that I left you at the hospital on a Tuesday night assuming that I’d never see you alive again because you looked so terrible. I told your mom, (we call her Ashley) when we got in the car that evening that if you lived through the night I would end your suffering the next day after I was done doing that stupid radio show that I do. Wednesday morning arrived and Ashley was at the hospital first thing and she reported that you were suddenly vibrant and Shep-like. You turned the corner and emerged from a still undiagnosed illness that had depleted you and turned you into a shell of yourself. Days later, you were annoying the living hell out of me begging to have a ball thrown to you and barking at every god damned thing that walked, flew, or drove within 5 miles of our home. In other words, you were back to normal.

Yet, here we are again. As you approach your 11th birthday, you haven’t been yourself the last few weeks, yet you haven’t been what we humans call “sick.” On one day, you’re totally normal, and then the next day you don’t want to eat and you’re more lazy than usual. In my small human brain, I just thought you were aging and slowing down, especially since you never really stopped being Shep. Even when you didn’t seem to feel good the last few weeks, you would alarm bark at anyone that came close to our property, click into second gear when anyone came onto our property (thus making the UPS man crap himself), and consistently continued to lead your little pack made up of your adopted sister, Nellie the white German Shepherd, and Rocky, that annoying little Chihuahua that came with the girl known as Ashley. Three years ago, the only thing more adorable than the way you immediately began protecting Ashley was the way you instantaneously allowed Rocky into your world and made him your little guy. You act like he’s an annoyance, but you love him like a brother, and that, like so many other qualities you have, is what makes you the greatest dog I’ve ever known, and a better soul than pretty much every human I’ve ever met, most notably, myself.

And then came Friday; you weren’t yourself to levels that were unacceptable. Ashley called me before the show and told me the symptoms and we both agreed that you weren’t doing well, yet neither of us could do for you what you would do for us; we couldn’t drop everything to protect you and for that we will always be failed humans. It’s not specific to your mom and me, it’s a failing of the human condition; we’re selfish and narrow minded; things you can’t relate to because you would literally die defending us with no questions asked. As humans, we weigh things we call jobs, careers, obligations and the like against time and we create rationalizations like “he should be fine until….”

Lucky for us, you were. Fine, that is, until. When I came home Friday you were not yourself, but you were still Shep to an extent which gave me hope. Your concept of time is totally different than mine, Shep, but I will tell you that what transpired Friday morning, afternoon, night, and into Saturday morning felt like a lifetime as we contemplated whether or not you’d make it through the weekend. For most of the initial time period, we had every reason to believe that you had cancer and you were on your last legs. If you could understand this letter I’d remind you of the hour I spent with you on the floor of the vet’s office Friday night as we awaited your ultrasound. It was important to me that I lay with you, holding you. I’m sorry for all of the water that was coming out of my eyes but my allergies were really bad that night. I’m allergic to the thought of a life without Shep.

And I’m not the only one. After you had surgery, which is the human word we use to explain that horrible experience you had to endure late Friday, your fellow pack members, Nellie and Rocky missed you very much. The world wasn’t right without you at home, especially when the thunder and lightning started. You’ve been through dozens of those storms and you’ve never cared. During each and every one of those storms you were, like you’ve always been, strong and stoic in the face of the unknown. As such, you showed your pack how to respond, but without you, Rocky and Nellie were afraid and didn’t know how to respond to the big, loud booms. I tried, Shep, to take your place. I didn’t sleep all night because I thought if I showed them that there was nothing to be scared of that they’d follow my lead but nothing worked. They needed you. And so do I.
I started to try to let go of you emotionally last year because as a German Shepherd, once you reached the human age of 10, you were on borrowed time. The problem is that you are the strongest “thing,” I have ever met. You are always in control, always strong, always sweet, and always in charge. It’s hard to imagine something like that ever becoming weak or leaving.

As you saw Friday as I lay with you, I’m not ready for you to go and I’m so glad that you’re still here; for now. You’ll be gone soon and it will break my heart in ways I can’t even begin to express…sorry, those damn allergies are coming back and there’s water on my keyboard as I write this and I can’t really see the screen, none of which makes sense to you and your 2-D world.

As of this writing, you don’t have any cancer, you just twisted your spleen into knots and you may have been suffering with this for months…perhaps many months, but because you are the dog that you are, you never complained and you always rose above whatever discomfort you were feeling. We have no idea when or how you did this, but we’ve removed your spleen and we really hope that you’re feeling like hanging around for a few more years. Either way, Aunt Katrina, Ashley, and I are all sorry that we didn’t figure out what was going on sooner, but maybe if you weren’t such a tough guy, it would have been easier. And yet, if you weren’t such a tough guy, you wouldn’t be Shep.

So now that you’re out of the woods, for now, I wanted to thank you for choosing me. As arrogant humans, we like to say idiotic things like “I chose the pick of the litter,” but the truth of the matter is that if you’re doing it right, your dog picks you. When I met you 11 years ago, you made it clear that I needed you. You never needed me, and I have always been eternally grateful to you for reflecting back onto me all of my faults and trying to help me improve. I know that I have failed at becoming the man that you know I should be, but you have never, ever held that against me. You are the true embodiment of unconditional love and while I have never come close to the example that you have set, I hope that you have seen the effort I’ve made to become a better man. No matter what happens tomorrow or any day forward, I will always be able to say something that no one else on Earth will able be able to say, nor appreciate; I was Shep’s choice. Thanks buddy.

P.S. Since you are still, after all of these years, enamored with your reflection in the mirror, I thought you might like this picture of us from Friday night at the vet’s office. Neither one of us felt very good at the moment it was taken, but it embodies every moment of the past 11 years and it represents everything that has made our relationship what it is: indescribable.

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