Alaska’s Last Week

I found Alaska, our white wolf-white shepherd wolfdog, as a pound rescue in December 1999. He was six months old, and a few months earlier had been found abandoned on the side of the road, with a shattered elbow and hip.  The hospital staff came to love him so much during recovery that the doctor who’d saved him — pro bono — stationed a clandestine intern at the pound to prevent Alaska from being euthanized before they could sweep in and adopt him if no one else would. But it was doubtful he’d ever run without lots of careful rehab, so no one adopted him. I saw him in the local Davis newspaper, and very shortly took him home.

The vet hospital staff had called him Klondike, but my daughter decided to name him Alaska. In truth, he was my dog — we’d bonded at the pound, as this poor pup so desperate for companionship tried to bury his head in my abdomen with all his strength. This became his trademark hug, and he and I hugged often.

Because of his injuries, he was fated to always walk with a painful limp from his front left elbow. He bore this stoically, as wolves do. More difficult was that the ball joint of his rear hip had to be removed. Still, his joy in life was so great that with the doc’s instructions, and lots of love and attention, he was running smoothly within weeks of coming home with me.

Seeing this beautiful animal loping at my side as we ran through suburban streets and parks, explored fields and hiked trails never ceased to be one of the great thrills of my life.

We’d had dogs in my family as I was growing up, but Alaska was my first dog, which meant all the more to a young man who’d grown up a voracious reader of Jim Kjelgaard novels.

Kjelgaard took care not to humanize his animal characters, but his tales vividly illustrate the adage that any creature with a personality is, by definition, a person. Alaska was not a human person, but still, he was one of the sweetest, gentlest, most inquisitive and agile-minded people I’ve known.

We hadn’t learned he was part wolf until after adopting him, but wolf he was, and that brought complications. Winter wolf syndrome manifested not as a dominance issue, but rather that he panicked if left alone during those times, so some six months after he entered our lives, we got Kaya, another pound rescue and shepherd mix who became his constant companion. Though unrelated by blood, they became brother and sister in all the ways that counted.

Three weeks ago, Alaska started peeing blood. Tests and X-rays showed lungs, heart, and bloodwork were fine, and antibiotics cleared up the problem, we thought — but after the ten-day course, the blood returned. Yes, he had an infected bladder, but this time an ultrasound showed what the x-rays could not — a massive, cancerous growth of blood sacs and vessels around his right kidney. Further tests showed it had not metastasized and was operable — and I desperately wanted to operate — but post-op chemotherapy and other complications ensured the expected three or more months of life he’d gain from surgery would never be pain-free, and likely more uncomfortable than ever before.

Alaska had borne so much pain with such fearless joy in life for so long, we could not subject him to even higher pain loads in exchange for a few months of stoic agony.

But not operating was worse. He had no real symptoms other than blood in the urine, but the danger with this type of cancer is that the dog may not feel sick, but a rupture can happen at any moment, and he’ll bleed out in confusion and pain.

The ultrasound was a week ago today. The vets gave us a few days at the most before a humane conscience required either surgery or the alternative, and we determined to make those days the best in his life if we could. I think we did. In those five days, he chased ground squirrels for two hours straight; visited a favorite dog park where he could run leash-free; flushed four jackrabbits twice in the same field; vigorously defended our home against the evil mail person, those noisy teens on their Razr scooters, and assorted wild critters with full-throated battle roars; happily returned to old haunts and explored new ones; and did a lot of napping by my side on our sunny front lawn, where the wind funnels scents from all over our neighborhood to be lazily sniffed. Meals were his delicacies: steak, eggs, bacon, nachos, lasagna, spaghetti with meat sauce, cookies, biscuits, and cinnamon treats.

And I never left his side. His greatest joy was always when his pack leader returned home to him, his greatest sorrow each time I left. From the moment of the diagnosis, I was not about to leave. In these last nights and days, he fell asleep to my hands massaging his arthritic joints many times; we spent hours curled together, his paw smashing my nose as we put tension on his poor wrecked elbow, a move he’d taught me long ago that eased the pain from compression and generated ecstatic rumbles.

As John Ross said of his dog, I didn’t want Alaska “to die under fluorescent lights on a cold stainless steel table in a room stinking of antiseptics.” Tuesday evening, our wonderful vet came to our home, for which we cannot thank her enough.

And Alaska knew. Deliberately, he made a last patrol. Very deliberately, he approached first me and then my wife to give his trademark hug. When the happy juice hit, he blissfully melted onto his beds. He never noticed the rhinoceros tranquilizer that sent him to dreamland, much less the final injection. It was the most peaceful, beautiful way to go — by the fire, on his favorite beds, with his head in my hands.

Good puppy.

All photos taken during the last few days of Alaska’s life.


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20 Responses to Alaska’s Last Week

  1. daniels says:

    Ok, I’m man enough to say your words brought me to tears. Not only because I’ve been there, but because I’ve got another wolf-chow mix who is 14 years old and fading. And I know one day will come, but hopefully not for a while.

  2. Davidwhitewolf says:

    You and me both, buddy. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Toastrider says:

    My buddy, a big ol’ basset hound of eleven years, is in his twilight now. My guess is this will be his last Christmas. He’s old and grumpy and just can’t get up stairs like he used to.

    But he’s a good dog, I’ve had to let one hound go on ahead, and soon this one will slip the leash as well. But I treasure every moment.

  4. Derek says:

    Alaska was fortunate to have you, and no doubt returned your love and companionship. I’m sorry for your loss, David.

  5. aliciatw81 says:

    dave I am so sorry for your lost…he was such a beautiful dog he will be missed.

  6. BobG says:

    Words cannot express how much it hurts to lose a family member like that. My condolences to you and your family.

  7. How did it get so dusty in here.

    Our forever kitten came up and sat on my lap while reading this. She adopted me and Janelle much the same as Alaska did you.

    I’m so sorry David she will be missed, but she will also live on in your memory and those who knew her.

  8. Jon b goode says:


  9. Anthony says:

    It hurts so to have them go, but he was lucky to have you. Take care.

  10. Ted says:

    So sorry. What more can be said.

  11. Scott says:

    I am sorry for your loss, David. They truly are man’s best friends. My two Labs are getting up there in age and it is sad to see that they cannot move as fast as they want to. Phil’s loss earlier this year as well as yours has really made me appreciate the time that I have left with mine.

  12. Gerry N. says:

    My pitbull, Ozzy was the gentlest, smartest, most laid back fourlegged creature I’ve ever met. We had him for ten years, then he developed an unoperable tumor far back in his nose then succumbed to pneumonia. I cried for two days, and I know how you feel at the loss of a family member like these. I am comforted in the sure and certain knowlege that I will meet my four legged family alongside my two legged ones after I pass. You have my sincere condolences.

  13. MrsLeleRuiz says:

    truly sorry for your loss…
    but he is happy running somewhere up there
    and is watching over you guys

  14. I’m so sorry David. Alaska was a lucky dog to have such caring humans.

  15. BadIdeaGuy says:

    R.I.P. Alaska. My condolences, David. Darn it’s hard to lose a dog.

  16. CAshane says:

    As hard as it was to make the decision not to do surgery and chemotherapy, you made the right call. We know they are so great because we miss them so when they are gone. Condolences.

  17. Bill says:

    Beautiful dog, and a wonderful tribute!

    I’m sorry for your loss, and yes, you brought me near to tears as well! Must be getting old!

  18. Kevin Baker says:

    Damn, man, I can barely see to type. My deepest condolences.

  19. Chad says:

    Sorry for your loss.

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