Saying goodbye to Willow

Saying goodbye to Willow

It’s been 2 weeks since I received that fateful call on my cell while I was at farmers’ market. It was a beautiful sunny summer day, I’d opted to leave Willow at home while I peddled my wares that day–partly because it was too hot on the blacktop parking lot for a dog, but largely because Willow just loathes the market. I tried getting her to socialize, and she did improve some, but she was just never comfortable with the busy atmosphere of market, so I opted to leave her at the farm where she could monitor the comings and goings and sleep in the shade of the lilac bushes where she’d dug her earthen bed. It was a good morning, I was at market with my peeps and I was happy to be there; but my world came screeching to a halt when I got the call informing me that Willow had been hit by a car and was laying on the side of the road.

livestock guardian
I called her my “dawg” because she was my home-girl, my bff, my bestie–my constant companion.

Moving into Jim’s place I knew what the risks were. Route 43 dissects the farm and cars and trucks of all sizes fly through as they travel between Madison and Farmington. I knew that Willow loved to run; she had roamed free at my ex’s place and to be tethered to a dog run was something of an injustice to her. She would occasionally slip her collar in order to lope across the land. I’d tried tightening the collar, I tried walking her, I was working to train her to come consistently when called, and I had plans to invest in an invisible fence system for the farm and for Willow. I’d hoped that I could just keep her safe long enough that I could bring sheep to the farm (hopefully next year) and then she could stay with the sheep inside an electric fence and she would be happy as any livestock guardian dog. But I recognized the risks from the start.

I didn’t think, I just started packing up my booth–product was thrown haphazardly back into it’s storage tub and personal effects were tossed into the car. Several of the other vendors at the market noticed and when I told them what had happened they immediately began to help me take down my table and tent and load it into the subaru. I was hugged–I think I was shaking as I struggled to control my emotions and hold it together so that I could drive home–and then I left very unceremoniously.

The Runamuk farm isn’t five miles from downtown Madison where our farmers’ market is held in the Main Street Park, so it wasn’t a long trip home–especially with my foot heavy on the gas once I got out of town, but in my mind I replayed the last year and a half I’d spent with Willow.

sam and willow
Me n my dawg.

From the instant I saw her picture in the initial email foray about the 4 month old puppy, I was smitten. I’d been searching for a while for just the right dog to make my own–having never had a dog just for me before I was determined that this one was going to be mine. I was fully prepared to clean up any amount of puppy poop, puke, fur, chewed messes, or what have you. At that point Runamuk was facing a new year in a new home and the future looked bright. I had big plans and having a livestock guardian on the farm made sense.

I had done my homework–having been lusting after my very own canine companion since I was a small girl. I’ve done lots of research over the years about various dog breeds. I’m no expert, but fairly well versed, and tend to prefer the working breeds over the toy dogs. I’d read the recommended procedures for picking out a new puppy, how especially for livestock guardians you want them to come from working stock, how you should meet the breeder, get to know the puppies before selecting one that will best suit your family and life. I knew all that, and still it all flew out the window when I saw that fluffy white and yellow puppy staring at me with those timid golden-brown eyes.

My husband at the time had asked me as I left to go “check it out” what the chances of me not coming home with a dog were. I said I was going in with an open mind and I reserved the right to not get this dog if she wasn’t right for me.

But as soon as I pulled into this woman’s driveway and saw the puppy on a leash it was all over. I didn’t see the fact that it wasn’t a farm–yes there was a horse–but the tidy mobile home alongside a busy road with a horse pen tucked out back was not a farm. The woman had bought a pair of the puppies from someone in Massachusetts and said she was going to have to move into an apartment soon and could not take the big dogs with her. Because they were already 4 months old the puppies were being sold at a discounted price, which was what had enticed me to answer the ad. They called her Willow, let her romp around all over their house and furniture, and the little girl fed her Doritos while they sat together on the couch watching cartoons.

Ultimately I brought the dog home with me–foolhardy or not. But something in Willow’s eyes spoke to me; I saw a kindred spirit there–and I knew that this was my dog. At long last I’d found a dog for me.

She was never happier than when she was running free across the land.

I did exactly what I’d promised to do. I watched the puppy, cleaned up after the puppy, worked to train and coach the puppy–and I loved that dog unconditionally. Willow sensed that, ate it up, and gave it back to me in spades. She was my girl and I was her person. It didn’t matter to me that she was the most cowardly livestock guardian dog ever.

I don’t say that to belittle Willow. It’s simply the truth. She was afraid of change, of sudden movements or strange objects, terrified of vehicles, wary of strangers and freaked out by loud noises–I could go on. She was a very anxious and nervous dog, but with the sweetest temperament.

That said she could also be stubborn, and she was a big girl–75 pounds–so when she decided she didn’t want to do something she would just sit herself down and stare back at me, woefully resolute. I tried matching her stubbornness and waiting her out…but I’m not that patient I guess. I would always end up wrapping my arms around her and carrying her where I wanted her.

dogs and porcupines
Waiting for the Madison Animal Hospital to open in the morning following a quilling incident. Eventually we decided to hook the dogs up at night to minimize the risk.

She and I went to the vet at probably a half dozen times last year thanks to an overabundance of porcupines at my ex’s place. She got herself quilled and there was no taking them out of her face on our own. She was too big to hold down and she would get very defensive if we tried to take the quills out–those things hurt you know! So I would have to take her to the Madison Animal Hospital–naturally these encounters tended to occur in the middle of the night (usually about 20 minutes after I’d fallen asleep my husband would come wake me up with the news); thank goodness for Dr. Darren Richards’ patience and commitment to his veterinarian practice and his furry patients!

I had to heft Willow into the truck because she was terrified of the thing, and she rode all but in my lap to the vet’s office. And then I proceeded to carry her across the parking lot and into the building feeling decidedly foolish. Each incident drew us closer together as she saw that I was there to help her through the pain and fear of going to the vet’s office, and the last time I took her over there she actually got into the subaru and walked into the vet’s office all of her own accord.

I’d just set up a payment arrangement with the Madison Animal Hospital to get caught up on my bill with them–finances have been so tight since I left my ex that I hadn’t been able to pay off the debt, but the kind people at my local veterinarian’s office have been patient and understanding.

happy puppy smile
She had the most beautiful puppy-dawg smile!

All last summer we were together. If I would go down to the garden she would sleep nearby in the shade of the forest undergrowth. If I went for a walk to collect herbs for salve-making, she went too. We had silly little games we used to play together–she would come running back to me full tilt after an exploration of the forest and I would throw my arms up and cry “It’s Willow!” in a sing-song voice–and she would come thundering by me, then turn and race back to be caught up in a hug.

This dog loved hugs. And I loved burying my face in that soft white and yellow fur.

And then when I made that difficult decision to leave my husband, to put my entire farming-endeavor at jeopardy and start over–this dog was one of the only things I took with me. It was Willow and I in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in-town Madison in February, and this dog became the embodiment of my farm and everything that I held dear as I struggled to recreate myself and my life.

When the neighbors in the apartment above us would come into the building and stomp up the stairs on the other side of our living room wall and Willow would woof and bark, it was a sign to me that my farm was still alive in the instincts of my livestock guardian as she sought to protect us from the noisy neighbors.

When I missed my kids so much and I was depressed and questioning my choices in life this dog still loved me, and allowed me to bury my face in her fur, hug her close and cry it out.

When I had no one else to mommy, I mommied the dog. I don’t have a daughter, so Willow became my girl. My puppy-girl.

sad puppy
Willow always looked so forlorn when I had to leave to go to work!

I often felt guilty for dragging Willow along with me as I made such big life changes. She wanted nothing more out of life than to run free through the forest or across the pasture. Or to receive love and hugs from me. Perhaps it was selfish of me, but I like to think that she needed me too.

When I arrived home at the farm Willow was still laying along the side of the road, her body had been covered by the childrens’ sleeping bag that she sometimes slept on. She’d slipped her collar–again–and was running around the farm happy as a lark when she went to cross the road to make for the endless expanse of pasture on the other side of the barn.

The poor guy that hit her was waiting for me. He was a mess, red in the face and tearful–obviously very broken up about the incident, and he was quick to explain that he’d tried to swerve but couldn’t miss her and that she took her last breath just after he got out of the car. She didn’t suffer.

I dropped to the ground, kneeling in the dirt on the side of the road, pulled the sleeping bag back to reveal the face of my beloved puppy-girl. Her lifeless form still bore the happy smile she would get whenever she ran free. I buried my face in her fur one last time and breathed in her scent. Her body was still warm but beginning to stiffen.

I knew what had to be done. And I knew that I had to be the one to do it.

I hefted her body and carried my dog away from the road. I sent the heartbroken gentleman on his way with no ill-wishes or hard-feelings. He has dogs too, he said, and the look on his face was more than enough to tell me that he felt awful about the whole thing. It sucks, we all have to get from point A to point B–this is just one of the prices we pay for the convenience of modern transportation.

To be fair, my partner attempted to help me bury Willow. But in my grief-shocked state I was not very receptive and probably a little harsh, so he left me to it. I dug the hole at the foot of the maple that lies in the middle of the field–Willow and I used to nose around it during our walks around the farm these last couple of months. I placed her in the grave, covering her with the sleeping bag that had been hers in life, and covered her over with soil.

willow and winter
Willow had the sweetest temperament–she lay there the entire time that Winter slept on her, and she never moved a muscle.

And then I sat there under the tree and cried. I cried for this lost love, for the joy she’d brought me, for the hugs, the golden brown eyes, the soft white and yellow fur, and the happy running-free smiles with lolling doggie tongues. I cried for stubborn dogs and silly dawg games, for this dog that liked to eat snow by the mouthful and lick the dew off the grass. For Willow who liked to chase dry leaves on the wind and chew sticks to bits.

After that I managed to drag myself up to the farmhouse where I proceeded to spend the day on the couch. A limp lump of flesh and bone that alternately leaked and sniveled as I mourned my dog. I knew the risks when I chose to leave my husband and take this dog with me. I knew the risks when I chose to move us into this farm alongside a busy road. I knew she loved to run and that pyrenees are notorious escape artists. I knew all this and I still chose to forge ahead with it all.

Now she is gone. There’s a gaping hole in my life–in my heart–where this dog was. She filled a void in me that I never realized was there. And when life our world turned upside down we held onto each other. She sustained me through the hardest part of my divorce–she was my farm when I had no farm. Willow was the embodiment of everything that I was–even when I wasn’t sure anymore what or who that person was.

I planted coreopsis on her grave. Beautiful flowers for my beautiful puppy-girl. RIP Willow.
I planted coreopsis on her grave. Beautiful flowers for my beautiful puppy-girl. RIP Willow.

She got me through it all. We found our farm. And now before she really had a chance to enjoy it with me–she has gone from me. Oh sweet tragedy! What a magnificent love affair! So brief and fleeting–not quite a year and a half–but so rich and so meaningful. I can’t help but wonder if there will ever be another like it.

Willow will always have a special place in my heart, but I know without a doubt that I need another canine companion in my life. I feel like there’s a big empty void inside me where my dawg is supposed to be. So I will pay off my bill with the vet, and hopefully I can get the fencing system that I’d always wanted for Willow. I know it will be a long time before I can invest in another livestock guardian, but there are plenty of dogs that pass through the local animal shelters, and maybe someday in the not too distant future I will be ready to rescue and give my love to one of them.


  1. Mavis Gallagher

    I read this and bawled like a baby, I feel your pain, they are like our kids, and she was a beautiful dog, keep watch in “for sale” you might find some chain link fence before you get another dog..

    1. Samantha Burns

      Thank you Mavis. I will try to save some pennies and keep an eye on the Uncle Henry’s and Craigslist for the invisible dog fence system that I want. The farmhouse sits on one side of the road and is surrounded by a large pasture–I guesstimate that it might be about 10 acres. I’m really committed to the idea of allowing my dog to have the run of at least that whole section. I hate having to hook them. Thanks for following along!

  2. Sharon

    Oh Samantha, I am so very sorry to hear this….I know the pain of losing a canine-companion and she may be physically gone, but I am sure she is and will always be around you =) You were a good mama… <3

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