The other day I posted a photo of Hawkitt on my Instagram account, and a friend asked me to submit it to an edited collection of photos he’s seeking to publish. A dog book, full of gorgeous photos of dogs living their best outdoor recreational lives, each photo captioned with a short write up about the dog.
I can’t fire off a glib few paragraphs waxing eloquent and comedic about Hawkie’s antics and passions. Hawkitt is amazing; he is unlike any other dog I’ve ever known. The only dog in my pack to stroll casually up to a porcupine and touch noses, then meander off unquilled, and the only dog to stumble upon a fawn and gently, tenderly (I swear), sniff and smooch the little thing all over before walking away calmly, Hawkitt is unique. He is also the dog that committed the single worst sin, breaking the ultimate taboo of pet dog life: he killed a pack member. How can I write about him and not address that?
So I didn’t fail to address it. I wrote what I could about Hawkitt and my life with him. Here’s that text:
The dog world is not always a nice place. Dogs are not always nice creatures. Dog behavior, especially at its extreme edges, is not always nice. Humans have taboos about violent behavior – taboos that get broken at the cost of our own souls sometimes, but dogs don’t have those taboos. They can behave in ways that both melt our hearts and break them. They can do things that are unfathomably horrible, including killing another family pet, or a child. And they will do things that are equally delightful, performing as a working K9, sniffing out cancer or IEDs.
The world of dogs is also a world of people, and people can be generous and kind and beautiful. We can also be cruel and judgmental and rigid. The dog world is full of contradictions – beauty and ugliness, joy and despair, the bounty of the gifts the dogs give us, and the destitution of loss that we feel when they leave. It is a place where we can experience the sublime beauty of the human-canine bond, where we can experience the pure wonder at interspecies communication at levels of sophistication that leave us breathless and tearful. It has all this to offer, but it is not consistently, reliably, or exclusively a nice place.
When Cinder died, a part of me broke irreparably. That Hawkitt (the dog whose portrait is shown here) caused her death and I live with him, cater to his whims, continue to love him, continue to meet his needs, continue to tolerate all of the emotions engendered by his presence and her absence … feels impossibly difficult and yet necessary. Simply holding the knowledge of what happened that day is too much to bear, but I do. I carry on, hiking, training, feeding, grooming, loving, and sharing my life with a dog who killed a packmate.
I share this shameful secret because I know that others reading this have experienced this taboo being broken – family pet killed by another family pet. When I break the silence and utter the impossible words “Hawkitt killed Cinder” I know what that does in the dog world. The hope of self protection takes over and people find themselves, in the face of this gut-wrenching tragedy saying things like “Why was the dog off leash? Why didn’t you have the dog muzzled? If you knew the dog was an indiscriminate eater, had an issue with prey drive, loved to chase cars… why was the dog allowed to be outside off leash and unmuzzled? You were courting disaster.” Because hindsight is 20/20, and if we can pinpoint the failing, identify the error, and accurately assign blame… we are safe. We seek to identify the human failing and assign blame and maintain superiority: “I would never let that happen.” We can maintain the fiction that it won’t happen to us.
We, the dog community, don’t do tragedy well. We tend to either overdo the forgiveness or overdo the blame, without finding that sweet spot in the center, where responsibility, learning, and compassion intersect. I never wanted to take on this role, to be a member of the dog world who has experienced this extreme. But when Cinder died, I told the truth. I didn’t hide what happened from my community. My private message box exploded with responses. People who carry shame and guilt, who ache and suffer, who fear retribution and the obscene unkindness other humans feel justified to heap upon us… so many people simply said “thank you for sharing this. It happened to me too.”
Me too. It’s a club none of us wish to join. But here we are, so many of us, suffering in our shame and silence. Despite backlash, despite judgment, despite the retelling tearing open the wound barely healed over… I believe allowing the experience of losing a dog to a fight with a packmate must have a place in the dog world where we can talk about it, without shame or condemnation. We already punish ourselves enough. I cannot look at a photo of Cinder without feeling physically ill. I cannot allow myself to enjoy her memories, to feel happy at the life she had. The way she left this world will haunt me forever. It’s punishment enough.
Look at Hawkitt. He is majestic. He is breathtaking. He is an incredible dog, a dog you would simply fall in love with him. He is special, smarter than any dog I’ve ever owned, save Iske. He is a fantastic dog, and he has done the unspeakable. And I must somehow live with it.
To those of you who have lost a dog in a tragic way, an accident, a horrible moment, I know that whether or not you consciously feel responsible… you feel responsible. To those of you who have lost a dog, when the day started out like any other day and the dog was healthy and fate and forces that you’ll never understand created an accident so horrific that your dog, your beloved dog, lost its life… To all of you, no matter what the circumstances and no matter how responsible you feel – I absolve you. I can tell you that this is life with dogs. Yes, it is the extreme, the edge that no one talks about, but it is not your fault. It is not your failure. And you are not alone.
To those of you that have never experienced this, I pray you never do. I pray you never plumb these depths. I pray your life with dogs and your experience of the dog world is never ever tainted by what I have experienced. And I ask of you to have compassion for those of us who have been forced by fate to experience and accept our role in the dog world as cautionary tales. We didn’t choose it and we don’t deserve it.