Teachings from Tess – Eleven Life Lessons from My Best Four-Legged Friend

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When I first got my Australian Shepherd Tess in 2002, I spent a ton of time teaching her things.

I read books about clicker training, we went to obedience class and she even passed special testing to become a Certified Therapy Dog.

We did agility together, worked stock, and a good friend of mine (an expert dog handler) even showed Tess – bringing home many ribbons and prizes.

It seemed to take Tess FOREVER to learn to balance on her hind legs for “trick dog” (sitting up) but learning “stay” (with a hand signal) was sooooo easy – I swear she could read my mind.

Perhaps my favorite and her most unique trick, was to retrieve a Kleenex from a box when I sneezed – it was always a hit!

You might also remember this special Holiday video from a few years back showing Tess doin’ a little groundwork with my gelding Pistol.

On Christmas morning she eagerly sat by Craig and I around the tree as usual, politely but anxiously waiting her turn to open presents. When given the OK, she always tore the wrapping paper off herself!

Educating Tess and teaching her tricks was always fun and entertaining, and helped her become a well-adjusted canine citizen, but just like a really special horse – they end up teaching US so much more. 

On the afternoon of Wednesday December 28th, 2016, we said a heartbreaking goodbye to Tess, as she had succumbed to heart failure.

With tears steaming – as Craig and I eased home on the back roads to lay our best four-legged friend to rest, I thought of what her life meant – not just to me, but in general.

I’m in awe, not only of what she taught us over the years, but of the powerful lessons provided through the short time between her diagnosis and speedy decline, to the last hours in “home hospice care.”

Tess was going to be 16 in the spring.  She came into my life at one year old and spent fourteen years as my sidekick.  We racked up so many miles, experiences and treasured memories.

Her presence is everlasting and she will always have a special place in my heart. I’m confident after reading the lessons I’ve shared below, she’ll leave an impression on you as well!

1. If you don’t ask, the answer is always no.
When Tess came into my life, it was because a co-worker had sprung her out of a situation that meant she would likely be spending most of her life in a kennel raising pups. My dear friend was leaving town for a long weekend and needed a dog sitter for Tess. I lived in a small du-plex in town with a postage stamp lawn, and a strict “no dog” policy – so of course I said YES and snuck Tess in for a few days. We hit it off! It just so happen my friend already had several other dogs, and after having Tess spayed was open to finding her a forever home. After sending a convincing letter to my landlord, Tess was mine! Now I’m generally a rule follower, but knew I wasn’t a typical tenant and Tess wasn’t a typical dog – I’m SO glad I asked despite what “the rules” said!

2. Don’t underestimate natural talent.
I spent endless hours educating Tess, but like a great horse – they hardly seem to need it. This is where the difference between a “good dog” and a “great dog” come in. Tess was a freak, a unicorn you could say. Not only was she drop dead gorgeous from a breed standard perspective but she was so intelligent and desperately wanted only to please and be at my side. My yard wasn’t fenced in and I lived on a busy street – I rarely had to keep her on a leash or accompany her out to potty, she just never left that yard. She was a natural at everything we did, whether that was comforting folks in the nursing home or gathering sheep. She was easy and a joy in every sense – the great ones often are. You’ll know ’em when you see ’em – and you’ll darn sure appreciate them!

3. We all need a boost, until we can stand on our own.
I didn’t have much to my name when I got Tess other than payments on a 1/2 ton Chevy and a rusty two-horse trailer. But I knew I had hit the jock pot with her. She was like Australian royalty – a queen! I never went anywhere without her getting lavish compliments. Being able to call her mine made me feel like more of a person, like a better person. When she came into my life I not only didn’t have much, but I didn’t feel like much either. She was my constant friend and traveling partner during years when I needed unconditional love the most. Looking back I figure that God must have thought I was ready to feel like I was enough without her now. I miss her terribly, but I AM.

4. You can never be too enthusiastic, energetic or full of joy and love.
Tess was unique in that she could be totally wild and extroverted – just a crazy, fun, butt-wiggling maniac, but could “chill” just as easily. She had a perfectly balanced personality, not laid back but not too high drive. The many miles she trailed along with me as I rode horses across the base of the Big Horn Mountains and all the training we did together provided the physical and mental stimulation necessary to make town life work those first few years. She was a lot like the typical Labrador in that EVERYTHING was “OMG, My FAVORITE THING!” and I loved that about her. She was so happy and bouncy, and seemed to smile when she panted – she radiated pure, boundless JOY. She never held that back, and neither should you!

5. Miracles happen every day, never give up hope or rule one out.
The day before Craig and I were scheduled to fly to the NFR, Tess had a sudden seizure. We didn’t feel comfortable leaving her so Craig went on to meet up with his family and I stayed home to monitor her. She had a second seizure that left her completely blind. It was heart breaking, considering she was already 99% deaf. I remember sitting right next to her, and feeling so sad as she looked into space – having no idea I was there, or cringing when she run into walls as she learned to navigate the house without her sight. It turns out the seizures were caused by a reaction to a supplement (she never had another one). The amazing part is that after only a couple days – her vision was completely restored! When you or your animal faces adversity, even if no one in history has overcome the condition before – it doesn’t mean you/they can’t be the first!

6. Treasure your Golden Oldies, because they are.
One thing that has made losing Tess especially tough was that she didn’t seem “old.” In large part because even at 15, she didn’t look or act old. The already existing grey in her coat masked any new grey on her face and her joints were in great shape. Sometimes, when our pets or horses age and legitimately look like they have one foot in the grave, it somehow helps with our readiness. BUT here’s the thing – just because they don’t look so youthful and spry doesn’t mean they don’t actually have a lot of quality life still left in ’em. No matter their age, they’re ALL deserving of the best of our attention and care. They’re certainly capable of loving, and receiving our love. So get your matted kitty a grooming, your old dog a dental and keep your horses who are long in the tooth on the very best feed program. Continue giving those four-legged pals who have devoted so much to you, plenty of your quality time and attention – they deserve it!

7. Gather a qualified support team you trust and feel good about.
When we first moved to Texas and needed to get established with a vet. for Tess, I did a ton of research to find a good one. There didn’t seem to be much to choose from in our little town. Of course, she didn’t need veterinary care often but when I decided on the BIG clinic in the nearest big town, I never felt totally comfortable there. I rarely saw the same doctor twice and basically felt like just a number. That’s not a big problem, until you have a big, life-threatening problem – until your dog can’t get up and you’re ushered into an exam room to wait for an hour. THAT was a problem – because I had originally “settled” for the clinic with less than stellar service. The lesson here, is to have high standards for the veterinary support team you choose, and don’t wait to get established with them until you have a major issue.

8. Go with your gut feeling, which is almost always God’s plan, too.
When it was obvious the medications Tess was prescribed weren’t going to be enough to stabilize her failing heart, it was sadly time to start making end-of-life arrangements. Craig dug a hole in the far back corner of our yard where some roses still grow in the summer – leftover from a landscaping plot I never kept up with. I didn’t want Tess to take her last breath in a stressful veterinary exam room. But I didn’t feel comfortable calling a local large animal vet. to put her down at our place either. Thankfully, I connected with a lovely, local lady vet. (that we’ll get established with when we get another dog) who agreed to put her to sleep in the back seat of our truck – where Tess was comfortable and often traveled. When it came time for her last trip, we were provided with a smooth, perfectly professional and peaceful transition and experience for all, and I’m so grateful.

9. When your prayer is answered, don’t second-guess it.
When Tess had the seizure scare, it was a wake-up call that her days might be numbered. We really took some extra time to love and appreciate her in the last few weeks. I had prayed that when it was her time, it would all happen swiftly and peacefully without prolonged pain. Although Tess did experience some uncomfortable moments toward the end – her decline from healthy, bouncy Tess occurred over a period of two days. I wasn’t quite ready for it to happen that quickly! The afternoon she left this earth, the weather was perfect – sunny, warm and dry with a slight breeze. It couldn’t have been a more pleasant day, and I remember thinking – this has got to be what God intended. Even when I fought my head afterwards, thinking we should have diagnosed her heart trouble sooner and bought her more time, I remembered we actually got just what I asked for. It was never going to be easy, but I have found peace in accepting that my specific prayer was indeed answered.

10. Tragedy and loss doesn’t build character, it reveals it.
I’m still overwhelmed with gratitude for my husband and who he is. When Tess started to lose her appetite, she wouldn’t eat or drink for me at times, but she would eat out of Craig’s hand. The last time she walked, I wasn’t there – she got up and walked for him though! Craig didn’t hesitate to unhook and fuel up the truck late at night, take 1 1/2 days off work, carry Tess everywhere, calm me down at the vet., pay her bills, take “hospice care shifts” (he was especially insistent about getting her to eat and drink!), and say positive things to keep a good perspective. He did all the horse chores so I didn’t have to leave her, and when I woke up in the morning after drifting off on the couch stationed next to Tess, Craig was sitting there comforting her at 4:00 a.m.

When I married Craig, I knew in all the important areas that are critical for a husband to have, that he nailed them. When it comes to the BIG stuff especially, Craig is an absolute rock. He’s dependable and quick to step up and do the right thing – do and be EVERYTHING without hesitation, he did this all while also not holding back just how much he loved Tess too. I’m so incredibly blessed not just to have had 14 years with an amazing dog, but what a gift from God my husband is as well – losing Tess was a powerful reminder!

11. The best present is being present.
There were moments when Tess was uncomfortable and wheezing. When I rubbed her neck, her breathing trouble subsided. There were moments she was barely hanging on as we waited for last chance meds to kick in. Due to the fluid in her chest, she was most comfortable on the cool, hard floor in our living room. I laid next to her crying, holding her paw but refraining from stimulating her too much, to avoid interfering with her need to “go,” which seemed at times like it could be any moment. When she couldn’t get up, I set up her toys in view so she wasn’t staring at the same boring wall for hours. I just sat with her, softly petted her, cried, loved her and thanked her for hours and hours. I’m confident she passed away knowing just how much she was cherished.

When life gets crazy – how often do we just sit with, love, pet and appreciate our horses or dogs – and just BE with them? Not often enough. I know that’s my only regret.

If you take only one lesson away, it’s this – don’t wait until your loved ones are near death. Your complete presence and wholehearted love is always the best gift you can give them – share it often!

The short video below was put together in remembrance of Tess’s daddy ‘Spring Fever The Chase Is On’ who passed away in 2006. He was an exceptional Aussie and one of the top in the nation in agility, along with many other accomplishments. Most important he was, and always will be #1 in the heart of my dear friend Annette, who gave me Tess.

To browse herding dogs in need of loving, forever homes visit WesternAustralianShepherdRescue.com or follow them on Facebook.

To see more beautiful purebred Aussies with Tess’s breeding visit SpringFeverAussies.com and like Spring Fever Australian Shepherds on Facebook.


For even more lessons – in barrel racing and LIFE, enjoy the additional posts below:

2 replies
  1. Leslie ponder
    Leslie ponder says:

    So sorry heather! I know the feeling. Big tears!! U always seem to take something bad and see all the positive:). That’s why I love to follow you. May god wrap his arms around u and take some of the pain away !! Sincerely


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