Backyard Beauty

A female Anna's hummingbird looks at me while perching on a bougainvillea branch in front of pale verde trees in our backyard in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2019

Though I haven’t spent much time photographing them we do get a variety of birds to our small backyard. Our house is on a slope with a narrow common area below the back of the house with some trees and cacti and grasses, although it isn’t easy to get back there it does provide a nice backdrop. This spring a verdin couple nested in a buckhorn cholla below the house and if I angled my lens just so against the metal bars of the fence I could photograph the entrance. As I watched them a female Anna’s hummingbird occasionally flew into the bougainvillea I was sitting next to, eventually I pulled the camera away from its precise setup and took some handheld shots of her. The dark patch on her neck will glow a bright red if the sun hits it from the right angle.

The Early Days

Our dog Ellie sits in the grass in the backyard of our house in Portland, Oregon with her front paw on a tennis ball in January 2009

Ellie in the backyard in January 2009, three weeks after we adopted her. It looks a little posed, her paw on the tennis ball, but she did that in the early days. Did she stop it at some point? I remember her doing it back then but not after that, maybe it’s my faulty memory, maybe it had just been a while since she was able to run and fetch. She’s probably looking at my wife offscreen, she followed her everywhere in those days. Our bond became so strong for so long that it’s easy for me to forget that it took some time to form. The love was immediate though, on both sides, to know her was to love her.

Fall Ballgame

Fall Ballgame

Ellie waits for me to kick the ball in the fall of 2013. We spent countless hours playing in our backyard in Portland, either with one of her balls or one of her many hedgehogs. I’d either throw or kick them and she’d chase them down and bring them back and toss them at my feet. Over and over and over. She had a big black spot on her tongue, when her tongue was hanging out far enough to clearly see it I knew she was getting pretty gassed and it was time to call it quits. I think she would have kept playing until her legs fell off.

Good with Children

One of the neighborhood children pets our dog Ellie in our backyard in the Irvington neighborhood of Portland, Oregon in November 2013

When we adopted Ellie in 2009, fortunately for us her previous owners (who called her Sidka) filled in a detailed questionnaire about her when they left her with the Humane Society for Southwest Washington (who transferred her across the river to the Oregon Humane Society where we adopted her a day later). They had at least two kids of their own and it was obvious from their responses that Ellie had been dearly loved.

In the section on behavior with children, to the question of “How will your dog react to a child approaching while he/she is sleeping?” they answered “wanting love”, which brings tears to my eyes even now. To the question of “Would you recommend this dog live with children?” they checked yes and added “Good with kids. Very loving (good for slow or disabled child)”. I felt a little guilty upon reading that when we adopted her as we had no children of our own and didn’t need a dog who was so loving towards them.

We did need a dog who would be loving towards cats and they often go hand in hand, and it turned out Ellie had experience not just with children but with other dogs and cats and got along well with all. I was a little worried too that she would miss having kids around but looking back now, knowing how deeply she bonded to my wife and I, I needn’t have been concerned.

The picture is from the fall of 2013, some of the neighborhood kids had come over into our backyard and joined me in playing with her. Everybody loved her.

Nearly everyone. One of the elderly neighbors was afraid of dogs so when we passed on our walks I’d give her the heel command and she’d pull up tight to my side and keep watching me until she got her treat. I started doing the same with dogs who were afraid of other dogs and even though Ellie loved meeting other dogs, she quickly picked up on her own which dogs would rather pass by so I didn’t even have to give her the heel command, she’d immediately come to my side and watch me until she got her treat.

Which caused an issue when I realized some dogs would give her a wide berth at first until they saw that she was friendly, then would turn around and eagerly want to meet her. I had to laugh as she’d give those dogs the side-eye, trying to keep her distance, as she didn’t want to risk giving up her treat for having ignored a dog who didn’t want to say hello. I learned to quickly give her a treat so she’d say hello, then she’d want another treat for being gentle with the dog and not scaring it.

She always got the second treat.

Ellie at the Last

Our dog Ellie appears to be smiling as she relaxes on the artifical turf on her last evening with us

While age had slowly been taking its toll on our 15 year old pup, it was the last six weeks or so she declined the most, which unfortunately meant she only got to spend a month with us in the new house. The first week here was difficult due to her getting confused, especially at night, due to her senility and not understanding where she was. She figured it out after we paced the hallways back and forth many times, going inside and outside, until it became familiar to her and she settled down. We got a patch of artificial turf for her since there was no grass at the house, it gave her a comfortable place to go the bathroom (when she could make it there in time) or even just lay down and relax.

An overhead view of our dog Ellie as she rests on the blue washable rug in my office

One of Ellie’s back legs (the one she didn’t have surgery on when she tore a ligament in her younger days) had been bothering her for a while, she compensated with the other until the end when putting any weight on her back legs was difficult. The tile in particular was slippery for her, both in the rental house and the new house, so my wife bought a variety of washable rugs and yoga mats to line the hallways for traction and make messes easier to clean in the rooms.

She started having accidents in the house that last month, at first she’d poop from the effort of having to get up, but that wasn’t hard to clean up. Her stomach started getting upset at the end though and she’d have diarrhea, and at the very end started peeing when she couldn’t walk at all, where the washable part of the rugs came in very handy. It was exhausting for my wife and I but after Scout and Emma died young it was an honor to nurse her through the end of her life while she was still enjoying her days.

Our dog Ellie appears to be smiling as she looks up towards my wife on her last morning with us

Her last full day with us was one of my Friday’s off so I was able to spend the day with her. She didn’t want to walk at all that evening so I carried her out to the turf. She enjoyed that little spot and lay down and rubbed her face on it as she used to in the grass. She was panting as she often did at this stage, which I knew made her look happy in pictures, so I went in and got my camera for what I worried were going to be my last photos of her. The biggest problem we were facing was that her appetite had been off and despite my wife trying a variety of foods, she wasn’t eating enough to survive. She could eat more if I hand fed her, in the first picture you can see a few light colored bits of food on the turf in front of her from pieces that fell off my hands, but it still wasn’t enough. Her spirit was still strong and I wanted to capture that in the pictures, to remember that even though her health was failing, we had some good times during her month in the new house.

The next morning we talked with her vet who had been so helpful in her care and all agreed it was time to say goodbye. She had been able to walk a bit that morning, when I went to take a shower since she always wanted to know where I was my wife helped her up and supported her as she walked across the house to the bathroom. Mostly though, as the night before, she wasn’t able to walk even if we helped her, so I carried her where she needed to go. My wife said she didn’t even try to get some uneaten cat food in one of the bowls, a sure indication of how much her appetite had fallen. She was pretty worn out but would raise her head like this and watch us as we moved about the room, she was such a sweetheart to the very end.

Our dog Ellie rests on a yoga mat on her last morning with us, it was the last picture I took of her

This is the last picture of my sweet pup, I hadn’t really wanted to take these pictures but I knew they would bring me comfort later on. I could barely even think about camera settings but after verifying the pictures came out OK, I put the camera away. I had half an hour left with her before it was time to carry her to the car and spent that time stroking her fur and kissing her forehead and letting her know how much I loved her. I did the same after carrying her to the room they had prepared for us at the vet’s office, I’m so thankful we were both there as we said our final goodbyes, as being with us was all she ever really wanted. She ate a few charcoal treats (one of the few things she never lost an appetite for, even at her most senile the pup always remembered when she was due a treat), then died peacefully after getting the sedative and injection that stopped her heart.

Thanks are owed to Dr. Lopez and her team at Scottsdale Hill Animal Hospital, she was instrumental in making Ellie’s last year a great one. It isn’t easy managing the aches and ailments of such an elderly dog but she worked with us to map out a strategy of care that gave Ellie such a good quality of life for so long. I hadn’t actually met Dr. Lopez until I brought Ellie in that last time, we had talked on the phone but she and my wife had worked closely together to manage her care.

And a special thank you to my wife for doing so much for Ellie during that year, especially the last months when taking care of her became a full-time job, it’s a tremendous strain both physically and emotionally. We loved Ellie with all our hearts but that doesn’t make it easier, rather it makes the sacrifice worthwhile.

A close-up view of our dog Ellie on her last evening with us as she rested on the patch of artificial turf in the backyard of our home in Scottsdale, Arizona

After she died I found an expected connection to the pup. After we got home, especially the first couple of days but even the first couple of weeks, I endlessly paced about the house. I wanted to do something but I didn’t want to do anything. It helped me sort through my feelings as I walked about but I had to laugh as I thought about how I was now pacing as she had her first week here. She because she didn’t know where she was, I because I knew she wasn’t here.

She was the best dog ever, my sweet pup, the best.