Hazel Dog

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Hazel was a rescue dog, found in a litter of abandoned puppies in a field in Stockton, mixture of breeds unknown. She was a difficult dog in many ways. As an example, she was an enthusiastic barker, which made her either a great watchdog or something of a pain, depending on perspective and context. She had a lot of energy and required frequent exercise or she’d get noticeably bummed out.

When my daughter and her husband moved to the Bay Area years ago so that Katie could pursue her advanced degree at UC San Francisco, we inherited Hazel. Not a great candidate for life in the Bay Area, this dog, so Elise and I took her in.

Hazel and Yampa

We also have a yellow lab, Yampa, who, like most labs, is pure sweetheart and easy to love. Hazel, not so easy. Still, I was quick to warm up to Hazel. I’m a dog person, and I’m difficult as well, so the two of us had that in common. Hazel was opinionated, tough, and engaging. And she was easily the smartest dog with whom I’ve ever shared a roof.

Hazel knew what she liked and what she didn’t like, and what she loved more than anything else was going on hikes. When we moved from Palo Cedro to the Sunset Terrace neighborhood of Redding about five years ago, we began making use of the vast network of trails west of town, hiking hundreds of miles each year. Hazel very likely had some upland game bird dog in her mutt cocktail—she insisted on taking point on the trail, 50 feet or more ahead of us, first to see whatever there was to encounter. Once, unfortunately, that was a rattlesnake.

Hazel leap

It fascinated me that when I’d lace up my shoes for a hike—same trail running shoes that I’d wear to the grocery store—Hazel somehow knew we were heading for the trails. I was providing some sort of cue, but despite my academic background in ethology I never figured out what it was. She would bark, wag her tail, and spin in circles. The barking was insistent—you’re giving off the hike vibe, so don’t try to back out. We’re going on a hike.

Last week Hazel suddenly went ill with what was probably, in retrospect, a long-term sickness. I had noticed that she had lost some weight and she started refusing to eat kibble dog food, so I switched both dogs to a diet of chicken, brown rice, sweet potato, peas and other high-protein veggies. Unlike Yampa, Hazel had always been a finicky eater, but she wolfed down the homemade cooking with gusto for weeks. But last week she threw up twice in one day, and the next day when my wife came home she was in the side yard, not responding to being called. Coaxed to get up, she had trouble walking.

I took Hazel to the animal hospital and the vet did some tests. I was already red-eyed and fearing the worst when she came back to the exam room with the results. Hazel’s liver was failing, and it wasn’t likely an acute case. Liver cancer was at the top of the list. Possibly an infection, but at this point it was pretty much a given that her liver wasn’t going to come back. Batteries of additional tests, including biopsies, might tell us what was going to end her life, but they would extend her misery and weren’t going to save her.

By now my cell phone was dead, so I couldn’t call my wife or daughter for any kind of affirmation that the decision I needed to make at that point was OK. I spent more than an hour with Hazel in the exam room, lying on the floor with her, cupping her head in one hand and scratching her remarkably velvety goat-like ears with the other—a comfort that she had often solicited when feeling uneasy. I talked to her at length about our hikes—how her need to hike had turned into my need to hike. I tried not to cry because I know how sensitive dogs are to human emotion, but wasn’t successful holding back the tears. The time finally came; Hazel and I looked at each other until she closed her eyes, and her journey was over.

I had to decide where to bury her and considered her favorite place on Earth, Swasey Recreation Area—the network of trails that we most often hiked. I know of one other somewhat-hidden dog grave there, and I’m sure that dog’s friend buried him there for the same reason it appealed to me. But my wife and I are moving back to our house in Palo Cedro this summer, and I decided to put her there. I dug her grave and before covering her up, I reached my fingers inside her swaddling and scratched her soft ear one last time.

Hazel Creek

For several days I’ve been something of a wreck—wishing that it had been possible to take one last long hike with my hiking buddy. My eyes well up taking Yampa’s leash off the hook in the garage for a neighborhood walk and seeing Hazel’s leash still hanging from the same hook; or taking a first hike and swim west of town with Yampa that didn’t include Hazel; or confessing to Katie that I’m beating myself up for not realizing earlier that Hazel had a serious illness. Katie, bless her, consoled me by saying that I gave a difficult dog understanding and a happy life, and was a good friend.

I’m fascinated by the special relationship between humans and dogs. Wolves have long been known as the first species to be domesticated (into dogs) by humans. Recent theories paint a more complex picture of coevolution in which both dogs and humans grew to tolerate each other’s company, which over generations became a partnership. My business partner—Bob is not a dog person—refers to the current role dogs in that partnership as “flattering parasites.”

Wrong on the parasite bit, Bob. Even in modern times, the partnership is reciprocal. The affection of dogs elicits the release of oxytocin in humans, a neurotransmitter that modulates happiness and affection. Guess what? The affection of humans elicits the release of oxytocin in dogs. Underlying neuroendocrine chemistry aside, anyone who has ever bonded with a dog recognizes the genuine joy of that dog when you come home from work or school, and the dog’s disappointment at being separated from you. The friendship and companionship of a good dog is a joy to both the person and the dog.

Hazeldog kelp

I know how I feel right now will fade with time. I’ve lost people and dogs before, and the past year feels like a season of death for both my family and the icons of my age cohort—but right now Hazel’s absence leaves a gaping hole. She was my friend, and I miss her.

So long, Hazel Dog. Happy trails.

Steve Towers
Steve Towers is co-owner of a local environmental consultancy. After obtaining his Ph.D. from UC Davis and dabbling as a UCD lecturer, he took a salary job with a Sacramento environmental firm. Sitting in stop-and-go traffic on Highway 50 one afternoon, he reckoned that he was receiving 80 hours of paid vacation per year and spending 520 hours per year commuting to and from work. He and his wife Elise sold their house and moved to Redding three months later, and have been here for more than 20 years. His hobbies include travel, racquet sports, taking the dogs on hikes, and stirring pots. He can be reached at towers.steven@gmail.com
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24 Responses

  1. Avatar cheyenne says:

    My condolences, Steve.  I have been through the same situation a couple of times so I know how you feel.  My last was a dog my youngest daughter adopted while in high school but when she went off to college I inherited “Bonnie”.  So sad to lose a loyal companion who only wanted companionship.

  2. Avatar EasternCounty says:

    Our 15-year-old Springer, Brio,  has elevated liver enzymes that we are treating with prescription medication.  Each time I refill the prescription, the pharmacy tech asks if I’m aware of the price — just under $200 — and I say, “Yes, she’s worth it.”  I hope the following is a bit of comfort for you rather than being pithy:


    I’ll always love you, you know that!
    But I’m really happy where I’m at.
    Trails and parks and dogs galore . . .
    I’ve crossed through Heaven’s Doggy Door

    Become a puppy again, Sweet Hazel.  You were so special to Steve.

  3. Avatar Ginny says:

    Losing one’s “kid” is so difficult.  Blessings to you for loving your Hazel.  I feel that all the rescue dogs I have had over the years, each one leaves me with loving memories.  The loss eases in time, but always have a special place in my heart to continue to remember each with love.

  4. Hal Johnson Hal Johnson says:

    I’m sorry for your loss of Hazel, Steve.

    I remember thinking that it would surely get easier to deal with the loss of a fur-kid as I got older. That doesn’t seem to be happening.

    Dang. Your post has affected my sinuses.

    • Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

      Yeah, it’s gone the opposite way form me, Hal—I’m getting increasingly sentimental and soft-hearted as I get older.  Probably has everything to do with that inevitable decline in free androgen.

  5. A. Jacoby A. Jacoby says:

    One of the first things I’m going to ask God when I see Him is how come He gave us pets to love so fiercely, then made their life spans so much shorter than ours. I’m sure there are a myriad of lessons to be learned from this situation, I just don’t was to know what those lessons are. My heart aches for you. I’m not even an animal persons but your gently told story made me cry.

    • Avatar EasternCounty says:

      When a friend lost her precious Samoyed, she vowed never to have another dog because the loss hurt too much.  My dog-loving, wise husband said to her that the best way to honor her dog for his loyalty and affection was by giving another dog the opportunity of being in her life.  After a grieving period, she purchased another Samoyed and again found the joy that a pup can bring.

  6. Avatar Carrie says:

    Oh yes, I can so relate to your story!

  7. Avatar Peter says:


    So sorry to hear about Hazel.  Your hikes are familiar from Facebook so I sorta understand.  BTW, where did you get the idea you are difficult (3d para, 3d sentence)?  You were always very cooperative and would help us move forward.  Perhaps that gift will work here too.

    • Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

      Peter — I actually feel like I’m fairly easy to get along with—I’m trusting my wife’s frequent assessment on  this one.

  8. Avatar Barbara Stone says:

    thanks a lot, Steve ~  I was having a pretty good day till I read this! And of course, I couldn’t NOT read it.

    Seriously, though, I, too have lost many people and dogs and cats over the years and it never gets any easier…I feel your loss. Rejoice in the time you had together!

  9. Avatar kirsten plate says:

    Lovely story. Hate to let you good dog people in on this secret, but cats can leave footprints on your heart as well. I still miss my “Caruso”, after more than two years. Like the man said: “Love is love”.

  10. Avatar Sally says:

    Of course reading this brought tears to my eyes.  A few years ago, a dog who was not expected became part of my life.  One night (a Sunday of course) he had a seizure.  Though I had always proclaimed I could never take my pet to be put down, though he was alive, he was gone.  I drove to the only place that would open their door at 7:00 pm on a Sunday, and held my friend until the vet had completed the job.  A few days later, a granddaughter, who already knew of his loss, came over after school.  I explained the dog had gone to “doggie heaven”.  She promptly told me there was no such place.  God was smarter than that and made heaven for all the animals so they could play together!!  So Hazel just might be playing with my pup!!

  11. Avatar Joanne Lobeski-Snyder says:

    Thank you Steven for this beautiful tribute to your friend Hazel.  I couldn’t believe it when my hiking buddy, geocaching canine Jolie suddenly had liver cancer.  The second opinion was no different.  Since I lost my friend I’ve learned that not all canines are capable of that bond with humans.  I was lucky and you were lucky to have had such a companion.  I am so sorry for your loss.

  12. Avatar Stephanie Griffin says:

    A beautiful love story, Steven.  The pictures of Hazel Dog  take my breath away!  My rescue dog Shadow who is about 14 will be leaving me soon.  He has a very enlarged heart and coughing spasms.  Four meds 2x daily.  I look at him and wonder how I will be able to cope when it’s time.  Your story made me cry both for Hazel and Shadow.  Thanks for writing so beautifully about Hazel!

  13. Avatar Richard says:

    Steve, thank you for your lovingly written tribute to Hazel, and we offer our condolences. Terri and I contemplate daily the time when the inevitable occurs with our nearly 14 year-old black-and-tan dachshund “children.”  Emily and brother Reggie have accompanied us through the Trinity Alps, hiked the PCT, enjoyed swimming in Lake Louise in the Canadian Rockies, and slept under the sheets with us nightly since they were pups. Eyes moisten just thinking about losing these beloved members of our family.


  14. Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

    Thanks for the condolences, folks.

    I meant the post to be not so much a eulogy for a particular dog, or about me and my dog, but a reflection on the special relationships between people and dogs.  Regardless of my intent, it probably ended up being more about me and my dog after all—but the contributions by the rest of you made the larger point vividly obvious.

    I’m sure we’ll bring another dog into our home eventually, in part as a companion for Yampa while Elise and I at work.  For now we’re going to let Yampa spend some time as top dog and center of our attentions.

    • Avatar Kendra says:

      I loved your description of Hazel for 2 reasons.

      1.)It gave meaning to have her personality humanized.

      2.) It gave insight as to the breed. Your description caught my attention before the pics. I confirmed my suspicions via pics after you named the behavior. You most certainly had a Chesapeake Bay Retriever thrown in the mix. I own one. Stubborn, goofy, uber smart, and extremely persistent. Remarkably territorial, almost within seconds of arriving at her spot, and very prey driven.

      Thanks for the read, and sorry she had to go.

      • Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

        Wow, Kendra!  I looked up and perused the breed’s description, including its temperament, and then scrutinized some pictures, and I can’t see how you could possibly be wrong.   I’d have never guessed CBR.

  15. Avatar KarenC says:

    It took me three tries to read the story, my eyes filled with tears too many times.  People who have never experienced the human/animal bond have missed out on one of the greatest things that can happen to a human.  Dog, cat, horse, bird, it makes no difference.  They love us unconditionally.  The dog is my favorite because we can live with them, in the house and outside.  They know what our every move means.  Putting on a particular shoe means “Walk”, or if I am putting on lipstick, our dog knows that mom is leaving the house.  Then comes the “looks,”  are you taking me or am I staying home?  You tell them they are coming with us  and they get so excited, if you tell them the are staying, they calm down and respect your wishes.  Oh, the greetings you get when you finally come home.  What a delight they are!  Thanks for the great story.

  16. Avatar Hollis says:

    /Users/hollis/Desktop/Dogs Last Will and Testament.jpg

  17. Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

    Okay, one last comment on Hazel, then I’ll zip it.

    I’ve been a bit offended on Hazel’s behalf that Yampa seems to be taking her loss so well.  I could laundry-list the reasons why Yampa would be okay with Hazel’s absence, but still….I’ve heard of dogs being unconsolable when a housemate dog shuffles off this mortal coil.  Not Yampa.

    Yesterday afternoon I took Yampa to walk at the off-leash area at Turtle Bay East.  When we arrived, Yampa noticed that there were a few dogs running around in the parking lot.  One was a lab that bore some resemblance to Hazel.  Yampa whined twice (not unusual) and then launched into a low, moaning howl that I’d never heard from her before.  She kept it up until I let her out of the truck.  She ran over to the lab, made introductions, and then we were off on our hike and she was fine.

    It could have been just her missing the company of dogs in general, but I would swear Yampa’s howl was downright mournful.