Our Little Buddy Dice
As a young boy, I always had a dog. It was never just my dog but a family dog. My father grew up raising golden retrievers, and his love of domesticated canines became one of those family things that just seemed to be. Animals were a big part of our hobby farm life. Horses, cats, and especially dogs were well represented as part of the plan for instilling responsibility and encouraging the idea of taking care of something other than yourself.
As much as my family loved dogs, they never lived long. Our 40-acre hobby farm gave us a false sense of security. Living so far out from the big city of Duluth, with acres of untouched bogs, forested hills, and open meadows, created the impression of unbridled freedom. Especially for our pups who lived to hunt and roam. I remember being proud that my four-legged buddies were never caged.
But it was that freedom that shortened their lives. None of the three dogs I remember died of old age. There was Liebe, Mike, and Brandy. Liebe was a German shorthair. One day she was gone; three days later, she reappeared and greeted me on the drive as I walked to the bus stop. As quickly as Liebe ran to reconnect, she was equally swift in reversing course. Back down the drive she sped, around the corner from where she came, never to be seen again. It was bizarre.
Mike, a black lab, was never the hard-charging hunter my father had hoped. He was a friendly dog; I’ve never met a black lab that wasn’t. But hardcore hunting was not his thing. He did a lot of sleeping on the front porch, and I found him to be a decent buddy. Dad, not so much.
Finally, there was Brandy. A golden retriever that had a fire in his belly for anything related to chasing ducks and geese. Brandy was the dog my dad had hoped for. But he, too, became a victim of the vast open lands that extended far beyond our farmhouse. Brandy vanished one early spring day when there was lots of snow still blanketing the forest floor. The heat from the sun melted the upper snow, and nightly temps dropped to refreeze it.
This combination can be devastating for forest animals. Icy snowpack is equal to a paved road for a pack of dogs. Their paws glide gracefully, never breaking through, giving them a running advantage deer can’t equal. And it was whitetail deer that Brandy was supposedly after. I’ll never know, but the neighborhood grapevine suggested he was shot while chasing deer. Minnesota law allows such harsh punishment to dogs returning to their primal roots. None of my childhood dogs lived beyond maybe 3-6 years. I can’t recall. Getting attached just wasn’t something I understood at that time in my life.
Then came my buddy, Dice. I was 42 years old when I was blessed with this little long-haired chihuahua. I had never even heard of a long-haired chihuahua, let alone thought about bringing one into my life. The story begins after we lost Bridger, a beloved golden retriever my former wife Julie and I loved. Julz and I split, and I lost day-to-day contact with Bridger. He lived a long life, I believe it was 17 years, but I was never as close to Bridger as Julie was.
In 2004 I remarried. Tanya also grew up with dogs, and she suggested we consider getting another one. I remember the conversation starting with Tanya saying something to the effect of, “Why don’t we get a smaller dog?” And my response was, “What kind of small dog are you thinking about?” Tanya replies, “Well, I saw these little long-haired chihuahuas that seem super sweet.” “Are you kidding me?” I thought, “I’ve never met a chihuahua I’ve ever liked.” But of course, that’s not exactly what I said. My response was something like, “OMG, are you kidding me? Those dogs can be so obnoxious.” And that’s where I seem to recall it ending.
That night I found myself laying in bed thinking about the dogs in my life as a boy. And how Dad’s dog training books reiterated the same thing. Dogs are pretty much all the same regarding training and discipline. A dog is a dog, is a dog, is a dog. They’re mentally, more or less, equal. It’s the reason a chihuahua will attack a German shepherd. All dogs see themselves as similar in size and stature. My barrier was starting to break. The following day I told Tanya, “If you let me raise him like a golden retriever, I’ll try it. But if he turns out to have the ankle-biting, obnoxious little dog personality I’ve seen other small dogs exhibit, we’ll have to find him a different home.”
With both of us on the same page, Tanya got to work using the web to find someone raising long-haired chihuahuas. I remember the day she showed me a printed page from puppyfinders.com of a little black and white chihuahua puppy that was only six weeks old. He was beyond darling, and soon she was on a plane heading for New Jersey to adopt our newest family member. Even at six weeks old, this new puppy named Dice was already well-trained. He cried very little, and when out of his travel kennel, the size of a bread box, he was happy to use a pee pad in the hotel. That was just the beginning of the Dicey Legend.
As Dicey grew up on Brackett Creek, 25 miles from the town of Bozeman, it became apparent that, as the books suggested, he was all dog. As a golden retriever stand-in, he couldn’t fetch a goose. But he would chase the wild pheasants that came across the property. Julz would babysit Dicey when we were gone, and she tells the story of how he ran a black bear up a tree just off her deck. Besides a disdain for black bears, he was no fan of wild turkeys either; The Turkey Terrorist is what Julie called him due to his all-out assault on the local turkeys.
A South American Pygmy Wolf is Born
His days on Brackett Creek lasted for about 10 years. He loved the countryside but mainly from the high platform of our deck. One evening, in the early years of wolf reintroduction to Montana, somewhere across the valley, a wolf howled. Dice was lying on the deck, just looking out. Instinctively he threw back his head and returned the call. I thought, “This little guy thinks he’s a wolf.” I eventually coined the name South American Pygmy Wolf in honor of his desire to be one with the wild. But honestly, the term South American Pygmy Wolf was as much for my benefit as it was for Dice. I’m now embarrassed to admit it, but early on, I struggled to acknowledge Dicey was a chihuahua. To be frank, it felt a bit unmanly to have a six-pound dog that couldn’t do much more than simply be a friend. My father could never understand why anyone would want a dog that gave nothing more than simple friendship.
Returning to my boyhood, dogs in our family had to be working animals. They needed purpose. For my father, that was a dog that helped bring home the bacon. Essentially a hunting dog that helped put food on the table. Dicey certainly wasn’t capable of that. A goose was three times his size, and he seldom showed any instincts to retrieve even a ball, let alone a dead goose. So Dicey’s greatness in my life was friendship. Nothing more, nothing less. And that was all I needed from this little dog. I loved him for that unconditional friendship.
During Dicey’s early days, I worked hard to acclimate him to anyone that walked into the office. When the postman showed up, I would hand Dice over. The FedEx lady stopped by; Dice was always in her arms. A new person walked through the door; Dice would be a part of the mix. The goal was to make sure he understood that new and different people were not typically anything to fear.
I wanted to give Dicey confidence that people weren’t scary. A new person wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. He took to the training easily and enjoyed meeting the other folks who were part of the Natural Exposures and Polar Bears International circle.
Acclimating Dice to new people went well, but his little dog’s desire to bark required more guided direction. We worked at it slowly, but he eventually understood that barking, just to bark, was not allowed. Many have asked how we got there, and I can honestly say it was simple. Being such a little guy, I often referred to him as my pocket dog; he was almost always close. Whether in the truck, at the office, on the couch, or wherever. He was pretty much always near.
When something inspired him to bark, I would reach over and give him a mild pinch on the scruff of the neck. It never took more than just my forefinger and thumb with a little squeeze of the extra skin. I would add a gentle shake and a stern “No Barking” in a deep voice. Each session required a process of maybe 2-3 times, but eventually, he got the idea. Within a couple of weeks, I could easily be across the room and, in a low but powerful voice, say, “No Barking,” and he would instantly stop. When he was young, he would close his lips, and a muffled bark would come from within, “muff, muff, muff,” ending with a short little whine. Obviously, he wanted to bark but understood that uncontrolled barking was not allowed.
I can hear it now. Some reading this may think controlling his barking was somehow less than loving. But nothing could be further from the truth. Because he was well-minded, friendly, and enjoyed being around people, we had no problem finding dog sitters. Everybody loved this little guy because he was so well-behaved. When Dice came into our lives, Tanya and I were not traveling like we do today.
Our business changed dramatically, and with that came the need to change how we earned our living. Had Dice been allowed to be a typical chihuahua, we would not have had the ability to find quality people to take care of him. Without conscientious, loving care from individuals we trusted, he would have ended up in a commercial kennel. I can’t think of anything more heartbreaking than the confines of a commercial dog kennel. Our jobs require leaving for weeks at a time. Dicey having to go to a place he was unfamiliar with would have been unbearable.
Along with Julie, Paula and Janette were two other important people who helped care for Dicey when we traveled. Paula worked for Polar Bears International and fell in love with Dice when he came to the office. Natural Exposures still to this day shares an office with PBI. Paula is an animal person.
She lives on a small hobby farm, and Dice loves spending time with her in the country. Paula kept him clean as best she could, but he loved rolling in horse manure. He was the size of a loaf of bread, but he was all dog. Dicey loved the farm. Lots of green grass, a black lab named Katie, and the big horses he was smart enough to avoid. Paula loved Dicey as much as we did.
Janette has been a friend for many years. She, too, is a dog lover with her little pup named Gerty. Dice and Gerty were best of friends. They spent countless hours hiking with Janette in Dicey’s younger years. Over time he would start strong, but eventually, Janette would have to pick him up and place him in her day pack. He loved those walks in the mountains where he dreamed of being a wolf. I know Janette and Gerty will miss Dicey as much as Tanya and I do. We were all family.
Losing a dog is never easy. Losing your best friend is even worse. Dicey’s last night was horrific, and I will never forget the mental visions. My little buddy died in Tanya’s arms, wrapped in his blanket. As hard as it was to endure, we are grateful we were home for him. I can’t imagine the pain of missing his last moments and not being there to say goodbye.
Our dear friend Krista Wright said it best in her sympathy card, “Dicey was a Legend.” For 19 1/2 years he touched many people’s lives and became a shining example of how amazing a little dog can be. He will be forever in my heart as the most loving and cherished of all my friends, and I dream of the day we meet again, beneath The Rainbow Bridge.