Ever since birth, I’ve had a dog in my life. To date, there have been 14 — each a bookmark for different chapters in this journey: Chica (1-3. Growing up we had three collies all named Chica), Tippy, Sassy, Niko, Boo, Gus, Beamer, Ginger, Yoda, Delilah, Poluna Kai and Star. Some are for more chapters than others but, nonetheless, I can connect each one to distinct phases, activities and many memories.
And as I look back through the list, they have each played a part in my wellness journey — some because they were the partner for what I needed: a good running companion, a paddle partner, a boat buddy, a post-activity nap mate. These were my more vivacious, energetic and active pets.
But the other dogs, I believe, showed up in our lives because they were just the opposite — not as mentally or physically healthy. Most of them were rescues, several of which had their own health concerns. I think our paths crossed because of the wellness and energy we could offer them, and our purpose became to contribute to theirs.
The call came in late one hot summer afternoon. “I know Steve loves bulldogs! I have one for him!” What? Confusion was my first response, then came the questions of how, who and why. Gus was found at the front doors of Wheatsville Co-op, begging as patrons passed by. A friend witnessed him there for several days, put out signs and then eventually called us. Gus was young, strong and, aside from thin, quite healthy. But Gus lived in total fear of the outdoors, and we lived totally for the outdoors. We had no fence, an open yard and spent more time in the lake than on the land. The only water Gus wasn’t afraid of was what was in his bowl. He was so young, yet so terrified of the one thing that could give him so much peace: nature.
We would sit in our yard with Gus, one hand on his back, “nature bathing.” Letting him look, listen and feel the environment around him, soothing him when a bug landed nearby; when the leaves would rustle, when a shadow would cross the lawn. Day in and out, we simply sat with him in the present moment, experiencing nature until, one day, he scratched to go out and settle into his own space under the tree by himself — no emotional support necessary.
There’s nothing but fond memories for this sweet girl. She was our boys’ first dog, rescued when our oldest was a newborn. Super active, super sweet and the best buddy any dog could be to our oldest. She ran a gazillion miles with us, tied to his baby jogger, up and down the hills, trails and back and forth across the Mansfield Dam at twilight, when he couldn’t sleep and I had no place to go but run. Her pace slowed down sooner than I expected, and the days where she literally pulled the jogger slowed to a pace where we were basically tugging her along, and then she retired from running. Later in her life, she began having seizures, which we were told was most likely brain cancer, and her months were now numbered. But, as a fitness trainer, I knew something was amiss; when she would fall from seizures, it was at heart rate level. So, we pushed through to a proper diagnosis and found the right medication that kept her with us another five years.
Darla, as she was originally named when we rescued her, came to us with no mobility or movement. She was an overbred bulldog that had been surrendered to rescue. If she was eight, she seemed like she was 100. The rescue organization said she needed a “warm, loving family to spend the last years of her life with.” So we loaded up and drove three hours north to meet our new family member, beyond excited to welcome her to our active lifestyle. But when we got to her, the foster family informed us that she has difficulty moving. Understatement. When we saw her, the need for the last few years of her life appeared to be more like minutes. But as a family, we decided to walk that path with her. She literally wasn’t able to move. Perhaps, like many bulldogs, she’d been overbred, overfed and was simply tired of all that life had dished her. Our soft hearts got the best of us and back south we headed, not quite sure how we were going to manage a mammoth bulldog that couldn’t walk.
Her sweet eyes held stories, many of which you could tell were not great ones. It broke our hearts that this poor animal, physically worn out, but emotionally raw for acceptance, could not move on her own. When we got her home and carried her to our lawn, she watched for months as the world stayed in motion around her, yet her life stood still. We’d pass her walking to the lake, getting on the boat, playing in the yard. Her huge, brown, drooping eyes would follow us, but her body just wouldn’t respond — until the sixth month. She took four steps following us to the boat, then a few days later, four more. Before we knew it, she was able to walk to the dock, which eventually led to getting into the boat, which led to her love of the lake and water. We knew the buoyancy of water would be awesome for her lack of mobility, and began working with her in the lake to find neutral buoyancy, floating with a life jacket. She loved that even more and soon developed new strength to make the walk from the house to the dock faster every day. Delilah, the dog formerly known as Darla, lived another two years loving the benefits of being a Blue-Minded bulldog by the water.
There were two rules from the rescue organization when we adopted our current bulldog at age two: don’t let her get near the water and do not change her name from Petunia Blossom. We broke both those rules: one, because we have raised and trained bulldogs around the water our entire lives and have seen firsthand how amazing the cold waters of Lake Austin can be for their longevity. Two, because my husband, Steve, was adamant about not standing in our yard calling out, “Petunia Blossom.” Because I’d always heard dogs respond to syllables (probably fiction, but if the rescue foundation asked, at least I’d have a logical answer), I researched words and discovered that Poluna meant “chubby and plump” in Hawaiian. Perfect. And “Kai,” water, because we knew she’d live long and well with a life on the water — and she has. She’s going into her 10th year, a bit blind and deaf, but super agile and mobile.
And then there’s Star, who is technically our youngest son’s pup. He purchased her with money from a Mastercraft boat photoshoot. He was five. We tried to get him to buy Legos with his well-earned money, but for six months he was adamant on purchasing “Fluffy Little Fur Ball” as he wanted to name her. We gently suggested he would feel a bit silly calling her that when he was sixteen, and now that he’s eighteen, he agrees. Luckily, on the ride home from acquiring her, he gave in and named her after the lineup of Mastercraft’s boats: “Star.”
Star has probably traveled more miles in a boat and on a paddleboard than any other dog in Texas — and possibly the nation. Star watches from the observation seat as we water ski endless miles on Lake Austin, wake surf till the sun goes down and paddleboard when the sun comes up. In 2020 alone, my Garmin shows Star and I paddled over 300 miles together. But it’s not just about recreation for Star. When I bring others to the water through our foundation, Operation Get Out, to share the healing benefits of water, Star is there to lend her support. She will join them on their boards giving them confidence and distraction while applauding them with a wagging tail. Star understands that water makes others feel better, to the point when I struggled to get back on the water after losing a dear friend, one morning I went out and Star was sitting on my board staring at me, telling me, “It’s time.”
Star has shared almost 13 years with us to date. I’m not sure who has taught who what, but I do know that there’s been an angel in my life for the past 13 years, dressed like a fuzzy little furball that has taught me how to be more playful, not to take myself too seriously, to keep moving “even if the grass is too cold,” to share with others what can make them feel better and to use what I know heals me. She’s definitely a Rock Star to me.
“Dogs are not our whole lives, but they make our lives whole.” -Rodger Caras