SPOKANE, Wash. — She leaps off a rock with all the power and grace of a wolf in pursuit of its prey.
Her eyes are alight with joy to be out in the woods, a dog in her natural element.
It was a perfect day recently at the new Hauser Conservation Area. A short, snowy trek with the storm clouds gathering above helped us bid farewell to our 2020 hiking season.
Bella’s vigor, however, belies what’s happening on her insides.
Our vet called us after Bella’s regular checkup last January to tell us her ALT levels are out of whack. ALT, or alanine aminotransferase, is an enzyme found in the liver and the kidney. An increased amount of ALT indicates damage to the organ.
We’ve had her tested twice more since and whisked her off to the imaging clinic for an ultrasound. The enzyme levels have stabilized and the ultrasound came back “perfect,” according to our vet. There are no signs of lesions on her liver, which means no cancer. No signs of Cushing’s disease. No signs of a few other abnormalities whose names escape the layperson’s vocabulary.
The liver can be a little mystery, our vet said. It could be hepatitis or hepatic microvascular dysplasia, a genetic abnormality in which the liver is smaller than it should be. Blood flow to the liver is restricted, causing atrophy, and the liver becomes less capable of processing toxins and producing the proteins necessary for growth and development.
Another round of blood tests is due this month. In a best-case scenario, her liver will have started to heal itself. At worst, the levels have continued to rise and we’ll need to have a biopsy done.
It’s frustrating, seeing her as energetic as ever and with a more than healthy appetite — two factors we’re supposed to watch closely — but it reminds me of one important factor in loving a dog.
Their lives are too short.
Bella came home from a farm in Arlington, Washington, on Aug. 29, 2014, just nine days after I put my first best friend to permanent rest.
Shep, a rescue and my first Maremma sheepdog, affected me in profound ways. We grew together through my 30s and early 40s, a time of tumult and change, with job layoffs, moves and road trips from Canada to visit a boyfriend who would become a husband.
He was my escape from a soulless 9-to-5 career. We spent almost every minute of evenings and weekends together, hiking mountains and exploring ghost towns.
We cemented our bond so solidly on the trails that wind their way through the majestic Rocky Mountains and their Alberta foothills. Lost among the birch and pine, he helped me realize what mattered most: living in the moment and focusing on the journey, not the destination.
When he died six years ago, I was devastated. To this day, I miss him with every fiber of my being because he changed who I was and what I needed to see in the world.
I agonized with the decision to get a puppy so quickly. On the day we picked up Shep’s ashes, I started researching breeders to get on a wait list for a spring litter. It was the only way I could figure out how to deal with my grief. I had long ago made the decision the Maremma sheepdog was my breed, my soul forever knitted into such a noble, protective, independent dog. I needed to pour my energy into a future with one.
A breeder with three 5-month-old puppies left in a litter, anxious to find them homes, reached out and invited us to visit her farm. I battled with the decision for days, wondering if I was insulting the memory of my adventure buddy, who now rested in a beautiful wood box on my nightstand.
My fiance-now-husband made me write a list of pros and cons. The pros outweighed the cons and we left Kelowna, British Columbia, where I lived then, to meet our new best friend.
Bella and I struggled to find our way together, my grief often overcoming my ability to bond, and the Maremma stubborn streak was inexplicably magnified in her.
Then the light bulb popped on and I knew what to do: Head for the hills. Over the past several years, with every step we’ve taken, every hill we’ve climbed, every vista we’ve seen, we’ve become closer and our understanding of each other stronger.
I hate leaving the house without her and, according to my husband, she mopes in the front window while I’m gone. She looks at me expectantly every day, and I’ve no doubt she’s wondering if today is the day we get to go to the woods.
We completed more hikes in 2020 than in any other year of my life, even with the tumult of COVID-19 canceling plans for adventure trips back to the mountains in British Columbia and Alberta. It’s been an incredible experience exploring the nooks and crannies of the Inland Northwest with my best friend at my side.
There will be trails I won’t hike, summits I won’t see and glacial lakes I won’t dip my tired feet into because the route isn’t dog friendly.
That’s OK, because I can’t imagine hiking without Bella. That day may come sooner than I wanted, thanks to her current health issues, but as long as we can, we’ll be out there tackling the hills around Spokane and North Idaho.