Written + Photographed by Bradly J. Boner
We turned off Wyoming Highway 191 and headed south on a dusty road about five miles west of Pinedale. It was dusk; the sun had already dipped behind the Wyoming Range, and the sky was still bright enough to create a stark contrast with the dark, high desert landscape that stretched out all around us. To our right, the Green River reflected the alpenglow in the beginning of its long meander toward its confluence with the Mighty Colorado, in Utah. Coming over a slight rise, a ranch house came into view, its porch light illuminating a small section of the driveway. My girlfriend, Jeannette, had talked me into coming with her this evening, as earlier that week, the rancher who lived here told her that his cattle dog—a blue heeler—recently had a litter of puppies.
“Let’s just go look at them,” Jeannette said over the phone from her apartment in Pinedale. She had relocated to Wyoming from Pittsburgh for a job at the town’s weekly newspaper, drawn by the allure of the American West. When we met nine months prior I was working as a photojournalist across the state in Gillette, but soon after, landed a job at the Jackson Hole News&Guide, another weekly, about 70 miles northwest of Pinedale.
We spent weekends hiking in the Tetons north of Jackson and exploring the Wind River Mountains outside of Pinedale, but Jeannette said she wanted a companion for the times when she would head into the mountains alone. She loved the look of the cattle dogs she often saw gleefully riding around in the beds of pickup trucks, and was excited when she heard about this litter.
Admittedly, I was skeptical of the prospect of adopting a dog, especially a puppy. It was the fall of 2004, and, at 27, I was still averse to having too much responsibility. I didn’t even have a houseplant. Adopting a dog with my girlfriend definitely would be an escalation of our relationship—a shared endeavor with someone I’d been dating only a few months. But, I was really into this girl and liked our future prospects. Plus, she put me at ease by saying we didn’t actually need to come home with a dog.
The rancher met us at the door to his mudroom where the puppies were scampering around on the floor. There were five in the litter, but two were already gone; two more already spoken for, leaving just one pup left—a female. Jeannette picked her up and snuggled her, gushing over her cuteness, before passing her over to me. I pulled the little dog close and she licked my chin, then nuzzled her way into my lap as if I wasn’t a stranger at all, and she belonged there. At that moment, my hesitation about adopting a dog vanished.
“Let’s take this one home,” I said.
It was almost fully dark on the drive back to Pinedale, and the lights from other ranch houses dotted the landscape as our conversation circled around what to name our new companion. After going back and forth over a few names, I said, “How about Sadie?”
“Sadie’s a good name,” Jeannette said. “Sadie dog.”
It was a good name.
The next day, Sadie plodded at our heels as we walked through the autumn aspens—we spent the day getting to know her. We’d trade off taking her to work, where she would sit under Jeannette’s desk or greet my coworkers at the office, while tied under a shady tree. That winter, she trudged through the snow with Jeannette, as she and a friend harvested a Christmas tree. By the following summer, she was almost full grown and spent her time bounding through the weeds and into creeks during our hikes and camping trips in the mountains. That September—just shy of a year after we brought her home—Sadie was posing for photos with us on our wedding day in Grand Teton National Park. Over the years, Sadie was the welcomed third wheel in each new adventure we had as a married couple. Peak-bagging in the mountains; backcountry skiing on Teton Pass; road trips all over the West in our old Volkswagen bus; canoeing down the Green River in Utah … she was crammed into a small, one-room cabin with us as we saved money for a house, and then played freely in the backyard when we finally bought one. She lounged with us in the grass as our daughter, Adeline, crawled nearby. And, a couple years later, gobbled food off the floor that our son Will dropped for her, as he giggled from his high chair. The shared experiences of daily life brought us all closer together.
As the years stretched on, Sadie slowed down. At age eight, a stroke in her spine temporarily paralyzed her back legs, and even though she recovered enough to go back to hiking, she never went backcountry skiing with me again. She still showed interest in the tennis ball at age 13, but we decided to retire the game of fetch to spare her ailing hips. Sadie remained weary, even after short cross-country ski trips, and was content to trade them for long walks around the neighborhood with Jeannette (which gradually transitioned into shorter walks with our kids). Even though she was slow, she was still up for the outing.
By the fall of 2019, Sadie could barely hear, even if we called to her, as she sat sniffing the breeze only a few feet away on our back porch. She sometimes struggled to get up the stairs, and soon began to have trouble standing up at all. We knew the sunset of her life had begun; we just didn’t know how long it would last.
Then, one day in early June 2020—about six weeks before her sixteenth birthday—I came home from work and went into the backyard, where the kids were playing on the trampoline and Jeannette was working in the garden. “The dog’s acting strange,” Jeannette said, and pointed to a corner of the yard where she was sleeping next to the fence. Sadie was a creature of habit, with her favorite spots to snooze in the shade, but this was an unusual place for her to rest. It’s almost as if she’d become so tired so quickly, and she just laid down where she was and fell asleep.
That evening, Sadie was restless and seemed uncomfortable, so I slept next to her bed on the floor. In the morning she woke but wouldn’t get up for breakfast. Jeannette called the vet.
“I just want her to be comfortable,” Jeannette replied. “I don’t want her to be in any pain.”
We had to carry Sadie to the car to take her to the Driggs Veterinary Clinic. She was still and quiet as our kids chit chatted with each other. Jeannette and I didn’t talk. I tried to prepare myself, but only when Dr. Betts came out to our car (where Jeannette and I sat with Sadie) and injected her with a lethal cocktail that would humanely end her life, did it seem real that her time with us was over.
Sadie’s life with Jeannette and I ended as it began, in our arms, with the three of us close together. I can count on one hand the number of times I have cried in my adult life, and this was one of them. I wept as we gently stroked Sadie’s soft fur, telling her we loved her, she was such a good dog, and that everything was okay. Adeline, then six, watched silently over the back seat knowing something heavy was happening. Will, only four at the time, obliviously played on a buck rail fence nearby. Sadie’s breathing gradually slowed; she took two or three deep, final breaths, and then she was gone.
As we held Sadie in the final moments of her long life, every single experience with her seemed to flicker through my mind. Our countless hikes in the mountains, scratching her head as she sat between us on dozens of road trips, evening walks, while tossing a ball or a stick—all of them brought the three of us closer together. Her life spanned an arc that included some of the most poignant moments that define a married couple: our wedding day, our fights, and our make-ups. Buying a house, and then selling it ten years later and moving into a new one. The births of our kids. The deaths of my parents. The last years of our twenties. The dawn of our forties, and a decade somewhere in between. Sadie was there for all of them.
Our house seemed quiet in the following months. The kids weren’t calling out to Sadie as they played in the yard, and we missed her at our side. Jeannette and I sat on our swing on the back porch after the kids went to bed, noticing our third wheel was gone.
I thought about how, late in life, Sadie’s eyes still flickered at the sight of a tennis ball, but she couldn’t muster the strength to play. Even though I was desperately heartbroken she was gone, I knew Sadie was free of the weight of age and the bounds of her old, tired body, and was, somewhere, a puppy again. I closed my eyes and imagined her bounding through the creeks and tall grasses of the afterlife with boundless energy just as she had in her youth. Her life with us stretched so far back—spanning all but a sliver of our 17 years together—that thinking of Sadie as a pup made me feel young again, too.
Then, one day last fall Jeannette called while I was at work. She saw a litter of heeler puppies available for adoption on Facebook. They were located on a ranch in southern Idaho. “It will make a fun trip with the kids,” she said (a way to get out of town after being cooped up for months during the global pandemic). I was hesitant—again—but Jeannette said we didn’t need to come home with a puppy.
“We’ll just go look at them,” she said.
Where to find a furry friend of your own …
- Animal Adoption Center, Jackson, Wyoming, animaladoptioncenter.org
- Animal Humane Association of Star Valley, Thayne, Wyoming, luckys.place
- Aska’s Animals, Victor, Idaho, askasanimals.org
- Teton County Animal Shelter, Jackson, Wyoming, facebook.com/JTCAnimalShelter
- Teton Valley Community Animal Shelter, Driggs, Idaho, tvshelter.org