Samson was a blue merle Great Dane and my best trail dog. There wasn’t anywhere my horse and I could go where he wouldn’t follow. The lady who owned the Appaloosa farm down the road gave Sam to my family after our first Great Dane, Harley, had to be put to sleep when his hind end “gave out.” Harley was the funniest, most wonderful dog and only eight years old when he died. I guess that’s why Great Danes have been dubbed “the heartbreak breed,” because they’re such amazing dogs that live terribly short lives. I’m sure there’s more we could have done medically to keep Harley comfortable and extend his life, but in those days it seemed like a lot of people simply “let nature take its course” with their animals. It was the early 80s, when most pets weren’t viewed as children like they are today. Especially out in the canyon where we lived, a dog got old and it died or you dropped it at the vet and ended its suffering – end of story.
So we got Sammy. I think the breeder wanted to get rid of the young dog because he was too submissive and she preferred more protective Danes that could guard her giant herd of high-bred spotted horses. The ranch had recently gone through an attempted horse-napping, with the thieves rounding up and dumping their dogs miles away so the criminals could return to the scene and steal the choicest horses undisturbed. Sammy had been one of those dogs, and as a result had been deeply traumatized by the experience. But we were happy to take him off the woman’s hands, as my dad’s heart was broken over losing Harley and wanted very badly to fill the hole our late harlequin had left in his wake. In fact, I don’t think Dad even waited a day between putting Harley down and bringing Sammy home.
Sam wasn’t the outgoing, silly clown Harley had been, but he was sweet and loving and adjusted to life on our ranch very quickly, as if he’d lived with us his whole life. Having grown up with horses and an array of other animals on the Appy farm, Sam was a natural around our four cats, six chickens, one rooster and even our little African pygmy goat, Nadia (in fact, before long Nadia became convinced that Sammy was her new boyfriend – suffice it to say it got “weird” at times). But he was especially comfortable around Temptor, my Appaloosa gelding who had a sly, cranky side he sometimes liked to take out on dogs. As he had with Harley, Temptor took great pleasure in chasing Sam out of his paddock, ears flattened, teeth bared and nostrils flaring as he charged the rapidly retreating canine. But Sam, ever the sweet, gentle subordinate, never seemed to take it personally and would return to my horse’s side again and again, hoping to finally be accepted into his “herd.” Eventually I think Temptor just gave up and let the dog be.
Dogs love routine, and every morning it was Sam’s job to accompany me to the stable for our daytime feeding ritual. I’d open our kitchen door and there would be Sam, patiently waiting with that big, droopy smile, his long, whip-like tail wagging slowly to and fro. He loved hanging out and sniffing around in the tack room while I measured out Temptor’s breakfast into a bucket, then trailing me to the paddock and standing close as I dumped the contents into my hungry equine’s feed bin. Sam didn’t mind that he always ate last. He was just happy to be a part of it all. He was a ranch dog, plain and simple.
Before long the gentle Dane had also memorized my riding routines. He knew the difference between a weekend and a school day, and that when it was summer every day was a riding day. On afternoons after school, when I’d only have an hour to ride before starting my homework, Sam would follow us out to the flat area in our big pasture, where I’d put Temptor through his paces in a large circle. Meanwhile, Sammy would entertain himself by hunting for rabbits or ground squirrels in the long field grass or dozing under a nearby tree. But on weekends or summer days, Sam knew that two hours after Temptor’s feeding we’d be ready to prepare his buddy for a trail ride. Ever the patient gentleman, Sam would lie close by as I curried and brushed Temptor’s brown and white coat to a gleam, head between his giant paws, amber eyes following my every move. But once the saddle was on and I had my boot in the stirrup, the enthusiastic canine was ready to go, leaping to his feet and excited to perform his favorite job – trail guide!
Throughout most of my adolescence I can’t remember a time when Sam wasn’t there on the trail with Temptor and me. Nothing made him happier than leading the way or picking up the rear as the three of us ventured over miles of fire roads and meandering trails through the sagebrush-covered mountains or down to the beach south of Paradise Cove. Like Temptor, the dog had amazing endurance and could trot or lope alongside us for long stretches of time and distance, maybe stopping here and there to investigate a scent or chase something furry, but otherwise perfectly content to amble along on our rambling adventures.
On weekends and during the summer months we’d meet up with my girlfriend Catherine and her little brother Eric and their horses for all-day excursions, which usually turned into racing contests. As we’d gallop along like The Wild Bunch, young and crazy and fearless, Sammy would always manage to keep up with us with his long, loping strides, all the while managing to stay clear of all three sets of thundering hooves. Sometimes we’d pack a lunch or head back to Catherine’s ranch for a light meal under the oak trees, Sam lying in the cool grass and waiting for me to toss him a few morsels. He was a good dog and my buddy and I couldn’t imagine going on a ride without him. Then one day he just stopped coming along.
It happened almost overnight, the change in Sammy. I first noticed something was off when I was heading out for a quick afternoon ride after school and noticed Sam wasn’t trotting alongside in his usual place. I turned around in the saddle and saw him heading in the opposite direction, toward home. Confused, I called his name once, then twice, but he just glanced back at me and kept going. When I yelled at him to “come” he started running faster, probably thinking he was in trouble. But whatever the reason for his strange behavior, it wasn’t like him to cut a ride short. When I returned home an hour later, Sam was lying by the kitchen door as if nothing had happened, ears back and tail thumping on the cement as I walked up, perhaps hoping I’d forgiven him. He was seven years old now and his muzzle was almost completely gray. But wasn’t he too young to be slowing down just yet?
Lately I’d noticed he hadn’t been eating as much and had lost some weight. Still, he’d always been a lanky Dane. But lately the Blue Jays always seemed to be finishing Sam’s food instead of him, making a ruckus as they dive-bombed his food bucket and flew away with giant chunks of kibble in their beaks. At that time gourmet, premium or holistic dog food wasn’t exactly commonplace, or even available, I imagine. Like most dogs at the time, ours ate good ole’ Purina Dog Chow, the kind of cheap kibble I wouldn’t dream of letting my dogs eat now. I can only imagine what was in it – corn, wheat, soy, artificial coloring and preservatives and cheap meat by-products from unknown sources. Sam might as well have been living on junk food. Still, he’d always been a good eater, until recently.
It was only by accident that I noticed the dog’s mouth. Maybe I smelled a foul odor when I knelt down next to him, or maybe as I stroked his face I moved his jowls and caught sight of his teeth, I’m not sure. But I remember doing a double-take and pulling his lips back, exposing teeth coated in thick brown tartar and red, inflamed gums. At 18 years old, I knew nothing about canine dental care and had never heard of anyone having their dog’s teeth cleaned by a vet. I’d noticed Sam’s tartar-stained teeth before, but the situation had obviously grown worse. But like most minor problems our animals had from time to time, from fleas and hot spots to little cuts and abrasions, I figured Sammy’s mouth would just heal up on its own. And though his gums definitely didn’t look right, I simply ignored the issue, figuring it was just a typical condition some dogs developed from time to time. I don’t know why I didn’t say anything to my parents. I wish I had. I wish I’d known enough to put two and two together, that the reason Sam didn’t want to go on rides anymore was due to the raging infection in his gums, which by then was probably destroying his heart. But I had no clue that my dog was showing signs of heart disease, I just thought he was getting old and tired. Three months later, Samson disappeared.