Dakota: Going Out Strong

Dakota: Going Out Strong

Julie contacted me in 2011 when one of her search and rescue dogs, Dakota — a very handsome Belgian Malinois — had fractured his leg during a training search. Dakota had a cast below the elbow on his left front leg and he kept gnawing at the cast, trying to remove it. Julie was afraid this would disrupt the healing of the broken bone and wanted to see if I could get Dakota to leave the cast alone.

When I talked to Dakota, I was first struck with the strength of his personality. He was very focused and intent. When I asked him about his work as a search and rescue dog, it was clear that his work was everything to him. His work ethic was immensely strong. He hated being incapacitated and just couldn’t wait to get back to work. Dakota was most happy when he and Julie were doing search and rescue work or training. He knew exactly what his job was — to search for people by scent, to “alert” by barking/pointing his nose at the spot where the people were and wait for Julie to come to the spot. He really lived to work! Dakota knew that his job was very important too. Julie confirmed that this was exactly what Dakota was all about.

I explained to Dakota that it was very important — critical — that he not touch his cast. At that point in his healing, there were only a few more weeks that the cast would need to be on, but they’d already had to replace the cast a couple time because Dakota was chewing it off. I “showed” Dakota the time frame that the cast would need to stay on, compared to how long it had been on so far. Dakota said, “But I want it off NOW!” He said the cast was itchy and uncomfortable and he knew he couldn’t work again until it was off. He said his leg felt fine and he didn’t understand why the cast had to stay on. I told Dakota that we understood how he felt, but even though his leg didn’t hurt, it was still not healed and he needed to be patient — this was a really difficult concept for Dakota to understand! We even resorted to telling him if he chewed his cast off again he might lose his leg and then he would not be able to search on the rubble, I think that message had the most impact.

Dakota finally said he would try to leave the cast alone. I told Julie that although Dakota said he would try, she really needed to keep an eye on him. It was clear to me that patience was not one of Dakota’s virtues! Julie switched Dakota from one of the big white plastic cones to a very cool leather muzzle to keep him from chewing at the cast. This really made a difference in his attitude — Julie was pretty sure he thought he looked silly & unprofessional in the cone! Thanks to the leather muzzle, Dakota was able to keep from chewing the cast and keep the cast on so his leg could heal. Dakota returned to work after his cast and the rod in his ulna was removed. He was so happy to again be able to do the search and rescue work and practice that he loved! Dakota lived to work, if he couldn’t search then he felt he had no life. Retirement was not an option for him.

Once the cast was removed, Dakota continued to be a FEMA disaster search dog. He was re-certified in Nov of 2014 on monstrous rubble in Indiana. He floated over the rubble like the skilled veteran he was. The evaluators all complimented him. This was his last recertification and he did it in “Dakota Style”. Julie was so proud to be his partner.

As time went on, Dakota started having issues with the wrist on the leg that had been fractured — he lost almost all of the flexion and the leg would ache. It just wasn’t as strong as previously. Julie got a wrist brace/support for Dakota and for a long time, Dakota wore it when working and had no problems. However, as time went on, Dakota started having difficulty with maneuvering on “the pile” — the giant pile of broken concrete stabs and pipes that they used for search and rescue training. Knowing that not working would be torture for Dakota, Julie started looking for other things that Dakota could do.

Julie found a wonderful new job for Dakota — training to be a drug sniffing dog on cruise ships docked at Port Everglades, near where they lived. When Julie first started training Dakota for drug work he had a hard time with the passive sit response, which was the opposite of needing to bark, as he did when he did searches for living people in disaster situations. Dakota was nicknamed “The Squeaker” because he knew he wasn’t supposed to bark but he couldn’t totally be quiet when he found something on a drug search, so he did a little squeak at the scent source with his sit.

Another challenge for Dakota came up when he was first learning to search for drugs in buildings and rooms. Drug sniffing dogs must put their feet up on the walls, to sniff behind pictures, outlets; go up on furniture, counter tops and all kinds of places Dakota wasn’t normally allowed to go. Dakota was very reluctant to do this. When we asked Dakota about his reluctance to do these things, he said he thought this behavior was very rude. We explained to Dakota that when he got his “Find It” command that he was allowed to be rude and go up on furniture, counter tops, wall, etc. – when he was searching.

Once Dakota understood what he was supposed to do, he was very quick to implement the directions. He was so happy to go to work and knew that the new job of drug sniffing was as important as his search and rescue work. Julie still let Dakota practice with the search and rescue team, but she monitored him closely.

Over the next few years, whenever we talked to Julie’s other search and rescue dogs, we always checked to see how Dakota was doing too. Although he didn’t like to admit it, as time when on Dakota did say that his leg was aching more and that the brace really helped. Eventually, he wore the brace nearly all the time.

Julie contacted me in June of 2016. She said that Dakota had been hopping on three legs for two months. I was not surprised to hear that Dakota never complained about the pain in his wrist or was reluctant to go to work. He just figured out a way to manage around the pain — by going on three legs instead of four. Of course, as soon as this started happening, Julie took Dakota to the vet. Julie said that Dakota had been diagnosed with a MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) infection in the bad wrist. The wrist had become necrotic and had encapsulated the infection so the antibiotics could not get in to heal the infection. After four months and multiple antibiotics, the vets felt the only option for stopping the infection from spreading to other parts of Dakota’s body was to amputate Dakota’s left front leg at the shoulder.

We talked to Dakota the day surgery was scheduled, several hours before the time of the surgery. Dakota showed me that the pain in his infected wrist was very significant. We talked to him about the infection, the amputation, the surgery itself, the loss of his leg and the months of recover ahead. We explained that this was his only hope to survive. Dakota understood that Julie would do anything to help him get better, so if that was all that could be done, he knew it was the right thing. I asked Dakota if he felt he could manage on 3 legs. He said, “I’ve been managing for two months — I’ll be fine!” In fact, Dakota said, “I’m faster on three legs than the other search dogs are on four legs!”

At Julie’s request, I let Dakota know that he wouldn’t be able to practice on the pile after the surgery. Although he was disappointed, he said he understood — “but I can search on the ground and do my [drug searching] can’t I?” Julie said he absolutely could do that again, as soon as he recovered. Dakota said that as long as he could work, he would. He said he didn’t know what he would do if he couldn’t work, so he was glad he could continue to do what he loved to do with Julie.

Julie wanted to be sure Dakota wanted to go through with the amputation, rather than be allowed to cross to Spirit. I asked Dakota about that — he said, “There is nothing wrong with the rest of me!” Dakota’s will to live was very strong and he was not ready to cross to Spirit. Julie knew that the recovery period would be challenging for Dakota, but she also knew that with his strength of will, Dakota could do anything he set his mind to do.

Julie sent me a message shortly after the surgery to say that all went well and Dakota was doing fine. I knew she was relieved and happy that all had gone well.

My schedule was very busy the next day and I was in the middle of a communication session when I realized I’d received a voicemail from Julie. When I was able to listen to the voicemail, I was stunned. The message said, “Dakota is in cardiac arrest. Please tell him I’m with him!” I called Julie back immediately. She told me that Dakota had died moments after she called me from a clot that went to his heart or brain. She said that she and the vet were stunned. Julie had been standing in front of Dakota when he threw his head back and quit breathing. The vet immediately started working him, but Julie knew in her heart that Dakota had had crossed to Spirit. She said she felt a warm rush pass by her as Dakota’s pupils totally dilated. Julie asked if we could talk to Dakota in Spirit, right away.

I connected to Dakota in Spirit. Julie wanted to be sure he had crossed over and wasn’t “stuck”. It was clear to me that this was not the case — Dakota had crossed over fully. There is a serenity to those in Spirit that I do not feel from those who are “stuck” and tied to the earth. Dakota’s spirit had that serene energy.

Julie wanted to know why he changed his mind about staying — why he’d said the day before that he wanted to live, but then suddenly crossed over. Dakota showed me that there was something wrong somewhere else in his body, besides the MRSA infection at the site of the fracture. I couldn’t get a clear picture of where it was in his body, but to me it felt like many places in his body were affected. It felt to me like the MRSA infection has spread and was infecting him all over. Dakota showed me that he hadn’t known about this when we talked several hours before the surgery — he didn’t know until just before the surgery. Dakota told me that if he hadn’t crossed over, he would have been “sick/weak/broken”. He said that he would not have been able to accept or tolerate that. Julie asked why he didn’t cross over during the surgery. He said he wanted to “go out strong”. He was proud that he got through the surgery and was doing well — he said, “that was the right time for me to go.”

Julie told me later that this made complete sense to her. Just after the surgery, the vet had gotten blood work results back that showed that the MRSA infection had traveled to Dakota’s kidneys — so it would not be surprising if it had spread to other parts of his body as well. If Dakota had lived, he would have been very sick indeed in a very short time.

As painful as it was for Julie to lose Dakota, she knew that with Dakota’s strong will, he was going to make sure that everything went exactly the way Dakota would want.

Dakota showed me that he was in the “place” in Spirit that I think of as the Recovery Place. It is where the animals show me they go when they first cross over. Although he was no longer physical, Dakota showed me a picture of himself in the Recovery Place — he appeared strong, handsome, confident and happy. He was proud of himself for doing what he knew was right for him and he knew that Julie would understand. He told Julie that he would always be with her — he showed me walking by her side, wherever she went. Julie wanted to be sure she wasn’t keeping Dakota from moving forward on his spiritual journey. Dakota made it clear to me that since he was not physical, he could be there (in Spirit) and here, with Julie. That was what he wanted.

Dakota also told me that he was going to start working right away. Most animals rest and relax in the Recovery Place — but of course, that wasn’t Dakota’s way! Dakota said that he knew his job was going to be “finding people and connecting them with their animals in Spirit” — basically search and rescue in Spirit! Both Julie and I laughed with tears in our eyes when he told us that. It was just so Dakota!

Sad as she was, Julie knew that the right thing had happened for Dakota. As Julie told me, “I miss Dakota everyday, but I know he needed to go … He is no longer by my side but forever in my heart.” I know she will always be in Dakota’s heart too.

“I’m pretty intuitive with my dogs and cats, but it is so awesome to be able to communicate directly with them through Sky. When I need to get something important across or try to understand something my dogs are doing on a search I immediately contact Sky so I can get a direct line of communication with them. It really puts my mind at ease to be able to talk to my living dogs and cats — and to my spirit dogs and cats.” — Julie P-J, FL.