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Bonding with a Broken Heart

Puppies are hard to resist, especially for dog lovers like me. But plopped in the grass in my neighbor’s backyard, surrounded by six chubby puppies who needed homes, I deliberated.

At long last, our pack – Kona, Riley and me – was perfect, and I was hesitant to disrupt the balance. That’s when something else flew into the picture. A hummingbird.

The tiny creatures were special to my mom, and since we lost her five years ago, they’ve meant a lot to my family and me – all of us seeing them at unexpected and significant moments. I hadn’t seen one all summer, and so I knew in my heart my mom was there, trying to tell me something. Maybe she knew of the losses and gains that lurked in my future. Maybe a new puppy was meant to be.

Maria and her pups.
Photos Contributed by Ruffwear Ambassador Maria Christina Schultz
This is the story of how three lives came together at just the right and wrong time – a girl who’d wound herself so tight around my heart I could not have believed it, a baby boy who’d fill the space she left behind, and me – heartbroken me.

It had been a great spring! We’d spent it celebrating birthdays. Riley turned 12, and Kona turned 7. “Happy Birthday, girlfriend,” I whispered to her, as the sun poked its way through the blinds that morning. “We’re going to have so much fun!” I remember how grateful I felt.

In classic Kona style, we’d overdone it. We hiked, took a Burley cart ride, and paddled, just her and me, howling together in the middle of the lake, taking selfies, and catching frisbees. Reliable and predictable, she was more content on the paddleboard than Riley ever had been. She had endurance, athleticism and a remarkable loyalty to me.

Maria tows Kona in a Burley dog trailer behind her bike.

When Kona’s brown eyes looked at me, something moved in my soul. I knew that no matter where we were or what we were doing, she’d always choose me over anything, and protect me. It’s difficult to describe the incredible bond we shared. She was my heart dog.

Maria and Kona sit on a paddleboard howling in to the air.

Three months after our epic birthday weekend, my perfect Kona was diagnosed with cancer, and our world came crashing down. 

It all happened too fast. One day her gums were pale and she was lethargic. Then came the vet visits, bloodwork, medications and specialists. After a massive scary surgery, came the biopsy results and the word that ripped out my heart: Hemangiosarcoma. It’s an aggressive cancer that attacks the spleen. 

Kona was given two months to live. And I was angry.

At 7, she was in the prime of her life, and we still had big plans – bike trips and overnight hikes, and those adorable puppies. If we were to get a new dog, I’d need Kona to help me train him. Older dogs, especially remarkable ones like Riley and Kona, are wonderful teachers, and Kona was magnificent with puppies.

I was surprised when my husband said we should get one. Even if the next member of our pack only got to know Kona for two months, he said, he’d learn so much from her. It would give Kona and me a job – training a young one – to distract us from the inevitable. And we’d be embracing life, maintaining a forward momentum, despite the pain that lay ahead. 

It was hard for me to argue his case. I called my neighbor the next day. It just so happened there was one male left who needed a home. 

But the new puppy – we named him Bodie – did not get two months with Kona. He got six days. 

Maria and Kona snuggle in a hammock.

Three weeks after the surgery Kona started internally bleeding again, and I could not let her suffer. It was unexpected, awful, and the hardest decision I’d ever made. I still needed that girl, but I loved her too much. I thanked her for all she had done for me by giving her one more day of overdoing it, and said goodbye with the dignity she deserved. 

Through the fog of grief that followed, reality made itself known. With all my heart, I wanted my perfect Kona back by my side. Instead, I had a biting, jumping, not-all-that-into-cuddling monster of a puppy. I’d need to start from scratch, training and socializing, and building a bond, all with a broken heart.

Puppy Bodie leans up to give Maria a kiss.

Most mornings, I just wanted to stay in bed, bury my tears in Riley’s coat and beg for the pain to go away. But that wasn’t an option with Bodie. 

It was Riley who carried me. He picked up Kona’s jobs, following me around the house, waiting by the door for me to come home, sleeping closer to me, letting me hold him. And something else, something even more shocking. It had taken almost a year for Riley to let down his guard and play with Kona, and though he was much older now, he took Bodie under his wing. 

Riley gives Maria kisses atop a rock.
Maria with her pups in Flagline harnesses.

I have to remind myself every day that bonds like the ones I’ve had with Riley and Kona take a long time to form, and Bodie isn’t even six months. As much as I’d like to sugar-coat everything Kona was a pain in the butt as a pup just like him. He’s testing me daily. Even as a dog trainer who knows all the puppy stages inside and out, I break down inside every time Bodie does something Kona would never have done. It’s really hard. 

But here’s where it’s not hard. He’s just a puppy! He’s silly and fluffy, crazy and cute. He makes me laugh every single day. He plays with Riley and my heart melts. Teaching him and watching him learn is rewarding, and it’s in these moments I forget how sad I still am, how much I miss Kona. Bodie is a beautiful distraction. 

He’s confident, athletic, brave, charming, and has all the potential to be another adventure buddy. I know someday he’ll choose to stay close to me on trails, and not jump off my paddleboard every five minutes. I just need to be patient. Bonds take time. 

The universe sent me this dog, and I bet I’ll learn as many lessons from him as he learns from me.

Puppy plays tug of war with Maria and a lunker.

I know my mom was there that day in my neighbor’s yard. She knew I was going to need Bodie. My mom was always right. I hope months from now, when Bodie and I are inseparable, she’ll be back to check on us, when the hummingbirds return in the spring.