One and a half years ago, my heart dog, Digger, passed away. He was 14. I have never written about him since his passing, as I never seem to find the right words, the right time, the courage to relive the pain of his passing.

I was there at the end of his life. I took a redeye home to Wisconsin in order to hold him as he was put to sleep in the grass outside his vet’s office. It gave me great comfort to know that I was able to be there with him until the end, but seeing him slip away in front of my eyes still causes me tears.

I took his collar with me upon leaving the vet’s office, and it has been at my side since. I’ve held it after horrible days, taken it with me on long flights to help me with my fear of flying, and had it by my side last week as I took my final exam for the Academy for Dog Trainers. (It was Digger, after all, that made my career as a dog trainer possible by awakening in me a deep affection and curiosity for the species).

Digger was an indescribably loving, mischievous companion. When we brought him home as a 6-week-old puppy, I cradled him in my arms most of the night. From then on, we were inseparable. I’d like to think we still are, as cosmic as that may sound.

Digger reinvigorated my life. He got me outside at a time when I was struggling with asthma and anxiety. I now had a reason to go on long walks and hikes, building my lung capacity and confidence, with him always trotting beside me. When I became very ill with hepatitis in college, he sat by my bedside every day. When I felt scared during that time, I would get down on the floor and wrap my arms around him, feeling indescribable comfort.

Christmas was a special time for Digger. Living in Wisconsin, we often had snow, and I would spend my vacation running through the backyard, kicking up snow and playing tug with his leash. We called it the “snow game.” He sat by the oven while the turkey slowly roasted, refusing to leave his guard post until some leftovers were safely in his food dish. It was the one time of year he was allowed in the living room, and would sleep peacefully by the fireplace and the Christmas tree, relishing in this special event as only a dog could. When I no longer lived at home and returned only for the holiday, I would close my eyes during this time and think of how blissful life would be if I could spend every day with him, beside a warm hearth, at peace.

As I write this, I am sitting by my Christmas tree in San Francisco, with my current dog, Earl, on my lap. I’m listening to a Christmas CD I often listened to with Digger during his sanctioned snoozes in the living room of my parents’ house. Closing my eyes, the memories and love of Digger bring me happiness and pain. Happiness from all the love he and I shared, and pain because he is no longer with me.

Any tribute I write to this wonderful creature will be woefully inadequate. I have neither the verbal prowess nor enough space on the page to fully describe how much he meant, and still means, to me. But Christmas seems the most appropriate time to publicly remember him, that magical day he was allowed to sleep at the hearth, eat turkey and have all his family in one place.

As I whispered in his ear before being put to sleep, “I will love you always, Digger.”

– Maureen Backman, MS, CTC

Maureen is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. You can contact her at muttabouttownsf@gmail.com.