Belroyale’s Gettysburg Saber (a.k.a. Saber)

July 4, 2006 – November 2, 2020

Saber as a puppy.
Saber as a puppy – green boy.

Born on the Fourth of July, Saber was part of the “patriotic litter.” Since I’ve written Civil War fiction and nonfiction, you can imagine how he got his name, plus the Battle of Gettysburg ended on July 3 in 1863. There is also one other influence. I had written a ghost story called Whispers from the Grave. While I don’t place dogs in my books for the sake of adding them, in this particular story a Belgian sheepdog fit the plot, and his name was… you guessed it, Saber. In the first book, Saber behaved more like our previous Belgian, Magic, but by the time I wrote the sequel, Whispers Through Time, our Saber had arrived, and as you might expect, the dog in the book took on the personality of our loving boy.

Upon Saber’s arrival at eight-weeks old, he had two big sisters, a Lab/mastiff mix, Isabella, and a Belgian Tervuren, Masque. From the start, Saber loved barking at Isabella. Izzy, or as she was more frequently called, Moose, had been like a mother to the other puppies that had entered the house, but when Saber arrived she was elderly (twelve years old) and basically made it known with a loud woof that she had already done her share of taking care of puppies. At the same time, Saber managed to get her to play on a couple of occasions.

While Masque and Saber frequently played, she really showed her big sister relationship when he first arrived. We crated him at night in our bedroom until he was house trained. Of course, in the beginning he was lonely from having been separated from his original pack and cried. Masque would give a big sister growl, and Saber immediately quieted down. Their relationship was a short one because Masque returned to her breeder (long story–not relevant to Saber’s) soon after his arrival.

Right from the start, Saber enjoyed walks, hikes, and Frisbee. After losing our previous Belgians, Magic and Mystic, Saber made me really laugh. On our walks, he loved picking up sticks, scrambling through fall leaves, and splashing through puddles. He grabbed beer cans as well, and we joked that Bud Light was his favorite beer.

Shortly after he arrived, he pawed at his mouth like he had something caught in his throat. I couldn’t see anything, so called my vet. Upon examination, the vet couldn’t find anything either, so he looked down his throat for an obstruction. Then, he found it. A small stick had lodged in the roof of Saber’s mouth. As it turned out, because of his love for sticks, that wouldn’t be the only time it happened, but from there on out I knew where to look first.

Sinead’s drawing of Saber

When we went hiking, Saber frequently gave people a scare. No, not because he was aggressive toward them, but because they thought he was a bear. Before he was a year old, Pat’s family came to visit from Ireland. He was a hit with the kids. We showed the family a lot of the wonderful historic and scenic places in the area, and Saber came along too. The kids loved him so much they drew pictures of him.

Later on, he had another adventure when we went to see a friend in New Jersey. At the time, she had greyhounds, one of which was weak and elderly. For those who don’t know the breed, greyhounds live to run. Saber was thrilled by the chase, making it a fun game. After the visit, I got a phone call from my friend, saying Saber’s enthusiasm had sparked enjoyment into her dogs for the first time since the elder one had fallen ill. To top it off, Saber had traveled well.

Saber playing his favorite game

In June 2007, we lost Isabella. At thirteen, her heart had given out to cardiac hemangiosarcoma. Saber missed his big sister. Meanwhile, he improved his Frisbee game. He could catch one almost under any circumstances. He lived for it and kept his attitude about playing the game throughout his life. But he was a natural retriever, which is not a characteristic necessarily common to Belgians. One time, I threw an ice cube into his water. The next thing I knew, I heard bubbles, since he went to retrieve it. He also loved his stuffed hedgehog and toy squirrels that he could pull out of their tree.

Saber hiking up Humpback Rocks Trail

In December, Phoebe joined the pack. After bringing her home, she tried to suckle Saber. He looked at me as if saying, “What in the heck is she doing?” Otherwise, they acted like brother and sister. They loved one another, but did not hesitate to snark at each other either. They played, and like Saber, Phoebe enjoyed games of Frisbee. Not on the same level as Saber, but she was much faster, and they would often play tug, when she grabbed one from him. She also loved joining us on our walks and hikes. During the winter, they were thrilled to romp through the snow. Such a thing never stopped Saber, as he still needed his Frisbee games. We got a lot of snow at the end of 2009 and in early 2010. Saber loved it. As far as he was concerned, it made playing Frisbee more fun.

Saber loved playing frisbee in the snow (or anytime)
Saber and Phoebe

After Phoebe joined us, Saber started to consistently sleep on the bed. He enjoyed using me as a pillow, plus he kept me warm in the winter. Unlike Phoebe, Saber enjoyed being hugged at least by those in the household. To strangers, he had the appropriate Belgian temperament as he was outgoing as a puppy, then became aloof, but not shy. As soon as he got to know someone and decided that he loved them, he would rub up against them like a cat. He enjoyed hiking on the trails of the many beautiful places we have in Virginia, which includes the Civil War battlefields and Shenandoah National Park.

On one occasion, Saber took the time to write a blog for me. It’s something every dog-loving author should experience at least once. Saber did a wonderful job. Here’s the link for his famous writing adventure.

In June 2012, we set off on an adventure to the North Carolina mountains. Saber had great fun with the hikes, and we got his and Phoebe’s photo taken on top of Mount Mitchell. On the way home from the trip, we traveled the Blue Ridge Parkway and took more wonderful hikes that both of the dogs enjoyed. Throughout the years, one consistency Saber had was that he almost always smiled in his photos. He was a happy dog. In fact, he was so consistent with his smile that we taught him a “vicious grin” and joked how he scared me.

Saber enjoying a friend’s field

Early in 2017, we learned that Phoebe had kidney failure. Throughout her illness, Saber was a trooper. When we walked he usually slowed, since she could no longer keep a fast pace. As time went on she got weaker, until I had to walk them separately. Then, near the end of September, we lost her. As a result, Saber got isolation anxiety. It was almost like Phoebe suddenly hadn’t returned one day, and he thought the same might happen to the rest of us.

Throughout our grieving, I worried that I might lose Saber too. Although I know he missed Phoebe as well, he seemed to enjoy having our total attention. Because I wasn’t walking two dogs separately, I had more time to take him longer distances and more places. He was thrilled by the variety. On one occasion, we hiked at the Chancellorsville Battlefield. Leaves were on the ground and covered the trail. At times, we found it difficult to figure out which way the trail went. Saber led the way and did an excellent job guiding us through the problematic parts.

About a year after Phoebe’s death, the area around our usual stomping ground changed. A horse rescue moved into the area. We frequently got to speak to the volunteers, which Saber enjoyed. In fact, one of the men dubbed him “Killer.” Of course, we all laughed because Saber was so laid back for a Belgian. The added thrill was that he got some close encounters with the horses. It wasn’t uncommon for him to be nose-to-nose through the fence with some of the regulars.

Saber with a big stick

We also frequently met up with a friend and walked with her. One time when she hadn’t joined us, Saber picked up a stick, carried it up a hill, and placed it beside her mailbox. I texted her, so she would know that he had left her a gift, to which she was pleased. The stick remained in the same place for months afterward.

Around this same time, Saber started throwing up. At first it didn’t seem serious, but then it became frequent enough to seek out the vet. I feared the worst since stomach cancer is fairly common in Belgians. Saber’s blood results were mostly normal. He stressed just going to the vet, so I refused putting him through an endoscopy. After what our previous Belgian, Magic, had gone through, I didn’t want another dog to suffer in the same way. Instead, with my vet’s guidance, we took a holistic route through diet (in his case, grain-free Honest Kitchen and a few others worked wonders) and using slippery elm. He vomited only occasionally afterward. As time went on, he also became arthritic. Throughout his remaining years, CBD oil and turmeric golden paste worked wonders.

Little Bear (L) and Saber (R) on the railway trail

In October 2019, Little Bear joined the household. He’s a great, great, great (not sure how many greats) nephew of Saber’s. I held my breath as I was uncertain how Saber would react to a puppy around the house again. At first, he was like “okay, there’s another dog here. As long as I get my Frisbee games, I don’t care.” He corrected Little Bear like a big brother, but never in an out-of-line manner. Then, it finally happened. They began to play. At thirteen, I never thought I’d see Saber play again. He ruled the roost, so they only played under his conditions, which included only in the darkest part of the house. As a result, I never got a truly decent picture of them having fun together.

In March 2020, I added coconut oil to Saber’s supplements. He stopped vomiting entirely, and I was able to quit giving him the slippery elm. As time went on he got slower on his walks, but he still enjoyed them. At one point, I had to start walking the boys separately because Saber could no longer keep up. At first, I started to hear from the people where I walk the dogs inquiring as to what had happened to Saber. They were relieved, and in fact, when Pat could walk with me as well, we walked the boys together again.

Saber enjoying a walk

Although Saber had slowed down, he never stopped loving life. In early October, he had his well check. Except for his arthritis, he was doing well. He enjoyed walking a few miles each day, hikes, Frisbee, and sticks. He no longer chased a Frisbee. Instead, I threw it to him, which he could still catch and gave woofs of enjoyment. After all, he had reached fourteen and a quarter. Before the end of Daylight Savings time, I was able to continue to walk the boys separately in the morning, then Pat could walk with us in the evening just before it got dark.

On the day the time changed, Pat and I had planned on taking a nice long walk in the morning. Rain interfered with that idea, so the walk got shortened. Later in the day, the sun came out. We took a longer afternoon walk than usual to make up for it. Saber loved it. We explored an area that he hadn’t been to in awhile. Although he had slowed over the months, he gave no sign of being off. He even played with Little Bear that day and ate normally.

The next morning on November 2, Saber was unable to stand. He drank some water when I held the bowl for him, but he had no appetite. For a Belgian, Saber was stubborn, and from the beginning, I had felt that when his time came, he would be quick. Deep down, I knew that time had come. The biggest difficulty was Covid. Vet appointments were tough enough to get during the pandemic, and I was not going to be separated from my boy, if I had to make the final call.

Still early in the morning, I decided to take Little Bear for his walk and make phone calls afterward. Since Pat was working from home, he stayed with Saber to let me know if there was any change before I returned. By the time Little Bear and I returned, there was no change. Saber didn’t seem to be in pain–just totally out of it. I believe his organs were shutting down.

After a few calls, I made arrangements with a vet I hadn’t seen in a few years. She had gone to work with an emergency clinic, but had recently returned to private practice. Ironically, it was the same clinic where we had lost Saber’s predecessor, Magic. When it came time to take Saber to his appointment, Pat said his goodbyes. Initially, he had wanted to come with me, but I thought it was best that he stay with Little Bear. He had to carry Saber to the van because he couldn’t walk, so he gave him one more goodbye.

Along the way, I stopped at the friend’s place where Saber had left his stick because she also wanted to say goodbye. Then, I drove to the veterinary clinic. Because of Covid, I had to call from the parking lot that I had arrived. Helpers came out to carry Saber in, since he couldn’t walk on his own. We were all masked. Even though it had been a few years, the vet remembered Saber. She recalled Phoebe as well. In any case, Saber was too out of it to be stressed by the visit. I hugged and petted him until he was gone. The vet shared her tears with me as we talked about his life and how happy he had seemed to be the day before.

The day after Saber’s passing, Little Bear caught a Frisbee in his honor. Not a natural retriever, he doesn’t play the game like his big brother did. Then, 2 1/2 weeks afterward, when Little Bear and I were out in the yard playing, a heron flew near us. I felt it was a sign. After he had been gone three weeks, Pat and I took a hike with Little Bear at a place that Saber loved. We saw a bald eagle, which I thought was a fitting tribute.

Occasionally, I still feel Saber’s presence, especially on our bed where he used to sleep. I often have visions of him hanging his head off the couch, sound asleep with his tongue hanging out. It’s the way he commonly slept. In my heart, I know he plays Frisbee like he hadn’t in a long time, and barks at Phoebe and Isabella. RIP, Dude. We miss you.