Dear friends, this week we have had our hearts opened by a noble and amazing spirit. Yes, this week, we have had our hearts broken by a 22-pound Sheltie named Leo. Does opening the heart require breaking? It may be so.

Leo was a remarkable dog with many roles to play. He was occasionally the host at the Ark Restaurant and Bakery, where his picture if not his actual four-legged self, greeted visitors and locals alike. He showed members of the human species a generosity of spirit and good-naturedness that was impossible to miss. 

On the beach, he was equally at home as host-dog, keeping an eye out for canines new to the region and moving into gentlemanly mode when he spotted another member of his tribe even many yards down the sands. He stood confident and poised as they approached — pitbulls, dobies or little terriers — and greeted all-comers equally, never raising his voice or asserting himself too rambunctiously. 

He simply made contact, gently conveyed the rules of the game — with perhaps a little warning about high surf — and waited patiently to see what would come next: a game of chase or a run-about in the dunes? Or maybe it would be a discreet session of reconnaissance sniffing to determine the lay of the land and his guest’s near-past adventures.

In most cases, Leo left the actions following first-contact in the hands of the arriving guest, as it should be.

Discriminating Taste

Whereas Leo was an equal-opportunity host — greeting all fairly no matter what color, condition, size or language spoken — his taste in matters of the kitchen was refined and discriminating. He made recommendations, often posted in the Ark bakery, regarding his daily favorites in the pastry case. We discovered early in his career that his pet name for Jimella Lucas, pioneer Northwest cuisine chef, was “filet” although, of course, spring salmon was also accepted.

Many was the time when the chef herself would bring Leo an exquisitely prepared and presented offering from the Ark kitchen to be savored in the office — Leo’s version of the “chef’s table.”

Leo also invented and patented “The Laser Look” which was delivered to whomever was the weakest link at the table. Inevitably, any newcomer invited to join in the always-burgeoning Thanksgiving Day feast, would feel suddenly twitchy and looking down would see Leo sitting, ever politely, but fastening his two gorgeous brown eyes longingly on a pile of turkey. Obviously starving, Leo and his look often accomplished its goal before even the salad course was served.

Near the end of his life, he turned to eating raw meat with gusto — a particular favorite was buffalo — but he did not eschew the benefits of burdock root (good for cleansing the kidneys), carrots, spinach, kale, chard and asparagus. Leo was nothing if not well-balanced.

His last meal was bite-sized pieces of a beautifully woven braid of dill bread, freshly baked. (Carbs fill the stomach and are easier on the digestive system — the classic comfort food.)

A Prince Among Dogs

Looking back, it is no surprise that Leo had such a regal spirit. His name, of course means “Lion” and not only was his last name Main, but he had a magnificent tri-color mane. He was headed for the show ring until an abscessed tooth took him out of contention. Ironically, although Leo accepted all quirks and idiosyncrasies in his fellow beings, the life of a show dog includes no such laissez-faire attitude. (The ring is an exacting place where one misaligned tooth or a too-fluffy tail spells doom.)

Despite that rebel tooth, since removed, Leo retained his stately bearing and a disposition that would surely have put him in the winner’s circle — he was in our blue-ribbon club from the moment we met him.

There were several times when Leo was, in fact, truly a prince among dogs. During one Ark Halloween when his mistress dressed as Sleeping Beauty’s Wicked Stepmother complete with poisoned apple, Leo emerged as the be-robed prince, destined to kiss away the evil “double, double toil and trouble” sleep and bring his princess back to life.

Many will remember him in his red, white and blue Uncle Sam costume as part of the Fourth of July Parade in Ocean Park. Leo also starred in a sequence of Christmas cards over the years — sometimes with reindeer horns, sometimes with bells, once with a Peace sign. (Leo was definitively liberal-leaning.) In fact, he was pleased to pose for any special event photo shoot — birthday, graduation, Bouillabaisse party — and had a range of outfits to select from.

An avid traveler, Leo could be seen at Eel Lake, south of the Umpqua River; in the Napa Valley, with a bottle of wine; in his red Saab, with Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox just over his shoulder; or camping at his favorite spot at Cape “D.”

In recent years, though his muzzle turned a little blonder — or was it whiter? — in step with all of us heading to our grey-haired years, he slowed slightly, gearing up for his turbo-run on the beach a little less often. 

Does the spirit go?

Leo became a spirit guide late last week. He was officially the first (and likely the last) dog ever to participate in a vision quest sponsored by the King County 4-H on Colockum Ridge just above Ellensburg during one particularly hot summer several years ago. 

Although in a moment of pique, he did attempt to eat his guardian’s totem spirit — a black butterfly — he nonetheless graduated with honors with the rest of his cohort; so his training was complete.

His loyalty and stamina will long be remembered by the devoted caregivers Catherine and Ed Ketel and their helpers at the Oceanside Hospital. Long beyond when most dogs would have departed for calmer shores, he stayed — with their help — to keep his human guardian safe until he was released from his earthly duties.

One moment resting quietly, and the next gone, Leo stepped into the spirit world with courage and grace. 

We stopped to ask ourselves, “Where does the spirit really go?” The European cathedrals, especially Notre Dame de Reims, with their towering archways and stained glass windows are meant to lift our eyes to the heavens. But I feel that Leo is already making his rounds in the garden. It’s just easier now for him to get around to visit all his far-flung friends.

He was a teacher so uncommonly self-effacing that I’m sure he didn’t know how much we learned from him. One of our human kind has tried to put these lessons into words for us and for all our unspeaking canines who nevertheless communicate so well.

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