Riley's Life Lessons | The Loss of My Irish Setter and What He Taught Me

At 24 years old, I walked through Petco, bright eyed and excited, as I gathered all the necessary things we’d need for our new puppy: collars, leashes, toys, treats… I literally couldn’t get enough. I’d been wanting a dog for my entire life. To be planning to move in with my now husband and get a puppy, too? Gosh I was in heaven. 

A woman stopped me in the aisle, “Are you getting a puppy?” I honestly thought it was kind of an odd question. I mean, we were in Petco. It’s where you buy shit for pets, right? “Yeah, he’s coming home tomorrow.” She held eye contact with me with a somber grin and said, “I hope you know your life is never going to be the same. You’re forever going to be a different person because of that dog.” I stared into her eyes. I could tell it was coming from a place of pain, but I still thought it was weird and simply thanked her for her friendly comment and kept going. 

The thing, though, is this interaction has always stayed with me. Always. And I know it’s because I knew she was right and it scared me a little bit. 

It was 11 years ago that my husband and I had decided to do a little more research on the Irish Setter breed. He had always known he wanted one after falling in love with Setter friends when he was a boy. And he knew he wanted its name to be Riley. It was non-negotiable, even the spelling, ha. 

We found a breeder in our area and decided to meet her and talk with her. She had recently had a litter but all the puppies were gone except for two, one of which she was keeping. We walked into her home and she let the puppies in from out back. This 12 week old baby setter with massively long legs and big paws galloped clumsily into the kitchen and shoved his long ass snout into my face with big eyes bulging out of his head. My heart smiled in that moment. Oh, this dog. I needed to know him more, but we were only there to talk about the breed and learn of when she was planning her next litter. After all, we didn’t even live together yet as we were waiting for our house renovations to be done. 

We had a quiet hour drive home. It wasn’t feasible to get this dog. We had no place to keep him. We both lived with our parents. “Maybe my parents would be okay if we got him. We’ll be out of the house in 3 months. It’s only 3 months. We may as well ask.” So, that night, over dinner, we reluctantly asked if we could get a dog and they said yes. Yes! Oh my heart. We immediately called the breeder back and told her we were coming back. 

In 10 and a half years, this beautiful dog was a spoiled only child, he was the OG with our cat Grayson, he greeted every damn guest with his clumsy face, he traveled to countless states with us on camping trips, he stole a lot of food off of the counter and ripped apart a million of my purses, became a big brother to two human babies, lived in three different houses and was the center of so many antics that brought so much laughter. He was the most perfect dog; such an incredible companion. 

It was hard watching him grow older and see the puppy leave him. But then it was replaced with a stoic, regal old man who seemed to hold every answer to life. Whatever he said or did was with complete intention and confidence and I listened to every word. 

Holding him as he left this world, my soul shook and ached. I laid in that cage with him sobbing from the complete core of my being. This boy, this beautiful boy has been the only life I’ve known away from my childhood. 

In my grief, I’ve been so taken aback by the countless pieces of lessons he’s left me. They’ve always been in front of me, but I’m seeing them crystal clear through my tears. I’d be selfish to keep these lessons to myself. So, I will share them with you in hopes that Riley can touch and change your life, too. The very last lesson is one of the most important for me to truly encompass and understand. 


He was a unicorn of a dog. He was a bit of a dope; not the brightest. He fell a lot (oh how this aches as it ultimately is what took him from us), made silly noises in his setter chatter yet he was poised, and grounded and truly in touch with who he was. There was no pressure on him to look or be a certain way, he just was who he was and totally okay with it. He gave zero apologies for being a regal goofball.


This boy. He did not say or do anything without intent. He was not frivolous or flamboyant with his words or actions. When he asked for something, you listened. When he gave you affection, you stopped and you accepted it. He didn’t give this away readily and to anyone, only when it mattered most and someone truly needed it whether it was him or the receiver. 


It seems simple but as humans with work and social pressures, we are pulled away from what our body intrinsically needs. If you’re hungry, eat. If you’re not, don’t. If you’re tired, sleep. If you want to play, play (even if you’re 80 years old). If you’re sad, cry. If you don’t feel well, take the day off. If you want to move, go for a walk. It’s amazing to watch a dogs’ intuitive connection with what their bodily needs. And in the end, we asked him to tell us and he did. He knew and then so did we. And we have comfort in knowing this. There is heavy grief in missing him, but comfort in knowing that this was his decision. 


 Even on days he was hurting, not feeling well or there was nothing planned, he found joy somewhere in the day. In his mealtimes, in a simple hug, in our returns home from being out whether for the day or a few minutes, running free in the backyard, watching neighbors pass, walks…. boy did he love his walks… and his evening treats. He truly found moments of joy in every single day. 


This dog honestly had a lot to complain about. His pesky little puppy brother always bothering him, his human brother and sister nagging at him and climbing on him, his failing hind quarters that must have hurt miserably. He never, ever complained. He stayed stoic. He felt feelings, yes, don’t get me wrong, but he dealt with the hard stuff and handled it but without complaining. Following his injury, this sweet boy kept quiet, clearly in pain, but no complaining. As I held him on the floor, as I held him in the trunk on the way to the vet and as I held him on the table at the vet, he never complained. It’s heartbreaking, really, but what a thought. To acknowledge what life has given you, work through it and keep going. Complaining can be such a distraction, can’t it?


Period. Find the joy and need to move your body. Whether its a 5 minute walk around the block, a 2 mile run or a couple downward dogs ;), move your body. 


Riley was painfully loyal, like so many dogs. When my husband would leave the house out of routine, he would sadly wait at the window, watching and waiting for him. When my husband has been gone for long work trips, he’d take me to bed, but return downstairs to keep a close eye on the door. And when either of us arrived home, whether our trip was 10 minutes or 10 days, he sweetly greeted us with his happy, squinty eyes and begged for an ear rub. As humans, have we become too busy to be this loyal? We hardly notice when our family leaves or arrives back home. We are so caught up in what we’re doing, we have lost our ability to simply take the time to greet one another and be loyal. From now on, I’ll be especially mindful of this. 


I’ve never, in my life, seen a dog enjoy the outdoors in the way Riley did. Whether it was a blizzard, a massive fall rain or a sunset on the beach, he’d sit or lay, lift his face to the sky, be still and breath in the air. It was remarkable to watch and see. It’s so important to reconnect, especially in a world of electronics and constant indoor comforts. I hope to keep this part of him alive. 


This dog moved two times with us. He welcomed a cat, 2 babies and another dog. While every transition wasn’t perfectly smooth, he went with it and accepted it as his new normal. 


No matter what he did in life, he lead with love. He truly was one of the kindest souls I’ve ever met in a dog. While some may have perceived him as a push over, I saw him as a dog that held kind boundaries and spoke up when the boundaries were crossed. He never yelled, bit or lead with fear or anger. Always with love. It was so admirable. 


Until the end, he was up for exploration. For a trip. For a walk. To chase squirrels or explore something of which he was unsure. He was always ready to trust and experience what lied ahead. 


This is a big one. While Riley I say he was “perfect” he was perfectly imperfect. This sweet boy held some strong anxiety. Sitting by the window waiting for dad? Anxiety. The pacing and panting after our last move? Anxiety. Not being able to take him with us camping the first few years? Anxiety. He had it and he had it big. But you know what? Every bout of anxiety he had, we hugged him, loved him and did what we could to ensure him of this. And in the same token, he was fully capable of still loving us and getting through it. He sat with it, let it be what it needed to be and then he moved on. He didn’t get angry with himself or us, he didn’t let it consume him after it passed, he just let it be. It’s such a novel concept. And it brings the first rule completely full circle. 

Easily, I could sit and think about a million more things. But what it comes down to, is that if you truly watch your dog, you will learn so much about how to live your life. I know I have and will continue to from both Riley and our puppy Ronan who is now learning how to do life without him, too. 

Rest well, my sweet boy. I will miss your your floppy ears, sweet eyes and big paws. Truly… not being able to breath you in and wrap my arms around you every day is incredibly heartbreaking. Thank you for all of your love and lessons. You have been an angel of a soul in our lives and we feel remarkably blessed and better for having loved you.