Episode 45: A Tribute to Sully and a Lesson in Grief

Marissa MartinoPaws & Reward Podcast

Join Marissa Martino in this bonus episode where she talks about her experience with grief as she says goodbye to her best friend of 13.5 years, Sully. This episode is a tribute to the lessons he taught her (even at the last moment) and their special relationship. Marissa hopes all pet parents will find solace and comfort through her words. Sharing our lives with dogs is such a beautiful gift and we can all agree that there isn’t enough time.

Living with dogs is truly an honor that most take for granted. Dogs do not look at us through the societal lens the same way others do. They are there to gently teach us so many lessons, such as how to listen deeply, being still instead of doing, getting out in nature to heal our minds, bodies, and spirits, and the importance of meeting our needs on a daily basis. 

Sully has impacted me in so many ways, they are countless. He is the muse behind everything I have done in my career and he has taught me a great deal about the dynamic of relationships with all loved ones. 

In a culture that doesn’t celebrate aging and turns away from death and grief, I think it’s important to discuss just how losing a dog IS losing a loved one. Period, end of story. It’s painful as shit! For those of you that are experiencing grief around your dog in any capacity, I see you. 


Grief is tricky! There are so many conflicting emotions that exist at the same time. Which is another beautiful reminder that many paradoxical emotions or experiences can exist at the same time. Neither is wrong or right. This life is full of gray, full of color, and very little black and white. 

I have been feeling grief about Sully’s death for many years now and am grateful that I got to share my life with this beautiful soul for 13.5 years. Not bad for an 80 pound shelter mutt from Kansas. The emotions I have felt during this time include:

  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Despair

Conflicting emotions

However, on the flip side, I felt relief, knowing that this period was coming to an end. Relief for both of us. Relief from his physical suffering and relief from my emotional suffering. Watching your dog age is hard. I also had feelings of frustration when he was moving too slow and I needed to be somewhere. Or worried while assisting him up the stairs. 

I also found myself daydreaming of hiking with my next dog, discussing certain breeds with colleagues, and excited for that time. Feelings of shame would rush in, telling me I was horrible and wrong for thinking these thoughts. And, anyone that knows a thing or two about shame, it never helps the situation. 

Looking in the mirror

At the same time I was processing Sully’s aging and death, I had also been working with my coach, noticing a lot of ongoing controlling patterns I had to escape or avoid feelings of discomfort. That is a very confronting thing to notice in yourself. Especially if you identify as a LIMA behavior consultant with dogs and yet have a hard time generalizing those skills to other areas and relationships in my life. I mean I try…..and as you know, life happens and I revert back to behaviors that are more fluent and generously reinforced!! 

In my professional world, I get paid to help people control the environment to achieve the behavior and outcomes that they want from their dogs. We all get reinforced by this power. Change the antecedents, change the behavior.

However, in my personal life, I was exploring the idea that maybe we don’t have control at all and what if the answer is to feel and breathe our way through it instead of reacting to change everything and everyone for that moment of sweet relief. I mean I get it, we all want relief but what if the addiction to relief perpetuates our desire to control? I’m not arguing with behavior principles. I am just curious how sometimes maybe the behavior is to DO nothing, pause, feel, and breathe. 

How do I stop grief?!

Cue grief….I mean how do you arrange the environment or try to control grief? It’s coming whether you like it or not. I am sure people try their damnedest to control it and others for that matter, but that feels like someone trying to hold back a tsunami with a modest dam. 

Grief asks me to stay. It asks me to sit with her, to feel everything, knowing that it will pass. The same way that happiness, excitement, and joy passes, so does grief. Nothing stays forever, both the good and the bad, nothing stays forever. That is a hard lesson for this optimist to wrap her head around. 

And yet, I’m doing it. I’m noticing the resistance. I’m noticing it when I want to look away when Sully seems to struggle while walking, or do something else to prevent me from crying. Instead of moving away, I lean towards the grief with skepticism and fear, holding my breath and I wait. And, just like that, it washes over me, I come up for air, and I survive. And, I’m astonished. I’m relieved, which is ironic since that is what I longed for in the first place. I met grief and I did not wither away. In fact, I feel stronger.   

And, Sully, my dear boy, I have spent a lifetime of leaning away in the most subtle of ways. For how self-aware I think I am, even I wasn’t privy to this pattern, but through your aging process, the heaviness of it all, and your death, you have given me the greatest gift of staying.  

The lessons Sully taught me

And, that is definitely not the only lesson you have given me! 

The first lesson you taught me was right out the gate. You have always been my mirror if I was brave enough to look. I will never forget the day when Sully started barking and lunging in the park near my home. It was a very early morning before work. I had taken him for a long walk and ended up in the park near my home in Boulder. While there, he started barking and lunging at another dog. Then a bus that passed by. Then a jogger. I was 2 years into studying dog behavior and had worked with countless clients and shelter dogs.

However, I was frozen at that moment, unsure of what to do with his behavior since he was MY dog. I was frustrated, embarrassed, and wanted to run from this discomfort. And, like all people when they’re over threshold and faced with discomfort, we either blame ourselves or the other and on that day I chose to do a little bit of both.

This is the very story in the Introduction to my book Human-canine behavior Connection and the beginning of my Ignite Boulder talk I presented several years ago. This moment in time is when it all began and it will forever be etched in my memory. 

What I will miss the most

Sully has been through a lot with me like all dogs do as they share their lives with us. He has lived in CO twice and CA once. He has been through many heartaches, many exciting moments, and shared many, many, many trails with me. As he got older, it was heartbreaking not to hike with him since that is how we spent most of our time together. In parallel, in nature. Being in parallel with dogs in nature is probably my favorite part of being a human. 

Some of my fondest memories of Sully include:

  • Our many hikes….from daily hikes in Boulder to hiking 14ers in the Rocky Mountains. Some 14ers included bushwhacking through ungroomed trails and rolling on the small patches of snow at 13,500 feet. We went on so many hikes in CA, from rock climbing crags, to beach trails (our favorites were in Pacifica), to our solo backpacking and camping trips to Mendocino and Big Sur. And, lastly, I loved our several trips to my favorite place in CO…Telluride!
  • I’ll miss driving him to trailheads and his level of excitement when he realizes where we are.
  • I love his playful nature. From digging any chance he can get, to playing with his stuffies and his favorite squeaking ball, to chasing me in the driveway every time we walk back inside, to running through my legs when I run ahead of him. 
  • His level of confidence and certainty. He knows what he wants and goes for it. He’s not afraid to express a boundary and he doesn’t care what you think. 
  • I love when he kicks his feet when he’s sleeping, does a slight stretch, maybe moves his paw an inch at times, and lifts his head when I walk in the room. 
  • I love the sound of his breathing and snoring when he’s sleeping. 
  • I’ll miss his level of excitement when it snowed. He loved rolling and romping in the snow, even at 13!! 
  • Even though I would get frustrated at times, I will miss his desire to just walk, and walk, and walk. Oh, and, walk. He walked for over an hour on his last day with us, sniffing and exploring. He never wanted to come inside and there was always something to check out. 
  • I’ll miss his sweet, sweet, sweet face. Those brown eyes that looked like they never aged a day. That silver chin and his anticipatory look.
  • I love when he would step closer for additional petting and when he would lean his head into my chest.
  • I’ll miss his excitement during training sessions and nosework. He loved learning and especially when chicken was involved! 
  • I’ll miss his cute paws, the hair that always shed, his snuggles on the bed, the way he looked at me when I stopped petting him, his lanky legs, and that thick, thick neck. 
  • I’m grateful for his resilience. We moved so many times and he handled each of them like a champ. I’m grateful for his flexibility and go-with-the-flow attitude. 
  • I’ll miss just having him next to me while I am working at the desk. His daily presence next to me, just coexisting, is the hole I dread the most. 
  • And, I’ll surely miss the top of his velvet head where he allowed me to give him sweet kisses all the time.

Sully was an independent dog. He approached when he wanted to. Asked for petting when he saw fit. And, engaged with his world on his terms. There were many times people called him a lab and all I saw and experienced was the Pyrnees. 

Because of his “aloofness” at times, I made up a story that I wasn’t enough for him. That I didn’t do enough to make him happy. Especially towards the end as he felt more uncomfortable. Of course, I made it all about me instead of not taking it personally. Another sweet reminder for my journey in all relationships.  

My dearest friend sent me a meme when she heard I had made the decision to say goodbye to Sully. It reads: 

A legend says: When a human dies, there is a bridge they must cross to enter into heaven. At the head of the bridge waits every animal that the human encountered during their lifetime. The animals, based on what they know of this person, decide which humans may cross the bridge…and which are turned away. That would be karma at its finest. 

I was on my way home from the lake with Sully (one of my last days with him) when I got this text. I pulled over to read it and burst into tears. Maybe Sully didn’t think I wasn’t enough, maybe he was just okay with not needing me as much since he knew so many other shelter animals needed my support, given my animal welfare career. Maybe he knew they also needed a part of my heart and was okay sharing me. Maybe I was enough for him after all. Maybe he approached me enough, leaned into petting enough and my love was enough.

What is enough?

And, as I reflected on being enough, I couldn’t help but interrupt this moment of self-kindness with doubt by saying that I could have done more, spent more time with him, been more present……blah, blah, blah.

And, then for the first time in a long time, I stopped myself and offered myself the grace Sully did every day and told myself, Marissa, you are a flawed human being, you have always been and you will always will be no matter how much you grow and learn, no matter what you do or don’t do with your next dog, you will always make mistakes and that’s okay.

And, after sitting with this notion the last few days and reflecting back on the amazing 13 years I spent with this beautiful soul, I realized, Goddammit, Marissa, you are MORE THAN ENOUGH. And, that was the greatest gift he could have given my doubtful soul.

Thank you Sully for reminding me that grace is not an option but required during this complex, layered life we live. To everyone listening, please take a moment to honor Sully. To honor your dogs (both living and deceased) and most importantly honor yourself.

Goodbye, my dear friend.

I will miss you forever. 

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