Life’s Lessons Learned from my Leonberger

Wednesday morning our beloved 165 pound Leonberger joyfully woke me up wagging his tail and then bounded down the steps, ready for the new day. There is nothing like a pet, or a smiling baby, or child to bring you into the here and now.

We went downstairs for his breakfast, raw duck which he happily gobbled up. Dogs bring us unconditional love and are so grateful when we feed them. I’m grateful for the love I feel when I feed him too. When I got the leash to take him for a walk he jumped up and playfully pounced around like a puppy, so happy to be going on his morning walk.

It was a beautiful day and we walked our usual route around the neighborhood. The three of us felt calm and peaceful. He had his usual normal bowel movement. I always notice his elimination knowing how all health begins in the gut. 18 months ago, he had had bad psoriasis to the point of bleeding which we healed with the help of a holistic vet and a change in his already healthy diet. His first vet told us he would have to be on antibiotics and steroids for the rest of his life.  As a functionally trained health coach, I knew better.  

It took Simba about 6 months to heal, utilizing the 5 R’s of functional medicine, I’ve explained in other posts, that included some high-quality supplements and tweaking his diet. (This was challenging because my husband loved to give him junky treats. There are always temptations when we are trying to change our diets whether dog or human.) It was a hot day so he was panting some when we got home, but not more than usual so I kept him in the cool house with me the rest of the day with plenty of fresh filtered water.

A Leonberger is a dog originating from Leonberg Germany. The mayor wanted a dog mascot that looked like a lion. He was purposely bred from a St. Bernard, Newfoundland and a Pyrenean Mountain Dog. His biggest trait is that he wants to be in the middle of whatever family gathering is happening. He is the consummate family dog, a gentle giant with children and babies.

I always ask my new clients if they like dogs before our first appointment (if they are coming to my home office) to prepare them to meet my beautiful beast at the door.  I had this conversation around 4:15 looking at Simba on the cool tile floor next to me and my daughters small dog on the couch. Simba often comes into my office or my husbands around this time to tell us to wind down and get ready for his walk.  Not long after I hung up, I was writing a follow up email when Simba began to pant heavily. My first thought was he was hot so I turned up the AC and went to get him a few ice cubes. He had been in the house all morning so there really was no reason for this. He also had plenty of clean filtered water in his bowl.  When he refused the ice cubes I started to panic, called my neighbor for help and ran to get some treats. No response, very unusual. I knew I needed to get him immediate medical attention. Twice he tried to lift his head and it fell back hard to the floor. A few minutes later he was gone. I panicked. I was in shock and disbelief. By this time, Kevin had gathered two other neighborhood men and four of us carried him to my car so I could rush him to the hospital. I was hysterical. I didn’t want to believe that he could really be gone. That my perfectly healthy beautiful baby boy could be so happy and well one moment, and gone the next. He did not suffer, he was surrounded by those that loved him dearly, Kevin, Tracy and myself.

Devastated, I’ve spoken to several veterinarians, including the autopsy center. What went wrong? What could I have done differently yesterday? How could we have prevented this? It’s very hard not to have these feelings of guilt and responsibility when our beloved pass. In our grief, it is hard not to want to apply blame. If only….what if…? 

We ruled out almost everything. My vet with 25 years of emergency room experience told me that for a sudden death in an otherwise healthy animal it was most likely a heart attack or a hemangiosarcoma near his heart. He had no fluid in his abdomen, nor history of any sarcomas. Simba was beautiful. He had just been groomed two weeks ago and his coat and skin were as beautiful as always. He was the picture of health, with vibrant sparkle in his puppy eyes. It makes no sense to me. In my grieving, I’ve tried to figure out what went wrong, what could I have done differently and what message does his passing give to us?

So I think it is important today to talk today about the #1 killer in the U.S. Heart disease. I’ve written a lot about cancer as a chronic disease but heart disease is called the silent killer for this reason.  Most don’t know that I’ve suffered from heart disease. I don’t look like someone with a cardiac condition. I look like the picture of health. But so did my beautiful Simba.

What we don’t know can and will kill us. It’s the hidden stressors that create chronic disease. Last week I wrote a paper for an upcoming workshop I’ll be giving in June on Befriending Cancer and Chronic Disease Prevention, and Anti-Aging Strategies. (Yes, they are all the same.)

What I’m passionate about is, how do we prevent these tragedies? How do we assess for hidden stressors? Sometimes we can, and sometimes we can’t.

When I went to my cardiologist two years ago he told me, “Face it Lisa, everyone will need to be on hypertensive meds when they get older.”  I said, “No, I want to know why I have high blood pressure.  Is it mental emotional, is it stress, is it dysbiosis, h-pylori, food sensitivities, intestinal permeability? What are the hidden stressors that I’m not addressing?

I’ve uncovered all of them. Yes, I had h-pylori and intestinal permeability leading to food sensitivities. Yes, I had mental emotional stress. Did I need to change jobs? Do I need to work in an environment where there is more collaboration and cohesiveness? Yes, yes, and yes. All of this makes a major difference.

Pay attention to all the messages your body is giving you.

The day before, when it started to get warm, Simba was panting heavily so we only took ½ our normal walk. Yesterday, he seemed to be tolerating it well. I don’t know if I could have done anything differently or made a difference or not.

I do know that we gave him lots of love and attention and we gave him a very good life. He will remain in our hearts as the big gentle giant. He was the King of the neighborhood. He helped to keep us grounded and disciplined. He forced us to take multiple daily walks. He was warm, kind and generous in his affection. He offered unconditional love. What better role model is that?

He’s prompted me not to take for granted my own health. To call my health insurance to get that sleep study that I’ve been putting off for over a month. To follow up with the cardiologist that I’ve been procrastinating because I don’t want him to put me back on medication. To not take anyone for granted and to live each day to its fullest.

This lifetime is precious. What legacy do you want to leave behind? How can you live each day to its fullest? How can you live each day on purpose?

Thank you Simba for your unconditional love and for these precious reminders. You will forever live on in my heart.

With Love & Gratitude,


About Lisa Jackson, RN, CHC, RYT-500, FDN

Lisa is an author, inspirational speaker and a coach with a mission to inspire others to feel and look their best at any age.

She is the former Executive Director of the Integrative Wellness Program for the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders.

Lisa’s book, Savvy Secrets: Eat, Think and Thrive outlines her seven-step process towards optimal health that is fun and transformational.

Lisa is part of the New Self Health Movement and the Wellness Inspired Network. When she is not coaching, speaking or writing, you can find her practicing yoga and joyfully sharing Carpe Diem Dance.

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