Tribute to a very special dog | State College pet photographer

Today would have been her 14th birthday. For 9 1/2 years, she was my best friend. My first dog. And my inspiration for becoming a pet photographer. Her name was Mika and she was arguably the best dog who ever lived! 

I didn’t grow up with dogs, but I always knew I wanted one. When I started a pet sitting service in my early 20s, I didn’t have any extra money for a dog. Then my business took off and I had money, but no time. But I got to play with other people’s dogs every day, which was the next best thing. Owning a dog versus caring for someone else’s is not quite the same thing. So when I was finally ready to share my life with a dog, I prepared by reading lots of books on dog training, dog behavior, bringing puppy home, housebreaking and so on. I shopped for toys, leashes, collars, crates and food. I pretended I had a puppy and had to go home to let her out...often...throughout the day. Overall, I was probably the most prepared dog “mom” out there! But I was also very, very nervous. 

And so Mika came into my life. Without a question, one of the best things that ever happened to me! We bonded right away. She came to work with me and we went on many adventures together. We hiked, we played with my friends’ dogs, and when I traveled, she came with me as much as possible. I took her to puppy class, obedience class and then agility class. We competed in obedience and agility and she earned many titles. She was smart, sweet, loving, friendly, well-behaved, all the things you would expect a dog to be. We created a nice life together. She was there for me for my first dates, the breakups, when I bought my first house, and eventually met my husband. I always believed she would live forever. But realistically hoped she’d live until she was 12, 13 or even 14 years old.

But 3 days after her 9th birthday, she collapsed. There were no warning signs prior to her passing out, nor in the days or weeks before. We rushed her to the emergency hospital and within 5 minutes they had a pre-diagnosis...cancer. That “c” word no one ever wants to hear. I remember asking, but how? She’s so healthy. She walked into the hospital even though she was weak just an hour before. She wagged her tail when the staff came out to meet us. Nothing indicated this was a sick dog. Nothing.

We were told this is not uncommon. Dogs don’t show signs of being sick until things are bad. There was probably nothing we could have done to prevent it or to even see it coming. We just have to decide where to go from here. 

Our choice was to do surgery or she would surely die. Mika was bleeding to death. Her spleen had ruptured. It was very possible that if she did have cancer, it had spread to many of her other organs. I knew that day wasn’t Mika’s day to die. We agreed to do the surgery and the vet said aside from the bleeding, everything looked good. Days later, a biopsy of her spleen confirmed she did have cancer. We brought her home and promised to fight for her life.

We were fortunate to be living just outside of Philadelphia, only a few minutes drive from the University of Pennsylvania. Penn was conducting a study on the type of cancer Mika had, hemangiosarcoma, a cancer of the blood. They would pay for the cost of the chemo and some of the blood work, we would pay for everything else. So we enrolled her. She did great. Most dogs who have this type of cancer live for just weeks, maybe a month or two. I was determined Mika would be the exception. That summer, I spent many afternoons in the waiting room while she got her treatments. When the chemo was finished, her team of doctors said she was cancer free. But that didn’t mean it wouldn’t come back. We hoped and prayed for the best.

I never dreamed I’d be at this place when Mika was just 9 years old. Yes, she’d had a long life (for a dog) so far. But I felt there should be more. I’d taken photos of her, but realized I didn’t have that many. So I promised myself I would take a photo of her every day. Just in case. I photographed her at local parks, with my husband, and he photographed her with me. Every adventure we went on, we brought the camera along. And I accumulated hundreds of images. Her fur was shaved from the surgery, and when it grew back in, I retook photos of her in the same parks. I can’t tell you how grateful I am that I did all of this. Some of those shots are the most treasured ones to this day.

I have always been interested in photography. In junior high and high school, I took every photography course offered. After college, just like having a dog in my life, there was a period when I had time, but no money. Then when I had money, I had no time. But after I got married and moved to the Philadelphia area, I finally had the opportunity to pursue this passion. I bought my first DSLR, enrolled in a photography class, then another and another. I joined a photography club, went on field trips and attended workshops. I became friends with other photographers and I photographed, often. Mostly landscapes, as that’s what I always wanted to do.

So photographing a dog, something that moved, was different for me. I wasn’t good at first, but I kept at it. I knew there was no guarantee that Mika would be with me another month, let alone another week. Once she was gone, I’d never have this chance again. I got better and better the more I practiced. One day I posted a few photos of Mika on my photo blog. And some people said to me I needed to think about pet photography. I thought they were just being nice, but I had to admit, I really enjoyed photographing her. And eventually I started thinking, maybe I should.

So I practiced photographing my pet sitting clients, and started volunteering at a local animal shelter where I photographed homeless animals. It was clear to me, as an artist, I was growing faster as a pet photographer than as a landscape photographer. And that’s really no surprise. When asked as a kid what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d say things like a veterinarian, an animal trainer, an animal behaviorist or to start an animal sanctuary. I didn’t know quite what I wanted to do, but I always knew I wanted to work with animals. 

Mika’s cancer stayed in remission for almost 7 months. We had beaten the odds. And we treasured every day we had with her. If I had a bad day and was in a bad mood, I felt guilty. Mika was fighting for her life. Eventually, she would lose the battle. When the cancer came back, chemo wasn’t an option. So the only choice we had was to make her as comfortable as we could. It was an emotional roller coaster ride. Some days were good, some great, some were bad and others were really really bad. Sometimes it was hard to believe she was sick, other days we felt as though today was the day. I kept taking photos during this time. And when the time came to say goodbye, I knew we had done all we could for her. I still miss her, and I still cry. I made an album of photos I’d taken of her, which sits on my nightstand to this day. My favorite photos are framed and hung on a wall in my living room. She may have only lived on this earth for 9 1/2 years, but she will always be a part of my heart. 

We were the lucky ones, to have her as a part of our family. She was truly the perfect dog for me. We were blessed to have time to say our goodbyes, to treasure moments knowing there wouldn’t be many more. And to prepare for the day when she would no longer be with us. She was and still is my inspiration for why I am a pet photographer.

It took me a year before I felt I could love another dog again. And so Izzy came into our lives. So different, yet so similar to Mika. She’s my crazy girl, but I’m glad she’s the one who found her way to us. I take photos of her all the time. I already have photo books put together and just ordered canvases to hang on my wall. Pets aren’t a part of our lives for very long, but yet, they are such a big part of who we are. I wouldn’t have it any other way.