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story.lead_photo.caption Joshua Waddle, left, and Hamid Habibi share family time with Dexter on his last day before crossing the Rainbow Bridge. (Angela Schneider/The Spokesman-Review/TNS)

SPOKANE, Wash. — Joshua Waddle will never hike alone.

He will take Dexter's collar from its place next to his home computer and attach it to his backpack, knowing the jingle of his dog's tags will remind him of Dexter's presence.

Dexter died June 22 after an in-home euthanasia to ease his pain from a terminal illness diagnosed just days prior.

"We just got back from a hiking trip to Glacier (National Park) in Montana," Waddle said. "I took the collar with us and tied it to my backpack. It was like he was there with us."

Aug. 28 was Rainbow Bridge Day, a time to remember our fur friends who have left us for the great beyond. The day gets its name from a piece of prose whose original author is unknown. It describes in detail a place where beloved pets go when they die. They cross the Rainbow Bridge to a meadow where they are restored to health and where they wait for their owners to join them.

No matter how peaceful the meadow is, they miss their humans, just as the humans are left on Earth to miss them.

Waddle, who moved out West to enjoy a better quality of life with his puggle buddy, is fully aware of that absence.

"We take a lot for granted when they're alive," he said. "Since losing him, when have I gone for a walk by myself? My friends encourage me to, but it ends pretty quickly. I just don't have that constant companionship. He always made me feel like I had to keep going."

Dexter entered Waddle's life in high school 12 years ago in southern Indiana. He convinced his mom he needed an adventure friend, a dog that would be his responsibility.

They moved to Evansville, Indiana, together where Waddle went to community college.

The stout little dog also comforted Waddle through a complex time in his life.

"All of my friends were dating and I wasn't there yet," he said. "I didn't really understand my sexuality, so Dexter became my partner, my boyfriend. He was my support system. I was never alone because of him."

They found their adventure on a trail at the John James Audubon State Park in nearby Henderson, Kentucky. The park has one dog-friendly trail and it started Waddle thinking there were more trails for them somewhere.

"The weather in southern Indiana isn't really ideal for a puggle," he said, noting brachiocephalic dogs can struggle to breathe in the heat and humidity. "I'd always keep an eye on him while hiking, and we'd really only go in the spring or fall."

He started researching adventure destinations with a less humid climate and found Spokane.

"The options are endless here," Waddle said. "It was hard moving away from my family and friends, but it elevated the life Dexter had. We had endless opportunities to go on hikes and walks, and I didn't have to worry as much about him overheating in the humidity."

Dexter, Waddle, and his partner, Hamid Habibi, completed the Beehive Lake trail in North Idaho last summer. It's a 6.7-mile hike with a bit of a brutal last half-mile to the lake.

But the little puggle did it.

"There's a real sense of accomplishment getting there," Waddle said. "To have your dog, your best friend, by your side, it's just a moment that's hard to explain. You feel so close, inseparable."

———

Kit Carson was Dexter's last big hike. The trio hit the summit at Mount Spokane State Park, relaxed and had a picnic.

"He was starting to slow down," Waddle said. "As I started seeing the gray hair, we'd slow down for him. It also gave us time to reflect, though. Like, 'Hey, we made it this far.' All that mattered was that we were still together and we were still experiencing new things."

Then in mid-June, they received the devastating news. Dexter had a terminal condition, and second and third opinions didn't change the prognosis.

They packed their bags and went walking on the beach in Oregon for their last weekend together.

"It gave us some comfort and allowed us to let him go, giving him that last gift," Waddle said. "Dexter grew up in a small town, went to college and moved out West. He walked through forests and climbed mountains. Him seeing the ocean meant something to me."

The incredible bond they formed together while hiking and adventuring will stay with him throughout the rest of his life.

"Hamid and I, we have conversations based in happiness versus missing him, because we have those memories," Waddle said. "His collar will be on my backpack every hike I take. He has many more hikes to go with us."

———

Rainbow Bridge Day came just six days after the anniversary of the day I lost my first dog, my first hiking buddy, in 2014.

In Shep's honor, Bella and I take a memorial day every Aug. 20. Since Bella has grown into her own sense of adventure, that's usually a hike.

We left Spokane Valley early that morning as the sun was rising over Coeur d'Alene and headed into the Selkirks. We were bound for the Blossom Lake Trail, about 6 miles of gradual uphill to a beautiful lake nestled among the forest.

The sky clouded over by the time we reached the trailhead near Saltese, Mont., and the day turned muggier than I expected. Occasional spurts of rain eased the heaviness of the air. By the time we reached the lake, the day turned into a beauty.

Bella and I sat on the rocks at the edge of the water and had our traditional snack of beef jerky and cheese.

As the water quietly lapped at the rocks, I thought of Shep, of our adventures and of the many dogs I've met in the past few years who have since crossed the Rainbow Bridge. Many times, dog lovers don't think to get portrait sessions done of their best fur friends until it's late in their years, but I'm always grateful to add to their memories, as I did with Waddle and Habibi.

Bella, my impatient princess, pulled at me to go. In the distance, I heard the chatter of more hikers approaching.

The wind stirred in the trees and I knew Shep was there with us, just as he is on every hike, every adventure.

Just as Dexter will be with Waddle and Habibi.

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