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A Southwest artist creates memorials for bereaved pet ownersM

Lisa and John Bauch have a hard time imagining life without Gauge.

&#8220He's critical,” Lisa said while rubbing Gauge's shoulder in John's and her Bloomington house on a recent afternoon. &#8220He's pretty much the heart of our home.”

Gauge is a 90-pound Labrador and Golden Retriever mix that Lisa lovingly calls &#8220Baby Dog.” But he's far from a baby. At 12-years old, Gauge is a geezer among canines, and it's beginning to show. His once-yellow face has turned white, he's developed some stiffness in his step and he sleeps more than he used to. He still enjoys a good game of fetch, but he gets exhausted quickly.

During a visit to the vet's office in early December, a lump was discovered under Gauge's tongue. It was removed and found to be harmless, but it scared Lisa and John and got them thinking about what they would do when their beloved companion did eventually pass away. Lisa found part of the answer at a Southwest artist's exhibit last month.

When Gauge dies, Lisa wants Stacia Goodman to create an altar in his memory. Goodman is a mosaic artist who has made small holy altars out of wood, tile and other materials for years from her Cedar-Isles-Dean home. The death of her dog, an Australian Shepherd named Sophie, in the fall of 2005 prompted her to expand her offerings to include altars dedicated to the memory of people's lost pets. She hopes the altars, which she just started making, will honor the spirits of lost pets, help bereaved owners find closure and provide a place for pet belongings that the owners don't know what to do with.

&#8220When a dog dies, you save the collar and tags,” said Goodman, who has a love for dogs but will make altars for any pet. &#8220Some people save clippings of fur and ashes. They save all that stuff and don't know what to do with it. They're grieving, but they don't know where to direct their grief.”

Goodman creates altars in two sizes and at two price points. Regular altars cost $250, and larger versions cost $500. An altar can incorporate whatever a buyer wants it to - photos, a collar, tags, a piece of a favorite toy, fur and even a pet's cremated remains.

Goodman made an altar for Sophie using black and tan tile to resemble the dog's colors and included a photo, tags, the collar and a small piece of a chew toy inside a tin box that also holds a clipping of fur. The altar sits on a shelf above the kitchen sink. It has helped Goodman, her husband and her three young children cope with Sophie's death and move on, she said.

She believes her altars and the process required to make them will help other grieving pet-lovers in the same way.

Making connections

During her first conversations with customers, Goodman said she has become a counselor of sorts. To get an altar right, she needs to go through a pet's belongings with its owner, learn about the animal's life and death and choose the correct colors and design.

&#8220I very quickly establish an intimate and emotional relationship with someone,” Goodman said. &#8220People are hungry to talk, and I feel very honored when someone opens up to me and shares the story of their beloved pet.”

Marilyn Erickson, a licensed clinical counselor who leads pet loss support group discussions at the Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley, said finding an outlet to talk about the loss of a pet is important. Most bereaved pet owners want to talk about their loss but feel embarrassed or have difficulty finding someone who cares, she said.

&#8220Our society doesn't deal with pet loss well,” Erickson said. &#8220When you've lost a pet, it's hard to find people to talk to about it.”

Finding closure is another common problem, she said. Many people would be interested in a memorial for that reason, she said.

Dr. Jim Sinning, a veterinarian who runs a holistic practice with his wife Dr. Cathy Sinning in East Harriet, said people sometimes feel guilty throwing a deceased pet's belongings away. Goodman's incorporation of those items into a memorial is a good solution to the problem, he said.

He said other ways to memorialize pets exist. Northeast Minneapolis resident Marc Clements carves stone memorials, for instance.

The Sinnings help clients cope with pet loss and sometimes make referrals to counselors, but the most common pet grief question they hear is asked before an animal dies, Jim said. Many pets have to be put down when they reach a certain age or become ill, and clients frequently ask how to recognize when the time is right for euthanasia, he said.

His answer is different for every person, depending on the type of pet, its health, age and regular activities. Asking the question early and thinking about life without a pet generally helps owners when an animal's death is inevitable.

&#8220For people who are really attached to their pets, there's something that happens between them,” Jim said. &#8220The animal almost tells them when it's time.”

Gauge hasn't communicated that to John or Lisa yet, but he definitely got them thinking. The couple is hoping their furry friend, who they consider a family member and their only child, sticks around awhile longer. But when its time for him to go, Lisa has a photo of Gauge with one of his many balls picked out and ready to give to Goodman.

&#8220Unfortunately, the day will come when we'll be a customer,” she said. &#8220It's nice to know we have a way to memorialize him a little bit when he's gone.”

Jake Weyer can be reached at 436-4367 and jweyer@mnpubs.com.