SOLDOTNA -- French bulldogs are known to be more than just cute, flat-faced lapdogs. Their muscular, compact builds and loyalty to their owners also make them devoted companions, willing to defend their human family should the need arise.
One little Frenchie lost his life doing so last weekend in Soldotna.
"He thought he was 10 feet tall and bulletproof. He fought right to the end," said Ryan Kapp of his family's 6-year-old, tan-colored French bulldog named Gretzky.
The death of their beloved bulldog came after a fun-filled family weekend. At the latter part of last week the dog had accompanied the family on a float in the Fourth of July parade through the city of Kenai. Then the family went camping together. The first sign of danger at home arose while they were away.
"Our neighbor sent us a photo of three brown bears that came by our house while we were gone," Kapp said. "The next day (late Saturday) when we got home and were unpacking from the trip, we saw a sow and two large cubs coming up the driveway again."
Bears are not uncommon in this area -- a woody subdivision across from Solid Rock Bible Camp along the Sterling Highway on the eastern outskirts of Soldotna, but they're usually not as bold as these three were, given that Kapp said there were no attractants of any kind sitting out around the property -- not dog food, birdseed or anything else. And the family's garbage was in a bear-resistant container that the bears put to the test.
"They knocked it over and were fumbling with it, trying to get inside. When they couldn't they started circling all around the house. They came up on the back deck and right up to the sliding glass door," he said.
The vigilant Gretzky was not taking kindly to the bears. Because there was a pet door that allowed him to come and go as he pleased, the family tried to lock him in a room for his own safety. But he escaped and bolted outside to run off the intruders.
"He got loose and shot out the door. It all happened so fast. He was defending us and the house. He ran right in the middle of the bears barking," Kapp said.
While the 22-pound dog was tiny in comparison, the mother bear went into defense mode. As she started toward the bulldog, Kapp said, Gretzky tried to elude her but wasn't fast enough.
"She swatted him and knocked him down, then picked him up in her jaws. Then she stood on her hind legs and snapped her head back and forth," he said.
It happened so fast the family didn't have time to do anything but shriek "No!" Kapp said. Though he has a gun he didn't have time to get it, he said.
Kapp took a few steps out the door, yelling and waving his arms but it was enough to distract the bear into releasing Gretzky.
"She dropped him and took a step away. I kept calling Gretzky, and he was able to clamber into the house while I distracted her. The whole thing took place in a split second," he said.
The bears left the house, and the family initially thought the dog might not have sustained any mortal injuries. There was no blood or visible puncture wounds so they thought perhaps -- like a few years ago when a tree fell on Gretzky and cracked a few vertebrae -- that the dog would pull through. But he wasn't as lucky this time.
"His breathing was really labored so we wrapped him up in a towel and, despite being midnight, we called our vet and took off for Twin Cities Veterinary Clinic," Kapp said.
Gretzky's breathing worsened on the trip, and he died just before Kapp could get him into the clinic. The veterinarians did what they could but determined he had too many internal injuries.
The loss is devastating, Kapp said, not just because it's their beloved pet but also in having watched it happen.
Kapp said the difficult part is teaching coping skills to his two children, Emerson and Spencer, 5 and 10.
"We've tried to tell them that the bears were just doing what was natural. The mom was defending her young," he said.
"But the kids have always known Gretzky. He's been by Emerson's side since four days after coming home from the hospital. So we're trying to get them to focus on the good memories."
Kapp said that he and his wife, Lauri, are also trying to focus on getting the kids to feel safe in the yard and neighborhood again. He said he wants them to understand to be cautious without being constantly afraid.
Kapp alerted Alaska State Troopers and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game of the incident but he said he hopes they do not kill the bears because of the incident.
As the family grieves for their dog, they also are taking solace in good memories -- Gretsky winning over nearly everyone he met, him scratching at the bed to snuggle with someone at night, running ahead to be the first one to the truck when going for a ride, and, most importantly, his loyalty to "his" humans.
"He died doing his best to protect the family," Kapp said.