Life, death and the dog

She’s a black lump on the rug who quivers when I pat her head. She’s enjoying one of her rare moments of rest – rare, because, now in her 14th year, she’s showing many signs of her age, one being something I’ve taken to calling her restless leg syndrome. It could be that, or the fact that her right rear fetlock has a lump the size of a football growing out of it (non-cancerous as we found out at the vet’s before we moved last summer), and it’s been giving her a lot of discomfort, especially in the frigid temperatures of our northern winter.

That was a few days ago, when I felt her warmth beneath my hand for the last time.

She was our dog. To say that she was our family dog is an understatement, since she was part of this family before this family was ever formed. My husband purchased her as a six week old pup the year before he and I met. I’ve never known him without her. Six years of dating, six more of marriage, two kids and several moves back and forth across Canada later, we are finally ready to say goodbye to her forever.

My guilt over what we were about to do earlier this week – something that is criminal to do to another human being, but “humane” when it comes to an animal – runs deep, and it’s not even because I’ve loved her so much. I do, and did, but my caring for her is an afterthought. I can’t count the number of times over the years when I’ve wished we didn’t have the extra responsibility that dog ownership entails, or that I hadn’t inherited this pet with my relationship. She didn’t deserve that, because she was never jealous of me, or of either of the kids when they were born. She was, truly, the best behaved dog I’ve ever met (if my opinion is biased, then surely the dozens of friends who have said so over the years can’t be wrong). And so, when it came time to do this – to take her to the vet’s office where we would euthanize her – I found my emotions overwhelming, as though I hadn’t realized it would be so hard to let her go.

I know many people who cater to their pets right up until the bitter end. They carry dogs, no longer able to use their back legs, outside several times each day to do their business, and lovingly cart them back inside again to lay them on their favourite beds. I know others who put up with the messes an older pet generates inside until the seizures, lack of mobility or cancers have done as much damage as they can possibly do. We – my husband and I – always said we’d never let it get to that point. We always said we’d end her life while she still had one to live.

But the truth is that we never wanted to deal with those messes. Really, what quality of life is there for any creature that can’t even get themselves to the proper place to defecate in time? More importantly, what kind of a life for those who have to willingly pick up the pieces?

We’ve told ourselves that we would do this sooner than later for the sake of our kids. Maybe we’ll be better parents, possessing more patience,  when we’re not wakened in the night by the dog, pacing the floor downstairs and wining because she either wants attention at this stage in her life, or is in too much pain to settle down to sleep. But really, it’s for us, because we don’t want to be complaining any more. We want to relieve ourselves of this layer of responsibility. And so we made the very difficult decision to put her down.

When a neighbour of ours, a few years ago, was upset after putting her dog down, I did not feel much real sympathy. I said the token I’m sorry’s, but I truly thought I’d be relieved to see our own dog’s life finally reach it’s conclusion. Now I realize how wrong I was, how haughty and horrible my previous attitude. I now understand my former neighbour’s sadness. She said, at the time, that when she got up in the night to go to her young son, she’d always trip over the dog in the hall, and it was, she said through tears, so sad to not have her dog there any more.

I now know what it’s like to miss that ‘ol black lump on the rug. The emptiness of not having her here is like a tomb of loneliness that only Time can chip away at. She was so mild mannered throughout her life, there were times I hardly thought about her. But without her here, I miss calling to her to let her out before taking the kids to school. I miss asking my children, who wants to feed the dog? I even miss tripping over her.

My husband and I have been reliving the good and bad memories of her… When she ate a bar of Dove soap at my apartment before we lived together, then went back to his place and had the runs all over his entranceway… In Tofino, when we took her to the beach and she didn’t know the water was salty, and she emerged from the waves smacking her lips and frothing at the mouth… When we worked in the bush and she used to run next to one of the tree planting trucks at 50 km/hr., the mud smacking one whole side of her body… Jumping over a log and out of her little saddlebags during our hikes in the McGregor Mountains in British Columbia… Killing black squirrels (and shocking passersby) in Port Credit…. Her body like the hull of a boat swimming through deep powder after my husband on his snowboard at Powder King, BC… Catching lots of fish with him… Diving for golf balls and even rocks in the lake at my parent’s cottage… Resisting being stuffed into a large backpack to try to sneak her into a no-dogs-allowed hotel in San Francisco… And so many road trips, where she’d sleep for 12 hours straight, then get up to join us for a hike. She was with us for more than a decade, and the memories of her are countless, the spaces she took up in our lives uncountable.

Last moments on her rug

I realize, it doesn’t matter what the reasons were for making the decision to put her down sooner than later. What matters is that she had a good life, and that we did the best we could with her, when we could. What matters, also, is that I can now, finally, understand this deep attachment we as humans form with pets. And, as much as I say I will never get another pet….

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