Being a veterinarian, I had been called to examine a ten-year-old Irish Wolfhound named Belker. The dog's owners, Ron, his wife Lisa, and their little boy Shane, were all very attached to Belker, and they were hoping for a miracle. I examined Belker and found that he was dying of cancer. I told the family we couldn't do anything for Belker and offered to perform the euthanasia procedure for the old dog in their home. As we made arrangements, Ron and Lisa told me they thought it would be good for the six-year-old Shane to observe the procedure. They felt as though Shane might learn something from the experience.
The next day, I felt the familiar catch in my throat as Belker's family surrounded him. Shane seemed so calm, petting the old dog for the last time, that I wondered if he understood what was going on. Within a few minutes, Belker slipped peacefully away.
The little boy seemed to accept Belker's transition without any difficulty or confusion. We sat together for a while after Belker's death, wondering aloud about the sad fact that animal lives are shorter than human lives. Shane, who had been listening quietly, piped up, "I know why."
Startled, we all turned to him. What came out of his mouth next stunned me. I'd never heard a more comfortin explanation.
He said, "People are born so that they can learn how to live a good life - like loving everybody all the time and being nice, right?" The six-year-old continued, "Well, dogs already know how to do that, so they don't have to stay as long."
This soldier I realized must have had friends at home and in his regiment; yet he lay there deserted by all except his dog. I looked on unmoved, at battles which decided the future of nations. Tearless, I had given orders which brought death to thousands. Yet here I was stirred to tears. And to what? By the grief of one dog.
- Napoleon Bonaparte, on finding a dog beside the body of his dead master, licking his face and howling; on a moonlit field after a battle. Napoleon was haunted by this scene until his own death.
An Insomniac's Best Friend (from the NY Times)
Chief was my insomnia buddy. As far as late-night companions go, you could do worse than a dog. We humans fill the sleepless void with mental anguish, constructing indexes of recriminations and future-forward panic. Dogs, anchored in the present, know no such travail. The sum total of their fixations are food, belly rubs, and alerting to possible intruders. Chief and I, the worrier and the worry-free, formed a yin and yang of preoccupation. We were perfect partners.
Ever anxious in my sleeplessness, I cherished the uplift that came from the familiar circle, circle, plonk of my 100-pound, unusually tall yellow Lab, throwing himself onto the checkerboard rug by my side. Devoted in the extreme, he was so determined to be near me that someone once exclaimed, “He’d crawl into the corner of your eye if he could.” I’d put aside my cares for a moment and pick up one of his great webbed paws, sniff the tough, street-blackened pads and exclaim, “Your feet smell like Fritos!” I’d tickle the divot of his belly button, or rub his velvety cutlet ears. He’d shift positions, leaving behind an aureole of hair so thick it looked as if all his follicles had sneezed at once.
On New Year’s Day 2009, Chief started to cough. His normal deep breathing became a rapid pant. A trip to the animal emergency room yielded a chest X-ray so cloudy, the vet couldn’t see the dog’s heart. “I think it’s fluid,” she said. “I can’t help him here. There’s a hospital in Yonkers where they can treat him. If I were you, I wouldn’t wait.” We raced him 90 minutes down the Taconic Parkway, where they drained two liters of fluid from his chest and performed a biopsy.
Our poor Chief was a statistical rarity — one of the 4 percent of dogs each year who develop lung cancer. The tumor was the size of a cantalope. We did our research: after cancer surgery, the average canine life expectancy is nine months. Chief was only seven years old, and otherwise healthy — nay, robust. We opted for the surgery. It was expensive, but for once in my writer’s life, I was flush. It would be worth it. It would be worth it if he had a long and otherwise healthy life.
While the dog was in the veterinary I.C.U., yoked to tubes and beeping machines, I scarcely slept a wink. Rather than thumbing through a varied index of anxieties, I was focused on one specific dog-shaped worry. I lay on my back next to my husband, tears leaking from my eyes to collect in my ears.
“I miss him,” my husband whispered into the dark.
Four days later, we brought him home from the Yonkers animal hospital, a Fentanyl-doped Frankendog with a row of glimmering staples down his side. He healed quickly, was given a hopeful prognosis, and returned to his normal, uncomplicated life. He swam in the Hudson River, and he chased deer through the woods. He kept me company each night. It was a very good summer. We opted for six rounds of monthly chemotherapy, hoping to improve his odds. He trotted happily from each session, unfazed. I never thought about the money. Between the surgery and the chemo, my husband and I laid out close to $15,000. What I didn’t know — couldn’t have known — was that we were whistling past the graveyard, writing checks as we went.
Nine months to the day after his surgery, we noticed Chief once again straining to breathe. We thought in vain that it might be kennel cough but an X-ray exposed our delusion. The cancer was back, his lungs percolating with fluid. Our beloved, handsome dog was drowning from the inside out.
We had no more money, no more options. No more time. In the vet’s office, an assistant led us to a stark room. I leaned on the stainless steel exam table and signed away my dog’s fading life. I checked a box, declining the chance to take home Chief’s ashes — too costly, too sad. The staff wanted to be assured I was lucid in my cloud of grief. “So, group cremation?” they asked over and over. Ashes to ashes, dogs into dust.
Under sedation, Chief wobbled and drooled, stumbling as his vision blurred. My husband, who in battle had seen the light dim in too many people’s eyes, sat sobbing and despondent. I loved him more for that. The dog, in drugged stupor, looped around, jumped up on my husband, paws on his lap and licked the tears from his face. Around and over again.
A second shot of sedative brought Chief to the floor at last. I knelt beside him and stroked those velvety ears. When the young vet took up a syringe of opaque pink fluid, I whispered into the dog’s forehead. “God will take care of you.” Within seconds of the plunger easing down, he was gone, and the room went perfectly still. My loyal insomnia buddy had met his final rest. After a few minutes, the assistant asked, “Would you like a paw print to take with you?” At first I thought it morbid, then I knew it would be all I’d have left. I nodded. She disappeared in search of the inkpad, leaving me alone to weep over my dog’s sweet face, kissing his still-warm muzzle.
That first night without Chief, I found myself straining to hear him coming up the stairs, his arrival heralded by toenails on the hardwood, followed by the crash of the spare bedroom door opening as he strolled in to take his place on the rug. Circle, circle, plonk. But throughout the house, no sound, just the branches groaning in the wind and the aggressive plink of wind chimes outside the window. I was alone. Chief was gone for good.
Now, months later, I’m awake and alone yet again, and, as in years past, worried about money. I pass the infernal deep blue hours haunted by memories of my dog, haunted by regret. When I ask myself, “Was it worth it?” and come up short, I then ask, is it so bad that my wildest indulgence was trying to keep someone I adored alive and happy just that much longer?
Samuel Butler once wrote: “The great pleasure of a dog is that you may make a fool of yourself with him and not only will he not scold you, but he will make a fool of himself, too.” We owners fling cash like idiots for no other reason than we are crazy about our pets, and because they, in their blasted, heartbreaking, loving ways, are crazy for us.
In the absence of belly scrubs to distract me, or floppy ears to beguile me, I console myself at night with that thought — man and dog can be fools for each other, and folly knows no higher calling than to be a fool for love. It’s what I have left, along with the memory of a gentle, galumphing companion, and an ink print on the refrigerator in the place of paw treads on the stairs.
- Lily Burana
Here in this house......
I will never know the loneliness I hear in the barks of the other dogs 'out there'.
I can sleep soundly, assured that when I wake my world will not have changed.
I will never know hunger, or the fear of not knowing if I'll eat.
I will not shiver in the cold, or grow weary from the heat.
I will feel the sun's heat, and the rain's coolness,
and be allowed to smell all that can reach my nose.
My fur will shine, and never be dirty or matted.
Here in this house...
There will be an effort to communicate with me on my level.
I will be talked to and, even if I don't understand,
I can enjoy the warmth of the words.
I will be given a name so that I may know who I am among many.
My name will be used in joy, and I will love the sound of it!
Here in this house...
I will never be a substitute for anything I am not.
I will never be used to improve peoples' images of themselves.
I will be loved because I am who I am, not someone's idea of who I should be.
I will never suffer for someone's anger, impatience, or stupidity.
I will be taught all the things I need to know to be loved by all.
If I do not learn my lessons well, they will look to my teacher for blame.
Here in this house...
I can trust arms that hold, hands that touch...
knowing that, no matter what they do, they do it for the good of me.
If I am ill, I will be doctored.
If scared, I will be calmed.
If sad, I will be cheered.
No matter what I look like, I will be considered beautiful and thought to be of value.
I will never be cast out because I am too old, too ill, too unruly, or not cute enough.
My life is a responsibility, and not an afterthought.
I will learn that humans can almost, sometimes, be as kind and as fair as dogs.
Here in this house...
I will belong.
I will be home.
Her eyes met mine as she walked down the corridor peering apprehensively into the kennels. I felt her need instantly and knew I had to help her.
I wagged my tail, not too exuberantly, so she wouldn’t be afraid. As she stopped at my kennel I blocked her view from a little accident I had in the back of my cage. I didn’t want her to know that I hadn’t been walked today. Sometimes the overworked shelter keepers get too busy and I didn’t want her to think poorly of them.
As she read my kennel card I hoped that she wouldn’t feel sad about my past. I only have the future to look forward to and want to make a difference in someone’s life.
She got down on her knees and made little kissy sounds at me. I shoved my shoulder and side of my head up against the bars to comfort her. Gentle fingertips caressed my neck; she was desperate for companionship. A tear fell down her cheek and I raised my paw to assure her that all would be well.
Soon my kennel door opened and her smile was so bright that I instantly jumped into her arms.
I would promise to keep her safe.
I would promise to always be by her side.
I would promise to do everything I could to see that radiant smile and sparkle in her eyes.
I was so fortunate that she came down my corridor. So many more are out there who haven’t walked the corridors. So many more to be saved. At least I could save one.
I rescued a human today.
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Written by Janine Allen CPDT, Rescue Me Dog's professional dog trainer. Janine's passion is working with people and their dogs. She provides demonstrations for those who have adopted shelter dogs, lends email support to adopted dog owners that need information beyond our Training Support Pages, and aids shelter staff and volunteers in understanding dog behavior to increase their adoptability. Copyright 2011 Rescue Me Dog; www.rescuemedog.org