The most heartbreaking aspect of sharing our lives with dogs is having to say goodbye to them. The final act of advocacy and love is a horrendous burden for us to bear, but a necessary one nonetheless.
Facing Truth and Reality
Our dogs never live long enough. Whether they are lucky enough to make it to their golden ages, or are robbed of a full life due to illness or injury or accident, they will always leave us sooner than we wish. This is an ugly truth of dog ownership that we all must face and come to terms with.
When you are in the final stretch of the journey with your dog, all of the most difficult choices will fall squarely in your lap. What treatments to undertake. How long to do those treatments. Which activities to continue doing and for how long. Then, when and how you will say your final and painful goodbye.
None of this will be easy nor will the answers be the same from dog to dog or person to person. However, you must face these realities and not allow wishful thinking to cloud your judgment.
Our dogs, by design, will mask any pain or discomfort they are in. Some breeds and individuals are amazingly stoic. This makes your job harder. For if you wait until they are visibly suffering, where they are regularly not eating, cannot move, are distancing themselves from you, it may well mean they've been suffering for far too long already.
This is even further complicated when our dogs are accustomed to doing activities with us, activities they thoroughly enjoy. Our dogs will do everything in their power to continue playing that game or activity with us, even if doing so hurts them. They will try to hide that pain as best as they can. Thus, it is our job to be aware of these possibilities and make the best decisions we can for our dog's sake. Even if it means curbing our own dreams and desires. I cannot stress just how incredibly difficult all of this is.
Trust me, I speak from experience.
Having a dog who can quite literally do it all is a wonderful gift. It is that much more sweeter when their physical aptitude matches their emotional love for everything they do.
However, this can be a double-edged sword when that very same dog becomes terminally ill or injured.
This was the problem I was faced with the my boy, Valor. He was ridiculously young when he was recently diagnosed with terminal mast cell cancer. At a mere 6-years old, he was supposed to have at least four fun-filled years ahead of him. That all came to a screeching halt with his diagnosis.
Here's the rub: he didn't know he was sick. One day we were going a million miles an hour, training multiple times a day, playing a variety of dog sports, going on adventures, attending trials and competing and the next, I am sitting in a puddle of my own tears.
It was my job to adjust what we would do and how we would do it, without limiting his joy. What a horrible task to be assigned.
In the beginning, this basically meant letting him do whatever he wanted. There were a few bucket-list items on our list that we checked off, such as going to the beach and allowing him to romp around off-leash. If he went over to the agility equipment that was stored on the side of the house, I would pop him over a few jumps. He wanted to go for a walk to pull, pee and hunt for lizards? Let's do it. Put himself into heel position while we were messing around in the backyard? Let's do some obedience.
It got harder as time went on. You have to understand, I am home 24/7 and watched him like a hawk. I could see the changes, as slight as they were initially. The way he would put more effort into his breathing. How he would trot less or moan more when he would lay down, which was happening more and more. When he would turn his nose up to his favorite toy in the whole world, which he NEVER did before, only to be game for it a few hours later. It may seem as though this was all happening fairly quickly, over a course a few short months. But day-to-day, it was a tortuous roller coaster, with my having to constantly reevaluate where he was and what we would do.
For instance, he loved chasing the plastic bunny for CAT or FASTCAT tests. My hope was to allow him to do one run at an upcoming FASTCAT. Not for a title, just to have fun. Yet the day of the test, he was tired. Didn't want to do much. Wasn't as interested in his empty plastic water bottles. It was also super hot on that day and he was having to try that much harder to pant.
Yes, I wanted nothing more than to give him the gift of chasing the bunny. He probably would have loved it! It also would have been beyond horrendous if he couldn't recover from it afterwards.
Now, some people will argue he was essentially dying anyway, what difference does it make?
How his life ultimately ended was something I could control. I wasn't going to have him die in a panic, unable to breathe if I could avoid it. Since that was a possibility, we didn't do that FASTCAT run.
This is the tightrope you will have to walk.
It will make you crazy. You will over-analyze every little thing. That being said, personally, I would rather be in that camp and be far too careful than to be naive or blind to what is going on around me. Is it harder on me? Absolutely. That is a burden I will bare for my dog.
Grant Yourself the Opportunity to Say Goodbye
I spent the last two and half months with my boy saying goodbye. Don't get me wrong, we still had lots of fun and made wonderful memories I will hold onto forever. It was not all tears and wailing, although there was plenty of that too.
No, during this time, I set aside other things in my life and tried to appreciate my dog as fully as I could. To see how he took up the space with his cheerful presence. How he would go around our backyard always in one direction, searching for lizards or bugs to harass, rarely the other way around. The way he would look up into the sky to watch the passing planes, helicopters or birds. How he would come over and plop that big Doberbutt on my knee when I would start sniffling too much.
I didn't want to be in denial. I didn't want to miss out on the opportunity to maximize on this limited time we had together. Furthermore, my goal was to not wait until the last minute to go though all this, where I may push him to stay longer than he should simply for my sake.
All of this is excruciatingly painful. I would not wish this process on anyone, especially anyone with a young dog. That being said, our dogs still deserve for us to buck up and take this on for their sake.
It will hurt. It will knock the wind out of your lungs. You will be unable to sleep. You will lose your appetite and then overeat. You'll second-guess yourself a million times a day.
Then they will come over to give you a snuggle, or do some antic that will make you smile and laugh, only to burst into more tears because you know this will be gone soon.
Simply put, this whole experience sucks. It sucks to know what is coming. But I implore you, please don't deny or ignore this knowledge. Don't hide from it. Because if you do, you will be robbing yourself the opportunity to properly say goodbye.
Here is why that matters: saying goodbye in the vet's office on that final visit is simply too late. The myriad of emotions you will feel and go through cannot be properly processed in that last moment. Depending on how familiar you are with the process of euthanasia, what you see can startle and shock you out of your grief. You don't want those images paired up with your final memories of your best friend.
Instead, I would urge that you spend some time saying a proper goodbye to your friend, if you are given the chance.
Losing a dog is painful. There is an emptiness that goes along with it that is hard to describe.
For myself, Valor took up about 99% of my day, if not more. Coming home without him was a shock to the system. No Dobernose waiting as I opened the door. No spins, rushing to grab the nearest and loudest toy to announce my return. No running down the hall, to parkour off the hallway wall to propel himself into the kitchen. No sweet pokes with that sweet Dobernose of his on my hand as I headed to the backdoor to let him outside.
Instead, there was just silence. An eerie quiet. That joyful and larger-than-life presence was gone.
It has been one full week since I said goodbye to my boy. I am crying as I write this blog, so you can say I am still grieving. There are times I will catch myself looking over at his bed to check on him, or will see if he wants to go play a game or go outside. These habits and routines are hard to break. Will it be awful forever? Probably not. While I am crying now, it is not the same hysterical "I am about to vomit" weeping I did the day after. I am not waking up in tears anymore.
The fact is, his passing was a huge loss. But his being in my life was a huge gift. He taught me so much. So, I make sure to look at his photos, to watch his videos. To smile and laugh at his ridiculous to antics. To be thankful that I got to spent five years with him. To allow myself to be angry it was cut short, but then focus on the fun again. To allow myself to be sad it is over, but then focus on our adventures again.
This is not my first loss. Unfortunately, I have a lot of experience in that department. I know how this process will go, roughly speaking. It will just take time.
With all of this pretty much guaranteed pain, does this mean I am done with dogs? No.
I can understand how people can come to that conclusion, that it would be better to avoid going through all of this pain again! The gifts Valor gave me far outweigh the pain I am feeling now.
So in time, I will open my heart again to another dog. That will be wrought with its own challenges. Guilt. Fears that I will be trying to replace Valor or will constantly compare the new dog to him. It is all a normal part of the process and a different aspect of the seemingly never-ending cycle of pain that goes along with all of this.
Yet, there will be new memories to be made. New adventures to go on. New lessons to learn. New opportunities to smile and laugh.
With time, the pain will fade into the background, and the memories of Valor will stand side-by-side with the new adventures. Instead of being drowned out with tears and heartache, they will be met with smiles and joy.
Our dogs give us so much. At the end of their journey with us, it is up to us to give them the best send off we possibly can. Regardless of how painful it is for us. We owe them that much.
Dianna L. Santos has been training dogs professionally since 2011. She has done everything from teaching group training classes and private lessons, to specializing in working with fearful, reactive and aggressive dogs, to being a trial official and competition organization staff member.
Following a serious neck and back injury, Dianna was forced to retire from in-person dog training. But she was not ready to give up her passion! So, she created Family Dog University, Dog Sport University, and Scent Work University to provide outstanding online dog training to as many dog handlers, owners and trainers possible…regardless of where they live! Dianna is incredibly grateful to the amazingly talented group of instructors who have joined FDU, DSU and SWU and she looks forward to the continued growth of all these platforms and the increased learning opportunities they can provide.