Our Good Dog: In Memoriam and With Gratitude

Each year, as we count down the days to Thanksgiving, I count down my blessings.  Usually, starting on the First of the Month, I offer up a gratitude each morning.  It’s not difficult to find things I’m grateful for — and it’s proven to be a way to center my days, even as the light is waning and my equilibrium seems thrown off by Daylight Savings.

Well, here it is November 2nd and I’ve already missed a day.  I was a little busy. I was playing God.  And I’ll be honest — it’s a miserable job.  God:  from now on, I’d really like You to keep making all the life and death decisions.

A little history on how my husband and I stepped into the worst job in the world:

Not too long ago, I wrote about our yellow lab, Toby, who’d been diagnosed with cancer.  We have been making the most of our good days with him: walks to the park, extra treats, an occasional outing to the beach, which was his favorite place in the world.  Slowly, his bad days started to outnumber the good ones.

He’s grown increasingly tired and lethargic.  Last weekend, his nose started bleeding again from the nasal tumor — and it took a long time to stop the bleeding. He’d rally — but then almost collapse from exhaustion.

Like so many dog owners, we started to wrestle with the notion of putting him to sleep. Saying good-bye. Letting him go.

In other words: playing God.

I need to back up and tell you that we got the dog for my husband and my children. I knew they needed a dog, but me? I wasn’t raised with dogs and never considered myself a dog person. My husband trained Toby; the girls played with him. I tried, but it was clear that while he adored my husband and loved the girls, he put up with me. In my book, that was ok.

Toby was a rescue.  The day we drove to Monterey to meet him, he ran up to my husband and my girls as if he’d been waiting all his life for us to show up. As he was playing out in the field with them, I turned to his foster mom and asked what the chances were that we could keep him.  She pointed to the field and said, “Look out there; he’s already yours.”

Toby was a typical lab and in his younger days had a voracious appetite.  That also meant that he’d sneak into rooms around the house, gobbling up socks. Over the years, we depended on him to reject the socks from one end or the other — until he couldn’t.  Twice. Twice he needed surgery. Twice we sat at the hospital, worried sick over our sick pup. That worry was my first sign that I was falling in love.

Eventually, Toby gave up socks as well as pulling on his leash when we were out for a walk. He matured and learned how to be a “good dog” and also to make his wishes known. If he wanted to eat or go out, he’d bark.  But if he wanted to be pet, he would sit at your side and use his paw to move your hand to his head. He’d shove his head under your elbow, nuzzle his muzzle next to your hip. There was nothing subtle about his communication style.

And he smiled. So much.  The day I realized how much he smiled was the day I fell head over heels for this dog. He was more than the family pet. He was my boy. Sure, he liked Dad better and preferred to spend time with the girls, but I loved him with all my heart.

So when he was diagnosed in July with a nasal tumor at barely 11 years old, we were all devastated. As my last post mentioned, we knew his days were numbered. We spent those first few days mourning the diagnosis and then set about to make whatever time we had left with him full of joy.

Last weekend it became clear that he would start to suffer more and more. Friends, family, and our vet all told us that dogs are stoic.  Their job is to please us and they hide their pain, especially from their people. His struggle was becoming more and more apparent to us even as he kept trying to hide it.

Neither my husband nor I have ever had to make the decision to let a dog go. It was heart-wrenching. One day we’d be sure of our decision — either way — and the very next, we’d change our minds. Meanwhile, all our rugs were pulled up around the house and we’d put down tarps and towels in our bedroom in case he couldn’t make it outside to go to the bathroom or if his nose started to bleed more.

The decision never came with much clarity or without much doubt and guilt. We finally decided that we’d rather err on the side of “too soon” than on the side of “too late.” He was too good, too loved, too special to suffer more than he already was. He’d been a good dog and we would do our part.

Even though the vet came to the house and we all sat on the lawn in the backyard, giving Toby treats and loving on him in all the ways we could, there was a part of me screaming inside.  I knew I wasn’t up to the task; I didn’t want to play God with Toby’s life.

Still, we loved on him. We poured out our affections and our gentle words.  The vet first sedated him and then quietly let him go. She gave us all the time we needed and I’m grateful that he passed so peacefully.

I’m not sure if I read it — or if someone told me this — but I understand the deal we make when we get a dog is that they will love us unconditionally and we will make sure they don’t suffer. They will wag their tail wildly when they see us and we will make sure they cross over to heaven before they can’t wag their tail any longer. We tried to honor that bargain the best we could. I hope someday I can reconcile the doubt and not hurt as much over the loss. I pray my husband and my daughters will find the right salve to ease their pain.

My Gratitude:  I’m so grateful my family had a dog.  This dog.  This sweet, gentle, loving dog.  I hope wherever he is,  he knows how much he will always be loved and how sorely he is missed.

Toby: Godspeed.  You were our good dog.  Our very good dog.

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