It’s understandable how striving to maintain a very old dog’s well-being may appear futile.
Given a dog’s shorter life span, the time, energy and money expended on behalf of what may only be a matter of several weeks or months makes no sense to even many of those who loved sharing their lives with animals. Despite my intense attachment to Yeager, there were times when I wondered if I could justify “putting him down” to relieve the strife it sometimes created for me. From a purely selfish viewpoint, however, I ultimately gained more than I gave.
Like those practical methods which helped Yeager, those I found useful to helping myself will be apparent to anyone thinking it through. Still, imminent or even eventual loss of an animal companion is an emotionally upsetting prospect. Along with the lengths we humans can go to avoid, deny or delay is our instinct to sublimate the pain of potential loss to the point of overriding rationality.
1. It’s Your Choice
Especially during the more overwrought moments, I reminded myself of two facts. Every so often I had to tell myself that, truthfully, the effort made to give a disabled or senior dog a comfortable life is a personal choice. Humans might lack the control of nature to extend the life of an animal, but they have been given the legal right and power to end it. With a dog’s perception – not a human’s, Yeager’s resistance to my help was often frustrating, and sometimes felt all the more futile when I took an accounting of the different kinds of costs involved. Reminding myself that I didn’t have to do this – that the choice of euthanizing him was always immediately available – instantly cooled that frustration. The stark reality that even without him being in pain but simply being old or disabled I could just end his life and my own “suffering” affirmed my private moral code and only increased my determination not to give up on him. Everyone and their mother presumed the right to declare I was right or wrong, but it was always my choice. And once I reminded myself I was choosing this because, for me, it became about respecting a living being, I gave myself over to it.
2. It’s a Brief Period
The second fact, which played into my decision on the above, was that, optimistically, Yeager’s life as a very old dog would consume a year of my own. Everything passes, every situation, condition, crisis evolves. Life changes whether or not we want it to. I had to silence the chattering by which others confused my instinct and keep the reality that each day which passed was another one closer to the end of my time with Yeager and seize the fullest possible value while I was experiencing it. In the big picture, caretaking a dog can only a brief chapter of time in human years.
3. Your Situation is Unique
Many people might share my views but not the limitations or privileges of my particular situation. The factors of one’s personal home and work situation will naturally mitigate any one of our range of choices. I work from a home office on a laptop and am rarely required to travel from home. I’m not responsible for children or other people in needfor whom I’m also responsible (and I had credit cards with wiggle room – at least when the process began). Though obvious, its worth repeating that whatever is offered as a guideline is only as helpful as it applies to an individual dog’s condition, and their human’s home life, work situation and ability at equip for the eventual aging and loss of the animal. We can prepare for debility and loss only so far as fate allows us to but no amount of it, even under ideal circumstances, can predict our reaction to the loss or where we are with the rest of our lives at that point. To cut all that gingerbread, just remember that the life you and your dog lead, apart and together, is unique from those of others; apply advice at will.
4. Adhere to Your Personal Values
I’ve come to believe that using the expression “put to sleep” for what is, in fact, a “mercy killing” can innocently mislead our collective perception down a dangerous path. It may removes an uncomfortable edge for the human making the decision, but it can also desensitize the value of life to non-human beings and distort the significance of the decision. Most humans place a higher value on our species above all other forms of life; it’s the reason why rigid opposition to any human euthanasia, despite the individual circumstances of terminally-ill people, is not a moral principal extended to animals. Just as I felt the unfairness of others critiquing my choices for Yeager based on a snapshot moment, I’ve learned it’s not my place to judge the reasoning by which others decide to end the lives of their individual dogs at the junctures they do.
5. Seek Advice from those Who’ve Been There
The factors inherent in humane euthanasia of animals are complex and fraught with contradictions, even without the comparisons of laws preventing humans from making the same decision about their own life. Without asking for and receiving the guidance, advice, and experiences of those who’ve either faced or made the decision on euthanasia on behalf of their animals, however, it can be a haunting and solitary dilemma.
In retrospect, I recognize just how vital several friends were at different turning points for me. Maybe nothing can help a person more than to seek advice from those who’ve cared for an old or disabled dog and faced the decision of their euthanasia.
6. Define The Thresholds
In October 2010, just when Yeager’s independence was first seriously compromised, I’d been struck by the poignancy of the last pictures of my friend Daren Phillips and his golden retriever Jake together, which I’d seen on Facebook. Prior to moving to Los Angeles and adopting Yeager in 2001, I often saw them in a park near my home in Washington, D.C. Having witnessed their intense bond was not only proof enough of how difficult Jake’s ordeal of cancer had to be for Daren but the care and caution he would have had to use in humanely releasing his dog from pain by choosing euthanasia. Despite my call catching him in the midst of preparing dinner, Daren put aside any potential upset it may have caused him to invest a lot of time and sensitivity in posing set of direct questions not so much to answer but to honestly face and resolve within myself about Yeager’s condition. Daren’s talk proved absolutely crucial.
7. Recognize Others Face Tough Odds Too
For all but the last two years of his life, Yeager’s closest canine pal was the American Staffordshire terrier Tallulah who lived across the street with my friends Jeff Buhler and Rebecca Hughes. They underwent great change in a short period: Jeff and Rebecca married, had a baby, moved to a larger home, and then to a smaller one.
Just as their son was maturing into a toddler, Tallulah’s mobility and digestive control was giving out. They didn’t view their life as being a choice between committing to their son or to their dog but rather, to both. With limited time, no caretaking support, and pressure to euthanize Tallulah from loved ones, their decision was steadfast. Never complaining or explaining, they just did it until Tallulah began experiencing pain with no chance of it vanishing. They had to euthanize Tallulah in October but it was in the eight months which followed that their history of enduring costly vet checkups, constant carpet-cleaning, and regular sleep interruptions on behalf of her while she lived without pain that buttressed my own resolve to do likewise for Yeager. Darren was a role model I emulated to honestly ensure I didn’t selfishly lengthen Yeager’s life. Jeff and Rebecca became my standard which ensured that I didn’t selfishly shorten it. And that while I often felt my choice was a burden, they reminded me that many others making the same choice face even greater pressures.
8. Suspend Travel, Keep Schedule Flexible
A great change my choice also essentially forced me into suspending a scheduled life or extensive travel. And that had consequences. Through the holiday season, I found my sense of mission encouraged by compassionate wisdom from some without dogs and by outrage incited by others with them. Invited to dinner on New Year’s Day by a friend, I accepted on the condition that I could only leave Yeager for about two hours. During the course of the meal, the intention became apparent when my friend unrelentingly insisted that Yeager was in pain, despite what the vet said, and that I needed to end his life and renew my own. My confusion was mitigated when I realized how long it had been since I’d been able to play tennis with her. After a crisp verdict of “worry” from my brother visiting from Australia about my curtailed life due to Yeager, my mother called to affirm her unequivocal understanding of why I didn’t join our family over Christmas, support of my care of Yeager and faith in my judgment if I needed to change course. That validation was the greatest possible gift and encouraged me to continue on.
9. Find Fullness in the Moment
I also learned to find inspiration and apply it, even when it didn’t involve a dog. Perhaps the most powerful yet indirect shoring up at the mid-point of this period resulted from a shock. Edward Purcell, a friend of many years visiting from Washington with me (yes, and Yeager) on New Year’s Eve learned two days later of his father’s sudden death back home. Edward composed a moving letter to his friends about having consciously put aside part of every Sunday in the previous year to spend with his father in the older man’s routine of life. Despite his father’s strength and good health, Edward recognized the fleeting nature of time and although he’d sometimes rather spend the day attending to his own interests, he cleared his mind to enjoy the moments with his dad. As a result, he was left without a whit of guilt or regret. His letter fortified my resolve. I wanted to feel the same way when, on that approaching day, Yeager died.
Employing the principal of gratitude also helped. I most frequently felt it on our quiet evening walks when simply watching how stimulated by life Yeager continued to be. Whatever deficits I might have been operating with in terms of his care, I never forgot it was actually a privilege to be caring for him, to be working at home to spend all my time with him, and to possess excellent health myself, minimizing necessary diversion of my focus. Having learned to face the situation as honestly as I could each day ended up with another compounded benefit. Because the day did come when I felt I really needed sleep, a break and a confidante about the issues being faced.
10. Accept Help
For some months, a friend had enthusiastically offered to help out in anyway with Yeager. On one occasion, I took a day away and they handled an especially rambunctious Yeager all day. Just as I didn’t want to potentially euthanize Yeager too late – or too early, I didn’t want to ask for help before I felt I honestly needed it. So, when I did, I meant it. Accepting occasional help let me catch up on neglected aspects of my life, renewed my own patience with Yeager, and some sense of balance was restored, if even for the time being. I remained the primary, daily caregiver, responsible for every aspect but there were times when I absolutely needed to attend to other matters and so, for several hours, took comfort in knowing there was reliable aid. While I was proud of what I was accomplishing, forcing myself to always be realistic about my own limitations allowed me to ask for and accept the help when it was genuinely needed.
11. Make Arrangements
Quite literally overnight, Yeager manifested the first sign of what threatened and ultimately proved to lead to his death. Fifteen days before he died, I got a random call from another friend, Rich Burns, in Massachusetts, just to see how I was holding up. It was a welcome coincidence. A fellow writer, he’d spoke so vitally about his departed dog Phoebe, although I’d only met his current dog Rufus. I also knew the loss of Phoebe, likely a shepherd-collie mix, had been difficult. Now, as I told him what I was going through with Yeager, he was willing to impart the full range of what he’d felt, as well as sad but necessary decisions I had to soon face, but was reluctant to discuss. After speaking with him facing the practicalities after a dog’s death, like cremation, burial, and transportation of the remains was far easier, a reminder that millions of people who’ve loved their dogs just as much as I’ve loved Yeager have endured the loss – and millions more will in the future as well.
12. Attach and Detach
Throughout Yeager’s eight months as a very old dog, one voice had the greatest sustaining influence on me in relation to dogs, as it had since that November 2001 day when I adopted him – and that was Diane Monahan, founder and director of Friends For Pets, the rescue shelter, who’d initially matched us together by personality. In her daily tasks at the rescue, she has seen acts of cruelty acted out on dogs, heard terrible stories of abuse, and arranged for volunteers to race out in the eleventh hour to rescue dogs abandoned by families in deserts and freeways and city pounds, slated for death. At the Friends for Pets shelter, she’s helped to patiently, reassure over a thousand dogs and manage to somehow communicate to them a sense that life would get better. She and I long spoke about respecting the “dignity” of all living beings and how to recognize when it was no longer present in a dog’s life. It was, however, her ability of duality – t0 be able to commit to the rehabilitative well-being of an individual dog, yet then also release them to a new life and never see them again that she served as an exemplar. To be entirely attached yet accept the inevitability of detachment, to be able to love knowing it would not last – and to do it with beings that cannot speak directly to us: that guided me, especially in the first days of June.
I’d never been a caretaker to a person, let alone a dog. I still childishly wish some magic granted dogs longer lives. I would have to say the often sad struggle for me in those eight months ultimately proved worthwhile. In the months since, I’ve also come to find an enduring meaning from the experience and assess how it changed me. Most importantly was the recognition that however much I often felt alone, I never really was.
Still, many might ask, why bother going through all this? Was it worth it? What was gained?
Forthcoming and Last in this Series:
How Helping A Very Old Dog Live Longer Helps You
- Lost Dog: How Twitter Saved the Day (inkhouse.net)
- Pet Health: Is the End Near? (pets.webmd.com)
- Top Tips to Improve Your Dog’s Life (blogs.confused.com)
- Guide About Dog Walking Market (animaltopics.com)