Helping A Very Old Dog Live Well & Naturally: A Two-Part Series

Yeager at fifteen years old, after having his way with a disposed jar of marshmallow Fluff.

On June 3, 2011, my very beloved canine companion Yeager died. I wrote this two-part article on what I learned about caring for a Very Old Dog, the genesis of a book by the same title I have continued to work on. I republish this as a way to help others who struggle with questions about this sensitive issue, hoping some of it may help. One can see some elements of the care that helped him live fully as he was dying slowly in this video tribute, “The World’s Best Dog.” For all those who find themselves alone in this process, you are not alone in spirit: millions of people are going through the exact same situation at the very same moment you are.

In eight profound months, beginning in October of 2010, my perceptions of time, communication, dignity, and the power of intention were forever altered by the paradoxical process of helping my ninety-pound, 16 year old Weimaraner companion named Yeager live well as a very old dog, for as long as nature allowed.  As it was, he spent 25 percent of his life outliving his life expectancy.

On June third of this year, in his favorite blue chair, confiscated as his own the first day he entered the house, Yeager died in my arms without pain, suddenly but naturally. Grief, shock, loneliness came.

Guilt and regret for what I might have or not have done, however, did not.

The old boy in his blue chair.

It was the final moment of mutual attentiveness begun the day I’d adopted him from Friends for Pets a decade earlier.  He was six then.  Unlike Yeager,  dozens of dogs will live out the rest of their lives in the no-kill Friends for Pets shelter, passed over for adoption simply because they’re disabled or perfectly healthy but older in years. To provide for their care, we’ve created a fundraising effort in his memory, called The Yeager Fund. 

Still, many adopted dogs who are equally beloved die less ideally and leave behind conflicted humans.

Certainly the luck of Yeager’s genetics take big credit for his healthy longevity.  As much as anyone can direct the mechanics of fate, however, his peculiar longevity, given his size and breed, was also the result of new skills honed to first anticipate, and then accept the challenges of his last months.

Before he was a very old dog, Yeager had a good, long stretch as just an old dog.

It meant investing physical, emotional and financial resources, learning to acutely prioritize, seek the wisest counsel and, most elusively, develop an intuitive instinct about Yeager’s evolving state of mind and body.

Since then, I’ve encountered strangers, neighbors and other familiar faces who long cheered Yeager on in that eight month period, themselves now confused and anxious at the first signs of age debilities in their dogs.

Many are reacting to the diagnoses and suggestions of vets, but to passively accept the edict of one professional without a wider search for answers and consultation of the wisest “opinion” – that of the dog, is sometimes enough to kill an old dog prematurely.

If people can commit to certain preparations and modifications, they can ensure the best chance of their healthy old dog aging without pain into a very old one .

Thousands of books and articles help us help puppies mature into their prime but anything about caretaking very old dogs is inevitably devoid of both the practical realities and the emotional rewards of that process.

January 2011

In those which do touch on the subject, a lot of gentle euphemisms are employed in place of an honest consideration of euthanasia, non-medical tactics to cope with non-life threatening issues, the potential for shifting our perceptions of human life – let alone mention of the best wee-wee pads.

In reviewing Yeager’s last eight months, however, I now recognize turning points and crossroads where decisive action proved crucial to us both and which may perhaps help others experiencing what can be as enlightening and joyous a period as it is brief and poignant.

I’ve discovered many, but here are a few, embedded in an abbreviated version of that time, from October 2010 to June 2011.

1. Determine if there’s Pain

First and foremost, determine if your old dog is in pain – whether it’s permanent, worsening, temporary or relievable. Everything else you do will stem from resolving this issue. It’s not always easy. Some dogs that feel pain won’t reveal it obviously by how they act, striving to get on with life as usual, but the slightest difference in behavior can clue you in. Are they still excitedly running into the kitchen to eat but slower in getting there? Do they react sharply if you touch them in some places? It might be the first signal of a debility that will become entrenched – or it may be nothing. And keep checking, constantly.

Along these lines, I learned not to assume a dog’s changing physicality always means pain.

Pausing, Yeager in “slope-back” mode.

Last October, Yeager paused to sniff some hedges during a morning walk. He was also shuffling, a bit slower than usual. He didn’t as much as fall as he sat back on his hind legs. It was the third day in a row of cold and rainy weather, so I assumed he’d slipped. When we got home, I finished packing for a rare trip of six days. Rather than pull himself and climb onto my bed, however, he paused in an odd sloped position, lowering his back and bending his knees but not sitting.

Yeager always stared intently into Peet’s Coffee, waiting for me.

I immediately assumed he was suddenly, finally showing signs of the dreaded hip dysplasia, common to older, larger dogs. For months, some worry-wart woman kept insisted it just had to be that when she saw him similarly sloping outside of Peet’s Coffee, where he routinely waited while I dashed in for coffee. In fact, Yeager wasn’t suffering hip or knee pain but rather the lack of feeling in his toes and legs. During his first examination by a veterinarian who treated him to nearly the end, a potential issue was detected that proved to be so subtle that when I brought Yeager in upon my return from my October trip, even the vet had nearly forgotten about his lower-back, pinched-nerve which was now worsening and leaving his feet numb.

In this situation, making a daily assessment helped me take other measures immediately to help him carry on as he wished.  Medical conditions might plateau for a long time in an old dog. They are sure to deteriorate in a very old dog.

Towards the end of his life, a more alarming health issue arose suddenly.

Despite his eagerness to still walk and eat, I assumed he was in pain.  I called in a vet to perform a home euthanasia. Dr. Steven Smith (https://www.homepetdoctor.com), arrived with his medicine bag to examine Yeager. Without regard to any potential profit, Smith declared, “He’s in slight discomfort but no pain.”  He didn’t recommend euthanasia. For Yeager, that was the right decision.

2. Home Adjustments

If it was still easy to forget that Yeager was an old dog when I left for a six-day trip last October, when I got back, it was obvious that I’d returned to a very old dog.  It required immediate and gradual home adjustments.

Putting a mattress on the floor prevented any potential falls for him and relief for me, though I always worked right nearby.

Before I had left, I feared that he’d really take a bad fall if he tried to keep getting up on my bed to nap when I was gone. He was being looked in on every three hours, but the old boy was still a hellion when nobody was looking.  Twenty minutes before I left for the airport, I impulsively dissembled my bed and temporarily put the mattress on the floor.

It proved not to be temporary.

The wood floors became a challenge.

Yeager still persisted in climbing onto the sofa and his blue chaise lounge . More often, however, when roused by someone outside, he now looked tentatively at the slippery wood floor first and sometimes decided to do his hoarse barking from the safety of the chair.  He still bounded into the kitchen, anticipating dinner though now if he waited in a stationary mode more than a few minutes, his feet were starting to slide and made him constantly reposition his stand. In fact, the condition of his numbed toe nerves was worsening and he was losing the ability to grip the floor. Lining his pathways at home with rugs made all the difference.

Small Target rugs gave Yeager’s toes grip and were washable for “spillage.”

Sturdy twine rugs looked great but proved futile. In the end, rugs with rubber backing did the trick. That Target had sold out of long and plush versions and only had shorter, washable rugs proved fortuitous (https://www.target.com/c/home-home-décor-rugs/-/N-5xttg#?lnk=nav_t_spc_5_inc_4_10). As time went on, it took Yeager longer to get outside to relieve himself and it was vastly more efficient to wash a few short rugs he’d dribbled or streamed on. It also meant moving furniture to clear a beeline for the door. Soon enough, there was a ramp down the two front steps and back ones.

A puppy’s wee-wee pad is a very old dog’s rescue pad.

The water bill’s sudden spike wasn’t due to rug-washing alone. By Halloween, there was dribbling while he slept. And that called for my own unique system of three layers of different materials, two washable and one disposable, to match his size and sleeping habits and keep both him and the bed dry. Trying all sizes and brands, the simple “Training Pads” I found in a Safeway, part of its Priority Total PetCare line, proved the most reliable and radically inexpensive by comparison to products in pet stores. (https://www.safeway.com/IFL/Grocery/Our-Brands). For total insurance, another trip to Target found me investing in water-repellant bed coverings. Diapers were a temporary but failed effort. He liked shaking or tearing them off.

The red “Rugged” brand of Ultra Paws – the ones that ultimately lasted longest for Yeager.

3. Very Old Dog Support

The greater resistance to change, however, came with old dog support products that Yeager found himself attached, contained by and snapped into. It was time to force him into a pair of booties I’d bought back after Yeager was misdiagnosed at 13 years old with the nerve disorder Degenerative Myleopathy.

Like a bad kid protesting footsie pajamas, Yeager never stopped stiffening his feet when I tried to get them on him, surely not caring that the large round black cloppers made him look like a canine Mickey Mouse, just that they felt odd.

Once on him, however, the booties soon gave out, this brand being not only too thin but lacking a firm hold around the ankles, turning, tearing and falling off. The sturdiest and most secure ended up being the red Rugged Boots among the many choices offered by Ultra Paws (https://www.ultrapaws.com/Ultra-Paws-Rugged-Dog-Boots/productinfo/303R/).

A handle harness helped Yeager up or lifted into the car like luggage – in his case, 60’s Samsonite.

The search for the ultimate dog bootie led me into the extraordinary universe of disabled and senior animal products of endlessly promising diversity (harness lifts, memory-foam beds, ankle supports, back braces, to name but a few).

All geared up.

At great cost, I learned the hard way that many products seem ideal online, but vary greatly in terms of quality and cost, catering more to small dogs that can be hand-carried around rather than the big all-elbows Marmaduke-types like Yeager.

In his last weeks, certainly nothing better than the Help ‘Em Up Harness by Blue Dog Designs (with handles like luggage) helped him rise and be lifted into the car. (https://helpemup.com/store/#&panel1-2)

You can see some of the items that worked for him towards the end of my Youtube tribute to him, “The World’s Best Dog.”

4. Wheels

Nothing proved as vital to lifting his sloping back, reducing his leg and foot numbness and letting him continue his walks as did “the cart,” a dog equivalent of the walker and wheelchair for people and what, eventually, the old boy took as if it were King Fido’s royal carriage.

Yeager, displeased after his initial enforcement in the cart that ultimately helped lengthen and improve his life.

For a solid month I plunged into an ocean of websites, help boards and Jerry-rigged contraption blueprints claiming to help dogs that were full or partially paralyzed, missing a limb or just ancient.

I ultimately narrowed it down to which one promised to best support Yeager’s unusually long back. It ended up being the most expensive. It also ended up saving his life.

After meticulous measurements of every possible body part’s length, I put the order in for his custom-made cart from Eddie’s Wheels, https://www.eddieswheels.com.

Once it arrived, I slipped his back legs into the strongly-constructed cart, and secured the chest strap. Yeager stared blankly at me, seemingly offended. He wouldn’t budge. Eventually, he realized he wasn’t going anywhere unless he tried to walk in the cart. Once he did, he took off. It was a poignant moment.

As long as Yeager wanted to trot, sniff and inspect, I just helped, pulling his cart behind.

I did buy the cart sooner than he really needed it, and for many months, I simply pulled it along in case Yeager suddenly sloped or tired.

Front wheels prevented Yeager’s wrists from weakening while still making him use all four legs to do his rounds.

Not for months would I realize just how perfectly it fit, not until he could no longer make his long, full round without it, the last time he did so being February 11.

A month later, detecting a weakness in his left wrist and shoulder, I added on front wheels from Eddie’s Wheels.

It was ironic that, while aging was causing some muscle loss, having to continue using all four legs was also building muscle gain.

Eventually, Yeager had to use the cart if he hoped to do his regular full walk

Eventually, Yeager had to use the cart if he hoped to complete  his regular long walk

It was not that last illness nor his pinched-nerve, however, which caused Yeager’s lethargy that October morning. Likely due to the suddenly cold weather, the old boy had contracted pneumonia and nearly died during the six days of our separation.

But he didn’t.

Yeager’s regular vet put him on medication and he recovered. Six months later, after an April checkup, however, I faced a fact about the vet himself which I’d been reluctant to believe. And it had nothing to do with Yeager’s health.

5. Vet the Vet

The three vets who proved crucial to Yeager living well in the last month of his life: (left to right), Khara Johnson, Steven Smith and McGee Leonard

By November, I’d begun recording any slight change in Yeager’s condition and questions about his medicines’ side affects, and taking these to the vet. Hell, yes, it was obsessive, but three times in the past I’d immediately detected mast cell tumors on Yeager this way, and each time it saved his life. Reacting to the vet’s sudden passivity towards my questions, I apologetically added I wasn’t questioning his professionalism, nor seeking to make Yeager live beyond nature’s turn but only to prevent what could be prevented, especially potential pain.

On this April visit, I’d come with two friends, familiar with Yeager’s condition, but the vet told his assistant to prevent them from joining us. Days earlier, I felt a small but solid lump in Yeager’s abdomen and asked the vet what it was. “Could be anything,” he murmured, avoiding my gaze. “Is there a test to tell what it is?” He mumbled nothing in particular. I asked if it was cancer. All I got was, “Could be anything.”

In that moment, I realized he’d abandoned any camaraderie we’d shared on Yeager’s behalf, and any respect I’d accorded him as an authority figure abandoned me. I also saw my culpability in ignoring my own instincts about this vet, especially after Yeager had been kept waiting on a floor for three hours for a scheduled x-ray that was continuously ignored. He’d been great treating Yeager in his prime, though always highly uncommunicative, but once it seemed the old boy’s months were numbered, Dr. Could-Be-Anything failed.

That’s why it’s vital to vet the vet, by which I mean scrutinize whether even the most reliable of veterinarians is both professionally and emotionally equipped to care for your old dog to the end.

Before I’d been able to carefully chose a new vet for Yeager, however, an emergency arose on the morning of May 9.

On May 11, after I scheduled his euthanasia at home for eight in the evening, at about seven, Yeager bolted in his cart from a “last” graze in the garden out to the sidewalk, for a full-blown walk. Dr. Smith soon arrived but said he wasn’t in pain and gave him a sedative to relax. Yeager then roused through the medication upon scenting the arrival of pizza for the no-longer mourning mourners. He lived another three weeks, dying naturally.

Yeager’s abdomen was suddenly swollen with what proved to be bodily fluid produced in reaction to a pancreas dysfunction. I had to make an immediate decision and so I rushed him to a vet recommended by a neighbor. The vet was sweet but obviously distracted with personal matters. After pumping his stomach to relieve his discomfort, she simply vanished from the office, leaving no report or instructions for his care – just the bill. Ticked off by my insistence she be contacted at home, she blithely relayed a message to feed him normally. I did what she said. It proved nearly fatal.

Enjoying a stroke of luck when rushed him the next day to Animal Surgical and Emergency Center, he was treated by Dr. McGee Leonard (https://www.asecvets.com).

Dr. Leonard articulated care instructions and her combination of medical specificity and personal compassion relieved me. Her tests could not conclusively prove whether Yeager had pancreatic cancer or severe pancreatis.

While it wasn’t possible to have him regularly treated by an emergency vet, a glowing report about the especial care for senior dogs possessed by the Veterinary Care Center’s Dr. Khara Johnson led us to her. (https://www.veterinarycarecenter.com/)

Veterinary Care Center, where Yeager received care at the end of his life: along with superb care for my very old dog, the peaceful waiting and exam rooms reduced stress in the saddest time

By two more strokes of good fortune, Dr. Johnson had opened her practice a week before, just three blocks away. Her patient care and comfort of Yeager surpassed any regular vet he’d seen. Despite the pressure of opening a new practice, she always took my calls, said she didn’t know – if she didn’t know, and spent generous time speaking to me about what I realized was only a matter of weeks. After the turmoil of finding the right vet, she was a godsend in his final days.

6. Adjust the Diet

Yeager never tired of eating anything – except the excessive amount of boiled chicken ordered in his last two weeks.

Throughout his very old years, Yeager’s appetite remained intense and he gained weight easily. With a senior dog’s weight being a serious factor in their longevity, it was a constant battle to keep him trim since letting him trot for long stretches could easily exhaust him.

After a new round of research on optimum weight for his size and age, but conscious of the importance of consistency to what a dog ate and how much Yeager loved his regular meals, I needed to carefully adjust the diet.

In 2008, after Yeager’s misdiagnosis with D.M. and finding the national expert on it, Dr. Roger L. Clemmons of the University of Florida at Gainesville veterinary school (but long before it became obvious Yeager did not have D.M.) I began feeding the old boy the special diet which the veterinarian recommended, mixed with some dry kibble.

It consisted of ground meat (pork, turkey, chicken) carrots, molasses, olive oil, green peppers, spinach, brown rice, broccoli, bone meal, dry mustard, crushed garlic clove, dry grounded ginger – each ingredient is included to address specific symptoms. The full recipe is found here: https://neuro.vetmed.ufl.edu/neuro/DM_Web/DMofGS.htm

Since it was so healthy and certainly didn’t hurt, I continued to feed it to Yeager.

When he showed symptoms that suggested the adrenal disorder Cushing’s Disease, I researched that and learned how ethoxyquin, a common preservative in commercial dog food was hard on the canine immune system and could worsen conditions like Cushing’s.

While evidence is anecdotal, I believe Yeager’s healthy diet was crucial to his strength, clarity and longevity.

Repeated testing never showed he didn’t have it, but in the interim I’d searched and found Flint River Ranch’s “SeniorPlus” natural dry food for seniors (https://www.frrco.com), consisting of meat proteins, fruits, herbs, grains, vitamins and minerals. Although freshly-made, it also proved less expensive than commercial dog food.

Unlike numerous (and expensive) medicinal tonics and powders he tried, the Clemmons-Flint River diet noticeably strengthened Yeager’s condition even in his last months though the amount was regulated to maintain optimum weight.

These guidelines – and many more there is no room to include here – helped Yeager not only live as long as he did but engaged and active, without pain. They all now seems sensible and obvious, but at the time it was a matter of trial and error, search and discovery. Not until the last month did I really take stock, however, of how exhausting and depleted it often left me – and how that could affect my care of him.

In that sense, helping myself may have been the best way to help him. That is addressed in the second part of this series:

 “Helping Yourself Help A Very Old Dog Live Longer and Well.”


Helping yourself will help a very old dog live longer and well…

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

So many of my instinctive decisions came down to eye to eye contact and recognizing Yeager not as a dog but a living being worthy of respect equal to human beings – not a widely popular view.

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

My unique situation, like everyone’s – had individual advantages and deficits but working at home is what really allowed me to caretake Yeager through his last eight months.

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

Yeager’s curiosity in exploring and keen senses were another way I made a judgement on his shifting condition. Keeping him engaged proved to be as important as nutrition.

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

Observing Yeager’s behavior, examining his condition were part of a daily routine that defined how – and at times – whether to continue to care for him

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

Jake and Daren Phillips.

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

Jeff Buhler and Rebecca Hughes with their son Rocco and dog Tallulah.

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.

Rebecca, Tallulah and Rocco.

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

Edward Purcell was visiting from Washington when his father died; time spent with his father freed him from a sense of regret.

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. 

Rich Burns who committed fully to caring for his dog Phoebe to the end, and helped me by speaking about the experience .

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.

Yeager with Friends For Pets founder and director Diane Monahan in 2005. go to www.friendsforpets.org for more information on the rescue.

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.

 


Categories: A Dog's Death, Dogs, Remembering a Dog, Senior Dog Care

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