We put our dog down two weeks ago. That’s a rather benign phrase that belies the cold reality of having our vet administer a lethal injection that slowed his heart rate then stopped his breathing. Wolf was ten years old and suffering from severe hip dysplasia that had crippled his rear legs, as well as an arthritic spine that had suddenly begun to affect his ability use his front legs.
If you’re one of those people to whom an animal is just an animal, don’t bother reading any further. You won’t get what I have to say. I’m 180 degrees in the other direction. I think animals, if you’re paying any attention, can be a channel to a place inside us that can make us better human beings, if only in brief increments. For ten years, Wolf allowed my wife and me- in small and innocuous ways- to be more child-like and open than we might otherwise have been.
I’ll miss him greatly. But then, I always knew that time would come. At the risk of sounding self-congratulatory, I believe that bringing a dog into your life takes a certain amount of courage. Because, unless you’re elderly or terminally ill, odds are you’ll outlive your pet.
More to the point, the odds are great that it will be you who eventually will be faced with the decision of whether or not to end your dog’s life.
The stark, unhappy fact is that few animals grow old and die in their sleep. Most are put to sleep, a decision made by their owners. If that sounds cruel, consider the fate of those same animals in nature. Nature is not kind to the weak, and there is no gentle old age for animals in the wild. And when it comes, the end is not pretty.
Domestic animals, on the other hand, often live well beyond the time when they are no longer vital and strong. Sheltered by loving owners who feed and protect them, they routinely live well past their wild kin.
But while nature isn’t kind, it is wise. It front loads the good things about dogs (and cats), presenting the joy of a rambunctious puppy in order to steal your heart and help guarantee your acceptance of all that other stuff that will come later.
And boy, was Wolf front loaded. He was an impossibly cute German Shepherd-Malamute mix who stole our hearts when we first met him. And it wasn’t just us. We couldn’t walk him down the street without someone commenting on what a beautiful dog he was. Then he grew into a magnificent 98 pound beast with a gentle heart. It was only in the last two years that he was ever any kind of a burden.
As Wolf grew older and his health declined my wife and I struggled mightily with our growing awareness of what was coming, routinely slipping in and out of denial.
“I think we can have him at least two years more,” we agreed two years ago when he was first diagnosed with hip dysplasia.
“Just two more years,” Carol was still saying a year later.
“He’ll be with us at least one more Christmas,” we told each other last December. But this past Christmas would be Wolf’s last one with us”what had been a slow decline suddenly became a rapid deterioration. We watched helplessly as our once magnificent beast grew increasingly incapable of doing most of the things that made him happy.
All the while, the shadow of our looming decision grew deeper, until we realized that our hesitation had grown to have less to do with our love and more to do with our selfishness. We simply didn’t want to let him go ” despite our hearts telling us that was what we had to do.
Never in my life has finding the courage to do the right thing ever felt less satisfying.
My wife and I both sobbed while we gently held him down, trying to calm his usual anxiety at being in the vet’s office, stroking his head and scratching his ears. We felt him quickly relax and his heart beat slow down. Then he stop breathing.
“He’s gone,” our vet said quietly after a few seconds. And just like that, ten years that began with a happy ride back from a breeder at the start of the 4th of July weekend in 1994, was over- a life that had added so very much to our lives inretrievably gone.
It seems like only last week that Carol and I put what looked and felt like little more than a small ball of fur with a tongue in the middle it, into his cage for the night in our back den. As we did so, my wife spoke a phrase we would come to utter each and every night for a week short of ten years- “Goodnight, Wolfie dog.”
The cynic in me cringes a bit to admit it, but I realize now that Wolf was indeed a gift from God. He always had a way of muting my cynical side, one of his greatest gifts to me. Sadly, he was a gift that Carol and I have now returned to its creator.
But like a mind once expanded never returning to its old size, a heart opened doesn’t ever close again. And my heart has a greater opening for warmth and joy now from having had Wolf in my life. So too, a greater capacity to feel sadness.
Yet as that sadness of losing him fades, it’s being replaced by an enduring sense of gratitude for a unique gift, and for the wondrous ways in which Wolf was able to fill our lives with countless little episodes of warmth and joy.
Just one more time- “Good night, Wolfie dog.”