I recently had a VERY long conversation with an old friend. His aged dog was suffering and he was trying to determine if the time had come to put his buddy down. Between the two of us, we put a lot of energy into the discussion, so I wanted to document the gist of it in case I ever needed to cover the topic again.
Before I begin however, I must stress that I am not a vet and nothing I say should be construed as medical advice. You simply must have a conversation with your vet prior to reaching any conclusion. My father has always had dogs, and for that large portion of my life that I’ve shared with him, I of course have had dogs as well. And I’ve had to face these decisions with him on multiple occasions.
Putting a dog (or any pet for that matter) down is one of the hardest things that a person can be called on to do. It is perhaps the ultimate price that a dog owner has to pay. But, really, if you put this task in context of the love, enjoyment, and myriad other benefits that you’ve gained from a lifetime with a dog – the weight of this task isn’t much. It is one of the costs of dog ownership. You knew it when you decided to adopt the dog. Dogs have a much shorter life span than humans, so the odds were pretty well set that you would have to face this day eventually.
I don’t know if any of that makes the decision easier, but it does point towards your obligation to make the decision – and make it wisely. This is perhaps my most important point – as the owner of the dog it is your decision to make. It is your responsibility. Your dog, your faithful companion, your best friend is counting on you to do the right thing for him. He trusts you in this as he has trusted you in all things ever since that first day when he licked your face and stole your heart.
This means that you must dispose of the myth that your dog will “tell you when it is time.” Oh how wonderful and comforting it would be if that was true. But it isn’t true. In fact the exact opposite is true. Your dog is hardwired, genetically coded to hide this information from you. In the wild, a weak dog is a dead dog. So all dogs will do their very best to hide any weakness. The very fact that you are thinking about this topic probably tells you that your dog has already failed in this effort – which in his canine mind is a life-and-death matter.
Only your vet can tell you if your dog’s condition is a temporary, curable situation. Even if it is theoretically curable, that doesn’t mean that it is practical to do so. I heard on NPR the other day the story of a man who has spent over $20,000 on radiation treatments for his pet duck’s cancer. Not very many of us can do that. And even if we could it doesn’t necessarily mean that we should. Is curing your dog’s condition worth losing your house over? Should your kids skip meals so that the dog can have his medication? Only you can make this decision. But do keep in mind that a dog is a dog and however much a part of your family he is, you have to consider the rest of your human family in the equation.
On a more practical question, is your dog still capable of living and enjoying a dog’s life? Can the poor creature still sit, stand, and walk on his own? No dog is happy, or even still really a dog, if he can’t get up and defecate on his own power. Sure his tail still thumps that happy greeting when he sees you, but if he can’t take care of his own business he isn’t happy.
Understand that you will second-guess yourself. That is a normal part of the grieving process. And you will grieve when your beloved companion is gone. Delaying the decision will not change that one single iota. And your grief, or your concerns about the grief that is guaranteed to be coming your way, cannot be a part of your decision process. You will grieve. The loss will hurt. You cannot change that, and you don’t really want to change that. But this decision is not about you. Yes, one more day of chasing rabbits or playing fetch or whatever would be wonderful. But wanting it, which of course you do, doesn’t make it real.
The only factor now is what is best for your dog. If he cannot live a dog’s life – feeding himself and eliminating for himself, then it is time to go. Hold him, love him, and let him drift off to sleep one last time in your arms. Do him that last loving favor and take him to the bridge.
If you aren’t familiar with the Rainbow Bridge myth, remember that Google is your friend. There are many sites that feature this story, here is just one of them
The basic story is that when a pet dies, they go to a place just this side of heaven. Nearby is a rainbow bridge that leads to heaven. Your pet is restored to his full health and vigor. He romps and plays there with other pets, waiting for the day that you arrive so that the two of you can cross the bridge together and live happily ever after. I don’t know that it fits into any sort of orthodox religion, but it has been a comfort to me – and that is good enough.
My father, wise man that he is, tells a slightly different tale, but one that has also long been a comfort to me. It is the story of an old man who finds himself walking along a country road. From out of a nearby field comes his favorite old dog, who had passed away many years ago. The dog is healthy and very pleased to see him. The two walk along the road, enjoying each other’s company – as only a man and his dog can. It is a beautiful day, and although the sun is beating down on them, the joy of walking together is overwhelming.
They soon come to a beautiful alabaster wall that surrounds a huge complex along the side of the road. Eventually, they come upon the gates to the glorious place. There is a man sitting at a desk outside of the gate. He tells the man that these are the gates to heaven, and the man is welcome to enter. Inside there will be cool water and a comfortable place to lie in the shade. The old man is thrilled. He pets his dog and says “come on boy, let’s go.” But the official stops him. He says that while the old man is welcome in heaven, there is no place for dogs in heaven.
The old man is really torn. Of course he wants to enter the gates of heaven, but to have to leave his dog behind is an enormous price. He decides that he’s just going to walk a while longer with his old dog. So they proceed down the road.
Eventually they come to a rickety old wooden gate. Just inside the gate is a very old man lounging along side a well. He calls to the pair and asks if they would like to come sit in the shade and enjoy some of his cool well water. The man says “I would love to, but my dog is thirsty as well.” The well-keeper says “but of course, you’ll find not only a pitcher of cool water, but a clean bowl for your dog there as well.”
The pair sit and cool off in the shade. The well water is the most amazing, refreshing water they have ever tasted. The man tells the well-keeper of their travels, and the dilemma posed by the gates of heaven. The well-keeper laughs and says “You have to watch out for that old trickster by the fancy gate. That’s the devil and those aren’t the gates to heaven, but the gates to hell. This here is heaven.” The man appears puzzled, but the well-keeper continues “You don’t think that I would create a creature as magnificent and loving as a dog and then ask you to abandon him in order to enter my kingdom do you? That’s just a last test for you. Any man who would abandon his dog isn’t welcome in heaven.”
I hope that all of my rambling has been of some help to somebody somewhere along the way.