For the love of an old dog

Coming Home: How do you say goodbye to a pet who was your first family?

It’s always a rainy day for this kind of news.

But if the sun happens to be shining when you hear it, standing in the vet’s office bouncing your fussy baby while your big-hearted old dog waits for you on a blanket in the back of your car, well you’d just resent it’s hopeful rays anyway.

It was the coughing and wheezing on our walk that weekend that found me and my old companion looking at one another wondering how I was going to get his tired and stiff 110-pound body hoisted up into the back of my SUV without killing us both.

But turns out, it’s not those old bones that are killing him, it’s that big ‘ol heart. At least that’s what I heard the vet say, words I knew were coming despite my hope for something that might return him to the days when I would open the back hatch of my little Saturn and he’d leap in, sleek and slobbery and hoping for a trip to the lake.

And it’s not that I didn’t know this was coming.

Nearly 12 years alive for a chocolate Lab is what you can expect. It’s just that the gray hair around his muzzle now matches the hair along my temples and the silver shining out the sides of my husband’s hat; hair that reminds me we’re not those kids anymore, freshly married with a world of plans and time in front of us and a new puppy peeing in the house and chewing on our shoelaces and soaking up the extra love and affection and time spilling out of us.

And now we’re in the thick of it, wiping butts and noses, raising careers and cattle and sometimes passing each other like ships in the night. And sometime between then and now our puppy with an affinity for sticks too large for him to carry turned into an old dog getting ready to leave us.

I swallowed that lump in my throat at least a dozen times while I waited to pay for the prescription medication that might make him comfortable and keep him here with us a little longer.

I put the baby in the car and his big old muzzle leaned on the seat, breathing heavily over her as she closed her eyes to sleep and I closed mine to cry, that dog’s life story unwinding in my head and all tangled up in the lifespan of our marriage.

He was our first family member and the one constant in a life together that has often felt as overwhelming as it has wonderful.

The moves, the renovations, the family plans broken, the slamming doors, the celebratory hugs, the pheasant hunts and long walks, the dozens of songs, the sleepless nights, the pregnancies, the babies — he’s helped bring us here and has always welcomed us home.

This morning I’ll give him his pills tucked up in a hot dog, scratch his belly and let him out to sit in the sun that’s shining today, giving us hope for a little more time before we have to figure out how to live without him.

Thank you to everyone who has emailed to share sympathy and stories of their favorite pets. I’m happy to report Hondo seems to be doing better on the meds. We are going to love him every minute we have left with him.

A poem shared with me by one of you, my special readers

The Power of a Dog

By Rudyard Kipling

There is sorrow enough in the natural way
From men and women to fill our day;
But when we are certain of sorrow in store,
Why do we always arrange for more?
Brothers and sisters I bid you beware
Of giving your heart to a dog to tear.

Buy a pup and your money will buy
Love unflinching that cannot lie–
Perfect passion and worship fed
By a kick in the ribs or a pat on the head.
Nevertheless it is hardly fair
To risk your heart for a dog to tear.

When the fourteen years that nature permits
Are closing in asthma or tumors or fits
And the vet’s unspoken prescription runs
To lethal chambers, or loaded guns.
Then you will find–its your own affair
But–you’ve given your heart to a dog to tear.

When the body that lived at your single will
When the whimper of welcome is stilled (how still!)
When the spirit that answered your every mood
Is gone–wherever it goes–for good,
You still discover how much you care
And will give your heart to a dog to tear.

We’ve sorrow enough in the natural way
When it comes to burying Christian clay.
Our loves are not given, but only lent,
At compound interest of cent per cent.
Though it is not always the case, I believe,
That the longer we’ve kept ’em the more do we grieve;
For when debts are payable, right or wrong,
A short time loan is as bad as a long–
So why in Heaven (before we are there)
Should we give our hearts to a dog to tear?

11 thoughts on “For the love of an old dog

  1. Beautiful, and sad, story I so related to. I have had several dogs throughout my childhood and adult life and it always hurts when you lose one. My companion now is 11 years old and I sometimes wonder if he’ll outlive me or vice verse. I’ve always felt that kids should grow up with a dog as their companion. Dogs give us unconditional love and are loyal to a fault.

  2. I’ve been there. It’s hard, it hurts, you love and you mourn, but life without dogs is almost not worth the bother. My Smoky is 14 1/2 years old now. His knees kind of melt if he stands too long, but will still try to run a bit every now and then, he sleeps a lot, adores the hot water baseboard heat in the winter, demands his treats and tastes of whatever we’re eating and just keeps loving us. I’ve found that they will let you know when it finally reaches a point it’s too much for them, every one of my boys has over the years and I’ve held each of them as they left this world. I’ve been blessed with damn good dogs and I never want to be without one in my life.

  3. When I was a little kid, Daddy had to sell a couple of old-favorite saddle horses. I asked him why horses couldn’t live to be 80. (Probably the biggest number I knew) He said, “Who could catch ’em?”

    There has to be a special place in Heaven

  4. I am glad Hondo is doing better on the meds. I know what these old animals mean to us. Our oldest cat is 22 now. It is hard to watch them slow down, knowing the day is coming they won’t be there with us anymore.

  5. Wish there was a love button for this post ~ big sloppy hugs to your boy, and extra hot dogs, too. I know that one day they will be the first to greet us at Heaven’s door. Hugs, MJ

  6. Your story really hit home as we have a 14 year old dog that is so much a part of our family and he now has congestive heart failure and a bad back.. Gone are the days of the long walks and chasing pheasants and cats. Now we just pray he has a good day without too much pain or coughing,Its so hard to daily watch them slip bit by bit knowing there is nothing you can do and they won’t live forever. Thanks for sharing your story.. made me realize there are many special dogs out there that we all will miss terribly. Janice

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