When It's Time to Let Go
I pass by my dog’s bed in the living room and look down at him. He gazes up at me with his soulful brown eyes, the whites showing in a rim under the brown. He looks innocent, trusting, adoring. I notice his eyebrows need to be trimmed.
I kneel on his bed and lay my head on the ruff around his neck while stroking his charcoal-colored fur. He makes soft little grunting sounds, acknowledging our connection. I lift my head and stare into his liquid brown eyes. Politely, he turns away and lays his head down. He is old and tired, but can I bear to put him down?
Thirteen years ago, I decided I had been without a dog for too many years. My partner, L., had never had a dog, but with my encouragement, she started looking. She found what she was looking for online at an animal shelter in Wenatchee, Washington—a terrier mix with soulful brown eyes and a scruffy beard.
In the shelter, I found him standing on his hind legs in his cage with his front paws on the gate. He barked when he saw me approaching. His dark gray fur was matted, he was thin and malnourished, and his belly was almost devoid of hair, but he had spirit.
“He’s about a year old,” the young shelter volunteer told me. “He has beautiful teeth.”
I took him out to the private fenced area to get to know him. He was friendly and affectionate, and his eyes begged me to take him. I could see he was a fine dog—probably some kind of designer dog given his docked tail—but I feared that L. would not think so until I got him cleaned up. After finishing up the adoption paperwork at the shelter, I took him to PetSmart to be groomed. For the entirety of the three-hour drive to Seattle, he sat on the seat next to me, smelling fresh and clean, a scarf around his neck and his head on my thigh.
The name they’d used for him at the shelter was Dude. At L.’s suggestion that first night, we changed it to Dudley—similar enough, but classier.
At home in Seattle, we gave him a comfy, soft bed, some toys, and his own corner of the bedroom, but he wouldn’t settle—just followed us from room to room. Even when I went to the bathroom, he nosed the door open and stuck his bearded snout part way in to make sure I had not escaped. When not following us, he lay on his bed in the corner looking up at us with his soulful brown eyes, it was as if he was saying, “I am a very good dog; please keep me.”
As he was emaciated when we first got him, and a picky eater, L. made him special food to help him get his weight up. Pork loin, broccoli, brown rice, chicken stock, zucchini, and root vegetables were all on his menu, alternated with only the best kibble and wet food. He gained ten pounds—up to his normal weight, forty pounds—and his coat filled out, glossy and thick.
But oh, the separation anxiety. If we left him alone in the house, even for a few minutes, upon our return, he would hyperventilate, wheeze, and bark a high-pitched, hysterical bark. On more than one occasion, I caught our friends exchanging concerned glances. One friend asked me bluntly, “Why did you pick this dog?”
Anxious dogs are often smart dogs and this was true for Dudley. He was easy to train to sit, stay, and come when called. L. trained him to automatically sit at each curb in the city when walking with her off leash, until she gave him the signal it was safe to cross.
When we were staying in our house in Canada, he would come immediately when called as long as there were no deer around. But if he smelled or saw a deer, his floppy ears and nose twitched and he was off, crashing through the brush and salal. Sometimes he was gone for forty minutes, and we fretted until he came trotting home, his tongue lolling out, a big smile on his face, his beard all wet.
We consulted an expert English dog trainer, and, with the temporary help of an electric collar, we eventually trained him to come every time—regardless of distractions.
It wasn’t long before we discovered that Dudley understood English. In fact, his vocabulary was quite large and included walk, ball, sit, stay, treats, bone, stick, cheese, biscuit, bed, up, down, come, go to your bed, and much more. One of his favorite games was to find something we had hidden. “Go find your bear,” I’d say, and he would run excitedly around the house, panting and checking my body language for clues, ignoring all his other toys that were not the bear.
Dudley studied us carefully all day, and soon he had us trained as well. We never left him alone, took him with us everywhere, gave him treats before bedtime, and let him up on the sofa when we watched TV.
Most of the time, Dudley was well-behaved but there were some spectacular exceptions—he chewed through the shoulder harness in our car, scarfed a whole bag of chocolate-covered ginger off the counter, and wolfed down a couple of marijuana cookies someone had given us (he was a little wobbly and vacant of expression afterwards but otherwise seemed none the worse).
Some of his misbehavior was clearly designed to send a message of disapproval. On my sixtieth birthday, we invited a houseful of guests from Seattle to Vancouver Island and when it came time to take them all to the ferry, there was no room in the SUV for Dudley. Miffed at being left at home alone, he took a package of Depends given to me as a gag gift and ripped them to shreds just inside the front door. Kleenex extracted from the garbage was also useful to express displeasure when the situation called for it.
There were some ghosts from Dudley’s past that clearly still haunted him. One day in our house in Canada, a swarm of winter flies hatched somewhere in the house. When I saw the flies crawling along the window in the living room, I grabbed a fly-swatter and began dispatching them. Dudley leaped up from his bed, went into his crate, and lay there shaking.
I stopped swinging immediately when I saw Dudley’s fearful reaction, but he did not forgive me right away. He refused to jump up and sit on my lap while we watched TV as he usually did and watched me carefully for any further signs of mental instability. In his eyes I had become maniacal fly killer. It was only when I went away for a few days and came back that he finally forgave me and leaped into my lap for a conciliatory cuddle.
Dudley did not leave anything out on the field when he was running after his ball. Again and again, he would run after it full tilt, sometimes tumbling head over heels when he grabbed it. Then he would leap up and bring the ball back to me for another go-round. As he grew older and arthritic, L. started telling me I pushed him too hard. Maybe. But he always begged me for more throws.
Sometimes, when I took him for walks, I would look at him beside me—lifting his paws like a trotting horse, his floppy ears blown back by the wind, his beard just perfect in profile, his whole body radiating joy and vitality—and my heart would fill with love.
“You’re my beautiful boy,” I’d tell him.
Dudley would turn his head and smile, tongue hanging out the side, and pant, “Ha, ha, ha,” in acknowledgment.
About two years ago, we were upstairs, watching television on the couch, when we heard Dudley starting up the stairs to join us. We had noticed that he seemed a bit more reluctant to climb them in the last week. He was halfway up when we heard him stumble and then heard the thump, thump, thump of him falling down the stairs.
We both jumped up, rushed down the stairs, and found him upright but shaking at the bottom.
Thinking back, I remembered that over the past few weeks he had hesitated before jumping on the couch with us, preferring us to lift him up. We had also noticed that his right hind leg had begun to shake when he stood still. For years, he had been lifting it and giving it a little shake when walking.
I checked his paw but found nothing there. X-rays of his back and hips revealed only moderate arthritis of his right hip.
The next morning, Dudley pooped in his bed. This was alarming, as he had never had accidents in the house. The vet said that he had progressive hip arthritis and perhaps arthritis of the spine with some neurological impairment. She said it would progress, but he might live another year. In the meantime, we’d start him on an anti-inflammatory drug. “I’m sorry,” she said gently when she saw my shoulders slump.
After that, L. tried carrying Dudley up the stairs to join us on the couch in the evenings, but as we were both in our late sixties and he was forty pounds, it became too much of a strain. Tears welled up in my eyes when I realized he would no longer be joining us for our pre-bedtime family cuddle
Over the last two years, there has been one loss after another. I stopped throwing the ball for Dudley several times a day as I once did. He stopped being able to be chased with a stick in his mouth without falling over. He lost the ability to lift his leg to pee and created pee art on the sidewalk in a zigzag pattern when we walked him. Every couple of weeks, I’d find poop in his bed. His bed began to smell of bleach.
He gradually became deaf. He would startle when we reached down to pet him, as he could not hear us coming. When we realized this was happening, we started using sign language. As he kept an unclouded eye on us all the time, he picked it up very quickly.
Once, when L. and I were traveling in Costa Rica, I met a woman who had just put her cat down.
“You must miss that unconditional love,” I told her.
“No,” she said. “She was an object of my love. I miss having someone to love.”
Now I realize the truth of this. I love our dog unconditionally. No matter that he chews through the shoulder harness, pukes on the floor, compels me to walk him in the pouring rain and lift him in and out of the car, poops in his bed and falls in it, costs me thousands of dollars in vet bills, inconveniences me in countless ways, and causes me much anguish as I try to figure out what is best for him—I love him fiercely.
He is not making it easy for us to let him go. He still barks enthusiastically to go on his walks—his favorite is along the cliffs over the water. He staggers along, sniffing his pee mail, occasionally falling over and struggling to pull himself back up or waiting for me to notice and do it for him. He still rolls on his back, inviting me to scratch his tummy, and lets his tongue loll out the side of his mouth, the whites of his eyes showing. He snuffles and snorts when I blow on his face and paws and paddles the air with his front paws as I croon to him, “You’re my crazy dog.”
But when we go upstairs to watch TV in the evening, he cannot settle. He roams the house—sometimes going to his bed in the bedroom, then getting up only to stand and pant in the middle of the living room. He usually only quiets down when I put him to bed and go to bed myself. The additional medication the vet told me to give him is not helping. Last week he staggered from the bedroom and piercing the air with high-pitched yelping sought cover in his crate, inconsolable for several minutes. Is he is feeling pain, anxiety, confusion or all three? We just don’t know but we don’t want him to suffer.
L. chose him and named him, so I asked her to decide. Three nights ago, she said, “It’s time.”
My chest tightened. We both had tears in our eyes.
The next morning, I reluctantly made an appointment for a vet to come to the house to give him the lethal injection. But I told her, I might change my mind.
This, potentially his last week, I hoist Dudley into the car and take him to our favorite trail to walk. He stops to sniff much more than ever, falls over occasionally, and lags behind, but I hear his “ha, ha, ha” and know he is happy in the moment. But only for a moment. I realize that I am keeping him alive for me when he has lost so much: his mobility, his dignity, his hearing. If I truly love him, I must let him go.
On his last day, L. will make him a big bowl of buttered noodles, his favorite. She will have had her private conversations with Dudley and said her final good-bye . He will be lying on his bed on the deck of our Canada house, having just had a few of his favorite treats. I will kneel next to him, and, just before the drug enters his vein, I’ll put my bare hand on his lumpy shoulder, my fingers in his wiry fur, and whisper in his ear what I know to be true: “You are my beautiful, beautiful boy and will always be with me in my heart.”