Dogs that are well-loved are among the world’s most fortunate creatures. They are fed, petted and often adored. They sleep eighteen hours a day. Although they live their lives on an accelerated time scale compared to their humans, they seem to spend most of their days in adolescence before transiting through a brief middle age and then into final decline.
Which is where it gets hard on all of us.
Lady is now 13 years old, which is getting on for an English Setter. I brought her home from a Silicon Valley technology trip while I was stationed at Fallon, Nevada. It was just her and her sister in the back of the seller’s truck, the last two of her litter. I picked her up for close examination, whereupon she sniffed me cautiously, decided I would do and licked my nose. When I brought her home the kids were entranced. My eldest daughter named her. If we’d have waited a little longer, we might have settled on “Goofy” as her name, for she was always energetic to the point of destroying the garden, but never particularly clever. Much more energy than sense. Still, we loved her dearly. Still do.
We’d had setters before, but this was back in the south where there were vast spaces to run and train in. Hunting dogs who love nothing more than a morning race across a wide field bordered by pines in the fall, a crack of cold in the air and a covey of quail waiting to be found. Unless it was hunkering down by the fire after the day’s work was done, looking into your eyes with seeming intelligence and soft gratitude.
Lady didn’t get quite as much work on birds as her predecessors did, unfortunately. Huntable land is hard to come by out west, and mountain quail have a lamentable tendency to run, which will break a bird dog’s heart. We took her off to the Imperial Valley for our annual dove hunt, son number one and I. But dove hunting is no fit work for a pointing dog, especially one that will retrieve only what she herself has pointed. Still, it’d have made your heart fond to see her shiver in anticipation as the shotguns came out of the gun locker and got loaded up. They way she’d whine and pace in the back of the truck as we neared our destination. Her eyes flashing left to right at each bird of whatever kind would fly across the horizon. Her comical attempts to get into the front seats so that she could see a little better.
It’s cruel hot in Imperial during September, and Lady would often come back from a long run gasping for water, which we fed to her from little bottles. One time we ran out, and she found herself an irrigation canal to plop down in, and drink from. A mistake as it turned out, for something in that muddy brown water did not quite agree with her, and she blew a gasket out on the drive home to San Diego. Awful stuff was, well: Everywhere. SNO being entirely useless in such affairs – he openly admits to a weak stomach – it was left to your correspondent to clean out the otherwise undrivable Nissan Pathfinder. In short order my Denny’s Grand Slam breakfast was decorating the grass by the rest stop, and my beloved son stood many paces off, pointing and giggling even as he gasped for control. We laugh about it now.
All those years of love, companionship and adventure slide undifferentiated from one to the next, like summer turns to fall. Not by a date on a calendar, but by a change in the air, the smell of woodsmoke, the falling of the leaves. In Lady’s life, autumn has turned to winter and we are all discontent.
Her decline started last year, I think – an emergency surgery was required to correct a condition known as pyometra that nearly stole her from us. A few months back she started drinking water as though her thirst was unquenchable and losing weight. We took her to the vets, and my suspicion was confirmed: Diabetes. She gets her insulin shots twice a day, and took joy in eating at least, even as her limbs grew increasingly less steady and her desire for long walks in the park diminished. She no longer climbs the steps to our bedroom to sleep beside like she had forever. She is not strong enough.
These last few days she takes no joy in life, and when I petted her last night I discovered wasted spaces where strong muscles used to cord and bunch. This morning I had to help her up to go outside. When we came back in together she stood trembling on the door stoop, looking into the living room where stark evidence of her incontinence was left for me to tidy up. She looked back at me with regret, no doubt expecting strong remonstration – she has always been, in that way at least, a good dog.
I just patted her head and shoulders, helped her down, looked into her eyes and told her that I loved her, that it wasn’t her fault. We all grow old. Her own haunted eyes looked back into mine in what I sensed to be confusion and pain.
I don’t know whether dogs are aware of their own mortality. I am though, and this as well: We are coming very near now, unless something remarkable happens, to having to make some sort of decision. Before I came upstairs I looked back at her in sadness, and she tried one time to wag her tail, to ease my pain. To please me. She couldn’t quite manage it.
Update: Thank you all for your many kind comments. Some of them brought tears to my eyes, many of them helped me steel my resolve. More than anything else, I didn’t want to put her down. But neither could I stand her suffering. When I got home from work today, she was laying down outside, covered with a blanket, listless, her breathing labored. I sat by her for a little while in my work clothes, stroking her side gently, telling her what a good dog she was, how very much we loved her.
I knew what I had to do tomorrow. I’d take some time off from work, take her to the vets, do the necessary. I was frankly dreading it.
I went upstairs to change into more comfortable clothes, something I could lay down beside her wearing on the cool cement. I thought we might chat a little more. I wasn’t gone five minutes. When I came back downstairs and went outside, I found her still, her labors ended. Lady had waited for me to come home, hung on just long enough to say goodbye but not so long as to make it hard on us. And then she crossed the bridge, and stepped into the clearing at the end of the path. There are birds and rabbits there I’m sure, steak dinners and clear spring water.
She was kind to the end. A good dog.