It has been my privilege to write this column for Life As A Human for the past few years but there have been a few rare occasions when the words just wouldn’t come. The past few weeks has been one of those times. There has been too much death around me. Too many of the people I love and care about have lost dogs that I have known and loved. For as much as I am passionate about science and dog training, the transcendent emotional bond we share with our dogs runs through every aspect of our lives with them. When they are gone, a piece of us seems to go with them. And I am missing several pieces today.
Empathy has never been my strong suit, particularly with my fellow humans. I have always been more comfortable with the dogs. I never seem to know the right words to say to comfort a friend who has lost a dog. I have felt the aching pain of that loss myself and all of the science and knowledge about dogs is no help in those moments. Platitudes just ring hollow and empty. Only time removes the sting but it does so ever so slowly.
So, to all of my friends who are still grieving and to all of those whom I have never met who have lost a dear friend, let me offer an article I wrote just after the passing of our beloved Vince back in 2010. I have found science to be of little help but there is definitely an art to saying goodbye to our dogs.
The Delicate Art of Saying Goodbye to Our Dogs
(Originally posted June 23rd, 2010 – Life As A Human)
Our mentor has left us. Vincenzo Rudolfo Pooparetti, dog-father of the Belgian Mafia, has shuffled off this mortal coil. Elvis has left the building. That small brown dog who became such an important part of our lives has passed away.
Saying goodbye to a dog is always hard. And it’s always different. Many years ago our Tristan, who had come to us from my wife’s family, trotted up to me one evening on our walk, gazed up briefly and fell to the ground where he died of heart failure. Skybear, our collie, suffered a slow decline in his later years and when he told us he could no longer carry on, we called our kind vet who came to the house to help us say goodbye to an old friend.
Badger, our first Belgian Shepherd, was enthusiastic about everything. Barking and jumping and bringing chaos and joy into our lives until that last cold winter day when, after seemingly ignoring the cancer in him for six months, he told us it was his time to go.
Mario, our sweet baby boy of three years left us so quickly and unexpectedly just a year ago. Falling down in our back yard of a seizure related to heart problems, he died in my wife’s loving arms, howling as if he too knew that it was far too soon to say goodbye.
And now, our Vince has gone too. He had a personality bigger than some people I’ve known. He was stubborn. He was loyal. He knew his own mind. He didn’t compromise; he negotiated. And he taught me more about dogs than I would have learned in a lifetime without him around. He was my teacher, my task master, and my friend. And I will miss him very much.
I think each dog brings something different into our lives. They share our time and our stories with us. We mark moments in our lives by the activities we do with them. The first time we took Badger to the dog park, the first time Mario went swimming, the night Vince found our neighbors’ lost dog in the pitch dark. These are all moments in our lives that are defined by our wonderful canine companions.
It seems it’s never the right time to say goodbye. They are with us for so short a time. It seems the longer they are with us, the deeper they burrow into our hearts. It can be hard to find closure or the right way to say goodbye to our dogs.
With some like our Tristan and Mario, there is no time to think. There is simply no warning. They are with us one moment, just as they ever were, and the next they have gone leaving a hole in our lives. It’s almost like a wound that needs time to close as it seems our beautiful friend has been ripped from us so suddenly. With a young dog like Mario, there is something else to be mourned — all of the time and adventures unlived and unfulfilled.
With other dogs like Skybear and Badger, it was a matter of taking care of our friends. We knew their health was failing and it was up to us to choose the moment when they should leave us. It can be hard to know when the right time is with an ailing pet because our attachment to them can cloud our judgment. We so want them to stay with us, even for one more day. But we must put their welfare and quality of life first.
And sometimes, as with our Vince, we have to take the personality of the dog into account. Vince was a vibrant and intense dog who threw himself into everything he did. He wasn’t one to be cuddled and fussed over although he liked our attentions and frequently came over for a pet. He was a proud and independent dog but he was never far from us, particularly my wife.
So, last week, when we were told that our vet had discovered an inoperable tumor it was up to us to decide what to do. There were, of course, options for treatment but they had to be weighed carefully. Particularly against the backdrop of who Vince was. Vince was 10 years old with a bum elbow and a bad neck from years of recklessly chasing his ball, but he was still proud and vibrant. He still dashed madly with all he had after that ball and no one ever got the better of Vince.
When we were told that Vince’s liver was beginning to fail, we knew that we could not put him through a treatment regime that would require him to live his life at anything less than full speed. That would kill him sooner than the cancer would. Knowing who Vince was, we decided to let him die with dignity the best way we knew how.
On a bright sunny morning, my wife and her cousin took our Vince down to the ocean one last time. He loved to chase his ball out into the water and swim back. And so they played, one last time, in the sand and the surf. And when that was done, they made that last trip to the vet where Vince quietly slipped away with the ocean in his fur with sand between his toes and his beloved ball close by.
Is there a right way to say goodbye to a dog? I don’t know. But that came pretty damn close, in my opinion. We were lucky to have known Vince and I feel fortunate that we could say goodbye to him in the way we did. But I don’t think there is a wrong way to say goodbye either.
Our dogs depend on us — for everything. Their food and water and access to exercise and all of things that make life worth living come from us. I think the measure of a dog’s life is not in the manner of their passing but in the days lived right up to that moment. They say, “Live each day as if it is your last.” Isn’t that also true with our dogs? Each day could be their last. And so we care for them and cherish them, each in our own way. Our dogs love us for the life we give them and not for the way we say goodbye. We need to remember that.
Nothing but time, the great healer of sadness, can take away the pain of losing a beloved dog. The important thing for me is to smile and laugh and remember the best moments with my friend Vince between the tears. He will live on in me and because of all that he taught me about dogs, he will live on in every dog that I ever train. I am a better dog trainer and I am a better person for having known Vince.
All of our dogs stay with us in different ways. We tell their stories, we use the wisdom they have given us. They leave us with gifts too numerous to count. And, in the end, they leave their paw prints on our hearts forever.
June 2, 2000 – June 11, 2010
Ryder, Raleigh, Bodhi, Cuan, Sabre, Chinook, Muncher, and all of the dogs who have left us behind.
Goodbye my friends, I will miss your smiles.
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Photos of Vince © Eric Brad
Recent Eric Brad CPDT-KA Articles:
- The Dog That Changed My Life
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