God knows, the last thing I want to be is an expert on knowing how to say good bye to my dogs when they are dying and it gets closer to the time when I will make sure that their final breaths are taken while I’m there in that last rite of dog guardianship known as euthanasia.
Looking back on all of the dogs in my life, that’s exactly what’s happened. When to say good bye is an entirely different matter. Each dog handles old age or sickness in its own, unique manner. The “when” is harder to know and is an agonizing, separate decision. What I’ve learned about that is each dog teaches me about death and dying. I learn something insightful that becomes yet another guidepost … for the next time.
How dogs signal pain for one thing.
Understanding that while bone cancer can ravage a dog, it doesn’t diminish appetite. When one of my greyhounds was battling this disease, he devoured food. I couldn’t understand this because as much food as he was eating, as the cancer became rampant, my dog was literally wasting away before my eyes.
I didn’t “get” this until my vet explained the dynamic, if that’s even the proper way to describe what happens when cancer invades a dog’s body. I’m one of those people who like to know what to expect, so I welcomed these conversations. They made it easier for me to work with my dog, even as I knew what the eventual outcome would be.
Setting the “when” aside, the “how” is something that I learned over 20 years ago in one of the first obedience classes I took. It has to do with the ritual of language – of using words to signal consistency and what to expect. For example, over time, my dogs learn that when I say, “Wait,” they need to stop moving and stand quietly at the back door before I give the release word so that they can go charging out the back door.
“Who’s that?” is the phrase I reserve for the dogs that love my husband which is their signal that his car is pulling into the driveway. There’s an endearing moment for me when that dog comes to attention, looks me in the eye to confirm the message and then scrambles to get to the back door from wherever they are in the house. As they make their joyous dash for the door, my only job is to fling it open and get our of their way.
When I say, “Kitchen,” they know to come into the kitchen for whatever is supposed to happen next. “No bark,” and “Outside?” are pretty obvious. I’ll bet you’ve got your own word clues that set your dog up for whatever you need them to know.
The phrase I came up with to tell my dogs that even though they were not coming with me, that they had to stay until I came back for them, is “Guard the house.” I started using this phrase with Diamond, our first Great Dane. It was the last thing I said to him when I was leaving the house without him. Or, when I had to run into a store for five minutes and he had to wait for me in the car.
When I boarded him for the very first time, as I was handing him over to the kennel assistant, I pressed my nose up against his, looked deeply into his eyes and quietly told him to “guard the house.” What these three words signaled was that he and I were taking leave of each other but that I would come back for him.
And, for as long as he lived, I kept that promise.
When Diamond was diagnosed with mouth cancer both my husband and I felt as if we’d been stripped of every coping skill we had. Truthfully, Diamond was the first dog we would lose together and we didn’t have any coping skills. We made them up as we went along.
When it was time to ease his pain and help him to die humanely, we were both present. At that last moment, when I knew he was losing consciousness, but could still hear me, I put my head close to his and whispered the words that I knew he would recognize as my signal to him that we were leaving each other but that I would find him again.
“Diamond… guard the house.” [gplus count=”true” size=”Medium” ]