Nearly 13 years ago, we gave into Annie’s pleas for a dog.
For all those years, he seemed invincible, immune from aging with all his energy and good health. But, all that changed about six months ago as he started to puzzle us with new behaviors. We didn’t view any of his symptoms as particularly serious until the past month when we noticed a steady pattern of changes and physical deterioration.
When we took him to the beach a few weeks ago, he seemed like a troubled, confused animal. One day he stood in front of me, stared into my face, and barked urgently like he was trying to tell me something. Our week there continued with one odd occurrence after another, from him running away from me and getting lost on the beach to him pacing around at night unable to sleep.
When I came home, I took him to the vet, and he found nothing to explain it. The vet confirmed that Nikki’s eyesight and hearing were worse, but didn’t see anything else out of the ordinary for a senior dog. I asked the vet how I would know when it was time to make an end-of-life decision. He said emphatically, “Not now! Look at him. His tail is wagging and he’s doing great.”
Great? Had he listened to me explain how Nikki had day and night mixed up, could barely walk on his arthritic legs, panted nonstop with high level anxiety and nervousness? Did he hear me say his thirst was unquenchable, he was dropping weight, losing his fur, urinating in the house, and acting disoriented?
The vet’s comment made us feel guilty like we were thinking of ending Nikki’s life only because he had become an inconvenience.
Then, Sara came home for a short visit, and immediately noticed dramatic changes from when she’s seen him over the holidays. She confirmed our worries.
During that same time, I cleaned a few things out of Annie’s room, and came across the book, “The Art of Racing in the Rain” by Garth Stein. I read the first chapter about an aging dog trying to tell his owner it was time for him to go. The dog said, “I’m old. And while I’m very capable of getting older, that’s not the way I want to go out.” I kept reading and wondered if that’s what Nikki had been trying to say to me.
After talking it over with our family, we decided it was the humane thing to do for Nikki’s well-being and ours. I called the vet, but still worried about whether it was the right thing to do. I think Nikki overheard my phone call because for the rest of the day, he seemed to confirm to me that I’d done the right thing.
When I got his leash out for his walk, he slowly ambled toward me. His walks were the high points of his day. We started out the door and down the drive way and then, he just stopped about a third of the way down and sat. He was done. He didn’t want a walk. He laid down on the pavement and didn’t move.
Later, we put him in his crate while we did some shopping, and when we got home, he tried to stand up and get out of his crate, and his legs just folded underneath him, and his whine sounded like a cry.
When I moved to the couch, he hobbled toward me and managed to get up on my lap, where he stayed motionless until it was time to go to the vet’s office. I noticed he hadn’t eaten or had anything to drink all day.
We read on the internet that a dog will tell you when it’s time to go and it recommended actually having a conversation with your dog to tell them what you’re thinking and to gauge his response.
I know, I know, it sounds crazy.
But, I actually did it. I got down on the floor, moved my face close to his, and said, “Nikki, I feel like it’s time. Am I right? I feel like you have tried to tell me this for a few weeks now.”
I honestly saw a tear form in his right eye. Sara was there as my witness.
The vet said we could drop him off at the front desk and leave or we could go into the office and be with Nikki when they gave him the shot to put him to sleep and then euthanized him. I couldn’t bear the thought of it. (In fact, one of my dear friends offered to do this for me.)
Doug was out-of-town. Annie was at college. Sara and I talked about what felt right to do. We decided dropping him off felt wrong and cold, like dumping off a family member at the ER, casually waving goodbye and driving off. We decided we needed to go into the vet’s office and be with Nikki while he passed away.
We carried him to the car when it was time to go and he sat quietly on my lap while Sara drove. Sara unrolled the window and as Nikki’s last act of utter joy, he feebly stood, put his head out the window and let his ears fly in the wind as he took in his last car ride.
I never could have imagined how emotionally hard it would be to say goodbye to that sweet little puppy — the one who comforted me through chemotherapy, provided endless hours of entertainment and love for our family, and never tired of seeing us walk through the door. He was as excited to see me after a trip to the mailbox as he was after a two-week vacation.
When my nest emptied and my girls went off to college, I still had Nikki to follow me around, keep me on a schedule, and warm my feet under my desk. When Doug was out-of-town, I had Nikki to snuggle up to me on the bed, keep my feet warm, and alert me to anybody even getting close to the house.
As he melted down on to the vet’s table into a deep and final sleep, Sara and I kissed his soft head and told him goodbye and thanked him for being such a good, sweet dog. After the vet checked his heart beat and told us he was gone, we did our best to thank him, and then walked straight out of the vet’s office for the last time, holding Nikki’s leash and collar, and crying like babies.
Yes, we will miss that dog.
And after all my resistance to getting him 13 years ago, as hard as it was to say goodbye to him, if I could go back in time, I’d do it all over again because that crazy little creature enhanced our family life immensely, taught us about love and loyalty, and gave each of us a dose of sweetness that we’ll never forget.