I first heard this oft-quoted saying from a dear friend and fellow dog lover and trainer and writer, Bill Tarrant. Turns out it was originally written by Sir Walter Scott and goes as follows: “I have sometimes thought of the final cause of dogs having such short lives and I am quite satisfied that it is in compassion to the human race; for if we suffer so much in losing a dog after an acquaintance of ten or twelve years, what would it be if they were to live double that time?”
I was reminded of this recently when I received a call from my niece about her much beloved dog, who has been by her side through many of the intense joys and sorrows that life can bring. She has called from time to time over the years about her dog’s health and training questions. This time, she feared he was at the end…
What follows is an abridged chapter from my book: Bond of Passion: Living with and Training your Hunting Dog.
There will come a time when you will have to face the reality that your dog is dying. At the same time, something else will be departing from your life. What will be lost is shared experience and your collective memories. History. You will watch your own mortality pay out in front of you because it will feel like a part of your own physical being is dying with your dog. Often, with our dogs, it is the very best part of us.
Grief is a difficult emotion. It has tremendous weight. When the time comes, your dog is going to need help. Simultaneously, you may find yourself overcome with waves of grief washing through you. Despite that, your dog will need you to be present.
Our culture has developed an antiseptic approach to death. This detached approach denies us the involvement that will ultimately help us heal our grief and it may disregard the time your dog needs to transition at the end of his life. The end of life is messy and can be slow and grim. There are spills and leaks to clean up. There is caregiving and waiting. The end, however, also presents a tremendous opportunity for sharing with our dog the unconditional love, compassion, and kindness they have given us in our lives together.
Making final decisions for your dog’s final days can be complicated by several factors: life’s busy schedules and demands on time, finances, a comfortable and open relationship with your vet, and most importantly, your dog’s condition and possible pain. Perhaps you have already nursed him through a long and lingering decline, and your dog lets you know that now is the time. Or, your dog has been in a traumatic accident and is in terrible pain. Whatever the situation, taking him to the vet is a compassionate choice that will allow you to be present with him as he transitions. Perhaps, in other situations, you are able to keep your dog at home during his final days.
Having owned many dogs in our lives, we have been in both situations. Ultimately, this is a personal decision that everyone has to make for themselves and their dog. The essential part is being present with our dog, who has been at our side through our joys and sorrows, comforting us with cuddles and delighting us with his antics. Letting go and saying goodbye to the source of unconditional love is the hardest part.