We lost our first Old Dog Haven final refuge dog last week.
It has taken me some time to gather my thoughts on the event, although I can’t even count the number of triggers around the house that compel me, for just a fraction of a second, to expect him to be there. I know it will be quite a long while before that mental skip stops. A couple of days ago, Sharon told me that Minky was back, and in the instant before I realized that she meant his ashes were back at the vet, I had time to imagine some kind of miracle of doggie resurrection.
There are two ways to look at the loss of a pet like Minky. The first is the intellectual argument. He came to us at the end of a long life. We knew that going in. He had people who loved him until they could no longer be there for him. He arrived at our house with a multitude of health issues, any one of which could have taken him from us very quickly. He also came with the full support of Old Dog Haven, and that is no small thing. Sharon attacked the health problems with her usual relentless determination and efficiency, and he was quickly stabilized. I could tell when he bounced back because his fur started growing again. Once it started, it made weeds jealous. He had a few months of relative perkiness* before we noticed there may be something else causing problems. That “something” turned out to be pulmonary hypertension, a condition that would ultimately take him. He outlived his prognosis through a rigorous program of meds and, I like to think, love.
So now it’s over, and there is no question that we gave him almost 15 good months that he wouldn’t have had without us. There is no question that we did everything we could, and that we couldn’t have done it without Old Dog Haven. The question is always making THE DECISION, the agonizing discernment of when it’s time to say goodbye. With some dogs, it’s easy. They go from health to collapse in some acute and obvious event, or they just announce that it is time in way that a long relationship allows us to recognize. With a final refuge foster like Mink, it’s harder. We never saw him fully healthy; we only saw degrees of health that changed, sometimes slowly and sometime quickly, but the final call is muddy. It turns into a gray area mental game of what treatments are left to try versus how well they are likely to work and how much time they will afford versus the trend lines of health that have led to that point, and so on. It’s all too easy to form a circular argument that leaves only an intuitive call, one that we are never smart enough to know, in black and white, was the correct one. But ultimately, we make the choice based on the suffering of the animal, and whether we can do anything to stop that suffering.
The other side of the argument is the emotional one. There is no way to avoid it when a pet passes on. There’s the heavy sigh of a pet when you hold him, knowing that he regards you as the safe place in the world. There’s the careful balance of your pet trying to be connected to you and your spouse, his other person, at once. There’s the way he runs to your feet in between challenges in a strange environment, The way he grunts in pleasure as you rub his neck. These things are hard to give up. Total faith from one person to another is nigh impossible, but from a dog to a trusted human, it’s routine. They give trust completely unless they have a reason not to. The risk of course is to regard this as a treasure to be held at all costs because it is so hard to find elsewhere in our lives, but in reality, it is a trust to be held for the benefit of the animal. They trust you to guide them, even into the end of their lives. It’s not easy to keep in mind, but it’s a duty we pay in return for even a single day of that animal’s pure faith.
If there is a third leg to this ethical stool, it’s probably philosophical. Physical problems: blindness, deafness, missing leg, and joint pain, do not stop a dog. They waste no time being angry with life, or God, or fate, trying to lay the blame for their misfortune. They simply move forward as best they can, without remorse, without resentment. They are perfect examples of perseverance. However, mistreat them emotionally and they will break. They grieve, they lose trust, they feel fear that has nothing to do with mortality, they feel embarrassment and pride in a job well done. Deprive them of these things and they suffer. The combination of instinct and emotional damage will turn a great dog into a snarling mess. And yet, like people, they are rarely irredeemable. It’s a matter of patience and rebuilding of trust in a bond of partnership.
A dog like Minky had his entire web of life and trust pulled out from under him. He had the advantage of being well treated by his first people, and so had a relatively easy time of slotting us into the comfortable patterns of his life. Some dogs are not so lucky. Our dog Elke went from stray to shelter to shelter to home, to me. She had the trust pulled from her enough times that we had to work together for quite some time before we established a working relationship that included trust. Even today, nine years later, she holds the echoes of mistrust, but she finds great satisfaction in those moments when she is connected without competition to her people. She’s a great dog, whose blindness doesn’t slow her down, but her memory of distrust occasionally does.
The point is that Minky was fortunate enough to pass through this world without any of the truly deep scars, but even those dogs who cannot feel that grace deserve that best we can give them. They will always give better than they get. I have no doubt that dogs have all the same benefits of soul and redemption that we do, and that Minky has gone to a place where he can reconnect with his people, his best sources of joy, and we were privileged to play a small part in carrying him to that ultimate reward.