Response to Article “On Losing a Dog”
A response to this article: On Losing a Dog by Virginia Hughes
I am a “dog person”. Through most of my tween and teen years I grew up with a rescued dog named Bo. My family got him when I was 11 years old and he was treated pretty much as a fourth kid (I had two other human brothers as well). Bo passed away a couple of months after I graduated from college. It was quite hard on me, particularly since just the day prior I had left home and driven across the country to find work in a different state. However I’d been away at school for the four years prior to that so in retrospect I don’t think the impact was quite as hard as it would have if I’d been living at home through college. On some level it feels belittling to his memory to say that, but it’s been over 22 years since he passed away and I have a little more perspective in how deep the pain of a lost pet can run.
After college I lived in apartments and couldn’t own pets. The year I turned 30 I bought a condo and shortly after that I rescued a black Shepherd mix pup who I named Shiloh. She was probably around five weeks old, and she hadn’t been properly weaned because she’d been taken from her mother so young. She was able to eat solid food, but she had a big problem with nipping and biting during play - to the point that my hands were in a constant state of healing from one tooth mark or another. That behavior led me to do a lot of research about how to best train a dog. Since it was just me and the pup I was able to work with her closely. I was her sole parent and playmate. With focused training she learned that biting was a no-no, but she remained very mouth-centric for the duration of her life. As a juvenile and adult she would often grab my hand and force me to pet or play with her, but she learned early on to grip loosely, and she never bit me in play or anger once she outgrew that puppy stage.
Me and Shiloh
From the time she was a pup Shiloh was my primary companion after I got home from work each day. She had a strong personality. She was not much for cuddling, but she loved interacting with me, other people, and other animals, including neighborhood cats. She barked at me when she wanted me to do something for her. She was playful and yet seemed very intelligent relative to my other experiences with dogs. On some level I think that was related to breed as she had a lot of German shepherd in her. But I also think she came across that way because most of her interactions were with me. She knew me better most people, and she knew how to cajole, encourage, and motivate me.
When Shiloh was four I got another rescue pup named Gatsby. He was a little smaller, and tended to be cuddlier. He was completely willing to let Shiloh run the show and the three of us became a “pack”. It worked well.
Roughly two years after Gatsby’s arrival I met my partner Mike. Our pack eventually enlarged to encompass Mike, and his cat Brian. Sometime later we added yet another rescue dog named Thomas, so we became a family of six; two humans, three dogs, and a cat. Not to mention several dozen tropical fish).
Thomas & Gatsby
I June 2011 Shiloh was eleven years old and I noticed she was behaving strangely. She had somehow gotten behind a bed and she seemed disoriented. She finally backed out rather awkwardly, even though she could have turned around. I could tell her chest or stomach was bothering her so I called the vet and they suggested I bring her in immediately. Once there it was quickly diagnosed that her spleen was about to burst due to a mass or growth on it. They couldn’t tell me if it was malignant or not, but she would definitely die if it burst.
I was caught off guard because Shiloh had always been a hearty and healthy dog. She loved exercise, she didn’t overeat at all, and her teeth remained clean because she loved chewing rope toys. My vet had often told me that Shiloh was incredibly healthy and I just assumed she’d live into her mid-teens or beyond. So the threat of cancer at the age of eleven was a shock, as was the chance that she wouldn’t survive surgery. So I authorized them to remove her spleen. They did emergency surgery and she came through just fine. I took her home later that day and I still remember the way my own stomach tightened at seeing her so woozy on medication and with sutures covering her shaved belly.
Several days later my vet called and told me that the tumor was malignant and that scans of Shiloh’s liver indicated the cancer was already working there. She suggested some meds that had helped other dogs, but she made it clear that time wasn’t on our side. My partner and I were devastated but we gave Shiloh royal treatment from that point on. Research on the web said that dogs with this particular cancer lived anywhere from 23 days and very rarely up to a year after diagnosis.
Shiloh healed from her surgery and within a week or so she was her old self; playful, happy and friendly. But she tired easily. The vet had taught me to watch out for signs of lethargy and internal blood loss which I did by monitoring her gums to see if they were pink (good) or white (bad). Despite being prone to bite as a pup she had quickly learned to let people look at her mouth without any fuss. I just had to say “Let me see” and she’d let me put my fingers in her mouth and lift her lips and look to at the color of her gums. She stoically accepted the attention without pulling away or becoming distressed.
One evening, sixteen days after surgery Shiloh’s gums became very pale and I called my vet on her mobile phone. She wasn’t at work but she encouraged me to bring Shiloh to her house so she could evaluate (fantastic vet, eh?). I did so. After a quick check-up she said that Shiloh wasn’t in pain, and she wasn’t ready to go just yet, but I should start giving her big treats and good meals of liver and steak because the time was getting closer. She also told me that I’d know when it was time, and to call anytime day or night.
On July 4th, 2011 it was just over three weeks since Shiloh’s surgery. She was resting on a dog bed on the floor of the bedroom. We kept the other animals away because Shiloh still wanted to play, but she got tired rapidly. I checked on her and noticed she had peed in the bed and was still lying in it, which simply never occurred. Shiloh did not have accidents in the house. Ever. Additionally her gums were very pale. When I got her to stand she simply collapsed over on her side when I let go. I knew it was time. I fell apart.
Shiloh on the afternoon of her last day
This dog, who had become my constant companion, truest friend, and four-legged daughter was ready to move on. I could have chosen denial, but I knew that would eventually result in her dying of slow organ failure, in confusion, and possibly while I wasn’t with her. I called the vet who had gone with her family to see fireworks for the holiday. She told me she could come to my house to take care of it after she got her kids home and put to bed (again, my vet is fantastic).
I used towels and blankets to make a little nest in our bed. Shiloh wasn’t able to stand, but we brought in her brothers say “goodbye”. Based on their behavior I think they knew that she was sick. She was less disoriented and was curious about all the attention she was getting, but she would only lift her head to look around. She wouldn’t try to stand at all. I gave her some bites of cooked liver and then I gave her some of her favorite people food; cherry licorice. Just after midnight the vet arrived, with her mother to help her. I lay down next to Shiloh. I scratched her neck the way she loved, and told her I loved her. Then the vet gave her two injections – and Shiloh was gone. I grieved there with her body for a few minutes, but her lifeless eyes, ears, and tail were so foreign that I didn’t need long. The vet and her mother took my best friend down the stairs and away.
A week after her death I went to vet’s office to pick up the ashes which came in this tiny box that didn’t make sense at all. They also gave me a little clay plaque they’d made with Shiloh’s footprint in it. I wept the entire way home, probably to the point of being unsafe on the road.
One week after her death I found myself at the shelter where I’d found Shiloh and I was looking at German Shepherds. I was actually looking for Shiloh and I knew in my gut that I wouldn’t find her there, but I went in several times in the days that followed.
Two weeks after her death my gall-bladder was removed in emergency surgery. It barely registered on my radar. I was withdrawn and in shock. The surgery and recovery just happened around me.
Several weeks after her death we went to Nantucket on vacation. The year prior we had been there with all the dogs. Now it was just my partner, me, Gatsby, Thomas and a box of ashes that I couldn’t leave at home. It had just been two crazy months and I was deep in grief. I wanted to mark the moment so that I could try to move forward. We went to the beach and I waded out a few feet into the surf. I threw her ashes into the wind. Some went in the water, some went onto the sand, and the wind picked up some and took it into the grass growing on the dunes. I liked that my girl was fully part of the ecosystem of one of my favorite places. However I kept a small bit of her ashes and they now rest in a box along with her collar and tags, the plaque with her footprint, some of her hair, and a photo of her sitting in the sunshine in the middle of a grassy field – a memento of an autumn day spent picnicking and romping through fields and streams.
Shiloh in the field
The day after we returned from vacation we went to a local pet store which had recently started handling rescues rather than pure bred dogs. There was a young pup that caught our eyes. This was a little female Border Collie mix. She was mostly white where Shiloh had been mostly black except for a gray muzzle that she’d acquired with age. This pup was lanky and yet supposedly would remain smaller than Shiloh’s forty two pounds. We decided to take her home with us and we named her Oreo.
Oreo is now a very energetic two years old. She is the only female in the house and she thinks she’s in charge. Maybe she is. She leaps, barks and rumbles with her brother Thomas, who is triple her weight. She plays stalking and wrestling games with Brian the cat who is fourteen years old but seems to enjoy it. She likes to dominate Gatsby who is kind-hearted and submissive anyway, but she quickly becomes too rough prompting him to run crying to his daddies, which seems to get her more riled up. Generally it works best if they don’t interact much.
Overall I’m glad we have this energetic little life to help fill the void, but I have to admit that I regret not waiting a little longer. Puppies are hard. Integrating multiple pets into a home is also hard. Dealing with my own sense of loss, which did NOT fade after the beach ceremony, was ridiculously hard. I still find myself resentful at Oreo when she plays too hard with her brothers and leaves them yelping, or when she doesn’t obey when she’s told to do something. I understand that some of this is because Oreo is a different dog. I also understand that bringing a new puppy into a home with a single dad/owner is different from bringing one into a home with two dads, two dog brothers, and a cat brother.
All factors combined, the rhythm and details of my life are vastly different than thirteen years ago when I got Shiloh. Oreo is not Shiloh, and her formative first years were nothing like what I was able to accomplish in the past when I was on my own. I love Oreo and I wouldn’t trade her for anything. But I continue to remind myself to treat her as her own “person” rather than as a replacement for a relationship with someone who is gone. It’s the only thing that’s fair to me, to Oreo, and to the memory of my friend Shiloh.