When I was 25, I lost my black lab Ellie when she was hit by a car. It was awful, gut wrenching stuff. In fact, back then, I compared it to losing a child. Later, when I had my own kids, I often thought about how selfish it was that I had compared my dog to a child. I had gotten so far away from the pain of losing Ellie, that it seemed unreal that I could feel that way again about an animal. I wondered if the people who heard me say that after Ellie died thought I was insane. I wondered that until yesterday. And then I decided that no, that wasn’t selfish of me, it was completely true: losing a dog can be exactly like losing a child. Yesterday, we had to make the very hard decision to put down our sweet buddy Dalton. Dalton was nearing 13 years old, and over the course of the past six months, his health had declined immensely. He was no longer able to walk up stairs, and often had trouble just getting up out of his bed. We tried steroids and pain meds, and talked at length with our vet, who was kind and honest when he told us that we were prolonging the inevitable. We thought we would have more time with our sweet boy. And we never, ever wanted to have to make the decision that we ultimately made for him.
That’s the thing about dogs. They come in and tear stuff up. They chew and they bite and they snuggle their way right in to our hearts. They become our family. They become one of our children. They’re in all of the important pictures, and in all of the important memories. We adopted Dalton before we got married, and brought him into a house where he ruled the roost. And then, he graciously accepted our girls when each was born, like a sibling. He cared for them in his own way. He wasn’t a jumper, and never a lap dog, but he liked to get very close to the girls and just sit with them, even when they were babies. When they got older, he protected them when their friends came over. He played catch with them, and loved it when they told him he wasn’t tough while trying to pull his toys from his mouth. They never worried that he would bite them. Dalton would never have hurt a soul.
Dalton taught me so many things, but mostly he taught me about the power of aging gracefully. Yes, he lost control of his functions. But he liked to try to cover up his messes with a kitchen towel he would pull off of the rack. He seemed embarrassed by his declining health in that way, and we never scolded him for the many, many times we cleaned up after him. Eventually, his eyesight and hearing were also going, and often we had to come right up next to him so that he knew it was time to go outside, or to come inside. People kept telling me when it was time, I would know. Yesterday, when he couldn’t get up, and couldn’t walk in or out of the house without being carried, we knew. I was most upset because I wanted our vet, who has been involved since day one, to be with us. We talked about waiting until today, but ultimately knew that was a selfish move on our part. It was time. When we finally did get to the vet, Dalton put his sweet old head in Steve’s lap, like he’s done daily for the past 12 years, and he left us. It was peaceful and it was quiet, and it was the right thing to do. But that doesn’t make it any easier. That’s the thing about dogs. They come in and tear stuff up. They chew and they bite and they snuggle their way right in to our hearts. They become our family. They become one of our children.