Sandra Cohen
Intelligent, funny, a bit weird
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It’s never a good time: Ending a dog’s life

Dassie was suffering, and it was our job as her owners to care for her even – perhaps especially – in this last part of her life
Ben and me, with our dog, Dassie

“When would be a good time for you?”

Such a simple question, and an obvious one. We were, after all, scheduling the appointment. That’s why I was on the phone. And the woman was so kind, so patient, explaining all the details to me, understanding my halting questions, repeating some information twice, as I slowly processed what she was telling me.  But still. When would be a “good time” for me?

When would be a good time for them to come kill my pet?

That’s not really fair. After all, I was the one who called them; it is not as though this was a random, spam call from an evil veterinarian who liked killing small animals in her spare time.  I was seeking out this organization, Caring Pathways, to come to my house, to help my sweet doggie pass from this world to… whatever comes next, I guess.

Dassie, our miniature poodle mutt, had been with us since we had adopted her, at around age 2, some 16 ½ years ago.  She was, as my daughter put it, a little old lady. And, for such an old lady doggie, she was doing pretty well, physically.  She had gone deaf a couple of years ago, and mostly blind this past year.  She could no longer really manage the steps in our house, which we overlooked by simply picking her up, all 15 pounds of her, when we took her out for a walk, or when she would stand on the landing and whine, signaling that she wanted to come downstairs – usually when there were good smells in the kitchen!  She had, over the course of the past year or two, become pretty much incontinent, and so taking her out to do her “business” had become almost a game, or a dare:  could we read her signs and get her to pee or poo outside, or would she go before we had the chance?  Or, more annoyingly, would she hold it until she came back indoors, and then, pee on the carpet?!

Over the past few months, even going out for a walk had become difficult for our little furry girl.  She was disoriented and unable to understand where she was – and why.  She made great leaps when she thought she was near a step (and often was not!), and, at times, would circle the front step of the house, unable to find the open door before her.  IN the house, she began walking into things, with varying speed and determination.  Ben and I got used to bangs and thumps, which just meant that Dassie was moving about.  But she did not seem unhappy, and she still loved her food.

So, why now?  Well, in the past few weeks, she had begun to pace.  In increasingly small circles, Dassie would pace the bedroom, sniffing around for who knows what.  Just watching her was anxiety-provoking.  She did not seem to recognize my mother when Mom came to visit.  Ben and I thought perhaps Dassie had had a stroke, and that’s why she walked in circles, with her feet crossing beneath her, always (almost) circling to the right.  What did we know?  But we guessed; it was the best we could do.

Over the past two weeks, it was like watching human dementia in fast-forward. Dassie slept less and paced more.  She yipped for no reason, and could not settle.  Her body still worked – well, sort of – but her spirit was sapping, and it was time.

When would be a good time for you to come kill my pet?

That is, of course, not the way to understand what we did, what we were asking.  We knew it was time, that Dassie was suffering, and it was our job as her owners to care for her even in this last part of her life – perhaps especially in this last part of her life.

Dassie used to come with me everywhere I went.  When we first adopted her, she had previously been abused, and then abandoned.  She was a sweet, but frightened little doggie, and, at 2, just a bit older than a pup.  And so, I walked her often and took her everywhere.  She sat quietly under my chair while I taught Melton and other classes in the Denver Jewish community, and, at times, even pretended to be therapy dog (lies more of omission than commission!).  I remember one summer, at my daughter’s birthday party, which we held at a local park; there was a stream for kids to wade in, and a playground and picnic benches, and lots of peoples running around, celebrating Shira (my daughter) and just enjoying being together.  One young woman pointed to the sign, which read “All dogs must be on leash.”   I then pointed to Dassie, who was, indeed, on a leash. But, on the other hand, there was no person on the other end of that leash.  An opening, I said to her, into the world of Talmudic reasoning. And we all laughed.

Dassie liked to chase things, squirrels and rabbits and such, but had no interest in playing fetch.  If one tried, by, say, throwing a ball for her, Dassie would look up, puzzled, as if to say, “But now you are going to have to go get that!”  We were told that poodles tend to be a smart breed, but we never saw any evidence of brilliance on Dassie’s part; she was sweet, but  not so smart.  But we loved her, so that did not matter.

That little dog, the one who frolicked in the park, who used to chase bunnies and squirrels, who liked long walks and sleeping in bed next to me:  that doggie was gone a long time ago. She used to climb up on the Shabbat table, if we weren’t watching closely, and steal the challah.   The Dassie left with us was a shell, and she was frightened and confused – and we were unable to comfort her anymore.  I would hold her and stroke her back, but that did not help her settle. Ben took her out whenever she wanted, but that did not help.  We were at the end.  It was time.

Friday afternoon.

My mom said her good-byes on Thursday, cuddling as much as Dassie would allow, and then simply lying on the floor beside her.  And then on Friday, Shira, Ben and I, together via Facetime, participated in a short ritual a friend of mine gave me.  We blessed and thanked Gd for bringing Dassie into our lives, and for giving her (and us) such a long, full life together.  Nothing is lacking in Your world, we affirmed before the Holy One of Blessing, and yet, all things come to an end.  Baruch Dayan HaEmet.

The vet was kind and gentle.  Dassie, surprisingly, sat quietly in Ben’s lap, while I stroked her back.  The vet took some final family pictures.  There was the sting of a needle, and then the slowing of her breath, as the tranquilizer took hold.  The uneven breathing of the dying signaled the end was near.  We put her down on a blanket; the vet gave her medicine to stop her heart.  Minutes – hours? – later, she was dead.

We sat with her, we two, Ben and I, for several minutes after her death.  As with humans, Dassie looked much the same in death as in life, and yet, her spirit was so clearly gone.  Her body was empty, and that emptiness flowed into us as well, as profound grief set in.  All the sadness we had felt in making the decision, all the anticipatory grieving, all those feelings came boiling to the surface.  We have lost our dog.

The vet came back in.  She wrapped Dassie in a soft blanket, and then scooped her up, placing her into a basket of sorts, to take her to be cremated.  We thanked her for her caring manner and loving presence.  And they were gone.

So, the house is quieter now.  No need to rush to get up in the morning before Dassie pees in the bedroom.  NO need to worry about leaving food out, lest the dog eat it.   No more filling water dishes or picking up poo.  She was a loving, sweet presence in our lives, and I am grateful.

Is there something to learn from all this?  Perhaps.  Perhaps we can remember the power of presence in each other’s lives.  After all, some of my favorite memories of Dassie are just the two of us, together:  taking a walk, watching TV with her by my side, snuggling under the covers on a cold night and pushing her over to make room for myself in bed (how much room can a 15-pound dog take up?!).  It is not as though she was a brilliant conversationalist or she brought me gifts (beyond the poo I used to pick up). She was just there.  She was with those she loved, and that made her happy.  That made us happy.

So too, then, with our friends, our acquaintances even.  Ultimately, we can be there for one another.  Sure, what we say matters, and the things we do together can build relationships.  But such a big part of our lives together is showing up, is being happy to be together, is noticing the blessing is just one another’s presence.  Sometimes, we don’t need to try so hard.  We can just be there. Smiling to be with our favorite people.  Wagging our tails, asking for love, and receiving it.  Not being embarrassed by our love and joy in one another.

הני מה ומה נעים שבת אחים ביחד

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is, for people, for family, to be together.

Be with those you love.  Love them.  And let them know.  Do this in honor of my little doggie, who lived a long, long life.  She was not a very bright doggie, but she knew how to love. And that is the best kind of life to live.

About the Author
Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts, provides pastoral care, and works in mental health outreach, offering national scholar-in-residence programs. She and her husband live in Denver, Colorado.
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