Photos: Trina and Greg
Some of you may have noticed that early on in this blog there was mention of my old dog Bella, and there has been mention of her brother BJ in a post or two, but we pretty much glossed over their deaths, so that blog-wise they just sort of disappeared. It wasn’t something I wanted to talk/write about, wasn’t a fun and pleasant topic, and just didn’t seem like the kind of thing I wanted to put on the blog.
Lately, though, I find myself thinking about those days and months that I considered BJ and Bella’s “final days,” and decided to do a post in the hopes that it might help others who find themselves facing their dogs' potential final days.
Being siblings, BJ and Bella died a mere six months apart. BJ went first, and I made a big mistake in his final days. That mistake was thinking of them as *final days* in a sad, morose way. I think it’s important to approach death with a realistic view, meaning with the understanding that we all die, and in many cases, we’ll die of something. Some creatures, obviously, will peacefully just fade away, perhaps die in their sleep with no apparent failings other than just old age. But it seems more common that as the body ages and starts to fail in its various ways, some disease or injury will end up being the apparent, ultimate cause of death.
I never wanted to kid myself into thinking I could prevent my dogs’ deaths. And I didn’t want to prolong their illnesses, or extend their natural decline in order to have them around longer for my sake if it meant prolonging pain and suffering for them.
So when they started to falter -- which for both BJ and Bella meant gradual loss of the back end, no longer being able to hold a squat without collapsing, barely being able to get up out of bed, stumbling, tripping and falling in terrain that wouldn’t have presented much of a challenge for them at younger, stronger times in their lives – I took the approach of managing their pain/issues as was possible with drugs, and altering our activities to cater to their diminished abilities.
The mistake I made, though, was thinking, “This is the beginning of the end. BJ is dying.” Thinking that way just made me constantly depressed, and of course our animals pick up on our energy so I’m sure I was making BJ depressed too. I realized this mistake after I finally arrived at the decision that BJ was no longer getting enough joy out of his diminished life, and made the appointment to have him euthanized. I made the appointment a week out, took some time off from work to spend it with him, drove up to my dad’s property where BJ and Bella were born in an abandoned beaver den, and dug his grave near the creek that was his most favorite place in the whole world.
Then I decided, “Ok, now we’re just going to have fun-fun-fun for the next week. I’m going to give him a last blast of life that will send him off happy and fulfilled. For his sake, I’m going to be happy and cheerful.” As soon as I made that mental shift, BJ suddenly snapped out of his gloom. And I mean suddenly. He woke up the next morning as though having decided he wasn’t ready to leave. His eyes were bright and he was smiling for the first time in months, he was springy regardless of the state of his legs, and some of his physical symptoms practically vanished. It was like he said, “Nice to have you back. Can we go play now?” It made me realize how terribly negative my approach to his decline had been. I had been of the mind that he was dying. For maybe a year I was thinking that way. It was awful. And contagious.
Not only did I promptly cancel his euthanasia appointment, I also committed to keeping a positive attitude, something along the lines of “he’s living until he’s no longer living,” not just for four more days, but for as long as he can hack it, for as long as he’s happy and reasonably comfortable. And we enjoyed another six months together.
BJ’s actual, literal final day was awesome. One of his favorite things in the world was playing in and at the river (or creek, or puddle, or any kind of water at all as long as it wasn’t a bath). His favorite water-related activity was catching rocks in his mouth, which was forbidden while he was younger because it could break his teeth, he could get hit in the face with my poorly aimed rocks, etc. – throwing rocks for your dog is generally just an all around horrible idea. But three hours before his scheduled death, I knew he wouldn’t be needing his teeth much longer, so we went to the river and I threw rocks for him to catch. He was in heaven… almost.
By then he had also developed a cancerous tumor on his neck which had, by then, burst, which was what finally made euthanasia unavoidable. Once the tumor ruptured, it was basically a big open hole in his neck. Pieces of tumor were falling and flinging out when he shook his head. It smelled like rotting meat, and it made him extremely vulnerable to infection and maggots, so keeping him alive for much longer put him at great risk. For the four days after the rupture that I kept him around, I wrapped his neck with a bed-liner pad -- those thin, absorbent plastic lined pads they put under people who are bedridden and wetting the bed. With BJ dashingly be-scarfed in this way, we played. And played and played and played, doing all his favorite things.
On his last river play day, he was so very happy. He couldn’t have cared less about some tumor wrapped with a bed liner. He was still living, still playing, still having an absolute blast.
We got home from the river right as the vet was arriving at my house for the euthanasia appointment, my truck pulling up just behind her truck at the house, so that BJ was whisked in from river play, still smiling, and laid down on his soft bed for his final rest.
He was living – I mean, really living, sucking the marrow out of the bones, right up until the moment he closed his eyes for the last time. This is what I learned about how to guide your old dog through his final days: focus on the living part. Focus on the fun. Yes, pay attention to his pain/discomfort level and manage it as you are able and obligated to, but keep it fun, for his sake. Stay positive, for his sake. Help him live his life to the fullest up to the very last moment. In doing so, you’ll both get more out of those last precious weeks, days and moments and you'll be better able to ride the rough emotional surf that rolls through his final days.