Sunday, May 15, 2011

Goodbye, Old Girl

  I always loved dogs, but my mom didn't.  She never bonded with them, and in fact used them, or rather, my love for them, against me my entire childhood.  However, I noticed that when my dad died and my mom lived alone with his dog that out lived him, she began to see the dog as a companion rather than a tool.  Also, after her stroke left her half paralyzed, she was really unable to do dogs any harm in anger, as she once had, except by ignoring their medical needs and/or over feeding them.

It was my job to put my dad's dog to sleep when the time came.  The poor dog, a black lab I first met at 6 weeks, was 16 and could no longer get up.  There was absolutely no question in my mind his time had come, and I was glad to be able to be there for him at the end, as I had at the beginning, and I thought of my dad as his dog - and what felt like my last living link to my dad - slipped away.

My mom, living alone without the dog, clearly missed him terribly.  Though I told myself that she did not deserve to have a dog, that this woman, who I watched be, to understate it, "unkind" to dogs almost all my life, was really not worthy of having one...I also realized that it would comfort her now, and that letting her have that comfort would mean saving a dog's life.  Maybe, in the end, she could do dogs one good turn.  I know old dogs have a hard time getting adopted, but would be the right speed for my mom - so I asked the Idaho Humane Society for the oldest dog they had, the one that was going to get put down next, the one no one else wanted.  They said "Mollie" without a second's hesitation.

Mollie was a black lab mix, age 9.  She was left by her family at the shelter and said to be not good with cats and barked too much.  She had been at the shelter for 6 weeks and was out of time, as well as starting to go out of her mind.  She was wearing the hair and skin off her paws rubbing them under the cage trying to get out.  I took my mom to the shelter to meet Mollie.  My skin was crawling thinking about the idea of getting my mom a dog, but at the same time, I thought about saving the dog, this poor dog I'd never met but now knew the story of.  Getting a dog for my mom was one of the hardest things I ever did.  I made a deal with her though:  I would be in charge of the dog's medical care, and if my mom did not provide proper care, I would take the dog.  (We did have several fights about that later, over a bout of ringworm...and I made her stick with the bargain she made).

When I went to get Mollie, it was clear she'd been through this drill over and over.  She is removed from her cage where she has to pee and poop after nearly a decade of being housetrained.  She is led out of the kennel area where she is housed with another dog and the noise of barking is deafening.  She is taken to a small room where she meets some people, who run her through basic commands, look her over...and reject her...sending her back to the cage, the other dogs, the noise.  This time she meets my mom in the little room.  I watch, trying to remain neutral.  I don't know if it's too soon; my mom has been without a dog for 3 months; I think she is ready.  I watch Mollie - she takes care not to knock into my mom's walker.  She does not jump up at all.  She seems like a good fit.  I can see my mom likes her.  Mollie seems like she has been through it before; she is friendly but she knows not to get attached - she is glad to be out of the cage, she is friendly.

We fill out the adoption paperwork.  Mollie seems indifferent, watching the other people and dogs come and go.  As soon as we leave the shelter Mollie perks up dramatically.  When I open the car door and tell her she can get in, she looks up at me like I am her savior.  No kidding.  Her whole face and body changed.  She loved me at that moment.  She knew she was getting a home - she truly did.  In that moment it all changed for her, and she let me know she appreciated it.

She settled in to my mom's house in December of 2004.  She loved the food, having her own big back yard, her own bed.  When I visited she was so happy to see me - and she stuck to me like glue.  She got a little too fat.  I wondered who would last longer, her or my mom.  When Mollie came to visit at my house, she never chased the cats.  I knew she might out live my mom so I knew she might come live with me one day, and I wanted to ensure she got along with my animals and knew my house.

My mom ended up in the hospital in late 2009, no longer really able to care for herself or the dog.  I went to bring Mollie home with me.  She was very, very arthritic and very, very slow.  She did not like to get up.  Her teeth were terrible.  It turned out she had a bladder infection and an abcessed tooth as well.  She was too fat.  I wondered how she would adapt to living in a house with other dogs, with cats, with 2 people who came and went, not one who was with her all the time.  I put her on a diet, got some anti-biotics for the infections, moved her bed to the front of the fireplace, and bought her a couple new ones as well so she could lie in any room she chose.  My mom went to assisted living in another state, by choice.  I took Mollie to the house she used to live in with my mom when it was empty.  I thought she might be sad...but she wasn't.  She wagged her tail at me and stayed by my side.  She truly seemed happy to be wherever I was.

She loved to lie by my front door and watch the world go by.  She barked at the mailman, passing dogs, people who walked by.  She lost weight and gained vigor.  Within a few months, on some arthritis meds, she started to want to go outside with me to feed the horses every day.  Walking across the pastures was a long walk for her.  She loved to snack on horse poop.  I made sure she had one ride in the car each week.  She went with the other dogs when we camped, and we sacrificed hiking and packed an orthopedic dog bed for her.  She took roadtrips with us.  She played in the snow, swam in a river, and was thrilled to be part of a family again that did so many activities.

When we adopted a young 8 month old pup, the pup tried to get her to play incessantly.  To my great surprise, Mollie delighted in stealing toys from the puppy.  She loved rawhides and other chew toys despite her bad teeth.  She tried to catch the ball the first few times I threw it for the pup, but poor old Mollie fell over, and realized she couldn't chase balls anymore.  So she would lie in the pasture, watching me throw the ball for the puppy.  Only her arthritis gave her away as over 15 at that point.

When I got home she wanted to meet me at the door, but she was too slow, so I used to pull up and sit in the driveway for a few minutes to give her time to greet me at the door with the other dogs and not feel late to the party.  But sometimes, Mollie surprised us all with her bursts of "speed," which consisted of fast-ish lumbering - when it was time to get in the car again after a nice rest stop on a road trip, she would lumber around the car in circles playing "you can't catch me" - which actually, we couldn't as we were laughing too hard.  When the other dogs were busy greeting us, Mollie would give a cursory hello and quickly sneak behind them and grab their toys, lumbering off to her orthopedic bed with pride when she obtained one...guarding it so carefully she'd take it out with her to pee until she finished it off.

When we were gone for a week at Christmas, and she had done so well with us for over a year, I hadn't been worried she wouldn't make it.  Though she was in good hands, she took a sharp decline.  Our absence was obviously much harder on her than I realized.  It took me a lot of coaxing to get her eating again and to get her to perk up after that.  It took a full week to get her back on track, and I admit, I was worried and felt guilty for having left her thinking it would be okay, as it had always been before.  

She maintained a very healthy weight, but gradually showed less interest in food.  For a long time I bought her gourmet organic wet food , but even that was eventually rejected, so for the last 6 months I made her rice and hamburger mixed with a little kibble.  She became incontinent, but I got some meds for that, and gave her canned pumpkin for the phyto-estrogen as well, and arthritis meds.  So she had pills every day for a long time, but they seemed to help her - gradually the dose was increased to the max. 

Her arthritis got worse.  It got to the point that most mornings, she couldn't get up without assistance as she couldn't get her back legs under her.  I lifted them up and got her started.  She couldn't get up the two steps on the deck to come inside anymore, though she hopped down - so we carried her up.  She and I developed a routine where she worked the front end and I worked the back end and we got her around; I couldn't manage her 78 lbs alone but as a team, we got by, though it was hard on both of us.  She had several instances where she fell and could not get up without assistance.  Luckily, each time we were near and she didn't have to lie there long, but it was awful to find her in some position where she could not get her legs under her, looking up saying "Can you give me some help here?"

Every time I got up in the night, or came home and she wasn't at the door, I would expect to find her not breathing.  But, she always was - she just napped more and more soundly.  She ate less and less.  She lay at the door for part of the day instead of all day, too tired to keep track of the neighborhood with her prior vigilance.  I would often find her at noon, having slept through my arrival, asleep in a sunny spot with a black cat curled up next to her on her dog bed.  The cats really liked her, and several slept near her often.  I would even find the puppy on her bed with her sometimes - and I wish I'd gotten some photos of those times.

I kept thinking it was probably getting near the end, watching for signs that she wasn't enjoying life.  She kept giving me signs she was.  It wasn't until the last month that she finally seemed much more tired, her efforts to move so labored she didn't want to get up some days.  She stopped even trying to get in the back door, just lay waiting to be carried in.  Sometimes she fell over while relieving herself, when a back leg gave out.  I braced myself and set a date.  I arranged to have the vet come to the house, after a weekend when we were with her, so she could die at home....something I think we all want.  I dreaded seeing her go.

I tried hard to make the right decision - not to cut her life short, not to wait so long that she had needless suffering and too low a quality of life.  She was mentally alert until the end - never suffering dementia, and I am happy for that.  I am happy she always knew who I was, even at the last moment.  I often wondered about the people who had her puppy years.  I bet she was such a cute puppy.  She had such a good personality - they clearly socialized her and cared enough to train her.  What made them dump her at a shelter at 9, a big black dog, and never come back?  Did they not know the statistics?  She had very little chance of being adopted.  I resented that this family she loved would have done that to her.  I did not mind paying a few hundred dollars a month for her medications, washing her soiled bedding, cooking her food, carrying her or lifting her back legs so she could walk....she deserved to have someone love her and care for her like that.  But whoever had her when she was young should have taken care of her to the end.  Dogs are not disposable.  It is a lifetime commitment - and the day I took her from the shelter I knew I accepted the responsibility of being there for her at the end.

The end was today.  I made her steak for her last 3 meals.  She clearly enjoyed it.  We had a last walk into the pastures, and she had a last snack of horse poo, pictured above.  Every step was so hard for her.  But yesterday it was sunny and she was feeling good - she even got up by herself twice for the first time in two weeks.  She even went up the stairs unassisted for the first time in almost three weeks.  I began to wonder....was I saying goodbye too soon?  But last evening she fell, with a thud, and I found her unable to get up again.  And I reminded myself that though she can still have a good day, they are now weeks apart - it used to be the bad ones were.

And so although it was very, very, very hard - I said goodbye.  I felt her leave the world as my hand was on her head and she was sleeping.  The vet came to her so she was spared the last car ride - car rides have been too hard for her for the last few months.  I hoped that having no more pain, and ending that way, was the kindest thing.  I tried hard not to hold on so long that it was about me and not about what was best for her.  I wanted her to go while still having the dignity to walk (albeit labored) and to have SOME remaining quality of life, albeit laying on a soft bed barking at a passing dog.

My husband and I carried her body to a waiting gurney at the vet's office and said a final goodbye.  I am grateful to him for all the times he carried her - grateful on her behalf as well as my own.  He never complained about me taking in a very old dog, or any of her old dog problems.  He was a good dad to her.  He cooked her food too, he coaxed her pills down her too - he walked slowly beside her without impatience.  Without him, I would have had to say goodbye sooner, and she would have missed out on some activities because I could not carry her alone...and I could not get her in or out of the car unassisted for the last 9 months.  I know she was grateful to both of us for all the care-taking the last 18months - and all the adventures.

I wish I could have discussed the final decision with her.  I agonized over it for ages and I hope, and believe, it was the right one, at the right time.  I will miss her.  We all will.  After 16+ years on the planet, she is gone.