Having just put my dog Winston down, I’ve been reflecting on my history with dogs.
Growing up, my brother was allergic to animals so we never had a dog. Lib’s parents didn’t let her have a dog either. So our first act of rebellion as a couple was to get the most massive dog we could find to be our new family member. Magnum was a 120lb rottweiler and was the best dog we have ever had on every level. He died in our house fire after waking us up and ultimately saving our lives.
Burying Magnum in the backyard the day after the fire was one of the most intense things I’ve ever experienced. I was a weeping mess. I was also strangely jealous of other dog owners in that I didn’t get to make the choice to put him down after a much longer life together.
The first dog I ever put down was a black lab who my brother-in-law “temporarily” left with us while he and his family were getting settled in another state. Sadie ended up being with our family for six months and in that time decreased in health to where I had to make the decision to take her final trip to the vet.
My goal is to give you some information I wish I’d had for that first fatal trip. We don’t like to think about death, but it is a reality. Whether you’ve been putting off the phone call, or your pet is still a puppy, here are some lessons I’ve learned from putting down our dogs.
Figure out logistics before you deal with the emotion of loss.
I didn’t know what I was getting into with Sadie. Did I want to drop her off or stay? Did I want to cremate or take her home and bury her? In the final hour you want to be dealing with emotions and not decisions. With Winston, I needed to try something different. Intellectually and emotionally he has always been a beer shy of a six pack. Making his last moments nontraumatic took some planning. We chose to go with Angel Paws who came to the house. Their wisdom and service was a game changer. A day earlier I dug a hole in the backyard where he would be placed. We would carry him out on an old sheet that I would place down on the floor hours earlier, so he could acclimate to the visual before the service came.
Everyone in the family is there for the deed.
I didn’t know what I was in for when I took Sadie to the vet. The vet said I could just drop her off. I handed her over and turned around to leave and then thought, “No way I’m leaving that dog to die alone with a stranger she has never met.” Turning on my heels, I went into the examination room. She had served her family well and I wanted to serve her well. I wish the family she had been with for 12 years could’ve been with her. But the least I could do was comfort her and stare into her eyes for her last breath. Needless to say, I was shocked by how much it wrecked me. I resolved to apply what I had learned to any future canine family member.
We now ensure every family member is there for the final breath. Dogs give their families gifts all the time. They are selfless companions and sources of acceptance. Another gift a dog can give a child is his or her first brush with death. A dog serves a child by breaking them in for the true pain of human loss which is to come later. This moment is incredibly emotional.
Say your last words.
We talk to our dogs all the time knowing that they truly understand very little. My dogs have heard me mumble to them about measurements for building projects while lying in the grass. They have heard me complain about how a TV series ends while sleeping on my legs on the couch. We do this because they don’t mind hearing from us and it helps us to process things with another living being.
During your dog’s final minutes, he may not understand, but we understand and we need to say what needs to be said. Words of gratitude for their faithfulness. Or a memory that sums up how they have served you well, will do you well.
Thank God for what your dog has meant to you.
I’m not saying that dogs go to heaven. I know that God values all humans more than any dog. But we all have felt how God has uniquely used our dogs to comfort us, bring us joy, protect us, and offer the kind of unconditional acceptance that we humans should be better at. These are all gifts that God has provided to us through their lives, and it’s a good thing to thank God for those blessings.
Give the nod.
The vet has been in this situation way more times than you have. They won’t be freaked by anything you say or do. Allow that reality to give you freedom to do what you need to do in grieving and saying goodbye. The moments before the final breath are for you as much as for your canine. Just look at the vet and nod and your friend will be out of pain.
Give words of affirmation to your family.
We don’t feel enough in our numbed out world. Part of why you want other family members present isn’t just so they can honor the dog’s service to the family, but so that we all can break through the veneer that numbs and insulates us. This is an emotional and even spiritual moment that you can all equally share. It can bind you closer. I’ve heard my kids say things to each other like, “At least I still have you, which is all that matters.” I’ve found this gift to be the last gift your dog can give your family.
Feel free to release your grief.
Don’t guilt yourself into more grief than you need. It isn’t uncommon to feel a sense of relief with a dogs passing. Winston’s ailments had become a handful for him and us. In the days since, there has been less stress around our house as we don’t have to worry with our dog’s health issues. It is a sad time, but also a time of renewed freedom. Keep this in mind as you do what is best for your pet and your family. Rather than be mired in the loss, try to think about the future. A future with less canine medical stress and maybe even a future with the next potential dog.
Pets are a blessing, and enabling them to pass in the right time and in the right way can be a blessing, too.