All dog stories begin with laughter, and end with tears.
Today, we had our dog Tuck put down.
We adopted him on our last family vacation, to the Turks and Caicoes islands, over ten years ago.
We’d been looking for a dog to go running with Jon. When we landed on the main island, I picked up an island magazine to read at our hotel. In it, we found an article about a rescue group, the TCSPCA, that rescued potcakes, the island name for the village dogs that were pets, then dumped, then feral, then rescued, a common cycle for village dogs around the world.
Unfortunately, when we visited the shelter, it only had very sick dogs and puppies, as there were no facilities for all the rescues. They were all in foster care, in private homes!
While we browsed the gift shop, hoping to contribute to their efforts, the manager quietly called a foster mom. Soon, a van turned into the parking lot, and three adults and four potcake puppies tumbled out of the van.
Tuck was one of four puppies left, of eight born to a female potcake, rescued by a British family, when they took in the abandoned mother. The other four had already been adopted, and these four were left.
For the rest of the week, we test-ran puppies (literally!) to see who would jog with Jon. We loved them all, but fell in love with three. Then our first choice was adopted, and another, and we were left with our second choice, Tuck. So we brought Tuck, our second choice, and his sister back to the United States with us.
He then proceeded to change our lives.
Potcakes are an anxious breed, and they can take awhile to fully house-train. And this being our first dog, we were amazed at what they considered edible. Our most frequent phrase those early years was, “I didn’t know they ate things like that” and “Eeeeuuuww!!!”
He loved to lie on the sofa with us, and of course, he slept with us on our bed, until he got too big. And until we took in Nick, who was even bigger.
We were fortunate to have a big house and a big backyard. We lived within minutes of river trails and reservoirs with open areas, perfect for a dog to run free. I can still remember Tuck and Nick (a later island rescue) racing through high drifts of snow, plowing through snowbanks like furry snowmobiles. They loved snow, and sunshine, but hated water. Island dogs! Go figure.
When Tuck was young, he was very good with other dogs, including the dozens of potcake puppies we received over the next five years, as other returning island visitors carried adoptable puppies back with them. We would meet them at the airport and place the puppies in wonderful homes, for our remaining five years in New Hampshire.
He grew from a sweet awkward puppy into a beautiful, elegant, graceful dog. A friend’s mother remarked that he was “a noble dog”, and somehow that suited him perfectly. When he was aggrieved about something—having to share the couch with a cat (our elderly cat Chai) or Nick, he would grumble about it, but begrudgingly accommodate them.
He also kept his puppy fur. His coat was soft and dense right up to his last days with us. And that face! To his dying day, he would give us that anxious, winsome, sad-puppy dog look that never failed to melt our hearts.
As he grew older, he became a bit of a grumpy gus, grumbling and barking at other dogs, including Nick. But he never showed a sliver of violence or aggression when handled by vets and nail-trimmers. He never crossed that line with anyone, ever.
He was always a sweet, sweet dog. And he was a great dog to run with. He ran with Jon until we moved to California, and Jon had double-hip replacement surgery. No more runs. Also fewer places for a dog to be off-leash here.
So his life became a little smaller, but it was still good.
Then the year of death hit us, hard.
In one year, I lost both my parents, and my daughter miscarried with her first child.
I made many trips to Michigan and Washington, D.C. that year. Tuck had already begun slowing down, more reluctant to take long walks. And that fall, we thought we were losing him for certain. We thought he had a stroke. He couldn’t walk, he was incontinent, he couldn’t jump up on the bed, he wouldn’t eat. We were frantic with worry.
We rushed him to an emergency pet hospital, fortunately to find out he’d eaten a marijuana brownie on a walk the day before along a local creek trail. He was high on weed!
It was frightening for him and for us. But we made it through. And afterwards, we could laugh about our bongo dog. We thought we were past the hard year, finally.
Then, early in 2019, my daughter lost her second baby, this one at 8 months into her pregnancy. It was awful.
We took turns flying out to see her. She and her husband were—still are—devastated. There are no words when your child is suffering, no wisdom or insight or advice that will magically erase the horror of what they’ve gone through, what they are still going through. (Fortunately, the hospital staff were incredibly compassionate and supportive.)
We were still reeling with that when, a few weeks later, Tuck’s life took a major turn for the worse.
He developed acute pancreatitis, which was misdiagnosed by our first vet, but caught by another emergency hospital when he was referred to them for care.
After all our losses from last year, and this, we were determined to spare no expense to ensure Tuck’s recover.
That turned out to be a disaster, financially, and health-wise, for him.
The next six months were a horror-show.
When he recovered, he had developed diabetes. We worried about the cost of that, but were told, “Oh, insulin for dogs is only $60 a bottle.” No one mentioned at the time that he would need four bottles a month. Plus syringes. Plus a special bucket for disposing of the syringes. Plus a syringe disposal fee.
Still, okay. But wait! There’s more!
Our lives became a highly-scheduled regime of expensive food, multiple bottles of insulin each month, stuffing supplements and antacids down his throat. He was never a pill-taker, and forcing those pills were harder on him than the insulin shots.
The hospital and office visit costs started at few thousand dollars. Ulp. But manageable, right?
But then that got worse, too.
We had to take him in for bi-weekly reassessments, at several hundred dollars a pop, plus meds, plus everything else involved, which we did for several months. Oh, that was going to go on for several more months though. And oh! They would need to be repeated several times a year, for the rest of his life. His meds and supplements alone ran to over $500 a month, not including these additional testings. As Jon said, “We gave him more access to health care than most people in this country get.”
And Tuck hated it.
Was it worth it?
That’s a hard question. There’s no price on a dog’s life, in one sense. He’s a member of our family, and we thought it would restore him to a normal life again. Maybe we would have him for 3, 4, even 5 more years. It seemed worth it.
And it would have been. But in addition to the financial strain, it became obvious his quality of life was permanently changed, and not for the better.
He was weaker. He was in discomfort. He began to whimper, and squeal and whine constantly. He refused to even walk around the block. He lost a lot of his vision, and struggled mightily with that. Only his hearty appetite remained, and yet his diet was severely restricted. No treats (which we never gave him anyway, just a bite of cat kibble now and then.) No dish-licking. No licking the yogurt container when it was empty. Just expensive, no-fat food at almost $100 a bag, a month.
We finally found a great vet a couple weeks ago, and had “the talk” with them. What was this going to look like, going forward? Could things get better? Was it possible they would get worse?
They assured us that some dogs recover from this, and have a good life.
And, they said frankly, some don’t.
What were we looking for, they asked.
Clarity, we said.
How do we decide when it is all just too much for a dog to handle?
We have loved all our pets over the years, every single one. When we thought they had a chance at a good life, despite their injuries and illnesses, we gave it to them.
But when it was obvious their quality of life was not so hot, were we doing them any favors by keeping them alive because we needed them to be here for us? No matter how miserable their lives became?
We are not those people.
They gave us some suggestions, some strategies, and assured us they understood where we were coming from. We left, feeling reassured that we could take a few measures to ratchet things back, and wait until we knew the time had come.
It came less than two weeks later. It came yesterday. It started last night.
He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t pee, just dripped. He wouldn’t eat. He whined, piercingly, nonstop, all night. We took turns sitting up with him.
I got angry at one point, as his piercing squeals jerked me awake dozens of times with a start. I yelled at him. Stop it! I said. Just stop it! I am so ashamed to admit that now. I didn’t realize it was his last night with us. I was exhausted, and scared.
I want to believe he forgives me for that.
The next morning, things were event worse. We knew it was time.
Unfortunately, our new vet was not available for a consult today. Once again, we took him to the animal emergency hospital. We explained why we were there:
If blood and urine tests showed that this was manageable, fine. We could go forward with treatment, and hope it would help. But unless they felt sure his new condition was treatable, easily, without incuring thousands of dollars more, we were not going forward with this. It would be time to say goodbye.
The first person who came to the lobby to discuss this was simply mean. No other word for it. They made it clear they felt we had failed our dog, that we were careless and uncaring, that our vet was out of line, that we had screwed with his meds and messed up his care. This was on us, his suffering.
That hurt. It’s hard enough to make these decisions without those who would judge us. We almost left to wait to see our vet tomorrow.
But neither of us could bear to see him suffer another 24 hours.
I’m glad we waited. The next vet tech person to talk with us was amazing. And then we spoke to the vet, and they were amazing, too.
We made it clear how much we love this dog. We made it clear it wasn’t about being “cheap”, or wanting a fancy home or car instead of a healthy dog. It wasn’t about trying to economize on the expenses, though it was causing issues for us.
But the expenses we went through meant we can’t do that for any of our remaining pets, ever. When we first went there, we told them, we met a gentleman who told us he’d spent $14,000 to save his kitten.
We thought at the time, “Are you crazy?!” We’ve been living with one car for five years, Jon is underpaid at his current job for his industry, we haven’t been able to set aside funds for our retirement for five years, and that’s not going to change soon. We haven’t been able to significantly offer financial help either of our kids all year because of this expense. My art and writing biz has tanked in the last five years, partly because of the move and leaving a loyal and loving audience behind, and partly for reasons that have nothing to do with me or my work. In short, that was simply a jaw-dropping amount of money for us to contemplate.
$14,000. Well, we came pretty close to that figure over six months. We knew we couldn’t go on with it indefinitely.
But even that wasn’t the deciding factor.
We were also very clear that, if we KNEW Tuck’s quality of life would definitely improve, if they told us this newest episode was something easily fixed, easily cured, we would do it.
But if not, that would be the main reason to stop this.
If we had to put him down, we would miss him forever. But putting him through more misery just because we didn’t want to feel bad about it? Not an option.
It’s our job to offer our pets the best life we can.
It’s not their job to suffer because we’re too tender to let them go.
The staff reassured us. They were compassionate enough, and honest enough, to tell us that a good recovery would not be the case. There wasn’t much hope.
And what brought the tears for both of us, is when both professionals told us repeatedly that it was a good decision. Too many people go down that other hole, they told us, and put their beloved pets through hell, trying to “fix” something that just can’t be fixed. We weren’t “copping out” like the first person implied. Yes, it is a difficult situation, really hard.
But they said we were making a decision based on what was best for Tuck, and that was commendable.
It helped. It also made us cry, again. Thank you, we said. Thank you for understanding. Just….thank you.
They put us in a private room with a soft cushion for him to lie on. I’d put my hoodie jacket on him, the lobby was so cold, but they brought fluffy blankets for him. They explained their process, which exactly met my request: Give him something to soothe him, and let him fall asleep as we held him, just like normal, just like always, one last time.
And when he was deeply asleep, and released from his anxiety and pain, then he could have the final dosage.
They gave us time alone with him so we could say our goodbyes. We said we wanted to be present for the entire process. We owed him that, to sit through something heartbreaking, to be present. To be with him to the end.
Jon and I sat with him, and held him. We whispered, “Who’s a cute puppy?” and “What a good dog!”, words that always made his tail wag gently, and perked up his ears.
He simply lay there quietly. Sometimes critters fight back at the last moment, instinctively. It makes it harder, as if they’re saying, “No! Wait!”
But he didn’t. It felt like he was ready to go.
We told him he was the best dog in the whole world. We told him we would love him forever. I traced the white patch on his head and neck that looked like a bunny. I looked into his beautiful eyes, eyes that look like he wears eyeliner. We said goodbye.
It was the softest passing I’ve ever experienced with a pet. He melted into my lap, relaxed, and closed his eyes. His labored breathing softened, evened out, gently, in. And out. And in. And out.
And then he was still.
Goodbye, beautiful boy.
Thank you for the years of joy and laughter, the wonderful memories.
Thank you your exuberance, for your companionship, for your devotion and love. Thank you for your expressive face, your noble look.
Thank you for being a poop about getting your nails trimmed, and yet not making it hard for the people who trimmed them. Thank you for being afraid of skateboards, because people glide on them in a weird way and they make a rattling noise.
Thank you for your love of a wide open field, and a brisk wind, and sunshine. Thank you for hating rain and baths. Thank you for loving smells, and cats, and fluffy pillows, and blankets.
Thank you for inspiring me to learn more about dogs, learning about their deep history with humans, going back over a hundred thousand years. Thank you for evolving right along with us, so that you always somehow knew when we were sad, or disgruntled, or afraid. Thank you for teaching me that dogs have walked by our side for an eternity, so that we need never walk alone.
Thank you for making us dog people. It wasn’t hard, was it?
We were waiting for you all along, never knowing how much we needed you, until you showed up in our lives.
After Jon and I argued a day ago, we made up and drove to Bodega Head. For the first time ever, when we put the windows down, Tuck and Nick both stuck their heads out of the window. I could see Tuck in the rear view mirror. He looked happy.
We went for along walk along the road that follows the inner bay. He tried to eat a dead crab. (No, Tuck.) He sniffed every piece of garbage. He tried to eat a sandwich wrapper. We laughed. Our last good day with him.
Today, I can still see his serene, smiling face, with his snout facing into the wind, just….happy.
And now I know first-hand, what I’ve always known is true:
All dog stories begin with laughter, and end with tears.