My December column for Dogs Today.
Illustration by Kevin Brockbank for Dogs Today.
I’ve buried a few dogs.
I had one terrier run down a field on a sunny day and collapse dead in the grass. I will never be certain, but I suspect that sudden death was the late legacy of a Black Widow Spider that had bitten the dog a few months earlier and left it paralyzed and on the edge of life for six hours. The dog seemed to fully recover, and went back to work, but something unseen and elemental must have weakened and finally given way on that fateful day. I was shattered.
I’ve buried other dogs. I’ve gone downstairs in the morning and found a 10-year old dog stiff in its sleeping crate, dead from a congenital heart defect that afflicted others in the same litter.
I’ve even buried dogs owned by others and dug them up again, a situation occasioned by an ancient dog which had the last of its many small strokes as it teetered over the edge of a tiny goldfish pond. My elderly parents were on holiday in the Middle East when it happened and, after I fished the dead dog out, I buried her in their yard, only to dig her up, a half hour later, to retrieve the collar in case they wanted it for memory’s sake.
And, of course, I have had to put a few dogs down in old age. The most memorable of those was on Christmas morning. While everyone else was opening presents, I was down at the vets. I had hoped to get through the holidays. I dawdled. I thought of myself and the kids. And in the end, I did not do right by that dog.
Doing right by the dog.
It sounds easy, but it’s not, and in my experience most people are too late, and almost no one is too early.
That is the topic of this column.
A Death Foreordained
I will start by noting that while all dogs die, not all dogs die in old age.
Many die young, the product of hump-and-dump breeders who sell puppies to anyone with cash.
A high percentage of these dogs live sad and tumultuous lives and die young. The cute puppy becomes the loud, chewing dog that constantly needs to be walked. Ownership may change hands, and in the end the dog is dead from a vehicle impact, or perhaps it drinks from a puddle of antifreeze, or is surrendered to a shelter and left unclaimed for one day too long.
Then, of course, there is the young dog that comes down with a serious congenital defect.
Too often the owners of these dogs went to a show breeder to buy a working dog, all the while saying “they just wanted a pet.”
Too often they bought a puppy, while ignoring all the fine dogs with wagging tails lined up on death row at the local shelter.
Too often they did not get hip scores on the dam and sire, nor did they look at coefficients of inbreeding, nor did they look at previous progeny from the same mating.
Too often they did not request test results for the most common health problems in the breed.
Instead, the dog was a “cash-and-carry” purchase. What was important at the time was not health, but that the drive was not too far, and that the dog look exactly like the ideal in the all-breed book.
And, of course, what was important was the pretension implicit in the pedigree and the kennel name.
Now, of course, there is not much pretension.
A year after the purchase, the dog is deformed or diseased or defective in some way, and the owner is now complaining bitterly, to all who will listen, that they “got took” by an unscrupulous breeder.
Of course, that’s not quite the way it happened, is it?
It was the owner that took this dog.
It was the owner that waltzed by the pound and went to a Kennel Club breeder insisting on a puppy.
It was the owner that wanted to buy a working dog to keep as a pet, and who thought going to a show breeder was the way to accomplish that ill-conceived plan.
And, of course, it was the owner who failed to ask for any and all health tests, and who failed to run screaming when given nonsensical answers.
Does the owner have any excuse?
No, not really.
After all, we live in the Age of Google. Ten serious searches for health information on any common breed, will tell you all you need to know 95% of the time.
But some things never change, and chief among them is that too many people are willful and lazy. They want a dog that looks like the one in the picture book, and they want it NOW, and they do not want to drive too far, and they do not want to be the kind of person who asks tough questions and walks away when given weak answers.
And so bad breeders survive, and people continue to whine about the deformed, diseased and defective animals they acquire from modern day dog dealers.
Of course, some will protest that they did the research, that they checked the coefficients of inbreeding, and that they made sure all the proper tests were done. They researched the health of the sire and dam, and they researched their previous progeny as well.
But if all this was done, why blame the breeder for health problems that cropped up in the dog?
Surely we all understand that even the very best breeders are neither Gods nor psychics?
There are no absolute guarantees with any living thing, and that includes the health of your own children.
Which is not to say that a good breeder will not meet you halfway. They will. If the dog’s defect is so serious that the young dog needs to be put to sleep, most breeders will refund your purchase price, and put the dog down themselves.
But don’t expect more.
Dogs, after all, don’t come with a bill of rights; they come with a list of responsibilities.
Responsibility number one, after food, water, shelter and exercise, is to pay your health care bill down at the veterinary.
The good news, if there is any, is that some serious health problems in young dogs can be solved with an outlay of a few thousand pounds. Dysplastic hips and knees can be repaired, cleft palettes fixed, and obstructed airways cleared. If you cannot afford a $3,000 veterinary bill in the first two years of your new dog, then you need to either get pet insurance, or reconsider getting a dog altogether.
The bad news is that if your young dog has a failing liver, faltering heart, or frayed central nervous system, the proper solution may be sodium pentobarbital -- a quick and humane death to avoid the pain, suffering, and compromised quality of life that is sure to follow and only get worse. Death is part of life, and we should not shy away from it. We must do right by the dog.
Of course, I realize I come to this with a hunter’s heart. I have made my peace with death, and most people have not. All I can tell you is that there is more to living than longevity, and sometimes the best gift we can give those we love is a dignified end that is free of pain, confusion and fear.
And so now we come to the old dog, the ancient hound who now lies arthritic and deaf.
What do we do here? How will we know when to say when?
There is no clear answer, other than to keep your eyes open.
If the dog refuses water, it is time.
If an old male dog has blood in its urine, it is time.
If a dog cannot stand on its own due to failing joints, it is time.
Do not let the dog live in pain.
Recognize that dogs are natural stoics, and what looks like a little pain may be a great deal more than that.
Which brings me to the most important point: Be early, not late.
A week early, and not much is lost; your much-loved dog slides off to sleep still free of anxiety, pain, and fear. It is a gentle thing, I assure you.
A week late, however, and you have needlessly tortured your best friend because you were unwilling to face the inevitable.
In the end, it is your job to stand for the dog, and to put the dog first.
This is your last duty.
Don’t fail him now.