Thursday, April 17, 2014

Playing chicken with the grim reaper

His back legs can't quite carry the load like they used to, bending under the weight of standing still and dragging toenails on the ground when he walks. He wobbles a bit, too. He's mostly deaf and his head droops much of the time. Episodes that are best classified as some sort of canine dementia carry him into a corner where he'll stand for long stretches until you tap him and he snaps out of it.

But his health is generally good, he never seems to be in pain, and at times (usually around meal time) he gets some spring in his step again. Hard to say for certain what a dog considers good quality of life, but being able to get around on your own, eat, drink, and sleep probably cover the basics.

Sometime on Monday he wandered through the electric fence and didn't make it back by supper time. I walked around the neighborhood looking without luck in places an old dog might wander. With temps in the 40s he wouldn't have any trouble surviving the night as long as coyotes didn't find him but several days without food would weaken an already frail body to the point that he wouldn't be able to get around. By the end of the week there'd be little chance of finding him alive.

Shortly before bedtime I came to grips with the fairly good chance that we might not see him again and I wasn't overly upset. Sixteen years is a long time and he does require more effort and upkeep than the younger dogs. We'd all be a little sad but wouldn't feel cheated in the least. Not knowing would be the only difficult part.

I came home at lunch on Tuesday to see if he'd turned up anywhere. No sign of him in the yard. No messages on the phone.  On an impulse I pulled in the driveway across the street to see if he'd strayed into their backyard like he'd done once or twice before. Having checked on Monday evening there really wasn't any reason to go back but unseen forces, maybe animal spirits at work, will pull you or push you to do things that aren't entirely logical.

He wasn't in the backyard and I walked to the edge of the woods, looking down a hill toward the muddy wetland that borders the creek. A white spot in the distance turned out to be a five gallon bucket.  A second white spot had some brown patches toward one end and turned out to be my dog, stuck chest-deep in the quagmire. A few more hours and this would have been a recovery operation. He could barely keep his nose out of the muck when I arrived.

In the two decades I've owned dogs I have never, ever seen one this muddy. Hell, I've never seen a pig this muddy. He looked like he'd been dipped in chocolate and left to soak. It took the better part of an hour and some unimpressive work with scissors to get him reasonably clean again. He was so exhausted he went to sleep while I was bathing him.

If I had gone on back to the office instead of taking one look behind the neighbor's house, if I hadn't looked exactly where he was mired, if I'd just waited to see if he turned up....the story changes completely. It's humbling that just one split-second impulsive decision can be the fence between life and death.

There's no question life around here would be easier if he were gone. Old dogs, like old people and old cars are high maintenance. But we get attached to all of them. Maybe that attachment is the unseen force making you do things that aren't entirely logical.

Somewhere is a line beyond which you stop doing whatever is necessary to keep an old dog alive. I guess I haven't quite crossed it yet.


  1. That is some anecdote. One of my bird dogs is pushing 13 and I empathize completely. I was pleased at how this story ended…the thought of your guy expiring alone in the mud and cold would be heart-breaking.

    1. Knowing what his likely end would be makes it difficult to think about, no doubt. On the other hand if I hadn't found him there I probably never would have known what happened to him. Better in some respects but not necessarily better.

  2. If he doesn’t mercifully die in his sleep, you’ll know when it’s time to give your dog the death he deserves while cradled in the arms of those who love him and who he loves and trusts. The hardest part will be for you in the aftermath. It’s a good thing that it didn’t happen to him when he wandered away and was stuck in the mud. The old boy deserves better.

    1. You're right Gil, he does deserve better. At the rate he's going, he may outlive me.

    2. It's been close to 3 years since we put Roscoe down. He was as wonderful companion a man could ever ask for. On August 11, 2011, at 9 pm, he collapsed and couldn't get up. I took him to the emergency clinic and he was diagnosed with cancer of the spleen and his tumors were bleeding. He was in shock. Surgery was suggested, but the prognosis was bleak. I wasn't going to have him cut open like a fish to be put through a long convalescence only to have him die within a few months. He was almost 12. I called my wife and she drove to the clinic. We called our daughter in Athens and she said her good-byes. Louisa and I stroked his magnificent head and told him what a good dog he was. The female vet administered the drugs into the pre-inserted IV line. It was over in seconds. I didn't sleep a minute that night, thinking of my last image of him as he lay in a comfortable curl, looking like he did on all nights past. The easiest decision I made about his death was deciding it was time. The hardest part was later. I still miss the old boy even though he is forever buried in my heart.