Years ago, when I was still married, my husband’s dog, Boots, had a heart attack. For some reason I’d always assumed that people had heart attacks and animals had animal problems. Boots didn’t die and was put onto heart tablets, morning and night.
The vet said that my dog, Shellie, had arthritis and watching my 11-year-old Newfoundlands get about with a limp and a heart problem was a sweet, but sad sight.
Boots and Shellie had never been sick before and we muddled over the kindest thing to do. Boots was fine while he took his tablets. Last winter Shellie had trouble getting up on to her feet, but was otherwise pretty good. But now it was late autumn and her morning slowness showed that she felt the approaching winter.
One Friday, I was eating vegemite on toast for breakfast when I noticed that our food-loving dog, Shellie, wasn’t at the back door, drooling at me. I scanned the patio to see Boots hovering over her as she struggled to get up onto her feet. Her head and neck strained while her front legs half-propped her up, but the rest of her body wouldn’t follow. Boots leaned forward, nudged at her chest and stepped back. She just couldn’t get up.
Next, something happened that I’d never seen before. Boots made a silent bark toward her. Looking at the way his head thrust forward, and the way his lung full of air shook his floppy jowls, I expected to hear a very loud woof but it was more of a whispered ‘yip’. He was confused or worried or perhaps both and, apparently, he didn’t want to bark loudly.
I helped Shellie to her feet. She was a heavy dog, easily weighing 65 kilograms (140 pounds). Once I had her up and mobile her legs worked perfectly. The thoughts going through my mind were hard to stomach so I gave her my toast. She looked so happy for a silly, old, half-demented dog. In fact, she looked so happy eating my toast that I then gave them each an egg mixed with milk each, just for a treat.
How could I put my darling girl through the coming winter like this? Suddenly, I was faced with a choice to have her struggle in obvious pain or ease her way to heaven, perhaps a year earlier than she would naturally have passed? My mind was like one of those thousand-piece puzzles and I had no idea which choice to make. I didn’t want her to go, yet I didn’t want her to suffer. I didn’t want Boots to have his first experience at ever being alone at age eleven, he would fret and pine for her. Do I let them pass away in comfortable, loving surroundings or leave it to nature? Them? Oh God, of course losing Shellie would mean losing Boots, too.
The puzzle was slowly coming together and my decision was made while I bathed and dressed our two year old daughter, Hayley. Today was the day we were saying farewell to the first two babies. The sweet, little bundles of fur that loved me since they first came into our family when I was a teen, looked to us for their joy, comfort, love – and they gave back so much more than we ever gave to them.
My husband was already at work and I rang to ask him to agree that it’s now time. He was reluctant, but agreed with my reasoning. And I wanted to do this immediately because I felt strong enough to do it with love and calmness. Imagine how the poor dogs would react if I started howling.
I groomed and talked to Boots and Shellie as though it was an ordinary day.
Hayley was too young to understand the concept of death and dying, so I told her we were going to the vet to help the dogs and we talked about Boots’ tired heart and Shellie’s very sore bones. We walked Boots in to the vet first, leaving Shellie in the car. He was first because he’d never been alone before. Not ever.
He was enormous, too big to lift onto the vet’s table. I sat on the floor, cross-legged. Hayley sat on my lap and Boots lay down beside us. The large needle went into his shoulder and he didn’t even flinch. It’s as if he didn’t know it had even happened. The vet and her assistant took a step back while I rubbed his floppy, silky ear. An eerie calm filled the room as I talked him to sleep.
“Bye, Boots. We love you. Thank you for being our big boy.” I whispered.
“Bu-bye Bootie,” called Hayley as though he was going on a holiday.
Then, with his big, heavy head rested on my left knee, and my hand gently rubbing his ear, he closed his droopy eyelids and exhaled his final breath of air.
Using her stethescope to listen for his heart beat, I noticed tears rolling down the vet’s cheeks. Her assistant was the same. Gently, I placed Boots’ head onto the linoleum floor and went back to the car for Shellie; she was my dog. When we returned with Shellie, Boots had been taken from the room and the ladies had regained their composure.
“Where’s Bootie, mum?” Hayley asked.
“He changed into an angel and flies around now. That’s what happens when we finish living. We can’t see him – but he can see us.”
She looked up at the ceiling and muttered, “Up there?” and gave a little wave. I nodded.
Sitting on the floor with Hayley again, Shellie gave a grunt as she lay herself down beside us, almost as if she instinctively knew what to do. Shellie always had an instinctive communication style with me. Ours was a silent conversation that took place through our body language and eye contact. I had glanced from her eyes to the floor and then gave two little hand pats onto the floor. She rested her big slobbery face onto my leg, just like Boots did – just like they always did when they lay beside me like that. When the needle went in she looked right into my eyes, and I felt like a betrayer. Who lays their dog down to their death? Then again, who leaves their dog to suffer a whole winter just to have them pass away of old age? I vowed to never get another dog because this dilemma would haunt me for the rest of my life. Hayley broke the silence. Smiling at Shellie, she said, “You’re going to change into an invisible flying angel dog like Bootie.”
I whispered to Shellie, “Good bye my girl. Thank you for your love.”
Shellie closed her eyes and went peacefully to be with Boots, to wherever dogs go when they die.
She looked relaxed. Even happy. So did Hayley. The vet and her assistant looked distraught and breaking down was imminent for us all. With my bottom lip starting to quiver, I paid the bill and left with Hayley in one hand and empty dog leads in the other.
I strapped Hayley into her little car seat, put some music on for her, walking to the back of the car I could just hear the Wiggles singing Hot Potato Hot Potato! Placing thedogs’ leads into the back of the wagon, I then shut the door and cried. I sobbed. The vet was watching from her window for a moment and then left me to it.
I know it was the right thing to do. If I were a dog I’d like to have died like that. Boots and Shellie were truly the best dogs in the world and I still cry whenever I see a Newfoundland. About six years later we rescued a very distressed Newfoundland from dreadful conditions and I was grateful to have offered her a good and comfortable life before she died of natural causes eight years later – aged eleven, just like Boots and Shellie.
I’ll never get another Newfoundland because they take a piece of my heart when they leave.