I love dogs. They are, by far, my favorite animal. I’ve never actually been without a dog. 32 years old and I’ve never NOT had a dog.
My grandmother, who lived through WW2 and concentration camps, used to tell us stories of her German Shepherds that would watch over the my aunt and uncle while she went into the shop. Not something we would do today, no doubt, but there are pictures of an old style stroller thing sitting outside a shop and a pair of absolutely HUGE German shepherds sitting very stoically next to them.
My mother was much the same way, but updated. She didn’t leave us alone as children with only a dog. Everyone had their own dog in my home, as weird as that sounds. My mothers favorite breeds were german sheperds. I have never been bit by any dog, not a single one. We were raised very Cesar Milan style: we were taught what a dog’s body language meant, how to approach a dog and when to not. Above all, not to do dogs the sheer injustice of assuming they think and act like people. They don’t. And I really do believe that’s a big part of where my love of dogs came from: I appreciate and understand their mentality. It’s courageous, loving, loyal, simple and stunning. It makes sense, they have order unlike a lot of people. It’s beautiful.
We were taught NEVER to strike a dog, abuse a dog, or in any way mistreat a dog. We were taught respect for the dog as well. It was, in every conceivable way, a part of the family, usually more loyal and hardworking than us humans, and I’ve never had a dog “let me down”. We were taught that having a dog was a privledge and a duty, and it taught us to be strong. My mother teaching us to walk our dogs on a leash, when the dogs were at least 3 times bigger than we were, meant having a sound mind, a lot like Cesar’s calm assertive position. It meant not getting frustrated, raising your voice, choking the dog with it’s collar, pulling it’s chain, etc. It meant having confidence and being calm, because if you are, so are they. The dog would take their cue from you. If you felt in control and at ease, the dog would feel no reason to drag you all over town. And she was right.
But we did always have big dogs that were considered “protective” but not “aggressive.” She never worried about leaving us home alone when we were old enough to stay home. When I was born, the family bought me my first dog (it’s tradition). It was a white Samoyed mix, I believe. I loved that dog. Unfortunately he passed away when I was still little due to some genetic health problems.
Growing up, we had a chow chow and a rottweiler as well, who lived to see my mother pass away. My chow ended up living to 17, and my rottie to 13. At the age of 18, while my chow and rottie were still alive, I had become enamored with Akitas as a breed. When a friend of a friend who bred Akitas offered for me to come over and pick out a puppy, I jumped at the chance.
That was where I met my girl. That’s what I call her: my girl. My big girl dog. It was love at first site. I went to pick her out from a litter of pups, but I still stand by that she actually picked me. I got to meet her parents, who were HUGE. Ironically, I found out later, she was a the biggest of the litter, but ended up being the runt at 100 pounds full grown. She was one of 6 females (the bitch had had a HUGE litter, off season as well) that were like little butterball looking bears hiding under a wooden bench. All of them were black masked, a beautiful sheen of silver and black, with white chests. They weren’t really scared as much as a little leary of me. They were all a bit shy, sizing me up. Except one. One that kind of seemed like she was under the bench with the others cause, well, that was just the thing to do. As soon as she noticed me, she didn’t run, she didn’t trot, she walked, very casually up to me. Puppies don’t normally walk period, especially not to strangers. She came up and sat down at my feet, looked up at me, and very casually untied my shoe laces with her teeth, then resumed staring at me. Just like that. And looked me like “There. That’s better.” I very quickly said “This one! I want her.” The whole episode took all of about 45 seconds. I hadn’t even gotten to bend down to try to coax them out. It was like she knew. She knew we were meant to be together. She was waiting for me.
She was the perfect dog from the get go and we got along famously. My mother had given her the nic name “shadow” because literally we were never apart. We think the same way. Loyal, quiet and needing a purpose. She never needed to “alert” me to anything going on unless she’d sized up that it was something she couldn’t handle on her own. She barked about once a week. I haven’t heard her bark in about a year, but that’s mostly to do with her being deaf now from old age. Even when she did bark, it was because the mailman or UPS guy wasn’t leaving the door, not because they were there.
She was good at checking up on me too. She always make sure to lay very strategically where she can see me. If I leave the room for more than 10 minutes, she’ll come looking usually. But just to check up. Peak her head in, look at me with the “Ok, there you are” face, and lay down.
She was never, ever, ever an aggressive dog. Ever. Does she like small, prey type things? No. But that’s prey drive. That’s something you can’t really “teach” a dog not to do. I wouldn’t have ever put her in a situation to harm another small animal, that’s just ignorance. If my friends have a cat or really small children that are rowdy, I wouldn’t bring the dog with for that visit. That’s common sense.
When her legs were stronger, she went everywhere with me. And I do mean EVERYWHERE. She LOVED car rides. I was so excited when I got remote start for my car because it meant if we went for a drive and I needed to stop for gas or a quick run of groceries, I could still take her with in the summer/winter because I could leave the car running with the heat/ac. No more dirty looks from her when I left the house is freezing temperatures or 100 degree weather. I would tell her “I can’t take you with because it’s too cold/hot and the grocery store doesn’t allow dogs.” But I don’t think she speaks English. Even if it’s perfect weather, I still won’t leave a dog in a car alone for more than a few minutes, I just can’t do it, it makes me nervous. I’m always wondering if someone is going to take off with my car or I’m inside the store wondering if the dog is ok.
She loved hiking, wading through creeks, and playing in the mud just like me. She was never a super “playful” type dog the way you’d imagine a dog to be. She wasn’t a ball catcher or a frisbee dog. She mostly liked a quiet purpose. I was using backpacks for her before Cesar ever suggested it, and she loved it. The look of pride and just calm on her face was wonderful. She liked sniffing everything, alerting me to things “HEY! check that out, there’s a chipmunk in there!”, and racing to the “finish line” with me. If I stopped to grab a bottle of water out of the backpack or her collapsable water dish, all I had to do was stop, reach for the backpack and she’d stand still and calm and relaxed. Like, yeah, go on, you get that water that I carried for you, where would you be without me woman!
Every time I went to visit a family member for a weekend, for example my aunt who’s 3 hours away, she came with me. She’d sleep in the car on the way there and immediately took to my aunt and her children. I remember once, when a relative of mine was sick and I had no choice but to kennel her, I was a mess. I couldn’t find any one to doggy-sit and I was near panicked. It was only for 2 days and I was a MESS. I took her to my vet to be kenneled, because they are wonderful people and I trust them. I walked her back to the kennel, and she gave me a look of panic. I immediately started crying. I mean CRYING like a baby. My mind was racing as to how I could somehow sneak her into the hospital with me to visit my relatives. The tech at the vet was patting my shoulder, telling me she’d be ok and that I could call every 5 minutes to check on her if I wanted. My regular vet actually came out and assured me she would be fine. They’d give her the biggest kennel, lots of free time and tons of attention. They finally managed to peel me away from her somehow. I called just about every five minutes and they’d tell me “She’s resting comfortably, no need to worry, she’d just fine” every time I’d call.
When I went to pick up back up, I expected her to either be pissed at me or super happy to see me. But when I came to get her, she was actually laying under the vet’s desk in his office keeping his company. I knew from the get go that my pup was one of my vet’s favorite dogs to see, if not THE favorite but this was really touching. He informed me this is basically how she spent her two days and that the entire staff loved her. She ate well, went to the bathroom well, didn’t make a peep and was more than happy to be pet, walked, and brushed. You’ve no idea the relief I felt. Mind you, she isn’t a waggy-tail-to-strangers-dog. She’s a typical Akita: aloof, but not mean, she’ll watch you for a bit to make sure you’re ok, then she’ll walk up to you and rub her head against you to be pet. That’s her “I really like you, you’re nice” gesture. I would tell everyone that who ever came into my home the first time: Don’t just walk up and start petting her gleefully. Just chill out, let her know you are there, and eventually she’ll come to you. And she always did without fail. Eventually my guests would get “the head butt” and that meant instant friendship.
Every single person that has ever met her, and I’m NOT exaggerating here, says the EXACT same thing about her: “Man, that dog is so cool.” There’s not a single soul that has entered this house that hasn’t fallen in love with her.
And now, she’s 13. I’ve noticed the last couple of years her legs getting less strong. Her daily runs going from runs to walks to now barely strolls. The trouble she has when she gets up sometimes. It’s heartbreaking. I can hear the vet (whom I ADORE. He’s dealt with my dogs for nearly 15 years now) tell me how well I’ve taken care of her, that I should be so proud of how long my dogs live, that it’s a testament to my quality of care. But it doesn’t matter. My heart doesn’t hear that. My heart hears: She’s not going to be around much longer, and it’s my failure that I can’t make her immortal.
I’m not one to medicate my dogs if I don’t have to, and my vet knows that. At 11, when her legs were starting to give her real problems and the high quality food, grain free diet and more fitting walks wasn’t helping, I took her to the vet. I was hesitant about Rimadyl, because I know what that can do to them. I was glad to hear my vet wasn’t quite convinced she needed that yet. So he put her on a gentle anti inflammatory, and that seemed to help for a bit. Then, it stopped helping so much.
So, about 8 months ago, we began a cocktail of Rimadyl and Tramadol. I was worried because at first she seemed doped up. I didn’t want her going through what would be her last golden year NOT herself. But I was happy when she seemed to return to her normal self after a few doses. I also noticed how sore she seemed to be if her dose was late. It was a cruel wake up call that I wasn’t really “fixing” anything, this wasn’t prolonging her life, it was a quality of life issue. I knew that already but it was really hard to swallow.
The vet, whom I have a very friendly relationship with, very gently informed me that for her size, near 100 pounds, she was very old. That he’d seen 10 and 11 year old Akitas of her size. But as they reached 12, he’d seen even less. And a 13 year old Akita was a rare thing. I knew what he was saying, it’s just not something you want to hear about a being you love so much.
So, this summer, I started noticing she was starting to have troubles with going to the bathroom. Not troubles in the way you’d think, but like, she’d poo in her sleep a little, which wasn’t like her. Another vet visit and he said he wouldn’t worry too much, that’s pretty common in older dogs. It’s nothing to worry about. As long as she’s not straining, a little accident now and again isn’t an issue.
Then I started to notice when she went outside, she wouldn’t even make it to the end of the driveway and she would start to pee as she walked. I thought maybe she was going a little too long without going to the bathroom, 8 hours while we slept, so I made sure to let her out again later in the evening and again earlier in the morning, chopping my sleep up a little bit. But it kept up. The vet asked me to watch her water consumption, was she drinking more. The answer was no for the longest time, then I noticed that, yeah, she was drinking more.
At another vet appointment in September, all her blood work came back perfectly fine. But she had a urinary tract infection, so we started a dose of anti biotics. She would no longer take her pills on her own. That’s been an uphill battle. No amount of steak, cheese, peanut butter, pill pockets, or anything would make her take them. She’d chew up the food, and spit out the pill or refuse it all together. We looked into getting salves and liquids, but not only were they cost prohibitive, the sheer AMOUNT of salve/liquid we’d have to give her wasn’t practical. The vet said that some dogs just don’t take pills and you have to force it and showed us the proper, safe and quickest way to do that. So we had to start using a pill tube, which I HATE doing. I know it’s for her best interest, but I still hate it. I wish there was a way to explain to her that she needs the stuff, and that I’m not shoving these pills in her because she’s done anything wrong.
The round of anti biotics seemed to do the trick, but she was still urinating in the middle of the driveway. After all the tests, the vet was a little perplexed because all her blood work/tests came back just fine. He was really pleased with them actually, enough to be surprised that a dog at this age would have such good numbers, so to speak. We chalked it up to age. Her weight was good and everything.
Then, in December, I started to notice her bloating. Since about mid November, she’d had more trouble pooping, so the vet told us to add a little fiber into her food. That seemed to help. I thought for sure the bloating could be from the fiber, so we stopped it, and the bloating seem to go down a bit. Then it’d go back up, then down. Then we noticed she seemed to be getting a little thinner (which we were told might happen), but her bloating was going up and down again. It was a week or so before Christmas, so I took her in.
They first did an X ray, and the doctor called me and his first words were “I really don’t want to have to tell you this.” I knew it wasn’t good. He told me she had a HUGE mass inside her, he wasn’t sure exactly what it was it was so big, and it had blocked view of her other organs, but it was huge. I asked him how this could happen? She was just there not that long ago. He seem perplexed himself and asked if he could run more tests, an ultra sound and whatnot. I told him of course.
A few hours later I get another phone call. He says he has good and bad news. It’s not a mass, he says. It’s her bladder. I almost fell to the floor. He told me, to be honest, he’d never seen a bladder on a dog that big. He’d taken a sample and confirmed that yes, it was urine. He had taken another ultra sound from a different angle and found a mass at the base of her bladder, which he was pretty certain was why her bladder had filled up at all.
I, of course, had a myriad of questions. She was still peeing so much, how could it be that full? What caused this? Was it something I had done? What can he do about it?
The answers were good and bad. She was still peeing, which was a good sign, however she obviously wasn’t peeing enough. I told him she’d pee about 500 times when walking, I figured that was just a “dog” thing cause I’ve had dogs do that before. He said there was no way for me to know how much she was really going unless I’d take a measuring cup with me, which I wouldn’t have thought to do. It was probably a “slow” back up that just got real bad, real fast.
As far as how could it be that full, he was both surprised and grateful it was. Surprised because of it’s size but grateful that even at it’s size, it hadn’t burst. And that was a good thing.
What caused this? The mass. It wasn’t anything I’d done, he assured me. It could be age, genetics, or a myriad of things. He says he’d seen even younger dogs with this type of mass.
The bad news: Even in a young, healthy dog that could easily survive surgery, these types of things are almost NEVER benign, they are damn near impossible to get to and very risky.
What could be done? They put a cathedar in her and an IV cathedar and drained her for a couple of days. This wasn’t surgery, but required sedation, which although we were both iffy about seemed the best course of action being such that surgery wasn’t really an option. She responded well and within a few hours she was alert and doing well. She was at the vet for 3 days. The house seemed so empty. It seemed wrong that she wasn’t here.
He sent her home with the relaxer and an anti biotic, and told me: This will likely happen again. And you’ll have a choice to make. We can keep putting a cathedar in her but it’s a quality of life issue at this point. If it happened again, I’d have a choice as to whether or not I was going to play God.
And I hate playing God.
When I put down my chow, the good doc came to the house. Even though my pup could no longer walk, he still was rockin’ the puppy face and wagging his tail when he could. No matter how much my friends, family or the vet told me it was the right thing to do, it never feels like the right thing to do. It ALWAYS feels wrong, it always feels like it’s not my place. I prayed for him to go peacefully in his sleep, but I knew the chances of that weren’t very high.
My brain goes something like this: She’s been the perfect dog. I wouldn’t want to be in pain, either. She’s been nothing but honorable, and loyal, and wonderful and I owe her a painless, honorable death. I owe it to her to be strong and make the right choice.
My heart says: Fuck that. I can’t do it. I love her too much. She’ll get better. There has to be a way.
After the cathedar, she had been pretty consistently going but only in her sleep. She doesn’t pee outside any more. She doesn’t STRAIN to pee outside and nothing happens, which the vet warns was a danger sign, she just doesn’t even try, instead she’s just going in her sleep. He said as long as she’s going, that’s a good sign, that it may just be her bladder needs time to return some tone before she can really control when she goes. Or maybe she will never again control when she goes, we just don’t know. She ends up going in her sleep. And she tolerates my cleaning her back end in the bath tub with such grace, even when it’s multiple times a day, sometimes a couple times an hour.
In the last few days though, she’s not drank much. And she’s not urinated hardly at all. I’ve taken her in to the vet 3 times in the last week, each time they tell me no, she’s not bloated, it’s ok. I can’t get her to drink as much as she was though, which is why I’m guessing she isn’t going much either. They don’t know why she’s not drinking, but it’s most likely because that mass is wearing her down. It’s what cancer will do. And this type happens to be rapid and ugly. They told me very kindly to view this as hospice: Make her comfortable, if she won’t eat, feed her table food as long as it’s not toxic if she’ll eat that. Let her do what she wants. We will keep assessing her and let you know if her bladder does get swollen or if she’s dehydrated so you can make an informed decision.
She finally drank a good amount yesterday, and finally started to urinate a good amount again. I made an appointment to have the doc look at her again. I won’t let her get to massive pain. I will not. But, my heart keeps fighting me. Keeps telling me she’ll just one day be better. And we will grow old together.
But I look at her, her legs starting to drag a little, her muscles getting weak. Yet, when those meds wear off she’s a little more alert, but her legs are even more sore. It absolutely kills me: Give her all these meds to make her comfortable but sleepy, don’t give them to her and she’s more alert, but it’s tantamount to a death sentence, not to mention she may be alert, but still in more pain. And run the risk of her bladder filling again.
I’ve obviously opted to keep her on the meds. But that doesn’t really change the outcome. She won’t be here pretty soon, and it’ll be because I made a choice to help her die. I won’t lie, I can’t even write this without crying. She’s not like a child to me, no, it’s not that kind of relationship. I’m not her “mom”, that would indicate she needs me more than I need her. She’s an extension of me, my sister, my partner in this weird thing we call life. And I have to cut her from me, and I really don’t want to. I really don’t know how I will live without her.
All in all, what I want are different things. I don’t want her to suffer, I don’t want her to die some violent, sick death. I don’t want to put her through that. I also don’t want to see her go. I certainly don’t want to be the one who decides when her life is over.
Don’t mistake this for indecision. I know what I have to do. I know once she gets to a certain point, there’s no turning back, but I also don’t want her to spend her last days in massive pain or in the vet’s office being drained or doped up. It’s a game of time. For right now, she’s resting comfortably at my feet, staring up at me when I take a break from my keyboard wondering if perhaps I have any more of that home made jerky for her. And as dumb as this sounds, I can’t let her know how much I’m crying. Because when I do, in those moments of total weakness where I cry and grab her and hug her, she puts her ears back and gives me the “What’s the matter? Is something wrong?” face. I don’t want her worrying either. I try to remain strong for her sake because, I don’t care what anyone says, dogs are psychic. They just know.
She’s one of a kind. She’s my kindred. She’s been with me through my first apartment, the death of my mother, huge changes in my life, and I swear sometimes her presence was the only comfort to me in the entire world. In this world where things are always changing, you have to worry about people lying, doing you wrong, the stresses of time, money, and emotions, she’s been steadfast, steady and strong for me. She’s never let me down, and she never will. At this stage, so close to the end, I still can’t fathom my life without her. She’s been with me almost half my life. I love her an immeasurable amount in a way that I can’t even begin to explain. Unconditionally. Our relationship is one made of the purest stuff, not dependent on drama or tests or external factors.
If you’ve ever had a dog, you know this feeling. It’s an emptiness and a sadness that could overflow the Grand Canyon. It rips you from heart and back. It’s the grandest love, and the grandest pain. It’s the most rewarding and heart wrenching thing.
What I keep thinking over and over in my head was something a woman once said to me. I don’t know this woman, I’d only had a very brief conversation with her while we were both waiting to see the vet. She was bringing her dog in to be put to sleep. She was in her late 50’s or early 60’s with kind brown eyes, puffy from crying, holding her dogs head in her lap. She made small talk with me and I gave her my condolences, the way people are giving me theirs now. She looked down at her dog, and petted it’s head, and said to me without lifting up to look at me:
“Why can’t God make them live longer?”
When I die, God’s going to have to answer for that one.