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When to Let Go



I am asked quite often, "How do you know when it is time to put your best friend to sleep?"

This aspect of owning and loving dogs makes this decision one of the hardest we will ever have to make. I do not think there is one answer that is right for all people. I do not know if there really is a right answer. I think we must all search deep in our hearts for the answer that is right for each of us. One thing I know for certain is that there is no one who is more capable about this decision than the person who loves the dog. I know that the decision should be made out of true love for your friend. I have had to make this decision quite a few times in the past. It was never easy, and I shed a lot of tears hoping I was doing the right thing.

The friend I had the most agony over was my beloved Stride. I could not even imagine, at any time during his life, that one day I might be faced with this decision. I know it was not very realistic to leave this possibility from my consciousness. Stride was such a big part of my soul and life without him had never occurred to me. As I watched him getting older, I never saw him as an old dog. The light in his eyes was all I had ever seen. Even today it is this light in his eyes I remember. It is the love between us that I revel in. Dogs give us so much and ask for so little in return. When the nightmare began, and my first awareness of reality occurred, the death of Stride became inevitable. I still could not comprehend it. As I watched this noble dog begin to show the symptoms of the brain tumor, the realization slowly started to sink in. For the first time in my life, I knew I might to have to end the life of someone I loved with all my heart. I did not think I was capable of making this awful decision. I did not want the responsibility and prayed that I would not have to end Stride's life. Deep in my heart, I knew that when it was time I would do the right thing for my beloved Stride. I knew the decision would be made with love and full awareness of the choice. I would like to share with each of you what I use as my criteria for this decision. Again, these are my own thoughts and may not be right for you. It has taken me a long time to be able to write this, but I have a strong desire to share our story with each of you. I hope by sharing my own personal story that this will help you when you are faced with the horror. The first part of this article will be geared with the criteria I used. In the second part, I will share with you what I did with the rest of the dogs in the house, after Stride was gone. I think it is important for the rest of the dogs to know what happened and to help them deal with it.

Stride had a brain tumor. It was inoperable, and he was not a candidate for radiation. The tumor was in a deep part of the brain and effected his balance and esophagus. He was treated with steroids and lived four months after the diagnosis. The last few weeks of his life had me beginning to understand that I may have to make this choice. I could not even fathom how I would do this. I prayed that he would die on his own. I asked the vet in Boston if this were possible. He told me that I would probably have to make the decision; as to let Stride die on his own would be a horrible death. I don’t know how many tears I cried.

The last week, things started to go wrong. He had nosebleeds and stomach swelling from the air he swallowed when eating or drinking. He required a lot of care, but I did not mind at all. I slept on the floor with him. He still had a good appetite; although, I had to hand feed him everything he ate or drank. He was continent. He still knew who I was and responded to my voice and presence. He needed help with the stairs and did a lot of sleeping. I never left his side. I loved taking care of him and spent hours-saying goodbye. On Friday, he did not eat and seemed to be distressed. I called my vet and asked her to come to the house and put him to sleep. She was busy but said she could come later that night, about ten o clock. I told her OK, as I would have time to say my last good by. I spent the rest of the time talking and stroking my friend. I did a lot of laughing about all the funny things we did together, thanking him for sharing my life and making it so much better. About nine thirty he got up and wanted to eat. I made him a steak and ate it all. He wanted to go out and potty. He did that and needed some help relieving the gas. As I was massaging his belly, the doorbell rang, and it was my vet.

All of a sudden panic came over me and this did not seem right. Stride was better and was quietly lying at my feet. I asked her to wait a while, as I was not sure this was the right thing to do. She said yes, and we sat and talked about him. She told me I was making the right decision. She spent four hours with me, but I could not do it. I know she thought I was doing this for myself and not for Stride. Something inside me just knew this was not the right time. She left, and as soon as she did, I wondered if I was right. Fear swept over me. I was afraid something would happen in the middle of the night. I slept on the floor with him, and we had a quiet night.

Just before the sun rose, I grabbed a couple of quilts and Stride and I went to sit on the deck. It was freezing, but I wrapped the quilt around us. I was distraught, and I reached out to God to help me make this decision. I looked deep in my heart and tried to see if I was keeping him alive for myself or for him. After a while, calmness came over me. I knew that I was the only person who could make this choice for Stride. No one in the world loved him as much as I did. No one wanted what was best for him more than I did. What constitutes quality of life, and when is life not worth living? These were the two questions that I needed the answers for. I looked deep in my heart and out to God for the answer. My vet had told me that Stride was not happy, because he could not do the things he was use to doing. The more I thought about that, the more I realized that each and every one of us is going to get old and not be able to do what we use to. This does not mean we should not live.

How does one really know when death is better than life? All of a sudden an insight came to me, and the decision was perfectly clear.

I had to use the same criteria for Stride that I would want for myself. The following five needs would have to be missing before I would want to die.

1.) I must not be a burden, either financial or emotional, to those who took care of me. Stride was not a burden and I wanted to take care of him. I was so happy to be able to give this friend something back for all he did for me. I was thankful for each moment we shared.

2.) I must be able to communicate with those who loved me. If not verbally, at least with my eyes and spirit. I must have an interest in the world around me. Stride was able to communicate until the very end. He knew Frank and I and wagged his tail whenever we spoke to him. He played with his toys and still commanded the rest of the dogs in the house. No one ever tried to alter the order of dominance.

3.) I must not be in agonizing pain all the time. There were times when Stride was in pain, but it was not constant. These boughs of pain happened often, but I was always able to make him more comfortable. He had medicine that helped with the pain and medicine that helped with the gas.

4.) I must be able to eat and drink and take my medicine in order to help myself. Stride did eat and take his medicine up until the last day. His loss of eating was the first sure sign I had and knew that the time had come. The day he died was the first time I could not get the medicine into him.

5.) I must have my dignity. I could never lose complete control of all my bodily functions and want to live. This lost of control would mean that he would be separated from the life he knew. Stride lived in the house his whole life and slept in the bedroom with us. I could never see him laying in his own waste, unable to keep himself clean. Stride had his dignity until he died.

I promised myself, if any one of these five criteria were missing, I would put him to sleep. I knew in my heart that I would keep this promise to myself and to Stride. I can’t tell you the relief that swept over me once this choice was settled. A feeling of peace set in, and I knew this was right for us. I don’t know how long we were out on the deck, but all of a sudden I felt the cold. The sun had risen and Stride looked the best he had in a long time. Frank and I took Stride for a ride to the water. It was cold and Stride was excited. He wanted to get out of the car. By this time, he could not walk to good. I decided to take him out of the car and let him breathe the fresh air. I put him on the ground and turned my back for one second, to get a leash. I could not believe it but Stride was not there. To my utter horror and amazement he was running down to the water. I chased after him, and caught up to him just as he was about to go swimming. The water was freezing but this wonderful dog didn't’t care. He thought we were going swimming and wanted to be the first one in. He looked wonderful and still had a zest for life. He taught me that animals are special for they live in the moment. They don’t worry about the future, it is the here and now that matters. He did not know he was dying and saw only the wonder of our swimming place. I will never forget chasing after him and the laughter. This memory will be one of my most cherished of Stride. The lesson is one I hope to never forget. If I had put him to sleep the night before, I never would have this memory, or the lesson. I was so happy that I made the right decision, I just knew it was not the right time. I was also certain that I would know when it was the right time for him. The rest of that weekend went pretty smoothly. We had some wonderful time together. On Monday, Stride had a bad day. He ate very little and spent most of the day very quiet. My friend Celeste came down and spent the day with us. Neither of us talked much and around four o’ clock, I blurted it was time. I asked her if she would drive us to the vet. I had told my vet I would bring him in, and asked her to put him to sleep in the car. All of a sudden I did not want to see him dead in my house. I helped him to the car and laid him down on a quilt. Just as I got in the back with him, Celeste asked, "Terri, do you think he knows what you are going to do? He looks sad and as if he understands." I can not tell you how angry I was at Celeste. I asked her how could she say such a thing to me? Din’t she know how awful I felt? You know something; she only said what I also saw in his eyes. I just did not want to face it. I will always be thankful that she had the courage to speak her mind. I told her, she was right and we would just take him for a ride. We stopped and bought some ice cream. Stride relaxed and ate all of it. We brought him home and he had a great dinner. Again, it was the wrong time. We had another quiet night.

The next day was Tuesday, and Stride slept most of the day. He seemed very comfortable and only ate a little of what I cooked for him. I tried liver, steak, and finally ham. He ate the ham and was able to get his medicine. That night, I knew that the end was near. I slept on the floor with him and about 4:30 that morning he tried to get up. He could not seem to stand. I called for Frank and told him Stride wanted to go out. He carried him out but when he tried to stand him up he could’t. I told Frank to bring him in and I would call the vet. She promised me she would come whenever I was ready. As Frank lay him on the blankets, I called my vet. I told Chris, it was time for him to go. Just as I said these words, Frank said "Terri something is wrong." As I looked at Stride, he took two breaths and died. Very quietly and peacefully, this wonderful dog left this world. I told Chris that I thought Stride just died. We put our hands on his chest but there was no beating, in his heart. He was dead. I do not know why this happened this way. I don’t know why I was so blessed, to have him die on his own, so quietly. All I can think of is this was the last gift he could give me. The moment I said it was time for him to go, he went. I have wondered about this for a long time. There was a connection between us that was not of this world. Our spirits were joined and when my spirit let him go, his spirit left. I know that I would have put him to sleep that morning. There would never have been any guilt. It was the right time for him. I think I was finally able to accept his death. I think he was finally ready to return to the universe.

I hung up the phone and sat on the floor with him. I pet him for a while and quietly thanked him for sharing my life. I thanked him for this last gift. I told Frank to let the other dogs out one at a time. The first was Stepper, and as soon as he walked out, he immediately cringed and wanted to go outside. Naughty came next, and she slowly walked over to Stride. She sniffed and lay down next to him. She put her head on his neck and lay there. Scoop came next, but did not even acknowledge Stride at all. Stepper came in again and very slowly walked up to Stride. He sniffed him this time and, then, he too lay down next to Stride. He was at the rear and put his head on his side. We all were there for a while, each paying our own respects to this noble dog.

This memory is burned into my mind. This was the first time that one of my dogs died in my house. It was the first time my other dogs saw the dog that died. All my other dogs were taken to the vets. The dogs at home never knew what happened, the dog never came back. After a few days, the surviving dogs stopped looking for them. I never really understood that dogs do understand death, and do pay respect to the dog that died. This experience made me wonder how little we know about them, and what they are capable of. That night, another strange occurrence happened. For the first time there was turmoil in the house. The dogs were testy with one another. An all-in-out fight happened between Stepper and Scoop. I realized that the pecking order was not there any more. Each dog wanted to establish a new order of dominance. I guess Stride was such a strong figure and when his presence was gone, the rest of the dogs needed to know who would be boss. I found this amusing, and even though I understand this about behavior, to actually see the dynamics happen in life was amazing to me. It made me appreciate dogs more and seek to understand them to a higher level. I truly love dogs and am always in awe of how wonderful they really are. I am happy to share my life with these animals. I know that there will be more of them lost over my lifetime. I know that even though the pain is real, the joy far out weights the pain. I hope that this article may help you deal with the decision we often face.

Believe that you will know when it is the right choice for you and your friend. When the decision is made, remember the joy of the dog. Remember the good times and don’t dwell on the sorrow of their death. Smile at the friendship, and you will keep them alive in your heart. This will make their life and love worthwhile..

Take a minute, give your dog a hug, appreciate all the love and joy they bring into your life. Time with these friends is so short but the impact they have on you will last your life time.... Terri

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