Last year, we had to put one of our beloved pooches down. She was 15. I had lost pets as a kid, but I was never directly part of the decision. Sandy was the first pet as an adult that I was responsible for and present for during her passing. Shortly after her death, I wrote the following piece. I never posted it or published anywhere and had almost forgotten it until I read of a friend's pet recently passing away. Those of you who have pets know how they become part of your family, and some are extra special. Sandy was one of those special ones to me.
Picking her out is still a bit vague in my memory, but I remember wanting a dog so badly I could almost feel the fur in my arms. My husband Dave and I had only been married a few months when we felt we were ready for our first pet. Although we both grew up with small pedigreed dogs, we both wanted a bigger dog, and we wanted to rescue one. I was on my way to my hometown to visit my parents when the local humane society came into view. A force greater than my own self control drew me off the rode and down the driveway to be welcomed by a hundred barking dogs. After walking through the kennels, I was drawn to two dogs...a laid-back older hound mix, a gentleman through and through, and a young female lab-shepherd pup with a pink nose and ears that looked more like Gizmo from the movie, Gremlins. I left them both behind for the moment, knowing I'd be back for one of them. Which one, I just wasn't sure. I called Dave that evening and told him about my visit. Irritated that I would attempt such an important decision without him, he grumpily told me that if I insisted on getting one of the dogs, get the female. I headed down the road, a two-hour trip, with what became the first addition to our family. She curled up in the front seat and only sat up or lifted her head a few times as if to check things out and make sure everything was okay. I later learned how fortunate I was as it's not unusual for dogs to become quite carsick.
A little uncertain of the situation, she lagged a little behind me when we first arrived home, but Dave was there waiting for her. Although irritated with how it all came about, he was still anxious to meet his pup. And she was his pup from the very first...it was love at first site. Since I had picked her out, I figured the least I could do was let him choose the name, and he picked Sandy, although she was more the color of sand you'd see in the Caribbean rather than anywhere here in the States, a beautiful vanilla cream. Even well into her senior years, we got compliments on her color.
I have often speculated aloud, “Why do we always seem to get the weird or the dumb animals?” I always say it with a smile, though, because it's a personality or set of fun quirks that make me ask. Sandy was the beginning of that trend, but it wasn't funny at first. Since she was only about six months old and not quite housebroken, we began crating her right away. Her determination for freedom was unlike anything I'd ever seen before or since. Her first crate was like an airport carrier made of hard plastic and mostly enclosed on the sides. Over a period of about a week or two, she chewed her way out. Okay then, bring in the metal crate. Using her nose and jaw, she pried apart the bars until she got her head out and then got herself stuck. Okay, no more crates. Although she was housebroken by this point, no crate meant coming home every day to something new being chewed apart including the carpet at the top of the stairs and an entire dining room chair. The dining room chair was almost the last straw. She almost lost her happy home, and I think she knew it, because other than her rawhide bones and the garbage when left out, she never chewed anything else after that.
Although I had fallen in love with her, too, she was always Dave's pride and joy. He was youth pastor to the church next door, and his office was in the attached Christian school. He would take Sandy into work with him several times a week. No leash was necessary as they headed across the parking lot. Sandy knew where they were going. Once inside, she would curl up on the couch and hang out with Dave and the kids until it was time to go home.
She had an uncanny knack for knowing boundaries wherever we went. Although we usually kept her tied up when we let her out, we learned quickly that we didn't need to fear if she got loose. She didn't go far, and she always came back. When we moved back to our hometown, we moved in with friends for a few weeks until we could find our own home. They had a pup of their own in a similar breed and about the same size. Sandy and this dog became best buddies like something you see in the movies. They would take off in the morning to romp in the woods and return hours later, exhausted but happy. We could take her to Dave's family hunting camp with all kinds of people around and did not have to have her leashed. She wandered calmly among people and knew not to stray too far.
Probably the quirk I loved about her the most was her sudden, out-of-the-blue, no-reason-behind-it energy bursts. She would begin racing through the house, using the back of the couch as a kind of like a springboard -- similar to how a race car rounds a curve high on the track. It happened at least once a day, and it was an hysterical site that I never tired of laughing over.
When one gets a dog before having kids, there is always concern as to how the dog will respond to or accept the kids. Sandy took to both of my kids like they were part of her plan all along. In fact, she was always a bit protective. Given a choice, she would spend her time with them during the day. And when they were asleep, and an adult would check on them, she would walk back with the adult as if to make sure we wouldn't do anything to disturb them.
Although in the category of bigger dogs, she thought she was a lap dog. Her spot was on the couch right beside whoever was there, usually stretched out to take up the rest of it. At night, she thought her place was in bed between me and my husband. I begged to differ, but with patience and persistence, she often won that battle. She would place her head on the bed, giving you the best sad puppy eyes you could imagine. After a couple minutes, she would place one then the other of her front paws up and scootch forward a bit. And after a couple more minutes, she would try to subtly get the hind paws up with her. This last step always made me laugh as you can imagine a big dog hoping no one would notice as she climbed onto the bed and how (not so) subtle she really was. I kicked her out most every night only to wake up in the middle of the night hot and claustrophobic due to her heavy sleeping body tucked snugly between me and Dave.
Circumstances too difficult to talk much about forced us to give her away at age seven, but we were fortunate that a family from our church took her, so we could keep tabs on her, and we were always welcome to visit. They called her their Angel Dog, and she was. She was good for their whole family, especially their teenage son, and they were good to her. The family went through some difficult times in the following years, and Sandy became their comfort in the midst of it all. She became bonded with them as she had with us, and although we always felt heartbroken at our loss, we rejoiced at their gain. At eleven years old, she grew a tumor on her hips that, although benign, grew out of control and required surgery to remove. This family decided to take the risk, opted for the surgery, and Sandy came through with flying colors.
Less than a year later, I got a phone call asking if we would like Sandy back. Stunned speechless at first, I could barely get out the question, “Why?” I knew they loved her as much as we had; what could possibly make them give her up? A combination of lifestyle changes and prayer led them to this decision, so I answered with a resounding, “Yes!” The timing was such that she became my husband's Christmas gift that year. So Sandy came home to spend her senior years with us.
Taking Sandy in during this time was probably a lot like taking care of a precious family member during the winter season of their life. Age often changes one so much that we wonder if they are the same person, but the essence is still there...deep down, perhaps, but it's there, somewhere. Sandy had slowed way down, and in many ways wasn't the same dog that we once knew, but she was family, so we adapted and grew to know and love this older version of our favorite pooch. In her absence we had gotten another dog, a black and white retriever mix named Lady, and Sandy decided early on she didn't like Lady. Lady graciously decided to give Sandy back her queen status, and unless absolutely necessary gave Sandy a wide berth. This often made me smile, because if push came to shove, it wouldn't take much for Lady to win a scuffle, hands down, but for some reason, she did what she could to live and let live. Not only with Lady, but with life in general, Sandy became somewhat grumpy, a trait I'm told is rather common with animals as they get old. She was almost deaf, and she rarely heard us come home, so she was often sound asleep when we arrived...so still that I would usually stop to watch her breathing to make sure she was okay.
Eventually, the tumor on her hip came back, small at first, but it grew, and it grew rapidly. As it grew, so did Sandy's attitude, as I'm sure did her discomfort. She wouldn't even tolerate Lady within her line of vision (which was one of the few things still in good shape), and it became clear that her quality of life was on the decline. Although not miserable or in severe pain, she wasn't happy either. She was simply living out her days, tired and growly. When the tumor started bleeding out, and she struggled to stand up under the tumor's weight, it was clear that a visit to the vet was inevitable. We did have options, but given her age (15 years at this point), none of them made much sense, except to end the misery. We got together as a family and discussed it all, deciding that we would make the appointment for the next week. We talked about how the Sandy we once knew would be up in heaven playing and running like she used to...there would be a couch for her to run and jump on, and she'd greet whichever of us got there first with a wagging tail and lots of kisses.
Putting her down was a lot harder than I thought it would be. And it was a lot quicker, too. She wouldn't lie down, so one minute I was looking into her eyes, and then next, her head dropped, and she was gone.
At first, it was hard not to second guess our decision, but so many things have confirmed that we did the right thing. I think the best thing is that now when I look at pictures of her and see pictures that remind me of her, I smile. We didn't watch her suffer endlessly. I remember her during her happy years, and I think that it's one more reason I can't wait to get to heaven because I just know she'll be there to greet me. Her kisses were something special, and she always gave them willingly. All I had to do was lean into her face and she'd lap you with soft wet kisses that I can almost feel as I type this. I can't wait to be the recipient of them once again.