The most painful choice

I have a dear friend who was a support to me during some difficult years. I spent some periods living in her home with her parents and siblings, and felt close to all of them. In time, her youngest brother grew up and went to medical school. Shortly after he emerged as a newly minted MD, he was hiking with his dad on a mountain. His dad was in amazing shape, a lifelong long distance runner, but this did not prevent some disaster from occurring during the hike. (I don’t recall what, exactly.) He couldn’t breathe. His son, in desperation, performed a rough tracheotomy with his pocket knife, but it did not save his beloved father’s life. I was horrified at the time at the sense of helplessness and (probably) guilt that young man must have felt, along with the expected grief, loss, and other overpowering emotions that must accompany the loss of a loved parent. I am certain he felt that he should have been able to save his father, that he was the one with the special skills and training to allow him to meet this emergency and conquer it. But he could not.

This memory has come back to me in recent days as I mourn the passing of my littlest dog, Nano. Nano came to me at two-and-a-half years from a bad situation. I finished his flyball training and he had a wonderful career as a steady, reliable flyball dog. But this was only part of the picture. He already had a lot of social anxiety and compulsive behavior patterns, and a very inflexible temperament that locked into rituals with the greatest of ease. I spent the last five years and five months trying different medications, teaching him new skills, managing what I could not train, trying to protect him from the consequences of what was broken in his brain. One of the most difficult problems he presented was aggression toward other male dogs in my house. This was getting steadily worse, and for various reasons, could not be managed with crating or other kinds of separation. Every day was extremely stressful for me, for him, and for the other two dogs who were the targets of his outbursts of frustration.

In January 2015, Nano experienced a serious injury to his back playing flyball. While he could still walk and run after this, it was not safe for him to play flyball or fetch. This deprived him of his only real outlet. He was learning to be a fine little nosework dog, but it was not enough to make him comfortable. He was still constantly watching 30 TV screens at once, unable to focus on one thing and unable to make behavioral choices that might reduce his conflict with other dogs in my house. Then, the other shoe dropped: I learned that I would need to accelerate my plans to sell this house and move to another. In a few days, I will be moving out, and living in a small travel trailer for a few months. Then I will buy another house. But I knew that living in a travel trailer with Nano and the other dogs was not going to be safe, and it was going to be purely miserable — for all four of us.

And so, a few days ago, I did what I knew I had to do to protect the other dogs, and to protect Nano himself from the consequences of behavior that none of us could control. I took him to my vet and we sat in a quiet room while he very quickly went to sleep. I imagine he was tired from that lifetime of vigilance, from the thousands of hours of circling and pacing he used to cope with his anxiety. My vet and I sat there, tears running down our faces, while we said goodbye. Nano would have been nine on January 24, 2016.

As a dog behavior consultant, I think I must feel something like my friend’s brother watching his father die on a cold mountaintop in New England. I should have been able to fix this. I should have been able to do something. My sense of sadness and loss is compounded by guilt and shame and helplessness.

Losing each of my other beloved pets who has died was horrible. In some cases, they died before I had to make a decision. In the cases where I chose the time, the end was near and I knew I was helping them avoid only suffering. There was not much left, for each of these beloved friends, to live for.

It was different for Nano. I took him to flyball the night before he died, and he had a great time! Of course he was quite sore the next day and could not have done this repeatedly, but he was thrilled. He remembered his job exactly and he did it well. He even jumped up into my arms once, something he hasn’t offered to do since the back injury. He loved the few minutes of agility I gave him last week, and did a great job with his final nosework searches. There was still some quality in his life.

I took that away. I had to choose, and I chose the members of our little family who have longer to live, a better quality of life, and less responsibility for the intense stress and anxiety we felt when Nano would have meltdowns at unavoidable daily occurrences. It was the right choice. But it still hurts like hell.

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