The first time I had to have a dog euthanized (no, I don't pretty it up, that's what it is) my daughter was just starting to walk and the pit mix we'd had since we moved in together started being food aggressive. Because she was already completely animal-aggressive, we made the tough decision to have her humanely euthanized. We loved our dog, and we knew if she went to the shelter, her breed would ensure she would very likely not be adoptable, and we didn't feel comfortable placing the responsibility for keeping her and others safe on anyone else's shoulders.
The vet asked me if I wanted to stay in the room with her.
Did I want to? Absolutely not. I wanted to be as far away from that place as humanly possible. No, I did not want to watch my dog die.
But I owed it to her to be there.
I was the person who took responsibility for her when I signed the adoption paperwork at the shelter. I was the person who had made the decision to end her life. Yes, the reasons for doing it were the right reasons, the safety of people always comes first, but it was still my decision and I needed to own that. And being faced with the choice of being there for my dog or abandoning her to the care of strangers for the final moments of her life cemented in me a belief that I still hold to firmly. Our household pets rely on us for affection, attention, leadership and companionship. In the final moments of their lives, when those moments have been scheduled by us, we owe them nothing less than our full presence.
I've been present for dogs who didn't belong to me because their owners couldn't or wouldn't give them that final gift, and I mourned their passing as much as I mourn the passing of my own.
I believe to my bones that Hercules had a good death. He was so very sick. His heart was grossly enlarged, and the drugs that the vet gave me to try to ease his discomfort were doing nothing at all to help him. All he could do was stand and try to breathe. He couldn't lie down, it put too much pressure on his lungs and chest and he would panic and start to choke. He stood there yesterday, looking at me with eyes that were frightened and confused, eyes that begged me to make things better. Because there was absolutely nothing I could do to ease his condition, I did the only thing I could - I chose to end his suffering.
Before the children left to go to their dads they each got to hug him and tell him they loved him, and when my ex came to pick them up he spent some time with him as well. And when the time came, when he died, he was in his own home, on his favorite blanket, with his head in my arms. I stroked his soft ears and kissed his crusty old nose and petted his head and told him over and over again what a good boy he was, how much he was loved, and that I was sorry he was so sick. I told him that we would see each other again someday, that he had been the best dog, the smartest dog, the sweetest dog that ever lived. He never flinched, never felt the drugs that finally let him have peace.
It was earlier this fall that I did the math in my head and realized that the Hercapotamus was almost twelve. He had already lived the top range of life expectancy for his breed. I knew then that I would be lucky to have him very much longer. Just weeks ago he was still himself, bouncy and exuberant. When he started to walk into the house after being outside rather than run, I sort of knew what was coming. But I waited for him to tell me it was time to go. And so he did.
Dogs teach us what it means to love fully and without reservation. Because their time with us is so brief, they allow us to experience the full circle of life, from childhood to death, and from that cycle we learn how to cope with enormous loss. The love they give is a treasure, something precious and meaningful. Each dog is unique and special in his or her own way. No one will ever love you the way your dog loves you. Your children will grow up, and while they will love you, they won't always need you. Your partner or your spouse, they are fully actualized adults and while they love you, while they want to be with you, they don't need you. Your dog, on the other hand, needs you for as long as he lives. You are the center of his universe. When he needs comfort it is your hand she seeks, when he is thirsty or hungry or cold, it is you to whom he comes with his need.
Take responsibility for his comfort, his safety. And when it is his time to leave this world, you owe it to him to usher him on his way with all of the love and presence of mind you can muster. Don't let his last touch be that of a stranger. Make sure yours is the last voice he hears as he crosses over, because you are the most important person in the world to him.