A friend of mine is facing the loss of a dog that, over the years, has become part of her identity. The dog is not particularly old, not that it would make the loss anymore bearable if she were.  Although the passing of a much-loved family pet is always difficult, I believe the loss of a dog that was once your agility partner is far more devastating.  This has nothing to do with the amount of winning, or the number of titles, or the number of world championships you may have participated in together. It has to do with the oneness you develop with that dog on the agility field. You are a team. The time and dedication invested in a relationship to reach that degree of unity only helps to fuel the burning pain of loss, as your time together draws to a close. I think it may be one of the first questions I will ask my maker when my time comes “why did our dogs have to grow old so fast?”  

I remember when Shelby (my first agility dog 1988-2004) was about 5-6 years old,

Shelby with a rock, winning of the 1998 USDAA GP Nationals.

Ten year old Shelby with her most treasure reward, a rock.

someone tried to convince me to convert to feeding my dogs raw, telling me they would live to be much older. I recall thinking, well if they live to 12 or 13, that would have been a full life and it would be ok to say to goodbye at that time. Hmm, how my feelings changed when I had my first dog live to be 12 or 13, I was in no way ready to say goodbye.  As much as I adore my agility dogs and get so much from the experience of training and competing with them, that relationship goes into a completely different dimension once the dog retires. I look at my dog’s geriatric years not with sadness, reflecting back on their glories of yesterday, but rather with great amusement as the dogs disclose a new side of themselves to me. And yes, I now do feed raw today, if I can squeeze out even one more month of productive life for my dogs, it would have been worth it to me.

At my friend’s request, over the next two days, I will attempt to describe how I have coped with the transitions that I have experienced as my own dogs advance through life’s processes.

The Big Adventure Phase I have a good friend, Dr. Leslie Woodcock, who coincidently owns the Vet clinic with the pool my dogs love so much. Leslie and I have been friends for more than 20 years. She is not a dog trainer by ANY stretch of the imagination, far from it, she is a pushover, and her dogs know it. What Leslie has, is a great insight into, not only her passion of canine sports re-hab, but also into canine geriatrics. She is the last to give up on a dog. Leslie gave me this great tip when Shelby had to retire due to geriatric vestibular disorder (she was 12 and still competing at the time).  I believe this simple little thing has not only extended my dog’s lives but also improved the quality of their geriatric days unbelievably. Leslie said, “don’t forget to make her feel special every day, or whenever you can.” That advise started the first of hundreds of “Big Adventure Trips” for my retired dogs. It could be a trip to the mailbox in the car, or a walk with just the two of us, or hanging out with me while I set up a course for class. As the dogs got really old the trips got much shorter of course, they were nothing more than a walk outside around the house or possibly shortened to just a walk around the car. With Twister (1992 -2008 ) I would

Twister's amazing running A Frame.

Little 4 kg Twister’s amazing running A Frame.

sometimes put her on the last slat of the dog walk and tell her “go!”  As she leapt off I would announce her as the “Champion of the WORLD!” to which she would bounce off my leg, barking at me in agreement. It doesn’t matter what the big adventure is, they all start the same, I tell the dog “ok special girl, its big-‘venture time!” It doesn’t take long, possibly only a few minutes, but it usually involves a few doggie treats and me telling them stories of their brilliance.

The Borrowed Time Phase  When Stoni (1990 -2005) was 12 1/2 I had 3 different veterinarians tell me she wouldn’t live out the month. Her kidneys had crashed and she had stopped eating. I found a holistic vet who gave me the glimmer of hope I needed. He thought he could help if I could get her to eat. At his suggestion, I made a paste of pre-digested whey protein and coconut butter and every 2 hours I would smear it on her upper lip. Stoni would lick off the paste, with great annoyance at me for disturbing her rest. Within 3 days she was eating again, This moved us into the “borrowed-time” phase of life with Stoni. For the next year or so John, (or I) gave her sub-Q fluids twice a day. Stoni would always wagged her tail and never complained about all the needles. The borrowed time phase is an unknown time frame, so you end up observing little details about your dog that may have passed you by before. I remember one morning, John and I were eating breakfast and Stoni purposefully got out of her bed and walked over to where Encore (who was four or five months old at the time) was playing. Stoni walked over and stuck her nose into the puppy’s ear. There they both stood motionless for a few moments.  I nudged John and whispered, look she is telling the puppy all of her secrets! It is easy to be sad during this phase but really it is

One of my all-time favourite pictures, one I like to call "the two legends" Puppy Encore and Senior Stoni

One of my all-time favourite pictures with puppy Encore & stately Stoni.I like to call it “The Two Legends”

a time to enjoy every extra moment you are squeezing out together. During the fall of 2004 we were at the USDAA nationals in Phoenix during Stoni’s borrowed time phase. She decided she wanted to go and say hello, and as it was, goodbye, to all of her agility friends. It was a long walk from the RV’s to the ring, but that was where she determinedly dragged me. It is still a great memory for me. Stoni wagged her whole body as she recognized people she had known over the years and who also were fans of hers. I will always feel grateful to the people around the ring that day that made Stoni feel so special.  Please, when you see an older dog,  take the time to acknowledge him, I can’t describe the difference it makes to the spring in the step of that dog.

My parents would give up on an old dog with the first major health issue that cost any amount of money, so the borrowed time phase would be a short one. With so many kids to feed, I can see how that may have been necessary. For some of us, doing what we can for our older dogs comes without hesitation. Either way, I think it is important not to judge others or ourselves when these decisions have to be made, for the decision itself is part of our own unique journey.  Regardless of what you decide, allow your dog to have dignity and do not draw this stage out longer than gives your companion quality of life.

Giving me “the sign”   I have found that each one of my dogs has let me know when it was their time to go. As much of a cliché as that may be, it is so true. Each dog has given me clear signs when they had shared all of the lessons that they were intended to bring to me. With Stoni, it was February 13th 2005. I pulled out my suitcase to start my packing for a series of camps Greg Derrett & I were teaching in Australia.  Stoni, who had been her normal bright-eyed self that day, came in and sniffed the inside of my suitcase.  We were alone in the bedroom when I said to her “this is a really long trip my girl, da mama will be gone for 28 sleeps.”  That night John commented he thought Stoni was a bit dull, not herself. At 5 AM the next morning, she had her first seizure. I sat with her until 8 AM when I called my vet, as I knew Stoni was telling me that 28 sleeps was too many for her to wait for me this time.  She had one more seizure before my vet arrived at our home to help her leave us peacefully.  That was almost 3 years ago and the tears are just streaming down my face tonight as I write these words. It is fitting Stoni picked Valentines Day to say goodbye, since she will always own such a big part of my heart.

Burial or cremation? Again I think this is a direction your heart will decide for you. When I lost Shelby I wrapped her up in one of my red USDAA National Grand

Me sprinkling Stoni & Twisters ashes into the floor of our new house.

Sprinkling Stoni & Twisters ashes into the floor of our new house last fall.

Prix finalist shirts and put her in a box that John build, with a rock of course (her favourite motivator of all time). We buried her behind the house, at the top of a hill overlooking a treed area where the squirrels always hang out. I have a stone marking her grave and every time I walk my dogs, I say good morning to her. With Stoni and Twister I felt the need to have each of them cremated. I didn’t know what to do with their ashes at first, but it recently hit me.  John and I are having a new house built, the floors are concrete throughout (so we can have radiant heat put inside– for the dogs of course:)). I decided I would mix Stoni and Twisters ashes together and sprinkle them in the main living areas of our new house. So they are in the kitchen, the great room, the master bedroom and my office and will always be a part of my life, as I have no intentions of ever moving from this Shangri-La we call home.

I think that may be enough emotion for all of us for one day. I will finish up with this post tomorrow. (Click here to read that entry.)  Today I am grateful for all of the wonderful “Borrow Time” experiences I have shared with Shelby, Stoni and Twister.