Yesterday I chose to have my dog, Aerial, put to sleep.
It's difficult to even type those words, and the emotions that come and go during this time are varied and powerful.
But saying I've learned a lot from the process is a poor way to describe how I've been impacted by the last 11 years and my experience with a sweet and wonderful dog. So I'll instead just let the words flow and meander and see where it takes me.
First, I'll start with Aerial herself. It was about 11 years ago that I looked up from my computer and told my wife that I thought we should get a dog. She was pretty surprised by this because I typically don't like change. I don't like disruption in my life, in particular in ways that feel like I'm am being limited or restricted. Getting a dog creates restrictions. It just does. It's one more thing to be responsible for, and I already had 4 kids so I wasn't experiencing a lack of things to take care of in my life. :)
But the need just hit me, so I went into dog acquisition mode. First, what to get? Well, I can't stand dog hair and fur on me, clothes, and furniture. My younger son, Mitch, had some allergies to contend with as well, so I just searched the internet for a database of dog types with the criteria I needed. Some of the database fields included "hypo-allergenic", "sheds", "good with kids", and "indoor/outdoor".
I sorted the database to find a dog that didn't shed, didn't activate common allergies, was good with kids and was both a good indoor and outdoor dog. I started from the top and read the descriptions, ignoring the names and pictures, and somewhere in the top 3 was the perfect dog. The description included details about how great the breed was with kids, how they enjoyed playing games, and figuring things out. It described the need to keep them occupied with challenges, and how they made great "working" dogs because of their fierce loyalty and natural willingness to engage with their owner.
All of that sounded perfect, so I made up my mind. Only then did I look at the breed name. My wife has to put up with a lot, and from her perspective I'm sure I seem crazy. One minute I tell her I want a dog, next I tell her I'm going to analytically pick the best dog for us, and then I'm looking up from the computer again minutes later asking "What the hell is a Portugese Water Dog?"
She didn't know either, but the choice was made and Becky took it from there. I still remember being stunned when she told me they were (at the time) a pretty rare breed, and a dog was going to cost $1200-$2000! Wow, that made me pause. But for me it was either get the 'perfect' dog or spend less on one that was clearly inferior. Computers and databases don't lie, so the choice was still clear. (I'm chuckling as I type that.)
Becky found a breeder and we were told that if the next litter had a "pet quality" dog that we could purchase one. It turned out that the next litter did indeed have a female that was not considered show quality due to an underbite, and the breeder asked us to name her with the theme of her litter, which was aviation. What are the odds? As an avid private pilot, and total airplane nut, nothing seemed more of a sign that we had picked the right dog than this.
We needed to pick two names, like a first and middle name, and a conversation with the kids eventually got us to "Aerial" for a first name. Some of the meanings of Aerial include "occurring in the air", "high in the air", and "of or relating to aircraft." So Aerial definitely fit the aviation theme the breeder had picked for this litter, but what for the second name? My younger daughter, Katie, was asking what Aerial meant and I was describing aerial displays, acrobatics, etc. At some point I remember she asked what that looked like, and I said it was like an airplane dancing through the sky. I don't recall now who then suggested "Skydancer" as the second name, but before long the name was settled on. The reference to the breeder is shown as a possessive, so the registered name ended up being "SaltyDawg's Aerial Skydancer."
And just in writing this, I've googled her name. I can save you the time if you want to google her, and show you some info on her here http://www.offa.org/display.html?appnum=1065646 and here http://www.saltydawgpwds.com/Whoarewe.html where her show dog championship is mentioned. But that's jumping way ahead, I suppose. I'll sidetrack a moment though and say it makes me smile now to see the information in the first link. We eventually bred Aerial and asked the owners of those puppies to continue the aviation them themselves. Apparently they did since I see the registered names now. Aerial's legacy lives on through "Soaring Thru Space", "Sky Princess", and "Grace Spitfire." I can imagine dogs responding to "Grace" or "Princess" but I don't know what the owners call out when they want "Soaring Thru Space" to come.
So back to the story as I ramble along. We got Aerial when she was around 10-12 weeks old. And while I was the one who decided to have a dog, my ever-patient wife had to deal with me freaking out a bit. Suddenly we were bound to the house. We couldn't just leave all day without planning on someone to let Aerial out. And she was a puppy. My last experience with a puppy seemed like it was all play and no work, no doubt because I was a little kid and the work fell on my parent's shoulders. It truly was all play for me. Only after getting Aerial did I realize the work involved. Hey, puppies are work.
Fast forward 9 months or so, and a few things have occured. First, the puppy has become an easily excitable dog, and her underbite has spontaneously corrected itself. I joked briefly with the breeder that I had fabricated braces and headgear for the dog, but the horrified response quickly turned off my sarcastic sense of humor. Instead the breeder asked if we would be willing to "show her." Initially we had no interest but the breeder really wanted us to consider it so we finally agreed to do so. Working with the breeder was great, and while I could never keep a straight face when someone at a show said "you have such a beautiful bitch" it was fun to see Aerial being shown. She would be a total spaz right up to the point of her handler taking her in the ring, and then she would walk around like she knew she was the greatest dog ever! She exhibited total poise and composure. Upon exiting the ring she would freak out and lick us and spaz out all over again. It was very fun to watch and I'm convinced she loved it.
She won several shows in her category, eventually acquiring the points to earn her championship, and we retired her from dog shows. It was a fun phase, but one we were glad to finish and let her resume just being a pet. And that's exactly what she did for the next 10 years. True to the original database description, she was the best...dog...ever. She didn't shed, she was good indoors or out (though clearly wanted to be indoors!), was great with kids, loved to play fetch, do tricks, you name it. And she learned things so easily and quickly.
She loved toys. Loved to get a dog-toy and tear it apart to find the squeaky thing inside. Sometimes that was accomplished within an hour of giving her the toy, and other times she kept toys for a long time. She kept this mangy duck for years, and she wouldn't touch the elephant that trumpeted when it was bounced. If you were playing with her and said "Go get your toy!" she would search the house until she found one and brought it to you. I don't know how she learned it, she just did it the first time we told her to.
One time I went upstairs with her and happened to see her toy and decided I would throw it over the balcony to her. I told her "Go downstairs" and she bolted down the stairs to the first landing. I said "go all the way down!" and she ran down to the first floor and I threw her the toy and she caught it and bolted back up the stairs. I have no idea how she learned it, but from that day on, we could play that game and she would do exactly the same thing. "Go downstairs" would send her to the first landing. Sometimes I'd throw her the toy there, and other times I'd say "All the way down" and she'd run downstairs and sit under the balcony for me to throw her toy to her.
She was gentle and never snapped at me or bit me. But if I got down on the ground and played rough with her she would growl and pretend to bite me while just barely putting her mouth on me. She'd put her mouth on my arms and hands and barely leave little red marks while I would tackle and shove her away. We fought hard, and to a stranger it would look like she was attacking me. We would fight like this until I was exhausted, and the first time we did it when I was ready to stop I said "Okay, cool it." and she just sat down and waited to be petted. I'd like to claim I trained her, but she just seemed to know.
My kids loved for me to show their friends this trick, and Aerial and I did it often. One minute we would be rolling around on the ground with her appearing to bite me and attack me while I shoved her away and she slid across the floor only to jump back up and pounce on me, looking for an exposed arm or leg to latch onto. Then I would say "Cool it." and without a second's hesitation she would drop into a sitting position and wait for me to scratch her chin.
As I mentioned earlier, we bred Aerial as well, and while there were some healthy pups from the first litter, and one from the second litter, it was also about the time that some health problems began to surface. Shortly after the second litter, she began taking medication for some hormonal imbalances that lasted the rest of her life. There were also a few lumps/tumors removed over the years, and she seemed to have a new lump or growth every year or two. Other than that she was vibrant, energetic, and healthy.
A few months ago she suddenly developed glaucoma in her left eye and went blind in that eye before we caught it and began treatment. We caught it in time in her right eye just about 6 weeks ago and saved her vision. Then in the last 10 days she started eating less, but we thought it was related to a lump she had removed from under one of her teats during that time. On Monday evening she suddenly seemed to be having trouble rising to a standing position, and by Monday night she was degeneratng rapidly enough that we took her to the emergency pet hospital. Her bloodwork and vitals seemed okay, so we took her to our normal vet Tuesday morning.
Wednesday afternoon a surgical specialist doing ultrasound and x-rays determined she had fluid on her lungs, growths on multiple organs, and a mass of what was most likely cancer on her spleen. We also noticed that a few lumps we had found on Monday behind her ears and under her chin had almost doubled in size. She couldn't lift herself up, and her body was obviously being overtaken by cancerous growths. The vet explained that the growth on the spleen typically creates internal bleeding, which explained the edema, anemia, and sudden onset of symptions, but said she was too weak to survive a surgery to try to correct the acute issue.
Never in my life has such a clear decision been such a difficult decision. My girls and I met my wife at the surgical center and we arranged to say our goodbyes. They brought Aerial in to see us on a wheeled table, because she could barely lift her head and needed oxygen to stay awake. In spite of all of that, as soon as she came through the door she lifted her head and her tail began banging up and down on the table. She tried to get up a few times, but it was obvious she wasn't going to be able to, so we just encouraged her to lay down and each of us took a few minutes to pet her and comfort her.
She was a great dog and I'm glad I got to say goodbye. I know she understood me when I said "Go downstairs" and she knew what to do when I said "Cool it." I like to think that she similarly intuited what I meant when I thanked her for being such a great dog and for sharing her life with us. I thanked her for being in our family, and for the joy she brought us. And then I laid my head on her chest and broke down and sobbed.
The sadness was all being created from the sense of loss, and the loss only exists because something is treasured. So with a deep breath I regained my composure and told her she could go to sleep soon and it wouldn't hurt any more. As we left she tried to get up, but was so weak that we readily convinced her to just lay back down. It appeared she was close to falling asleep when the assistant came to take her.
I've broken down and sobbed more than a handful of times since. I miss my dog. And while she loved us all, she was MY dog. For most of her life she refused to be in any room other than where I was. She would leave someone else to check to see if I would pet her, yet when she was with me no one else could get her to come to them. Many times I would tell her to go, and even then she had a hard time leaving my side. She was my dog. Wow, I'm going to miss her.
I've always cringed when I've heard people say they love their pets like I love my children. Invariably, these are people who don't have kids, and therefore don't realize how wrong they are. As much as I will miss Aerial, she was my dog. And perhaps for that reason it's easier to see past the loss and realize just how thankful I am for having had her in our family. So while I feel my ramblings coming to a close, and perhaps upon completion of this I can actually sleep, I think what's really left for me to express is the gratitude.
I learned a lot from Aerial, and I'm grateful for the lessons. I learned that when you do something you shouldn't, the best thing to do just might be to hang your head and tuck your tail between your legs. But don't just wallow in it. Periodically check to see if you've been forgiven. And when it's clear that all is forgiven, spring back and jump into the joyful relationship you had prior to the transgression. Wag your tail again. If you're forgiven, forgive yourself and don't walk around with your head low and tail tucked any longer.
I learned to unabashedly show joy at seeing the ones you love, the ones you know, and maybe the people you've just met. Why not? Until the last month or so, Aerial ran to the door every time I came home. If she thought I might come to the front door she often laid her head on the window sill and just watched and waited. I knew I was loved by the greeting I got. I learned to really tell people that it's good to see them, that it's good to talk to them, and that I enjoy their company. Good stuff shouldn't go unexpressed.
I learned that if I'm not willing to fight to protect my kids then I'm certainly no better than a dog. She was protective of each litter, sometimes fiercely so. The only time she ever bit anyone was when she bit my friend Jim because he came in the house when we weren't inside. Aerial was growling at anyone except our family if they came near her litter, and she chased Jim back out the door. He almost made it before she drew blood. It was my mistake, and Jim was generous to forgive her completely. And once I came in the house, 30 seconds later, she was wagging her tail at Jim. When we weren't in the house, she wouldn't let anyone else in, and having puppies took her protective stance to another level.
I liked her example of confronting the unknown head-on. When she heard a noise outside, she charged out the dog door at full steam, barking and saying "It's on!" as she went. When she cornered a possum at 3am one morning, she ran in and out of the dog door, keeping the possum cornered and waking me up to join the fight. She was fearless, but when I stuck my head out the dog door and saw the possum a few feet away in my flashlight beam it scared the heck out of me.
Finally, I feel tremendous gratitude for everything surrounding yesterday's experience. In the last 24 hours I've experienced a lot of emotion, so I'm just going to start listing all the things for which I have felt grateful.
I am tremendouly grateful for my friends who showed their support and care during a difficult time. I felt loved.
I am grateful for my family, in particular my wife and kids. They created the family in which we welcomed Aerial 10 years ago, and the family in which we mourned her loss. I'm surrounded by loving people.
I am grateful for the financial ability that allows me to know that my decision was completely based on what's best for Aerial and my family. Surgery would have been very expensive, and I am blessed beyond description that I did not have to take that into account in my decision. I told my daughter yesterday that it was the best thing, and I said so confidently. If I had to make that decision because I couldn't afford the surgery I couldn't look my daughter in the eyes. I'm under no illusion that many families are faced with those difficult decisions and don't have the options I did. I am truly, incredibly, overwhelmingly blessed. Abundance shows up in the weirdest places.
I am grateful for the abundance that allows me to have a pet in the first place. I've said for many years the difference between pet and prey is how hungry you are. It's incredible that I live in a society so abundant that we can have pets. If there is a scale ranging from scarcity to abundance, most of the people reading this, like me, are so huddled together on the abundance end that they don't realize the size and scope of the scale that exists. I have an abundant life.
Finally, I'm grateful for the puppy that just jumped up next to me. We got Gracie, another portugese water dog, just a couple of months ago. She played hard with Aerial, and I'm glad they got some time together. Aerial acted younger in those couple of months, and seemed to be having a blast right up until the end.
My challenge will be to not expect Gracie to be another Aerial. Aerial was my favorite dog ever. Gracie may be my next favorite dog, maybe not. She's definitely different. Aerial tried to avoid the shower, whereas Gracie won't stop throwing herself against the shower door until I let her in. She starts almost every morning soaking wet. Weird dog.
But, that's what we said about Aerial. We always said she was a weird dog.
I'll sure miss that weird dog.