This Old Dog | Emily Hightower

Issue #21


This old dog asleep by my side once warned me of a fox in the hen house in the middle of the night. Somehow I knew exactly what he was telling me. I followed him to the yard and together we ran off the fox and he gently found each hen’s hiding place as we got everyone safely home (well, almost all of them made it). If you have a bond with an animal, the nonverbal nature of it is part of what makes it so potent. It’s also what can make their end of life so confusing.

He used to be a giant 110 pounds with long skinny legs perfectly adapted to swipe steak off the butcher’s block. Now at 84 pounds with major balding you can see every rib and vertebrae. I keep a jacket on him when we go out to keep him warm but also to keep his natural dignity. A dignity that most people can see through the drool he leaves on every pant leg he crosses.

For several months we’ve been in the purgatory of wondering how much he’s suffering and if we should be thinking about ‘end of life options’. Our vet gave us a questionnaire to fill out each week to test, but it was no help. Questions like “Does your pet still engage playfully with other animals? 0-10 score”. He has never played with other animals. I know, it’s strange, but his main interests are in being at my side from the moment we met and molesting people’s pockets for treats. 

I’ve been blinded by a selfish concern that I would make the decision to end his life too soon. I was in denial that this was for him to help make sure he has the fullest life possible. If I were listening as I did the night of the fox, he’s been telling me otherwise for a while now.

Dogs have an inherent quality we can learn from; they don’t feel sorry for themselves. They are present, stoic, and spiritually strong. They don’t complain, so we can trick ourselves into keeping them with us until there is no question they are having more bad days than good. Pollo has cancer. There are no more good days.

Anyone who has gone through this will reflect on the confusion of knowing when to make this call with a silent, stoic friend. We are faced with the strange power that there is a choice here that is not available to us with humans. People,unlike dogs, can use words and will say “when I grow old don’t let me suffer and lose myself. Don’t let me become a burden to you all” but when that time comes very few places have compassionate end of life options for humans, and very few humans have the strength to honor such a request for their loved ones. Ironically with our silent friends we have more compassionate options, but the inability to ask them what they want can make the responsibility feel immense.

Now that we’ve made the decision to have our vet come to our home tomorrow to assist with the end of his life, we are faced with this sense of peace and tension. Peace that his suffering will not have to keep getting worse and will soon be done. Tension realizing the time we have together is ending. There is no activity he used to love like hiking or swimming in the river that I can give him now. There are warm fires to sit by, a big belly to rub full of steak and eggs, and soft eyes to silently thank for the years of helping us raise our boy together, join me in my work to gently help so many people in anxiety and pain, and keep me present through ‘it all’.

Pollo, a.k.a Spit Wolf, Big Big, Paulson McPhereson Revere, Fel, or Tiny Bubbles, we will miss you. 


Blessings on Your Way….