There were less than 24 hours to spend together after we found out that our dear Dallas, a 13 year old yellow lab, was dying and needed to be euthanized before the pain was great and he could no longer have a good best day. Tearfully, we discussed it as a family, by telephone and text en route from jobs and the vet. We were solemn, measured, and determined in our quest for the best dog to have his last best day.
Some years ago I acquired a bowl to use for his daily chow – it pictures dogs in party hats and says “DOG PARTY!” It epitomized Dallas and his view of life and the importance of mealtime.
Returning from the vet and before the sons arrived, I lay on the floor and held Dallas, cuddling his face in my hands, letting him rub his nose in the crook of my arm as he was apt to do when we were at the dinner table and he wanted attention or a share.
Dallas and I walked in the garden. I sat on the log bench by the frog pond while he lay in the cool grass after walking the perimeter of the pond to ensure that he had forced every frog to leap into the water right in front of his nose. I cried, he licked his paws, smilling in his doggy way as if he knew that a party was in the planning.
Son 1 arrived first, sad and heavy-hearted, bewildered that Dallas’s condition, not outwardly apparent save the swelling in his abdomen, seemed normal. We cried a bit, albeit with the reserve we first children tend to have, when we are together and unlikely to be too vulnerable by letting on the extent of the hurt. Then he took Dallas for his last ride in the truck. Perched on the front seat, Dallas looked like a hairy yellow adolescent schoolboy. As they backed out of the driveway, he stuck his head out of the window and let the wind blow in his face, ears flying.
I feel sure they talked about all the things they have always discussed together, boy and his dog secrets he would soon take to his grave, and reminders of the fun they shared. They drove past the home of Velvet, his black lab friend. It was to her he would flee when someone accidentally left the garden gate open or was less than watchful when allowing him off leash. It was a special time for Dallas with the boy who trained with him and served as disciplinarian in his formative years.
Son 2 arrived home and called “Hey Buddy” from the front door. Dallas ran to greet him, carrying his stuffed bunny toy. This is the boy for whom I got the dog. After he stopped asking for a hedgehog at a very young age, he asked for a dog. Dallas came along when he was 8, a perfect age to get and love a dog. Young pups together, they did not bond immediately; Dallas was a hyperactive handful, as was his boy. It took time and love and eventually they became close friends. Their usual game, in the later years, was “hide the treat” when Dallas waited patiently when told to “stay” in one room, while Robert hid a special treat and then called “come get it.” It was sweet to watch them play again, recalling younger days when “stay” was a harder task for Dallas.
We held our family meeting, discussed the vet’s recommendations and cried. Then I pulled out a photo album from Dallas’s first year and we told stories about his growing up. “We all grew up together,” one son noted. Everyone took turns loving him and giving him treats and spending special time with him. The brothers, now with homes of their own, decided to spend the night, in case Dallas went into distress, and to maximize the time together.
|New Year's Eve|
Before bedtime, however, they decided that the last day should include all the forbidden foods he wanted and they walked to the store to buy bacon for breakfast. After all it was to be a dog party. Reading the book series Hank the Cowdog when they were very young, they learned how much dogs like bacon - it is the best of all dog treats because it is usually not allowed.
About 3 am Dallas requested to be let out in the garden and I joined him, having fallen asleep in tears and painfully aware that the day had arrived. He took his time, as if realizing it was his last pre-dawn sentry, walking the perimeter of the garden, circling the pond, following his well-worn path behind the azaleas. It was just light enough to see his body, moving more slowly than usual, weighted down by the massive tumor that was slowly killing him. He had trouble getting up the steps at the end of his tour and I got behind him and gave him the extra push he needed.
I lay on the floor beside him, giving him a share of my pillow and telling him how much I love him, speaking his name aloud again and again. We both fell asleep for a time but the hard floor was more than my aging body could take.
|asleep on the bottom of the canoe|
The boys arose early and we solemnly reviewed the plans for the day. They cooked and ate, with the help of Dallas the party dog, the whole pound of bacon. While I tried to find a vet to come to the house, we eventually realized after many tries, that traveling vets don’t perform euthanasia on dogs that are not already patients. So we made an appointment with our own vet, Dr. Schrader, at Suburban Animal Hospital, who was in fact the best choice of all.
|Bleeding hearts in the garden - we'll remember Dallas every year when they bloom|
We each spent private time with Dallas, holding and loving him, giving him treats and reflecting.
As a foursome, we recalled funny stories and the difficult start we had with the once-wayward addition who flunked two dog obedience classes before going to boot camp at Silverbrook Kennels in Fredericksburg, Virginia. It was a six week residential program that broke a little of his wild spirit, taught us to be his disciplinarians, and helped him reform his bad habits. In the process we learned to love him more. Trish Jagoda and her staff at the kennel became extended family who allowed him the extra time he needed to complete the program and helped us understand that it was our behavior that most influenced that of our wild and strong-willed dog. The morning after his last day, Trish was one of the few people I emailed with the sad news and she responded with kind remembrances.
|final resting spot, with toy on top|
The boys selected a gravesite and began the sad and grueling task of digging his grave, among the azaleas in a shady spot where he could watch over our garden activity. In the process of digging they found one of his old toys, buried perhaps to be found on that day (it is now resting on top). Dallas and I went outside and watched their work. I believe he was tempted to help dig, but simply inspected and seemed to approve. He knew something was going on and perhaps sensed that this revered spot was to be his. We cried big tears.
Later we all took a walk, around the neighborhood where he walked twice daily. We would always spell “W-A-L-K” because if you said the word he ran to the front door in anticipation of the act to follow. Eventually he learned to spell so we stopped calling it anything at all.
On our W-A-L-K, he left his mark on all the familiar bushes and telephone poles, and took special interest in the birds and squirrels we saw along the way. He was tired but strong and seemed proud to have the family together, focused solely on his wants and needs. It was a beautiful day and we remarked that it was perfect weather for your last day. A party kind of day with the saddest of overtones.
|Dallas and his bunny|
I began gathering remnants of dog ownership – the cans of food we used to encase the daily aspirin he took for joint pain; the bed he slept on in my office; the stuffed toys; the glucosamine supplements that he thought were dog treats; and his spare leash. I chose an especially soft blanket for the important job of cuddling him during his last moments, and wrapping him for the burial.
We climbed into the car with the saddest of thoughts, but trying to keep focused on making it the best possible for Dallas. I took his favorite liver treats with us, to give him while we waited and as often as he wanted. He enjoyed another ride in the car.
|Popping bubble wrap - a favorite activity|
At the vet’s office, they kindly let in through a side door and had a palate prepared on the floor. We spread out his funereal blanket and he began hyperventilating as he usually does at the vet, dreading whatever misery might await him. Little did he know.
|Christmas day mischief|
Dr. Schrader had an emergency so we had more time together, snuggled around Dallas on the floor, stroking his head and telling him we loved him. While suspicious of all the attention, he loved it. He had love in his eyes and he enjoyed the entire bag of liver treats. The doctor was kind and explained everything to us, and ensured that we understood that we were sparing him a very painful imminent death. While Dallas seemed almost normal, we knew that he was putting on a show for us – wanting to be his best for the party and not demonstrating vulnerability or disappointing his family.
|at Park Lake, Kentucky|
The sedative relaxed him such that he could see and hear, but could not feel pain and then we whispered in his ear, “kwahari rifiki” (good-bye friend) and told him we loved him. Soon the light went out of his eyes and he stopped breathing. We knew he was in a better place and we sobbed uncontrollably, fearing the next steps in the party’s conclusion.
|after rolling in cow manure in Greeneville, Tennessee|
The saddest part of the day was watching the boys carry his limp body to the car. Our single funeral procession headed home, ready to say our final good-byes. We said a prayer for him, asked God to watch over him and connect him with my Dad and others in heaven, and buried him in the hole he had approved, with his stuffed bunny and other toys. We cried, and occasionally told a Dallas story of something funny he did, while we covered his body with the rich soil. And then the party was over.
|Easter, 2011 - begging for jelly beans|
|In the morning sun|
Lest you think we’re all in therapy over this, we are not. It’s been a week. We’re adjusting and making adjustments. For the first couple of days, we each worried about one another, making calls during the day, checking to make sure we were ok and remembering special things about our beloved Dallas.
He slowly claimed our hearts and will never leave. I don’t think any other dog will ever be as good or as special. But we definitely are all dog people now. All three of us will probably have dogs again one day, and hopefully they will know one another as siblings or cousins. I’ll probably be the first to take the plunge again. But not too soon. Meanwhile, we know we made his best day a great day and that he left this world happy and loved by us as much as he loved in return.
|on his last day, with his bunny|
My other postings featuring Dallas the Dog
Dudley the little brown lab joined the family just one month after the Dog Party day. He is a great companion and, while he will not replace Dallas, he has found a place in our hearts. See blogs: