First of all, let me say that I put up with our dogs. I am not what I call a 'rabid dog owner'. Still, they can be endearing and I enjoy their company occasionally and play the 'doggie' games with them, petting and lavishing affection on them, but for the most part they go ignored. Which is why they gravitate to me, of course.
DJ, a miniature dachshund, was born the runt of a litter. He was high energy - very high energy. Which makes the fact that he was the 'calm one' in the litter questionable, but I must take my wife's word for that since she was the one who picked him up. I was holding Matthew, our youngest child at one year of age when she brought DJ home. Matthew was crying and very unhappy because mom was not right there holding him, but when she walked in the front door of our house carrying a small puppy, he switched from crying straight to laughter. Drama. Hasn't stopped yet... DJ became his best friend.
Naming the puppy was left up to the older two children, Shawn and Daniel. Daniel wanted to name the new dog 'Daniel', Shawn wanted to name him 'Joe'. We compromised on 'DJ', everyone seemed happy with that arrangement.
Over the years, DJ was present at every event that we held at home - birthday parties, holidays, etc. He loved to tear around the perimeter of the backyard at our first house, and eventually wore a trail in the grass next to the fence. He loved to lay in the grass in the sunshine and doze. At Thanksgiving and Christmas, he was always under foot, begging for extra food scraps from the special dishes I was cooking (OK, actually any time I was cooking). I would give in, and 'accidentally' let some turkey or ham drop on the kitchen floor, which he would snap up as if we never fed him. He got a chew bone every Christmas. Daily, he gave us all unconditional love, and we returned it to him.
He gave us our first scare in 2007 at 15 years of age- he started walking around with his head oddly cocked to one side, as if he were trying to walk sideways. He ran into walls and tripped over doorsills like a little drunken man. I took him to the vet's office for a diagnosis - the vet told me he either had an inner ear infection that would clear up on it's own in two to three weeks, or he had a nervous disorder that would require brain surgery. I began preparing the children for the fact that if he had to have the surgery, he was going down. But after all, he was just a dog. He recovered (thankfully!) a few weeks later, and straightened out. He tried to go back to being his old energetic self, but something had changed, subtly. He began spending more time sleeping, and less time with the rest of the family. He still liked attention from me, and demanded to be petted and stroked every once in a while.
Daniel purchased a new puppy not too long after the episode (over my protest, I might add), a malti-poo he named Molly. Molly resembled a small black fur ball, and was a joyous bundle of energy. DJ gained a renewed vigor of life with Molly running around the house. Molly's energy also helped to underscore the fact that DJ was getting a lot older. DJ slowed down more than ever, and had to be persuaded to eat. He developed cataracts in both eyes, it became obvious that he could not hear well any more, and he developed difficulty walking especially in his hind legs. We took him to the vet's office to see if anything could be done; the vet told us she could run some tests to see if he was treatable, but it would likely to cost us nearly a thousand dollars. For tests, not treatment. A thousand dollars versus a 17 year-old dog. Wow. Guess not.
I tried giving him some fiber supplement to see if it would help. I tried purchasing more expensive dog food that he would be more likely to eat. It raised his eating level some, but he still remained alarmingly skinny; holding him was like holding onto a bare skeleton. At some point, he began falling over while standing up, constantly tripped over things he never had before. It became painful to see him trying to make his way around the house. He appeared to be confused. After a familiy meeting, I made the decision to take him to be euthanized (nice word for 'put to death'), and scheduled his last day for Thursday October 16, 2008 with the vet's office close to my house. I arranged to retrieve his body to bury at home, a sort of homage for the time we had been together. He was just a dog, but apparently he had been suffering, and I can't stand to see animals suffering. Still, it felt kind of funny that I would take a living creature, especially one that had been a part of the family for 17 years and had given us all his love and received our love in return, and have it put to death because of his health problems and age. I wondered how my own children would feel about me when my end draws near.
Yesterday, I arrived home from work with a small box in my car for the body, dreading what I knew I must do. I placed DJ's pillow in the box and arranged it to make room for his small body. I carried DJ outside one last time to do his business, and gave him a doggy treat when we returned indoors. He had difficulty eating it, but finished the treat. I loaded him in the car, and took him to the vet's office alone.
As I stood in the foyer, cradling DJ in my arms, stroking his head and neck and confirming my request to the receptionist, I was suddenly overwhelmed. I knew what was going to happen next; his innocent trust in me even then loaded pounds of guilt on me. I gave DJ to the vet, signed the release paper through tears, paid and left the office. I could hardly see to drive. I pictured in my mind what his final moment might be like, which made it worse. I drove around an unnecessary street block so I could compose myself before returning to the house.
Arriving home, I anxiously watched the clock for the appointed time to return to the vet and pick up the body. Arriving at the vet's office, one of the assistants brought me a filing folder box, and apologized that they didn't have a better container. I gently took the box and placed it in the front seat of the car, it's slight weight a reminder of what it contained. The vet assistant told me if I had another dog at home, I should let the other dog check out the body so it wouldn't hunt all over the house to find him. Before I left the parking lot, I decided I had to see - I removed the lid, and saw the familiar ear poking up, but no movement. I replaced the lid, a burning sensation beginning in my chest. I felt my eyes welling up.
I pulled into the driveway of my house, got out and removed the box. My wife looked questioningly at me as I explained that I was going to let Molly check out DJ so she wouldn't look for him. I removed the lid once again, placing the box on the carpet in the dining room and allowed Molly near the box; she sniffed a few times, and bounded happily off to another room. My wife remained noticeably far away from the dining room. I brought the other box and unfolded the pillow to receive DJ's body. I tried my best to suppress the uncontrollable sobs that suddenly burst forth from me as I picked up DJ's lifeless, limp body and arranged it gently on his pillow, stroking his ear and neck. I think I scared my wife with the level of emotion and sadness that poured forth from me. What is wrong with me? It's just a dog! "Please bring a shovel for me", I sobbed as I picked up the box to carry it to the backyard.
My oldest son was working in the backyard when I approached the corner where DJ would be buried. I offered to let him see the body, but he declined (I went back inside the house to get a second shovel, and saw him looking when I returned). He hugged me as he realized my distress, not something he would normally be inclined to do. He offered to help dig the tiny grave, which I gratefully accepted. I could not see through my tears to dig, but did my best. It finally became too dark for us to continue, so I moved the small box with the body to the garage and came inside.
I picked Matthew up from work. He asked if it was done - is DJ dead? Yes, I told him. As we approached the house, I heard him sniffling. He was realizing the same thing I knew - that his childhood buddy was gone, for good. "Do you want to see him?" I asked. "He's in a box in the garage." "Sure," he replied unenthusiastically. I led him to the garage, and opened the box to let him see. I stroked DJ's neck and body, my son did likewise. Looking at him, I realized his eyes were very red and full of tears, but he held his composure well, certainly better than I did. "I will finish burying him tomorrow after work " I said. He nodded his head in agreement. Daniel arrived home a little later - he looked at DJ's body and declared that he looked like he was in much less pain now.
This morning as I went to the car to take him to school, I opened the box and folded back the pillow once more to look. My son tried to comfort me. "You did the right thing, Dad," he said. I nodded. "I know," I said, "But doing the right thing is not always easy."
I guess he wasn't just a dog.