I’m warning you in advance: this story doesn’t have a happy ending. If you stick around, it’s on you.
In September 2010, I set out in search of a new family dog, after our previous dog Abby had died. As a child, my family had always had a dog or two — they add more life to the house. I visited PetSmart on a Saturday because they often have local Humane Society and other shelters rotate through on weekends for adoptions. The Orange County (VA) Humane Society were in that day, and I saw a couple dogs that caught my eye. One I thought at first could be a good fit, named Princess, was some sort of pit bull mix with a lovely brindle coat. She seemed gentle and had a kind face. We took a short stroll around the outside to get acquainted, then inside to play a little. Although Princess was good tempered, ultimately she seemed stand-offish and there wasn’t any special spark.
The other dog was a mutt, with a spotted coat and half-cowl marking I’d never seen before. She was approximately two and a half years old (they couldn’t be certain), part boxer, part tickhound, and maybe something else, and her name was Dixie. She was stout, barrel-chested, with sizable boxer-ish jowls. At rest, her face carried, amusingly and ironically, a look of I am not amused. The OCHS believed she might have had puppies at some point, but in standard form they’d spayed her.
When the attendant let her out of her cage she was full of energy: not hyperactive, rather just happy, tail wagging her whole hind end wildly with joy. I was sitting down to avoid seeming threatening, often a good idea when meeting a dog. Dixie jumped into my lap and showed her belly so I could rub it. The move wasn’t as graceful — or painless — as it sounds, since she weighed 50 or 60 pounds. But it was kismet; I was in love. (This would lead to many years of her playfully and I believe inadvertently punching me in the nethers — is that my thing?)
Dixie had been in the shelter for three months after her owner died. The owner’s family couldn’t or didn’t want to keep her. I called my family to come meet her and we took Dixie home that day. How she stayed in the shelter three months I will never comprehend, but I will always be grateful. I don’t recall the total bill to adopt her. Neither a song nor a fortune, whatever the cost was, it was the best money ever spent.
In her earlier years, Dixie loved going outside and scaring rabbits in the yard, as well as the neighbor’s cat when it arrogantly crossed into our territory. She was a sturdy dog, and we often had to convince delivery people if she barged to the door that they were in no danger. If you weren’t a rabbit or a cat, your biggest risk was Dixie saliva.
One of my favorite things about her was how she looked like a big bruiser — while in her mind, she believed she was an actual, dainty princess. In the rain she’d often demur at going outside even when in need. She’d place one paw in the yard and, feeling the wet lawn or soil, would pull it back and turn around to go back in. When we finally prevailed on her to go out and do her business, she’d complete the task grudgingly, shooting us a look of indignity.
She was never big on running in fields, taking long walks, or catching frisbees. She was near useless at retrieving sticks. Dixie was proudly an indoor dog, preferring pampering to the great wide open. Even the deck on a lovely spring or fall day was of limited appeal. She wanted nothing more than to be near her people, and of course eat. After some initial weight fluctuation, we figured out a cadence that kept her from either getting too skinny or too fat.
Most importantly, starting with that very first meeting on the concrete floor of PetSmart, Dixie was my dog. Plenty of family dogs had come and gone during my childhood. But none of them were definitively mine. They belonged to the family, or in the case of one pup we kept and raised from a litter, to my brother. More often than not, Dixie could be found wherever I was, except when someone else had food to offer. (No judgment: this is the way of the dog.) In other words, I was her default person. She followed me around, slept in my office when I worked, even would lie on the floor as I practiced or, at times, in a rehearsal, unfazed by the volume.
Her favorite activity by far — even more than eating, which was always ravenous and rushed, as if she feared having to fight a brood for her share — was to be invited onto the sofa next to my wife and me to watch TV. Although next to us really meant between us so she could enjoy maximum attention. And watch TV really meant watch the back of her eyelids. No matter what we were watching, or how loud the soundtrack, once she curled up between us she typically fell deeply asleep in seconds. Then, always, always during more dramatic films, at the most emotionally intense scenes, she’d snore loudly.
During late 2022, Dixie started to slow down a little, not unexpected for older dogs. Finding her footing to curl up in the optimal configuration on the sofa became a teetering, uncertain enterprise each night. In January we noticed she was often stiff in her hind legs when walking in the kitchen, so we’d hear a combination of padding or click clack of nails from her front paws, and a shuffling or sliding of the rear ones. Our vet feared arthritis and for a while Dixie took anti-inflammatories to take the edge off the symptoms.
Nevertheless her condition worsened by degrees, and soon at mealtime she regressed from standing to sitting awkwardly, unable to maintain her posture while eating even with an elevated bowl to relieve any neck and spinal strain. She began also to regress in her bathroom habits, even when she could let us know, sometimes unable to make it to the outside before relieving herself. Well, we said to each other, as long as she’s not in pain, we can clean up a mess with no problem. We’ll just need to take her out more often.
Then two weekends ago she had the first in a series of massive seizures — arched back, stretched out legs, paddling paws, unfocused vision, foaming at the mouth for a minute or more. In the wake of each one, she’d lose control of motor and other functions, seeming to pass out or sleep deeply for an hour or more afterward. Tests showed no system failures like kidneys or liver that often lead to these symptoms, and our hearts fell when the words brain mass came over the line from the vet.
We got Abby, our previous dog, from my sister who wasn’t able to keep caring for her. Abby was part yellow lab and part golden retriever, and dumb as a bag of hammers. She was a finicky eater, and routinely refused food until she vomited biliously, often on the carpet. We often called her our blonde supermodel — vacuous and with an eating disorder. I never felt a strong bond with Abby, more like obligation — much to my wife’s chagrin. While I didn’t hate or resent Abby, I’m ashamed to say she surely gave me more affection than I did her.
One day, Abby started having problems controlling her hindquarters. My recollection is that in a very short period, she went from a weird limp to trouble standing on her rear legs. We made a quick plan to get her to the vet in the morning. I woke early to go take care of her and any mess, and found her downstairs in her crate dead. She was lying half out of the crate’s doorway. She had lacked the strength to pull herself out or get back in, and simply gave up. We still don’t know exactly what it was, though the vet suspected an aneurysm.
By last weekend, Dixie was no longer reliably walking. While we tried to assist her with a chest harness, her paws would curl under her feet, and especially her hind legs would sometimes go slack as if made of pasta, bearing no weight. Her new prescriptions of phenobarbital and levetiracetam accentuated the problem, giving her little energy to even try to hold herself up, although they did eliminate her seizures. The idea was that if the tumor was not too aggressive, Dixie might be able to adjust to the powerful anti-seizure medications and start to perambulate again, even if she might need some help.
After several days, she showed no signs of improvement on the motor control front. She grew less able to bear her own weight, often simply collapsing, unpredictably either face or butt first, into the grass. When she could partially stand with some help from the harness, she’d navigate not in a line but in a tight circle, listing unsteadily to one side, and then plant her face between my knees for balance. She could no longer lower her haunches to relieve herself.
All through this time though, her appetite stayed healthy, even grew due to the steroids she was also prescribed. But her ability to get at her food was starting to be hampered by her poor motor control. Then her seizures started to return. At first they were marked merely by facial tics or twitches of her head, but again followed by a quiet post-ictal phase where she fell deeply and mercifully asleep. Progressively the attacks grew worse, and by this past weekend with her neck curled back against her back so far that I feared she might injure her own spine.
We filled out online ratings-based questionnaires. What is your pet’s quality of life? Is your pet in distress? Is it time to say goodbye to your furry friend? Under some number of points, euthanasia emerges as the right option. There is no right number. There is only the top of the scale (healthy pets), the bottom (miserable pets), and some midpoint we must decide based on our ability to deliver care, our finances, our patience, our selfishness. Finding the points diminishing each day, with each assessment we agreed: we were no longer looking out for her welfare, but delaying the inevitable. The kids were not at home, off at college studying and learning, in between our text messages with updates alternating between hope and realism. I began to silently and morbidly foretell holding Dixie in my arms, while an injection put her into a deep sleep, and a second stopped her heart.
Dr. Trexler, the vet who’d been treating Dixie over the previous weeks, agreed with our assessment when we talked to her on Friday. If there was no improvement over the weekend, we should call the clinic on Monday. In a direct but kind way, she tried to be comforting while maintaining an emotional distance. I appreciated her distance and inwardly praised her professionalism. You’re thinking of the right things and it’s good that you don’t want to prolong her suffering, she said in a clipped tone. You’ll know when it’s the right time.
My wife and I always had a game of anthropomorphizing Abby. Specifically we’d speak out loud in a cartoonish voice to express what we imagined could be her thoughts, were they to go beyond basic necessities. I’m sure friends have witnessed this and wondered whether we’re in need of professional help.
We continued and amplified this silly habit with Dixie as well. Dixie quickly took on the shrill voice of an aggrieved monarch. This may have been influenced by her personal brand of resting bitch face: I am not amused. (If an actual bitch can’t have RBF, after all, who can we fairly label that way?) Her default mode of non-amusement lent itself perfectly to her voice of constant disapproval and demand for supplication. She was a dainty, haughty queen, constantly dismayed by the reprehensible level of care or cuisine offered, no matter how we were spoiling her.
The two of us humans constantly made each other belly-laugh with some disdainful judgment passed by the dog on the spouse’s subpar performance or outright incompetence. Whether one delivered a meal or snacks, provided belly rubs, or helped with hygiene, Dixie’s impossible standards for royal treatment more or less guaranteed abject failure to meet them. My wife took on the burden of a running joke that Dixie was secretly plotting her murder, typically on the stairs or in some other way she could effectively engineer from below. My wife would smirk, and at least half the time Dixie’s withering comments came from her. I love you, Mommy — just not as much as Daddy. We weren’t taking the proverbial piss out of each other — it was the dog’s doing.
Later in Dixie’s life, when our kids became more solitary animals — that is, teenagers — she even developed quite the sailor’s mouth, abandoning her regal bearing to skewer her jailors with Tarantino-esque glee. Anything from an insufficient amount of snacks to poorly arranged bedding was enough to elicit F*** this, and f*** you both! from the princess pooch. Some days when we felt especially silly, no slight was too small not to raise the obscene ire of Her Royal Highness. During these tirades from the monarchy, we common folk could feel bonded not just by our ineptitude but by the noble yoke of suffering we were bound to endure from our fuzzy better.
As of several days ago, there was no longer any point in taking Dixie outside. We moved her to semi-confinement on a cushy daybed or pillow — as befitting her status, of course! — outfitted with absorbent pads. We became experts in quick disposal and cleaning, both of dog and bedding. We could read the signs of an oncoming seizure, prep for the moving of bladder or bowels, dispose of the evidence, bathe affected fur (this was less and less often necessary as we got better at the earlier steps), and restore Dixie to clean, fresh bedding in minutes, even solo if needed.
Dixie maintained her high standards throughout, bemoaning being manhandled as she was transferred off soiled bedding to a fresh pad, or castigating one or both of us for not assuaging her suffering with a better class of cuisine — always loudly and with profanity. You should THANK me for allowing you to clean up my poop, she’d exclaim via one of our voices. I’ve never been in a worse care facility!
After a catastrophic attempt to use the kitchen for a nursery, we resorted to sleeping in shifts, my wife going to bed early, me driving myself to stay up until the late wee hours. I woke her at 3:30 or 4:00 a.m. to catch a few hours before a bleary morning shower. We spoke directly and with no artifice about the sustainability of this path. We can’t keep this up for long. How will we work? How can we make her live like this? This is no life for a good dog.
The seizures continued to get worse, with a couple returning to grand mal status. We will not allow her to go out suffering, I’d said vehemently to my wife a few days before, as if we were arguing the point. That can’t happen. She’s too good.
I’d attended funerals but they were either not open casket, or I either refused or opted not to approach and see the body. One of my grandfathers, the other having died before my parents judged us old enough to attend a funeral; both my grandmothers; my uncle; my first boss at a real job; my good friend in high school, himself (according to the county coroner) killed instantly by a massive aneurysm before he spun off a county road and into a tree that split his car into pieces. I know now that I carry shame from these things. That I’m ashamed of not being able to bear witness to the deaths of loved ones. Of my selfishness and immaturity.
I never saw a corpse until I found Abby, the morning after she died, half in and half out of her crate. I knew I needed to bring her body to the vet for disposal. I wrapped her in an old woven blanket from her crate. It slightly nauseated me to think about laundering the rug she’d died on, to reuse it in some casual way. I had the feeling there was a sickening stench attached to everything around her when she died. I had a compulsion to scrub everything down with bleach, burn the blankets, double bag her collars, leashes, dog toys in garbage sacks.
Abby had been cold when I found her, the basement always gathering the best of the AC overnight in summer. I petted her still head. I was too revulsed to lean down and kiss her cool fur. I remember saying something to her like, I know you did your best to be a good dog. As I said earlier, she was more loving toward me than I ever was back. I’m still ashamed of that. Just as I’m ashamed of myself for not crying for that poor, dumb dog, who only ever loved me.
This morning, Monday morning, I tried to call the vet as planned. With a truly, epically bad coincidence of timing, their phones were down. My wife, on the road back from an early morning appointment and already awake for 5 hours from her care shift, swung by their office to make a 1:30 p.m. appointment. Now we had a ticking clock to beat, just like so many movies Dixie loved to watch with us, through her eyelids. At 1:00 p.m. we would gather her into the van, take her away to end her life.
For days I’d known what was coming. I’d cried softly and briefly while I petted her throughout the weekend. I thought I’d been saying goodbye early. Now I was thinking, How much time should I spend on the floor with her? Does she care? Will I hate myself later, be ashamed? “I wish there’d been more time”? This is no life for a good dog. This is no life for a good dog.
Up until our departure time, my wife and I continued to voice Dixie’s disapproval. Either these puppy pads go, or I do. I knew one day Mommy would do me in. Finally I don’t have to put up with this substandard care any longer. Gallows humor can be very effective coming from an unamused dog. We petted her and told her how good she was, even if we never met her exacting standards. Then suddenly, it was time to go.
We gathered Dixie up in her comfortable, cushy royal bed, and installed her in the rear well of the minivan, safe in case of either seizure or sudden turns. We drove mostly in silence to the vet’s office. My wife prompted me to go in, see if they had a room ready for her, so we wouldn’t distress other patients. She had also thought ahead. I’d have blundered in, carrying my dog and ushering in dread. I went in and one of the receptionists greeted me. As soon as I said the word room my throat got thick and my eyes smeared over. The girl at the counter smiled, It’s all ready for her, you can go right in to the last room. I nodded and exited quickly.
I picked up Dixie and her bulk (How dare you! I am a QUEEN!) took my focus off my feelings for a minute, so we could get in the room. A blanket was already set up on the floor, along with a box of tissues. Next to the box was a jar full of Hershey’s Kisses. On the jar I read the inscription, Goodbye Kisses, because no dog should go to heaven without tasting chocolate. My wife closed the door and I completely lost it.
We’re doing the right thing, right? I asked her a short time later.
You know we are, she said, she’s not getting better, she’s getting worse and we don’t want her to suffer. Later, with my head and face throbbing, my nose an impassable plug of snot, my eyes burning from salt, this wonderful woman that I don’t deserve would tell me, Not one but two vets agreed this was the right thing to do. She was the best girl and she deserved peace.
A different vet, Dr. Fisher, who had seen Dixie for many of her younger years, came to answer any questions. She told us how long things would take and what to expect. I could barely speak to her, trying to hold it together. Dixie was panting, which she’d been doing more and more often in the last year, so it was impossible to tell whether she was in discomfort or just anxious. I fed her some chocolate, which she gobbled up gratefully. I was almost 53 years old and I’d never seen a living creature bigger than a bird or a squirrel die in front of me.
Dr. Fisher came back after a time that was both too short and too long. She gracefully moved around us to put herself in a good position to give Dixie the first, sedative shot. When the needle went in I turned away. Dr. Fisher told us it would take full effect in about 10 minutes, and she’d be back then, then quietly left with a kind smile. The remaining humans in the room petted and cooed over our beloved monarch as her panting stopped, her breathing slowed and shallowed, and her eyes closed for the first peace she’d had in weeks.
The doctor came back and as she administered the second shot (slightly delayed by Her Royal Highness mischievously shifting the vein in her leg, obstinately defiant to the last!), I remembered to pick up Dixie’s front quarters and deposit her in my lap. I will not regret not holding her as she goes. I felt her pulse dim and stop in her beautiful, furry neck under my right hand. Dr. Fisher said, I’m going to check her heartbeat, and raised her stethoscope but I already knew. She’s gone, she said, and gave us the room for as long as we wanted.
As I cried, I tried not to be loud, because there were other patients and the rooms are not soundproof, but at times I felt myself convulsing, wailing into Dixie’s neck. I remember wanting to rip my shirt, I remember burying my face in her fur. I remember not correctly remembering a famous poem. Instead I thought: Silence, everything! The best girl is gone, the best girl is gone!
I picked up a fuzzy, brown ear, dusted with snow, and kissed it. I saw that now inside the ear, the flesh was growing pale. The small spot on a paw where Dixie’d been shaved two weeks ago for a catheter was growing pale too. She’s getting cold already, I blurted out, thinking how unfairly soon that was. I laid down beside her again, with my hands in her scruff and I cried into her cooling body. I wanted to always remember the feel of her fur on my face.
Some time later my wife said, that’s not Dixie anymore. I knew she was right, and that it was time to go. This was only cooling flesh, not our spoiled, adored, perpetually unamused queen. The best girl was gone. We hugged each other and gathered our things, and we walked out without looking back or stopping.
When we returned home, we wept again to know there was no one waiting there, either to greet us, or (as more often) snore through our arrival. We began to gather up all of Dixie’s things around the house. Some of them seemed already nostalgic since the start of her deterioration, like the elevated food bowl holder she could no longer use, the doggie bed she could no longer sleep in comfortably. Some of them were with her until the end. I stripped the cover off her plushy daybed, I gathered the towel from the kitchen floor where she’d eaten. I placed them in the washing machine. This time I felt no sense of nausea, no revulsion, just sorrow.
My worst moment awaited me in the basement media room. A blanket covered the center of the sofa so she could curl up and join us for TV time. We hadn’t used the room since she stopped being able to walk. The blanket still had her fur and her good, warm dog smell. I knelt down and put my face in the blanket. I knew there was no one other than my wife to hear me now, and I wept, truly and bitterly. I can still feel right now, as I write this, what I felt. I didn’t want to forget it. It’s possible to do the right thing and still regret it, even if you’d never want to undo it.
Little by little I came back to myself. I got off the floor and picked up the blanket. I held it to my face and tried in vain to smell it again. I carried it to the laundry room, added it to the washing machine, hit start.
I told you there was no happy ending. As I finish writing this, I’m still welling up on and off, with a small mountain of wet tissues piling up beside me. But I’m finally not ashamed. Dixie gave me all her love and adoration, and I loved that wonderful dog right back. But she also gave me this last gift. She took away my shame, let me feel true grief. She let me be destroyed by it so I could be a more complete man, a better human being.
Today I held my beloved, sweet dog Dixie and watched her go, and no longer suffer. She was the best girl.