First Steps and Last Steps

I’ve written about our dog, Whiskey, before. Mostly to explain how foolish it is to name a preschooler’s dog “Whiskey”.

We first heard about Whiskey, a Llewellin Setter, in December. She was offered to us by a hunter who had purchased her from a breeder. The hunter had discovered she wasn’t responding to his vocal commands and didn’t even flinch when a gun was fired directly over her head. A deaf dog was not a dog a hunter could use. If she didn’t get a home soon, he’d have to send her back to the breeder who would likely cull her. That seemed unfair. After much research on deaf dogs, I learned that any breed with white fur had a chance of being deaf as the lack of pigment in skin that produced white fur would result in nerve death if it occurred within the dog’s ears. I also learned that because dogs don’t talk, being deaf isn’t that big of a deal to them. They can still be trained and even are said to bond more deeply with their human owners than hearing dogs.

Our family is so perfect and so healthy that I felt it was time to give back and help a creature that had not been born so blessed. I agreed to meet the dog and see if we liked her.

We met the scrappy one-year-old puppy in early December and it only took one day’s discussion to decide we’d be her new family. She was beautiful and the perfect size and played so well with our daughter.IMG_3160

The weekend before Christmas, we brought her home. She was obviously overwhelmed. She’d been kept in a kennel with another dog her whole life, so all of these cushy couches, tiny children and being inside in general were very new to her. That’s why, we assumed, she had a habit of constant pacing and circling and why she kept such a strange stance. She’d settle in with some time and some obedience classes, we were sure.

Meanwhile, we fell completely in love with her. She was never completely confident in my parenting- she stayed on top of my son as he crawled around the house and seemed to hope I’d swoop him up and out of harm’s way so she could stop worrying. My daughter would play fetch with her and chase her around the house. Walking her on the leash never seemed perfect, but she got a lot better and knew to stay on my left side, right behind the stroller, at least until a squirrel or bird came into view. Anyone who pet her would experience her sweet, sweet eyes staring right into theirs, just begging for love. At nights, after the kids went to bed, she’d snuggle my husband or I on the couch.

She never did settle in. It became apparent that she was not deaf but had more problems. She almost never sat or laid down, especially while the kids were awake. There were times when she’d completely zone out and almost sway from side to side. Her teeth would even chatter during some of these episodes. Outside, the sight of anything- people, birds, cars, etc.- made her to run in erratic circles that caused her back legs to give out and she’d fall, skidding across the yard. Inside, household objects and my daughter would be knocked over by her excited circling. She never was completely house trained and there were frequent accidents inside the house. She did learn some things in obedience class, but it was a much bigger challenge than I remembered from training the dogs my parents had kept.

At our regular veterinarian’s recommendation, we did take her to a veterinary neurologist. After a thorough examination of the dog and a lot of video on my iPhone, he concluded it was indeed a neurological disorder. He told me that she had balance issues and trouble perceiving what she saw. The “zoning out” moments were likely mini-seizures. Options for treatment were limited unless he did an MRI and determined the exact cause of the problem, which might just be a congenital defect, inoperable tumor, or other issue. The cost of the MRI was a staggering $2000 before the cost of treatments to treat whatever issue was found.

While my husband and I discussed the possibilities, her symptoms were getting worse. It was clear her vision was failing. She was trying to eat her food from behind her food bowl. We decided to try at least one treatment. We started with one for hydrocephalus fluid on the brain. If that were the issue, steroids alleviate the symptoms after a couple of days treatment. Unfortunately, the steroids offered no improvement even after two weeks. She even stopped taking treats from my hand, I think because she was afraid she would bite me.

It was becoming obvious that a difficult decision would soon have to be made. With two small children to care for, I was having trouble handling the dog but refused to allow that to make my decision. I was terrified because I knew that I would have to be with her when we put her down. And then I’d have to explain it all to my three-year-old. So, on Wednesday, I steeled myself for the worst but kept one opportunity for a miracle and scheduled one last appointment with the neurologist for Monday. On Thursday, I spoke with the breeder looking for a magical clue to save Whiskey. The breeder was very kind, but there had been no other issues with the litter she was born into and the only clue he could offer was that she was born with a dome-shaped head that was different from her littermates.

I had always wondered if Whiskey’s exuberant hovering over Buster would prevent him from walking. My daughter had taken her first steps before 9 months and Buster was still quite content crawling past 1 year, it seemed. Until Friday morning. He finally took two shaky, lurching steps towards me and the toy I was holding while Whiskey stood right next to him, watching.

It was incredibly hot on Thursday, but the heat didn’t really become intolerable until Friday afternoon. Throughout the day, it was clear Whiskey wasn’t handling the heat well. Nor was she drinking enough water. She’d knocked over every bowl and even the big food and water bowl stand my husband brought home that we thought would solve the problem because she now seemed to have to stand in the bowl to find the water. Several times I took her outside and had her stand in a huge tray full of water because she was able to find the water that way. I also made sure to spray her down with the hose a few times. But by around 3:30 pm, she was crouching like she was about to fall over but refused to lay down and wouldn’t drink any more water. I put her in her crate just because I didn’t want my daughter to see her and because I wanted her to lay down. My parents picked my daughter up for their camping trip as planned at around 4:15 pm.

As soon as they left I went over and opened the door to Whiskey’s crate. The dog that came out was a sad, sad sight. Her back legs continuously failed her and she staggered like a drunk person. I took her outside because I figured it was heat stroke and/or dehydration. I hosed her down and she just laid down on my foot, defeated. I quickly carried her onto our porch where I could barricade her lest she tried to hobble out into the street to be struck by a car. I brought her water and she refused to drink it, even from the tray. I went back inside for Pedialyte because I just couldn’t handle it if she started having full seizures from heat stroke on the porch. I’d begun to realize it was time to let her go, but not like this. When I came back outside she was listless, eyes shut, but still breathing. I couldn’t open her mouth but lifted her lip and dumped the sticky, pink liquid right into her mouth. She ignored me at first and then began to lick her cheek where some had spilled. I dumped some water right in next.

My husband sped home and scooped her up into the car and took her to the emergency room. He wasn’t yet ready to face the conclusion I’d reached. So they treated her and made her comfortable and even kept her overnight. The neurologist called me first thing in the morning and agreed with my decision, that the dog’s quality of life can’t be good if she faced heat stroke on the first hot day of the summer. My husband agreed.

So I now had to face my worst fears. Saturday morning, my husband and I met Whiskey in an exam room to say our goodbyes. She was happy to see us, but still not walking well. We had Buster, so I stayed with the dog while hubby took the boy outside.

Alone with her now, I wondered how we’d ever get her to lay down to be euthanized. She was pacing as usual. But it seemed even she knew it was time. The doctor came in with the two injections and kneeled on the floor next to me. Just one day after Buster’s first two steps, Whiskey took her last two over to me and laid down right in front of the doctor. Her emergency treatment had left her with the catheter from the IV, so she didn’t even suffer pain from the needle. She went right to sleep with the first shot and then her heart calmly stopped with the second. I could feel relief in the room, that she was no longer suffering. I hoped she was somewhere in Heaven, running straight and chasing birds and squirrels.

It was much easier than I’d imagined.

On Sunday morning, when my daughter arrived home from camping, the next worst part had to happen. And it, too, was much easier than I’d expected. I feared a discussion on existence and morality. It was not to be. Here’s how it went:

We explained that Whiskey had become really sick. Princess said, “Oh no, is she still at the vet?”

My husband told her, “No, honey, Whiskey died. She’s not ever coming home.”

Princess looked my husband and said, “She’s dead?” My husband nodded.

Princess looked at her brother and told him, “Whiskey’s not here anymore, ok?” Buster smiled.

Princess asked if she could go swimming and then have ice cream.

While I’m sure there will be future questions, the tough part that had been gnawing at me for weeks was over.

What I did not steel myself for was tonight. She’s not here to snuggle with. There was no late night trips to get her to go potty outside. I haven’t tripped over any dog toys today. And tomorrow, I won’t have to run downstairs to let her outside so she doesn’t poop in the dining room and then watch her struggle to consume her food and water. But there will be no walk after I drop Princess at school. And she’s not going to be trying to guard Buster.

And I know my house won’t smell like wet dog. And every time I have that thought and remember the disgusting smell of her when she was all wet, it’s like someone punches me in the gut and I start sobbing.

It’s been a big weekend. With Jon’s first steps and Whiskey’s last, I’m reminded of everything good and bad about life.

Whiskey, if you’re up there and somehow reading this (hey, that dog on Disney has a blog, right?), please know that you were so, so loved and you are so, so missed. I wish that your brain had been up to handling all the love that I know you had left to give. I’m humbled and grateful that you were a part of my life, for however short a time. Rest in peace sweet girl.

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2 thoughts on “First Steps and Last Steps

  1. Lynda Greenberg says:

    My heart goes out to my kids-I am sure it brought up past memories of when we had to put our dogs to sleep but it was time for her and she is at peace

  2. […] most popular was First Steps and Last Steps, my post about euthanizing our dog. I was surprised so many people read that one. It was sad. Many […]

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