I Gave My Dog the Best Death I Could

It is our final responsibility to be there for them at the end, no matter how hard it is.

Dudley in the back seat on our last road trip, to the Eastern Sierra over Labor Day weekend.

I had a dog; his name was Dudley. Two weeks ago, we had to say goodbye. I was determined to make his exit graceful and compassionate, with dignity, by doing it at home — and I share his story now in the hope that other people, when faced with the same choice, will make the same decision. Dudley was a rescued border collie-Australian shepherd mix who was surprisingly soft and almost unbelievably sheddy. He was mostly black, with white legs and a marking that looked like a dog bone tattoo on his left haunch, and his tail had a white tip that looked like a pennant. He was a smiler, too. Everyone who has ever had a dog thinks that their dog was the best dog, and you know what? Everyone is right. Dudley was a good dog, and we were together for an uncommonly long time. 

Such a snuggler (sometimes).

Dudley was a good dog, but also a challenging one. I got him in 2004, as a surprise 23rd birthday present, when I was living in Austin. My then-boyfriend and I already had a hyperactive Dalmatian, so while I would not recommend pet ownership to any 23-year-old soon-to-be-grad student, the situation wasn’t quite as insane as it sounds. (However, I thought I was getting an iPod.)

His intake papers, dated February, estimated his age at 10 months. I’ll never know the exact date, but he was born during my last semester of college, so we celebrated his birthday every May 1. Dudley had come from a farm outside the town of Taylor, Texas, where he was clearly mistreated, and he had heartworms and a BB embedded in one leg. I originally wanted to rename him Ned, but he was so pathetic that I couldn’t take away the one thing he had, even if he didn’t know it. He did everything that a dog can do wrong: dig, chomp on the baseboards, snap at people, run away. One time he wriggled out the rear window of my car on the frontage road to U.S. 183 in Austin and I had to make three left turns to retrieve him from a parking lot.

We moved back to New York that summer, two adults and two dogs wedged in the cab of a Penske on a humid July 4 weekend. We stopped at a Sonic in West Memphis, Ark., so close to the muggy Mississippi River that the truck was filled with dozens of mosquitos when we got back to the car, and the dogs were flipping out. We killed all the bugs, smearing the inside windshield with blood and eating our burgers in silent misery, driving to St. Louis at three in the morning. We stayed at a friend’s house where Dudley managed to pee all over the furniture. I remember how awful that drive was only because it was so unlike all the many road trips to come.

True.

Stability was the one thing Dudley needed and the one thing I could not provide. In New York, we lived in five places in four years, and none of them had a thousand acres full of sheep for him to herd. But I did my best. At first, if you offered him a treat, put a leash on him, or even opened an umbrella, he would cower and pee. Over time, he learned to trust me, and one day, he just got it. He was skittish by temperament, but loyal and sweet — and so very smart. We were a bonded pair.

Twice in my life, I’ve lived in genuine squalor because I was young and broke and I couldn’t find dog-friendly housing. For a year, we lived directly below crazy-eyed tweakers in SoMa, and once in Bushwick, we lived across the street from and next door to two cement plants. Dudley was there through all of it, the great equalizer. He was there for all my breakups, the one time I got fired, the day I got promoted to become editor-in-chief of this newspaper — and the only thing that ever really mattered was that we were together.

A rare occasion when he made direct eye contact with a camera.

On Sept. 2, 2008, Dudley, a subsequent boyfriend, and I set out for San Francisco in a champagne-colored minivan. It took us three weeks. At that point, the only national park I had been to was the Grand Canyon, but over the next 10 years, I’ve gotten to 44 more — and Dudley went to 29 of them. He went to 32 states and every county of California and Nevada. He peed on the Prada Store in Marfa, pooped in Monument Valley, and ran in terror from the waves in both oceans. Once, he got to see a total solar eclipse. People look at me like I’m crazy when I say it’s relaxing to drive 900 miles through the desert in a single day, and I realize now that that’s because I had a soft furry head to rub whenever I felt lonely. You can do almost anything with someone who loves you unconditionally. You really can.

We had only one major health scare. Two days before Thanksgiving 2013, he ate a Trader Joe’s Pound-Plus chocolate bar — 72-percent cacao, how discerning! — and although I stayed up with him all night while he vomited, enough of the toxic compounds entered his system that we had to go to the emergency vet and administer a large quantity of activated charcoal to save his life. That Christmas, he had a hematoma in one ear, and when we got the blood drained, it was left permanently flopped over — which was cuter that way.

As the end approached, I had the luxury — so to speak — of steeling myself against the inevitability. Dudley wasn’t diagnosed with lymphoma or some other horrible disease, and apart from falling down the stairs and whacking his head on things, he wasn’t suffering or in constant pain. He merely declined, slowly and erratically, over the past two years or so.

At Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado.

Sometime in 2016, Dudley lost his hearing. He slowed down, got a little loopy. Recall had never been a problem, especially when we lived in the Castro near an enclosed dog park, but one afternoon in Alamo Square, he simply trotted away. (A couple teenagers had found him, so I gave them 20 bucks.) In his last few months, his tail was noticeably droopier and he was no longer demonstrably excited when I came home. His eyes, always sad, took on a helpless quality, largely because his hind legs were giving out. And he soiled himself, at first a little and then a lot. He knew he was “bad,” and it was difficult not to yell at him in frustration a little, particularly after the incident when he basically repainted the living room furniture in diarrhea. (My boyfriend is a saint.) Dudley was anxious and his personality was beginning to vanish into the anxiety. That’s when I knew it was time.

Total heliotrope.

I called Golden Gate Veterinary Home Hospice, a service that comes to your house, and made an appointment for Monday, Dec. 3 at 10 a.m. It felt like I was about to commit first-degree euthanasia. When the receptionist walked me through the process, I got anxious thinking that a first-do-no-harm fundamentalist might take one look at Dudley and proclaim, “This animal can live six months or more with the proper treatment! I cannot in good conscience perform this procedure today.” Mercifully, that isn’t what happened, but the thought was ever-present on my mind for the last two weeks of Dudley’s life, after I resolved not to yell at him for peeing just as we got to the front door, and to reward him with treats no matter what.

Dudley’s 14th birthday in Dolores Park, May 1, 2017. (The humans drank all the Champagne.)

I made a playlist of sad songs that resonated with various periods of my life and started disclosing to people that Dudley’s time was growing short. I measured his food so that it would run out on the right day and started overfeeding him, just because. On Saturday, Dec. 1, we had our annual holiday party and some friends came over. Although I was arbitrary and capricious about who I told, I asked people to give him one last scratch. The information certainly stopped a few people cold, but I’d prefer to know if I were them.

On Sunday, Dudley and I drove in almost-reverse-order to the six other houses we ever lived in in San Francisco and got out for a pee and a treat. We stopped by the Golden Hydrant near Dolores Park that saved the city from total destruction and took pictures on the top of Bernal Hill, our original haunt. For the first time in his life, he got to eat an entire burger.

 
The first and only burger Dudley ever got, on his last full day.
On Bernal Hill, under the mistletoe.

That night we sat for an hour under SQUARED, Charles Gadeken’s installation of 786 illuminated cubes at Patricia’s Green, and I listened to the playlist — “Broken Heart” by Spiritualized, “Main Man” by T.Rex, “Dreamboat Annie” by Heart, “Jed’s Other Poem” by Grandaddy, Gary Jules’ cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” — and cried. I dug out the blanket I slept on when Dudley first came into my life, and slept next to him on the floor. As ever, he was a squirm.

In the morning, Dr. Brian Van Horn came over. Instead of offering judgment or a cold, medical diagnosis, he simply laid out the options in the most straightforward way. His had three warnings. After death, there might be poo and pee (everybody knows this by now, I think), the eyes might open, and there might be one final (or “agonal”) breath, which sometimes can be misinterpreted for life. I told him through my tears that I understood and that today had to be the day, and he got everything ready, leaving the room for a minute so that the three of us could have our final moment together, and we listened to three final songs in a very specific order. I played “Days” by The Kinks because it has the tenderest lyrics about missing someone that I know of, and, at the suggestion of a very wise friend who’d been there before, fed Dudley a giant bowl of bacon, cheese, and treats.

Last meal: bacon, cheese, and treats. (He’s chomping on bacon.)

I played “Sea of Dreams” by Oberhofer, which runs over the end credits of the most magnificently sorrowful episode of BoJack Horseman, and held Dudley as it was time to administer the first shot, which sent him into his dreamless sleep. And then I sang every word to “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” into his ears, a song that I’ve always loved (and it had been the moment during Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music when I simply could not hold back my tears). That song’s vision of a quasi-afterlife filled with simple yet unattainable joys is puppy-like in its sweetness, and that was the moment when my dog ceased breathing and his heartbeat stopped.

The only part I could not watch was the sight of the body getting zipped up in a medical bag, so I thanked Dr. Van Horn and left the room until I heard my front door close. I watched from the window as the van drove away and waved goodbye, like a child would.

There’s a lake of stew, and of whiskey, too / You can paddle all around ’em in a big canoe / In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

My life has been almost uncannily free of death, so this was the hardest thing that I have ever had to do. When I told them, my parents expressed surprise that I chose to do it at home. I said I couldn’t imagine it any other way — and besides, like lots of animals, Dudley hated the vet. They associate it with pain and confusion, and they can smell the suffering of the 10,000 sentient beings who came before. I read about people who simply can’t bear to see their beloved pet die, and I sympathize with what they’re going through — but I completely disagree. You have to be the last thing they ever see, your love the last thing they ever feel.

In front of a mural by Elliott C. Nathan, next to a building in SoMa where we used to live. Oh wow, is right.

Now it’s two weeks on, and I’ve stopped ducking into the small conference room at work to have a private cry, but I haven’t been able to rewire my brain when I’m at home. It feels as though Dudley is always in the next room, a sense that lasts for maybe half a second and freezes me for a minute while I’m chopping vegetables or looking up from the paper. I can’t throw out his food bowl or his water dish, although I know I will soon. I’ll always keep the collar and leash, though, and I suspect I will find dog hairs for years to come. Dudley and I shared an adventure that lasted for almost a decade-and-a-half, nearly my entire adulthood, and now that adventure is over. I’ve almost tidied up.

But our goodbye had a few other positive consequences. Through the grapevine, I even reconciled with the boyfriend who gave me Dudley and to whom I hadn’t spoken in almost a decade. He called me on Saturday to apologize for — among other things — saddling me with such responsibility through my 20s and 30s, and I told him that it was all right, because in the end it was I who owed him a thank you. I’m getting Dudley’s ashes in a few weeks, with a wide world full of beautiful places to sprinkle them, a little at a time. And I’m getting a tattoo, either on my arm or my leg, of whatever picture of Dudley I have on my phone that best captures his perky ear and his floppy ear. Above and below his smiling face, it will read, “Dreamboat Dudley, Pup of Dreams.”

 

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