I believe it was last November when I posted on FB that the older of our two golden retrievers was literally on his last legs. I can’t remember the year when we adopted Chewy through the Golden Retriever Rescue group, but he’s been with us for around 8 years and he was supposed to be about 5 yoa when we added him to our family. He’d been neglected and abused before he was rescued off death row from a shelter in Bakersfield, CA.
The GRR group had to scope out our backyard and basically do a home study on our family before they’d greenlight the adoption. At the time, it seemed over-the-top, but in retrospect, given what some of the rescued dogs have gone through, I can see why they are so thorough. When the volunteer caseworker called us, I assured her that our backyard is like Shangri-La for dogs. One hundred feet wide and probably 75′ deep, covered with a lush Marathon II lawn and shaded by four old-growth avocado trees and numerous Japanese maples, it’s a far cry from the cramped and barren dirt backyards that Chewy had known before. We passed.
True to his breed, Chewy was clearly the happiest when he was hanging out with us or when he was chasing furiously after a tossed tennis ball. Unlike some of the previous golden retrievers we’d had, he seemed to thrive on constant contact with us, whenever possible. While I’d be watching TV, he’d settle down in front of me, flop over on his side, and then extend a front leg so that his paw was touching my foot. He’d keep that up until or unless he’d fall asleep. It was like he wanted me to know that he was there for me.
Chewy never had a great sniffer. I used to think it was because golden retrievers rely on their eyes to spot where the just-shot goose has fallen, not their noses. But when we added Puppy Dylan to our clan several years later, it was obvious that Chewy’s nose just wasn’t working at 100%. On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being a bloodhound’s ability to smell things), Chewy was probably a -4. But as long as he could see where you’d thrown his ball, he’d hustle down to the general vicinity and delight in nosing around until he found it.
Near the end of Dylan’s first year with us, he began to outrun Chewy for the ball. Over the next few years, Chewy would still be searching for it long after an exultant Dylan had discovered it and brought it back, praying for just one more throw. We just thought it was because Chewy had such an impaired sense of smell, but he was later diagnosed with congenital blindness, where the rods in his eyes were slowly losing their functionality. We’re not sure when he went completely blind, but he’s been that way now for at least the last 3 years.
I can’t be positive, but I think Chewy has been okay with losing his eyesight. Maybe it was like the world was slowly fading to black. And then maybe he just assumed that the sun had gone out and we were all wandering around in the dark. He clearly had a mental map of our terrace–where he eats and sleeps–and all the trees, slopes, and contours of our backyard. But we stopped bringing him inside because he couldn’t navigate around our furniture and walls. And we couldn’t take him on walks anymore because literally his every step was furtive and uncertain.
Fortunately, when Dylan wasn’t galavanting around the yard or warning a passing dog that it was trespassing, he loved hanging out with his slow pal Chewy. We’re pretty sure that Chewy has stayed alive and active these past couple of years because he has a younger buddy that loves him. And licks the inside of his ears. Twice daily. Delicious.
So last fall, when Chewy was having trouble getting his rear legs under him, we assumed our faithful old companion was at the end of his days. We struggled to get him into the back of my SUV that night and brought him to our long-time vet friend Dr. Ann Tsugawa. She works nights at an emergency vet clinic in Pasadena and has been so sensitive and caring when we’ve needed help putting down previous pets. But after weighing him, taking his blood, and doing some x-rays on his spine, she pronounced that he was struggling to get up because he was about 20+ pound overweight due to a thyroid that wasn’t functioning properly and far too many fallen avocado treats. She sent us home with some tiny pills and instructions to chop down our avocado trees.
We gave him the pills and I put up a 2ft-high fence that spanned the width of our backyard to keep Chewy from going down to where the green gems were waiting to be found and devoured. He lost about 18 lbs and regained his mobility. But we knew that each day would bring us closer to saying goodbye to him, given his advanced age. So we brushed him more, we talked to him more, we patted and stroked his head more. Because we wanted him to know and experience that he still mattered to us, even though he had so many limitations.
Last night, my wife and daughter noticed that he was sitting Sphinx-like on the tiled terrace, uttering short, muffled barks. We guessed that it was because he needed to relieve himself, but couldn’t raise himself to walk down the two wide steps to get to the grass. It was a struggle, but we got him down the steps. As soon as his wobbly rear legs touched the grass, they seemed to gain new life and he walked gingerly around before plopping down on the grass. We brought him his supper dish and water, which he consumed with gusto. When I looked out the window after midnight, he was in the same spot, head up, panting. I went to the garage and turned off the automatic sprinklers because I had a feeling he wasn’t going to move from this spot.
When we awoke this morning, Chewy hadn’t moved an inch. He seemed alert, but he was clearly thirsty. My wife gave him his morning Milk Bone and then she and our daughter left. But not before telling me to contact Dr. Ann about bringing him in tonight to put him down.
I went out this morning with more water, which he drained, After stroking his head a bit, I took what will probably be the last photos of Chewy, hoping to capture his essence, his spirit, his enduring “Life Is Good” attitude even though his life has been hard. Even though he hasn’t been able to see us or to watch our daughter grow from a seven-year-old to a teenager, I hope that he knows and feels that we are his family or his pack, and that we will hear and see what he’s trying to tell us today. “I’m there now. I’m ready. You’ve blessed me with a far better life than what I ever dreamed was possible. I’m really old and tired now. Help me. Help me to end my life with dignity. Tonight, as we all wait for the medicine to take effect, let me feel connected with you until I take my last breath.”
And we will, Old Friend. We will.