Four months ago today we made the very difficult decision to euthanize King, our beloved canine companion for the past eight years. It’s taken me this long to steel myself sufficiently to write about him.
The vet who examined King at the San Clemente Animal Shelter estimated that he was between five and seven years old when we “adopted” him. He had been brought to the shelter along with two younger Rottweilers. The woman who dropped the three dogs off at the shelter told the story that she had taken them from a homeless man she met at a gas station in San Clemente, the man claiming that he simply could no longer manage to feed both himself and the dogs. The Rottweilers were quickly adopted; King, a Shepherd-type dog, had a harder time finding a home. He had a few broken teeth, he wasn’t immediately charming, and he looked a bit the worse for wear.
But King had striking blue eyes, making us think he had some strain of Australian Cattle Dog in his ancestry. [The blue eyes might have been from a Husky, but at around 50 pounds, King’s size seemed to argue in favor of the Cattle Dog.] It had been a few years since our last dog, Molly, had died of kidney failure at only three years of age, and we decided we were ready to have a dog in our house again. Debbie saw something in King that drew her to him, so we brought him home to live with us in the Summer of 2003.
The first six months with King was a never ending series of trials and tribulations. He was seemingly fine when we were all at home together, though he was not particularly relaxed or affectionate. But King had immediately bonded strongly with my wife, Debbie, and suffered severe separation anxiety whenever we left him alone at home. Upon our return we’d find the results of his efforts to get out of the house and find Debbie. King scratched at and chewed the doors, door frames and door trim. He ripped up carpets at the the doors. Once he even tore out the weather stripping on a set of French doors. More than once I declared that we couldn’t afford to keep a dog that kept destroying our house every time we went out for dinner or a movie, and we should take him back to the shelter. Debbie volunteered at the shelter, so she knew the shelter manager would let us take King back, but she was certain that if we didn’t keep him, he’d never find a home.
We consulted an animal behavior specialist, and learned that we might be able to cure King of his separation anxiety by leaving him for short periods of time, gradually lengthening, then randomizing, the amount of time we left him alone. After a few months of acclimatization to our departures and returns, King seemed to get the idea into his head that we were always coming back, so it was okay for him to relax when we left home. Once that happened, King went through a transformation of sorts. Debbie says that, once he figured things out, “the real King shined through.”
King became the perfect animal companion. He was a sweet, gentle spirit who loved socializing with other dogs and children. Yet he was a working dog; he had a job — keep an eye on Deb, and warn her whenever anyone came near the house — and he did it with relish. He followed her wherever she went through the house, and barked vigorously when anyone came through the front gate, or even chanced to walk down the street past our house.
King loved to “swim” in our pool. Even before we took him home from the animal shelter, he seemed to enjoy splashing around in the little kiddie pool at one end of the dog run. The first time he went into our back yard, he saw the pool and immediately walked into the pool. When he took his second step and found himself in deeper water, he appeared to panic, and instead of turning around, King headed for the deep end of the pool. I had to jump in fully clothed and lift him out of the pool. After that he was a lot more cautious, though he still spent a lot of time in the pool. King would step down to the first step at the shallow end of the pool, lower himself to wet his belly, then splash water with his front paws with a sort of abbreviated dog-paddle stroke. It’s hard to describe, but it was hilarious.
King hated the crows that inhabit our neighborhood. Whenever he saw crows, he would charge toward them, barking until they flew off to parts unknown. He enjoyed going on walks, but King suffered from hip dysplasia, a common ailment of Shepherds, so the vet advised that we limit the distance he walked to no more than a few blocks. King didn’t seem to mind; he’d walk the same small circuit every day, happily lifting his leg to leave his canine calling card at many spots along the way and socializing with his numerous neighborhood canine friends.
As the years went by, the bills for medications to keep King healthy kept growing, as the thyroid meds were supplemented by pills for arthritis, anti-inflammatory meds and immune system supplements. Our little buddy never lost his spark, but it was obvious that his body was breaking down. His hips started to fail, and he could no longer negotiate the steps to the bedroom on the second floor, so King “flew” up the steps in my arms so that he could sleep in our bedroom.
We could see King’s world shrinking with every passing week. Finally, he lost control of the muscles in his back legs, and the final indignity — loss of sphincter control. In his final days his inability to walk more than a few steps without collapsing made our decision to allow him a dignified departure from this world a difficult, but charitable one.
King’s decline and passing taught me a powerful lesson. If I want to feel really alive, I want to keep my world growing, not shrinking. I want to learn new things, see new places, have new experiences and make new friends. Some days, it doesn’t come easy; I feel like crawling into my little cocoon and hiding from the world. But life is about engaging the world, not shying away from it. So I hope I find ways to keep my world growing, even as my body ages and I find it more difficult to get around. As long as I keep up the struggle, and keep my world growing, I’m aging, but not getting old. I’ll know I’m getting old when I can’t stop my world from shrinking.
So, ask yourself the question, “Am I growing older, or am I just getting old?”