I wrote this in mid-2019 when the health of my family dog Scout was starting to decline. Our sweet boy passed away in December 2019 at about 15 years of age. I am publishing this in his memory.
Scout is my family’s heeler mix dog. We adopted him when I was in 8th grade and my brother Greg was in 5th. Scout is now 14, which is quite old for a 55–60 pound dog. He still walks about a mile every day, but the tumors on his back leg and in his mouth combined with his wobbly hips and failing hearing and eyesight suggest our beloved boy will probably be dead before the end of the year.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, because Scout is not the beginning of this story. My dog story actually starts with Kelly, the 17-pound white terrier mix my mom’s friend found in a lumber yard in 1980 when my mom was 25. Kelly and my mom were inseparable. When she took him on runs in the woods, he would run off to chase birds and later collapse at my mom’s feet exhausted, refusing to move, so my mom had to carry him home. When my mom moved states in 1981, Kelly sat in the backseat and barked at the semi trucks on the interstate. By my parents’ wedding in 1991, Kelly was well into middle age, but he wasn’t too old to guard the baby they brought home from the hospital the following year or to continue to keep track of me as I grew. My first official word is remembered as “Dee-Dah”, as I was trying to say my mom’s nickname for the dog, Kelly D. Dog (Kelly the dog).
I was about five when my mom informed me that she was going to murder our dog, or at least that’s how I understood what I was told. I cried and cried. I had no concept of euthanasia, nor much of an understanding of how sick Kelly had become at about 17 years of age. I remember sitting on my parents’ bed in tears, asking over and over, “But why does he have to die?” I don’t have memories of the time immediately following Kelly’s death, but my mom says I bounced back quickly; kids are pretty resilient. That was my first experience with the death of a loved one.
Tip was the next dog to nestle into my heart. He was named after a sheepdog in Australia my parents had met during their honeymoon. He was a Brittany, a hunting dog, and to this day I’m not sure why that particular breed was recommended to my parents when they had two young children and a modest backyard. Greg and I were about six and three when Tip came home in 1998. We loved Tip, but he had more energy and aggression than our family could handle. About a year after his arrival, my parents worked with the breeder to rehome him.
Our next dog was Mali (pronounced like Molly), a black and white beagle-Springer mix. We met her by chance in November 2000 when my dad, brother, and I stopped in a key shop. As my dad approached the counter to get his key made, a 10-month-old puppy ran out from behind the counter. Greg and I both immediately knelt on the floor to play with her, and my dad recalls that, to avoid arguing over her, I told Greg, “You pet the white parts and I’ll pet the black parts!” Mali’s owner was the key shop owner’s daughter, a college-aged young lady. As Greg and I played with Mali on the floor, she lamented to my dad that she was moving to a place that didn’t allow dogs, and would we want Mali?
We’d been dog-less for about a year at that point and Mali seemed like a great fit for our family, but of course, we had to let Mom meet her before making a decision. We knew it was meant to be, though. My dad’s parents had a string of Springer spaniels from before my dad was born until their last dog and the one they had at the time, Molly. Not only was Mali supposedly part Springer, but she also had the same name as my grandparents’ dog! My mom met Mali the next day and fell in love, and we brought Mali home with us.
Mali was by and large my childhood dog. Her life spanned 13 years 2 months and close to 12 ½ of those years were with us, from when I was a 3rd grader to a college junior. In elementary, she walked Greg and me to school in the morning and was at the crosswalk in the afternoon to pick us up. My parents didn’t allow us kids to walk alone, but I was often allowed to be in charge of holding Mali’s leash while we walked to and from school with Mom or Dad. On the way home, Mom and Greg would cross the street while Mali and I stayed on the opposite side by ourselves for awhile and crossed later; she helped me assert some independence, even as a little girl.
Mali and I played together a lot, often with Greg, too. I was a competitive soccer player when Mali was young, and she had a plush dog toy soccer ball that I used to kick around in the backyard while she ran after me and tried to steal it. Greg and I had a club one summer in the yard and Mali was a member, too, of course. When we finally convinced our parents to let us use the swing as a ladder to get into the tree, I remember wanting to take Mali up there with us. That was not allowed, but she’d watch us in the tree from the safety of the grass, especially when we yelled down to say hi to her. I took Mali to show-and-tell in 4th grade and again my senior year of high school. (Yes, we had a show-and-tell toward the end of the year in my 12th grade AP English class!) Starting when I was about eleven, I was allowed to take Mali for walks in the neighborhood by myself, and until I got a cell phone the summer before 7th grade, I took a walkie talkie!
Mali was a great walker and hiker, but not much of a runner, although she did run around in the backyard sometimes. I remember one time trying to take her for a jog and she just couldn’t keep up, and this was when she was still young. I wasn’t even a fast runner, but Mali just wanted to walk. I eventually called my mom, exasperated, and she came with the car to pick up Mali so I could finish my run.
Mali’s life changed quite a bit the month she turned six. Greg and I were fighting more and more over her. Mali originally slept in a crate, but she started sleeping in my room after awhile. During the day, we’d argue over who got to take Mali into their bedroom. Our family eventually decided to adopt a second dog, and that’s when Scout came onto the scene.
The wild man, as he was soon nicknamed, bounded into our lives in January 2006, and he and Mali became a darling pair. She came to love him, but also was his disciplinarian, despite being approximately half his weight. He learned to respect her and she tamed him. Having two dogs was sometimes chaotic, but it also allowed one of us to take a dog into our room to hang out while the other sibling still had a dog around. We had a system for choosing which dog went with which child. On odd-numbered days, I got to choose which dog I wanted, and even-numbered days were Greg’s. Once you chose which dog you wanted, that was your dog for the day. If the rules were broken, the angry sibling would run to our parents exclaiming, “Today is MY day!”
While Mali was quite the social butterfly after her months in the key shop as a puppy, Scout was rather overprotective. Not long after we got him, he bit one of Greg’s friends. He was coming in from the backyard and was startled when he saw the boy come around the corner, not knowing that a visitor was in our house. The bite wasn’t severe, but there was blood, and we knew this meant things would have to change. Scout got to roam free when just our family was home, but was almost always quarantined in a bedroom when any friends or extended family came over.
Despite his forced social isolation, Scout’s life stayed busy. He went hiking with my mom, Mali, and sometimes Greg almost every morning and enjoyed running laps in the backyard, or barrel racing, as we jokingly called it. Scout started to sleep in Greg’s room and Mali was still sleeping with me, so Greg and I each had a dog in our rooms at night. I used to take him running, which he enjoyed. I used a retractable leash and we ran out and back. On the way out, Scout was usually in stride with me or even slightly behind, but after the turnaround point, he was way out in front of me at the end of the leash’s range. We liked to say he was going “back to the barn.”
Greg and Scout were especially close and fought like brothers. Greg was just eleven when we got Scout, so he was still shorter and smaller than my parents and me. Scout knew he ranked dead last in our pack but figured he could perhaps overtake Greg and move up. As Greg got older and bigger, his dominance over Scout became more pronounced. When Greg was in high school, he could snap his fingers and Scout would move from standing to lying on his back, belly up. Still, they used to argue over the sleeping arrangements, with Greg yelling at Scout in the night to “shut up!” Greg was active in Boy Scouts and, for some time, kept a camp cot in his bedroom to try out. My parents and I thought it was hilarious that Scout slept on the bed and Greg slept on the camp cot.
Mali was ten and a half when I graduated from high school and moved away to college, and she aged quite a bit while I was gone. She still slept with me in my room when I was home and went on walks with Scout and me, but she began to decline and was diagnosed with Cushing’s Disease shortly before her twelfth birthday, a condition defined by a slow-growing brain tumor. We had talked about when it might be time to euthanize and appreciated our vet’s advice to look for the dog to lose interest in walks and eating. My parents invested in the medication to manage the disease, and Mali was doing well when I came home a month after her thirteenth birthday for my friend’s wedding.
I came home a month later for spring break and Mali had gone noticeably downhill. It was the Jewish holiday of Passover and we were preparing to have the traditional holiday meal, called a Seder. When anyone was in the kitchen at our house, he or she usually had one dog on each side staring at them. Scout was in his normal spot, positioning his nose in perfect begging position as we cooked the holiday food. Mali, however, was asleep in the den, oblivious to the ruckus and excitement happening one room over. She had been having trouble eating for awhile before this, but my mom usually enticed her with canned food or by pouring chicken broth on her dry food. I’d never seen her act like this before, though.
That same week, I wanted to take Mali on a walk. She had stopped going on walks with Mom and Scout in the open space already and had switched to daily walks around the block. She would fall off the sidewalk because of her poor eyesight, so my parents would walk her in the middle of the residential streets. I’d talk to my dad on the phone sometimes while he walked Mali and we’d both smile each time he told me that “little Mali” was going up and over a speed bump. But that day, she actually couldn’t walk with me, not even in the middle of the street. She slogged along, probably wanting to please me but obviously very uncomfortable. I came home crying and told my parents I now agreed that it was time. Greg and my parents had already felt it was time, so I was the last one who had to be on board with the decision. We had our Passover Seder and euthanized Mali the next day. The vet was so gentle with her, whispering, “Goodbye, sweet girl” as she left us.
I had dealt with the death of a dog with Kelly, but this was the first time I understood what was happening. Additionally, while Kelly was my babyhood dog, he was mostly my mom’s dog. Mali was our dog, my childhood dog, my roommate, my little girl. I had a hard time when Mali died.
Scout was the younger of our two dogs, the baby of the family, but, about a year ago, I realized he was older than Mali ever was, which is still rather strange. He’s mellowed out a lot in his old age. My dad had some neighbor kids over the other day to meet Scout because they are going to take care of him for a few days while my parents are both gone. In his younger years, he would not have been allowed to meet the girls, but he let them pet him and gave kisses. My dad told the girls that he’d give them the WiFi password and show them how to work the TV, but they said they weren’t interested — “We just want to pet Scout!” Our family has always known Scout is a sweetheart, but now other people get to see this side of Scout.
Scout has gotten sicker over the past few months, especially with the discovery of a tumor on his leg and then another one in his mouth. Still, he starts pestering my mom for dinner around 4:00 pm and continues until she feeds him, usually at about 5:15. She’s reduced the length of their morning walk and he is really slow until he gets warmed up, but he still walks a mile almost every day. Food and walks, right? By that standard, he’s still doing alright, but I know it won’t be too long and I’m better prepared for his loss this time around. Here’s how:
Talk about it.
My story: When I’m talking to my parents, I often tell them, sometimes multiple times in the same conversation, “Scout’s going to die soon.” It’s not that they don’t know; they live with Scout and I don’t, so they know his situation better than anyone. But I’ve said it so many times that it’s normal now.
Tips for you: Talk to your loved ones about the impending death. Reminisce about your dog, from the happy times to silly, like that one time she ate something she was definitely not supposed to have. Talk about how you’ll feel when she dies; what will you miss the most?
Make a plan.
My story: I came to town to babysit Scout while my parents were out of town a few months ago and was concerned about what would happen if he suddenly became extremely ill or if I found him deceased in their house. My dad made some phone calls and made a list of phone numbers for various situations, who to call if he was suffering and needed urgent euthanasia, who to call to pick up the body if I found him dead, which vets were open 24 hours and which would come to the house. Preparing for the death of a human or animal does not make them die sooner, obviously, but people tend to act as though it would.
Tips for you: If your dog is elderly and/or ill, become familiar with his medical conditions. Ask your vet what kinds of symptoms are expected so you’ll be prepared and also know what is not normal and warrants a checkup. Find out your vet’s policy on euthanasia: Will they come to your house or do you have to take the dog to the office? What would you do if your dog died at your home? Are you going to have your dog’s body cremated or buried? Are you going to want his ashes returned to you? What are the costs of all this; will you need to set aside some funds?
Enjoy each moment.
My story: Charlie Brown laments, “One day, we will die, Snoopy,” and Snoopy cleverly responds, “Yes, but every other day we will live.” My family and I have started saying this about Scout: “One day Scout will die, but on all the other days, he will live!”
Tips for you: Don’t start mourning your dog before he even dies. Your dog live sin the moment and does not worry about the future, so try to take his lead.
Memorialize your dog.
My story: My mom had kept Kelly’s ashes in her home office for many years, but when Mali died, we decided to spread his and her ashes together near a rock in the open space where we often hiked. We plan to put Scout’s ashes there, too, when the time comes. We also have photos of our dogs in the house on a shelf that we have named, perhaps a bit crudely, the “dead dog gallery”. On the first anniversary of Mali’s death, I happened to have just received a mailer from the shelter where we got Scout asking for money. It was perfect timing to make a donation in her memory and her name was listed in their bulletin.
Tips for you: As there are numerous ways to memorialize a human, there are many ways to do so for a dog. Put photos of your dog in your home, and, if your dog was ill at the end of her life, choose photos from her healthier and happier days. Donate to an animal shelter or dog park in your dog’s memory, either one time or annually on his birthday or the anniversary of death. Choose something that is meaningful to you and your family.
Get another dog.
My story: It’s hard to believe I haven’t even mentioned the fifth dog, Kona, until now. I adore her, but this story is, after all, about my elderly and deceased dogs and Kona has lots of youth left in her at just five years old. I knew that I wanted my own dog after I graduated from college and moved off campus, and I adopted Kona when I was twenty-two. I was initially conflicted about getting my own dog. Was it a betrayal to Mali’s memory? Was it rude to Scout, who was still my dog even though I lived 200 miles away? My mom explained that getting a new dog is a compliment to the previous dog and I thought that made a lot of sense. I wouldn’t have wanted a dog in my house as an adult if I hadn’t loved growing up with dogs. I have learned that there is plenty of room in my heart for both Kona, who lives with me, and Scout, who lives with my parents, as well as the memories of our deceased dogs. My parents plan to get a new dog after Scout, as well.
Tips for you: Adopt a new dog soon. You do not have to wait a set amount of time after the death of your dog to get a new one. So many dogs need homes, and it’s a compliment to your deceased dog to get a new dog.