Losing a dog can be heartbreaking

Published in Holyrood magazine in February 2018, this article was written by Editor Mandy Rhodes.

We had to have our big, beautiful and bonkers Wheaten Terrier put to sleep last week and we are heartbroken.

It’s difficult sometimes to rationalise why the death of a pet can feel so catastrophic but it’s real and it hurts.

Over the last few months I’ve lost my dad, a good friend and now our dog of 15 years and the pain of losing Jerry seems so much more acute. How can that be? How can the loss of an animal even sit in the same emotional space as that of a parent or of a great pal?

Partly, it’s because dogs live in our shadow, they fit with our everyday. They occupy each space in our homes and every moment is designed to remind you of them.

For 15 years, I’ve got up and called, ‘Morning Jerry’. For 15 years, he’s wandered into the bedroom and up until recently, when his old, arthritic legs have meant he’s needed a little hand, he’s leapt onto the bed from a standing start before settling down on his back, jammed right in-between us with legs, paws and balls akimbo. I’ve sat on the loo while he jumped up beside me to drink from the sink. Been pushed to one side as he’s raced downstairs to beat me to the kitchen and watched from the door as he’s ran past his bowl of fresh water to go and drink from a stagnant pool of green filth.

Little bookmarks to my day punctuated with thoughts of Jerry even before I have breakfast and get ready to leave for work. The noise of me rattling the house keys, him hurtling down the stairs and in a flash, he’s at the door waiting to leave for my office and for his walk. Then, around 6pm, after hearing the ping of a text on my husband’s phone, he would appear at the front door, waiting for the walk to come and meet me. And so it went on…

Everything that was part of a daily routine has now been broken. He’s gone but the routine is still there, meaning every part of the day has a reminder of him. And it’s hard.

When our Westie died, we vowed never to get another dog. His death was just too awful to bear but inevitably we relented to the pleas of a toddler son who now, at 20, knows no life without Jerry within it.

I could fill pages now with Jerry’s exploits. The way he would like to eat his food from the floor rather than a bowl. His love of fruit and cherry tomatoes. His handbrake turns on Cullen beach and his ridiculous fear of water.

Watching him age was painful. This big, beautiful dog who no one could believe was in his teens. He got a little stiffer, a little slower and then a series of small strokes saw his back legs occasionally go and his eyes glaze over. He would stare at walls and sometimes, having found himself pointing the wrong way, would simply carry on walking but in the opposite direction from home. His legs became wobbly and he became thin. A gust of wind could almost blow him over, he would sway like a drunk and he would fall on ice and trip on stairs. But always, he would rally round and remarkably, be himself again. At Christmas, he fell over trying to mount a beanbag and while the will was still clearly there, he’d forgotten, mid-mount, what it was all for.

We knew that time was catching up with him but somewhere in the realms of fantasy, you think your dog will be the one to go on forever.

We hoped he would slip away in his sleep – quietly, gently, a last breath mid-dream, a sleep that just went on forever. That would have been the wish but it rarely happens.

On Saturday, he had had another stroke – his back legs frozen and his head twisted awkwardly to one side. His eyes were rolling, fearful, he knew something was far wrong. He had soiled himself and lay in the mess unable to move. For such a dignified animal this seemed too awful to compute. He tried to move and flipped on the floor like a grounded fish. It was achingly awful to see. We cleaned him up and wrapped him in blankets with a hot water bottle by his side and lay with him whispering, stroking his lovely soft hair. We both knew the time had come but hadn’t he always rallied round? We would give it 24 hours and then make that call. But it wasn’t to be. As the evening wore on, he started to cry – a deep, pitiful sound that we had never heard before. He was in pain and it was too much to bear.

I called the vet and at 11.30pm we drove to the out-of-hours clinic – a hellish drive – with me sitting in the back of the car, Jerry’s head on my lap and him now calm but not really aware.

Jerry was put to sleep where he lay on the back seat with me stroking his head and whispering in his ear. Within minutes, I felt his heart slow, then stop and he was gone. I looked out of the front windscreen and saw my husband convulsed in grief. Neither of us could be the strong one now.

People say we love our pets because it’s unconditional but Jerry wasn’t like that – we did all the running. It was all on his terms. And now when it feels like my heart is broken, the question I keep asking is, why, when we know the pain of losing a pet, do we do it? The answer is simple, they bring us so much joy and for that, I will be forever grateful. RIP our wonderful Jerry. Goodbye, old chum. You were loved.

Holyrood magazine is Scotland’s independent, fortnightly political and current affairs magazine, keeping Scottish politics informed with its award-winning and thought-provoking editorial.

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