On Putting Down Our Dog
We spent the morning in the backyard, playing with water from the hose. Later, he had a big meal of freshly cooked chicken breast & white rice and chased his peanut butter kong down the run between mine and the neighbor’s houses. He rolled in and crushed several of my flower beds, jumped at a passerby and scared him, and had a generally good, albeit mischievous time. By 10:59 AM, he was dead.
When he finally fell asleep, the sun was high enough to shine through in spots from behind our garden trees. Birds chirped on the grasses nearby. A cool breeze blew between us — it was so serene, it was difficult to remember that we were in the middle of a city, in the backyard of a busy Pittsburgh neighborhood sitting right on the bus line.
Ray lay on the stone patio at my feet. I got down and sat with him. He seemed comfortable, but I had my doubts. This is a dog who hogged pillows and was too good for the carpet — always pacing in circles around the sofa, like a shark, until a space on the cushions opened up for him. There he was, though, sprawled across the sun-warmed stone and mosses, looking over the dahlia bed. He was wet and covered in mulch and dirt from having just crashed through the bushes by the borders of the garden, crushing countless petunias and impatiens along the way. A parting shot at us? No, that’s just Ray. A constant coil of energy springing into action, consequences be damned.
The traveling doctor came, recommended to us by Ray’s daily walker. She was kind, openly compassionate, and took her cues from my behavior. She let me spill my guts when I began to ramble about how we tried everything to keep him from attacking other dogs. I felt like I must have been going into a sort of psychological shock, the way I just kept talking. But “knowing” that I was hopelessly rambling didn’t stop me from a profuse barrage of excuses for the decision to put Ray to sleep. Each was supported by an event in Ray’s past as though I needed to present individual case studies in dog aggression to defend this ultimate conclusion. When I finally stopped talking, she didn’t judge or try to empathize; instead she explained in calming whispers what she would do next and what to expect from Ray. And by then, the powerful sedative had already taken effect — Ray’s open eyes were rolled back, his left paw limp across my leg.
The wind picked up and the birds tussled with each other across the lawn. I leaned in and kissed my dog. Surely he had lain still over the years during countless naps and nighttime slumbers. And yet there I was thinking to myself that this was the only time I had ever seen him actually resting. I knew it wasn’t true, but it seemed like the dog was never motionless. His ears were constantly cocked, listening for the next dog or jogger or elderly couple to come down the sidewalk. His torso would tense as he prepared to lunge off of his back haunches like a kangaroo at whatever was coming. He could leap about 6 feet vertically, nearly clearing the back fence. Sitting on the back deck, I heard countless unsuspecting passersby yelp in fear and surprise when the business half of Ray would suddenly appear over the fence, snarling and flinging a froth of spit and mucous.
His breathing picked up. This is expected — some animals actually begin to pant just before the drugs cause them to pass. He was taking long, deep draws. I held my hand over his eyes since they still wouldn’t close. His leg twitched. It reminded me that he had a nightmare just last night and the dream made him whine and kick his legs until I leaned down from my bed to pet his back and comfort him.
Ray … a study in contrasts. He loved our baby, but lunged at passing strollers. He would let me know when he was sick, only to go vomit on the carpet anyway. He would run for hours in an open field, but when we humans left him home, he preferred being in his crate rather than to roam the house freely. We could never understand the cause of his anxiety, we only knew that it was deeply embedded; he hated other dogs and attacked them with unbiased determination. And now here he was, laying completely still, inches from my face. Ray, but not Ray. There, but somewhere else. So much life and personality being gently wrapped like just another dead dog in a blanket and carried out to the good doctor’s vehicle to go to a cremation furnace.
As I wrote a check to pay the doctor, I noticed the ledger number — 666. I apologized about the serial number as I handed it to her. I tried halfway joking that it wasn’t a reflection of my feelings towards her services. But of course I wondered at the collusion. Had I hired the Angel of Death? Had I just fulfilled a contract with the devil, complicit in prematurely delivering over the soul of my most loyal companion?
I will never know whether I made a terrible mistake, or did the right thing considering Ray’s circumstances and behavior. There will always be doubt, and judgement from other people, too. We did what we could for him. We gave him four good years that he never would have had otherwise. We were possibly the only people dumb enough to take such a troubled dog out of the rescue shelter. I can only hope that that counts for something.
As we returned from the car, the doctor and I found a card and a rose on my porch. It was a sympathy card from Ray’s walker — a kind and generous soul who recently lost her own dog to an illness. In the card, she wrote that maybe now the two dogs can join forces in the next world and attack and terrorize other dogs together, and later it made me cry deeply as I read it to my wife over the telephone.
And then, lunch. A reheated chicken breast that I made for Ray but didn’t give to him. I made too much, quite simply, and didn’t want the excess to give him a belly ache. So I eat the remains of his last meal. I can’t say it tastes bitter; though I wish I could. It was really quite delicious. And so passes Ray Bon from this world: a mostly good thing that I wish wasn’t so good, because it would have made what I had to do to him a lot easier to swallow.