©2019 C. Henry Martens
Warning: graphic details of an unpleasant experience.
Phoebe didn’t want to get out of the truck. I’d like to think that it was because she had become much less inclined to get out as her age had crept up on her. We would go for drives and increasingly she elected to remain inside when invited to go for a walk.
It wasn’t like her.
But today, I had to wonder if she knew what lay in store. I had to pull her out, and I bundled her in my arms to carry her to the tailgate.
She was lighter than I expected. Over the course of the last year or so she had bouts of malaise, sometimes accompanied by a lack of appetite. Her rear end had become so weak that when I scratched her over the hips, a favorite spot, she would sink down to sit. She would fall on the slippery kitchen floor, often enough that we placed a rug down for her to stand on as she ate or drank. At first, she was embarrassed and would look up at us as though apologizing for her infirmity. But over time it happened so frequently that she got over her shame and hearing her fall and scramble to get up became normal.
The veterinary technician and a helper were waiting. Phoebe had been an incredibly healthy dog her entire life, so this was only the second visit we had ever made to a vet. The woman helping stood holding the syringe and a bottle of pink fluid, slowly drawing a specified amount into the cylinder. The man reached to cup Phoebe’s paw in his hand, shaving a spot on her leg.
Australian shepherds are hairballs. Literally… We rarely found any hair around the house that wasn’t in a clump. We often exclaimed, “Phoebe exploded again.” because a newly vacuumed room would have ten clumps of hair in it within minutes. But we actually liked this feature of the breed because the accumulations were easy to see and easy to pick up.
The shaving done, the woman handed the male tech the syringe. He took a moment and inserted the needle. I held Phoebe, trying not to cry. Both techs made noises meant to be sympathetic, but I’m one that finds words hard in a situation like this. I’d rather they say nothing.
I watched as the technician drew a black stream of blood into the syringe, and then forced the plunger home slowly.
There was no going back now.
Beneath my hands my dog flinched. She let out a startled whimper, and then she went limp. I placed my hand on her chest and felt her heart racing. It skipped a beat, and almost immediately Phoebe’s body stopped working completely. She was gone.
I have to wonder…
In that last instant, did she know I had betrayed her? More importantly… did she think I had betrayed her?
I think so.
I’d always thought she deserved better than me.
I’ve seen other dogs put down. This time was rougher than most. The other euthanasia I have witnessed have always had the animal exhibit an obvious and sudden lessening of pain, and an obvious feeling of excitement and joy, and then they would collapse. This time it was not like that.
We had found Phoebe in an animal shelter. There was a dog there that I’d brought my wife in to see, and after taking the dog for a walk and the dog being completely uninterested in people, we’d decided to keep looking. Phoebe was in one of those light, portable fences that people put in their homes, sunken into a blanket on the floor. You could see she was unhappy, very depressed. I asked and the people said she was available, being brought in be placed for adoption. We took her for a walk and she barely paid attention to her surroundings. She focused on us.
Our little Aussie turned out to be a mystery. She came to us as well trained a dog as we have ever owned… and I train my dogs. We just can’t understand how she ended up in a shelter. When we first brought her home we let her out of the truck and within minutes she proudly brought us a chicken, still alive, in her mouth. I despaired, as every dog I’ve ever had that tasted chicken blood had never been dependable from then on around chickens. But I forced the chicken from her mouth and told her, “NO!” firmly, and she never touched a chicken again. She was death on anything small and furry she could get hold of but left the house cats alone. We could go anywhere and leave Phoebe outside the door, and she would be waiting for us on the front mat, never wandering more than twenty feet. The perfect hiking dog.
The only problem I had with her was that she didn’t know how to bark. She did, but so infrequently that she startled herself. She would get a small, “Woof.” out, and look back at us as though asking, “Did that just come out of me?”
I pulled Phoebe’s bed from the truck interior and placed it in the back. Then I put Phoebe’s body, curled up as though sleeping, in it.
There was a freshly dug hole in our back yard.
But I couldn’t go there. I just could not go there. There was something un-right about it.
The mountains and back trails beckoned. The places we had walked together.
The day was cold and it was trying hard to snow. As I drove into the familiar hills the gravel road became snow packed, without a track on it.
We had come this way a couple of weeks ago. There had been a Golden Eagle perched above the road, and as we stopped it took off and flew to another rock outcropping across the canyon.
An old reservoir built long ago and filled completely with sediment provided a parking area for many of the hikes we had experienced together.
I parked the truck and got out.
Huge flakes of white fell in the silence. I looked around and knew this was the right decision, the right place. Phoebe would not be covered by cold, damp dirt.
I left Phoebe’s body on her bed, amongst and under a thicket of those red-barked willow-like shrubs that grow in low areas. Her two chew toys lay wrapped inside her feet and under her head. She looked like she was sleeping. The snow was already flecking her fur like it had so often when she was out for a walk. Now she had taken the long walk… and it felt right to leave her in a spot she had enjoyed so much.
On the way back to the truck I stopped and looked around, feeling the bitterest of emotions and appreciating the silence that surrounded me.
I screamed “I love you, Phoebe!” into the growing storm.
I’m pretty sure Phoebe is our last dog. I just don’t think I can do it again. My wife avoided picking up the hairballs for quite a while.