What Dogs Teach Us About Dying                           

Today the gentlest, cheeriest little dog died in my arms, and I couldn’t help thinking: How much they have to teach us. If, as Socrates says, “to philosophize is to learn how to die,” then all dogs must be philosophers because they know how to die. Augie was of indeterminate age, abandoned in the wilderness two years ago probably because he was old, and then rescued by us, to spend his last few years on a warm cushion and eating good food. He never complained or demanded, and was generally happy to be allowed to sniff and to mark corners — checking his p-mail and faecebook posts, as we like to say. He never got into quarrels with the other dogs, and was happy to receive affection. 


For months we felt him winding down, and knew that he was full of cancers and other growths — yet not once did he cease to be cheerful. Only in his last two days did he not express enthusiasm about food and walks; and as he just lay on his cushion, we knew from his face that it was time. Dogs have a way of looking at you: “Come on, it’s time, isn’t it?” — and you both know that you both know. They accept it without grumbling, as if it’s just like going out to pee — no big deal, because it’s part of life, like everything else. 

   With my very first dog Cassie this moment hung over me for months as an impending catastrophe, but on the actual day the “look” was simple and factual — not a matter of opinion or interpretation. She had had a big growth in her throat for months, which made breathing difficult and swallowing painful. An operation would have been tricky and too traumatic, since she was already 13. I had no idea if I was capable of making the decision, for this was the dog of my life. The evening before, I was driving home from a friend’s house when I saw a huge male raccoon twisting and writhing in the middle of the road. He had had his back broken by a car. I knew what I had to do, and put him out of his misery by running him over again. It surprised me that I could do that, and the raccoon was like a heavenly visitor who came to teach me something about clarity and love: I knew without hesitation what had to be done. The next day, tears streaming down my face, I held Cassie in the vet’s back room, and when she went limp I could tell — in the beauty of her now perfectly soft, relaxed body — how much pain she had held in all her stiffness. I realized at the same time just how much pain I had buried in my own stiffness.

   The next day was one of the most terrible days of my life as, alone in a pine forest, I tried to see through my tears as I buried her and built her a cairn of rocks and pine cones. For a few weeks after I would be in anguish about her: was she wandering alone somewhere in some vast darkness, did she have food, did she have a warm soft place to sleep…It was of course I myself who was wandering in the vast darkness, the great anxiety about extinction and the curse of loss. Then I had a dream in which I was hiking and saw Cassie running in a flowered field, and I knew she was okay. All along she knew that she had to go soon, and she had endured her pain because she was waiting for me to break through my wall of fear and realize. The moment was unambiguous. After a very slow walk, she licked my hand and looked me straight in the eye: It’s time, don’t you think?

   When my young St.Bernard, named Dragon, got bloat — a frightening and agonizing condition in which the intestines become tangled — and nothing more could be done about it, before I lifted him into the back of the truck for the vet to come and give him the fatal potion, he and I stood outside the emergency clinic. He panted, but sat there for a while looking up at the stars and leaning against me. I knew that he knew, and that he had total trust. When we brought his body home, my oldest dog Tabouli — who had been in love with the young giant — ran out to see him, but her right eye was bulging and twisted; there had been some tumor in her head that had exploded that night, and it was no councidence that it happened exactly when Dragon died. She died soon after, also peacefully and in my arms. She knew that Dragon had gone, and she chose not to continue living.

   When I put them in the car to take them to the vet, I am always amazed at how trusting they are. I only ever take them to the vet when they are in pain. I am convinced that they know when their time has cone, and I am deeply moved that they might know that I know. Of course, I’m aware of all the arguments that say that I don’t really know, that they don’t know, that they have no sense whatsoever of death — but I simply don’t believe these arguments and trust my own experience. My dogs have taught me that there is a way to be matter-of-fact, simple, and calm about death: it is no different than walking or pooping, and part of the same process. There has been a life; the life was good, it was complete, it was satisfying and there was nothing lacking. Tabouli would spend her last days lying on the front porch smelling the mountain air, her ears twitching and turning: the whole world was there in her contemplation, and what had been given was not only enough, but rich and beautiful. There is nothing to lament.

It is not growing like a tree

In bulk doth make Man better be;

Or standing long an oak, three hundred year,

To fall a log at last, dry, bald, and sere:

A lily of a day

Is fairer far in May,

Although it fall and die that night— 

It was the plant and flower of light.

In small proportions we just beauties see;

And in short measures life may perfect be. 

(Ben Jonson)



2 thoughts on “What Dogs Teach Us About Dying                           

  1. Your essay is so touching, so vivid that I went through the emotions with you. We humans have so much to learn from our very own four legged loved ones. If only when the time comes…I could remind myself that ‘there is a way to be matter-of-fact, simple, and calm about death: it is no different than walking or pooping, and part of the same process’. Sharing with the Delta Pet Society.

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