Saying Goodbye: The First Dog I had as an Adult
Fifteen years ago I met this girl and it turns out she had a dog. This girl turned out to be my future wife and this dog was our beloved Sierra, a black and white husky mix. My wife and Sierra were my reintroduction to the world of dogs and I could not imagine my life without dogs in it now. Sierra was the only dog we ever had that predated us being a couple and now Sierra is no longer part of our lives.
Sierra passed away at 16 years old. Thankfully she lived to be an old senior dog who gave us so many great years to spend with her. Pretty much right up until her passing she was the healthiest dog we ever had. No major illnesses or injuries and when we took her for checkups as an older dog the vet often commented on how healthy she was and that you would hardly know she was as old as she was. In her last couple of years she had a few incidents that were scary where she seemed to lose the ability to function but recovered on her own and despite vet visits and tests no significant abnormalities were ever revealed. We were blessed to be able to enjoy this amazing dog for so long with no major medical concerns or worries for her safety. That is something special.
Sierra was the forever peacemaker in our household. She got along with all the dogs that came and went from our house over the years even when they didn’t get along with each other. She would break up disputes between our cats by promptly walking up to them and physically separating them by placing herself in between, never making a move more aggressive than a simple bark. She was a lover, not a fighter and she loved every living creature in our house.
It’s funny that Sierra started off only knowing my wife because she quickly became the dog I would refer to as my shadow. Sierra would follow me from room to room to room. The moment I got up she got up and she kept an eye on me at all times. If for some reason she was not with me she could often be seen making her way across the house looking in the other rooms for me until she got to where I was to make herself comfortable. If I went into a room and closed the door Sierra made herself comfortable laying right outside the door waiting for me to emerge and then continued to follow me when I came out. This need to be with me never faded even in old age. Sierra slept more and more deeply which made it more difficult for her to keep track of me. But upon waking up and realizing I was no longer where she was she would get up and track me down. And it did not matter how longer I was going to be gone she was coming. If I was walking to the end of the hall and right back to the couch, she was coming. I felt so bad for her in her older years trailing after me up and down the stairs repeatedly for no real reason but no amount of persuasion or requests to “Stay” was going to keep her from trailing me. I will always believe she was following me because she wanted to be near me and protect me.
Occasionally my shadow would get disappeared. As a shadow she is silent and not always seen and she would follow me into the laundry room stay out of the way and behind me the whole time and I would leave closing the door never knowing she was there until later I would hear her scratching at the door. Then I felt so horrible for trapping her.
Having Sierra in our lives was pretty much a perfect dog experience. She was good with all our other dogs and cats. No major behavior issues. No major medical issues. Liked to run and play but was mostly calm and relaxed in the house. Often choosing to curl up in a corner or under a nearby table.
She clearly loved us but was not so desperate for attention that it was problematic. She just wanted to know we were nearby. She would come solicit attention when she wanted some and she was very receptive to any attention we gave her. She loved to give doggy kisses. She might have been one of the kissiest dogs I’ve met especially for a dog that was not typically all up in her humans’ business. But if you let her and you put your face near hers. She would lick you until the end of time and you as the human at some point would have to submit and withdraw from the interaction. I feel like that was Sierra’s see I love you more moment because she would keep kissing us and pouring out affection forever.
Life with Sierra was such a different experience than with any of our other departed dogs because we got to watch her grow old which is simultaneously joyful but also a different kind of sadness. When you see your consummate companion slowly losing their senses and having increasing difficulty navigating and engaging with the world it is sad, but it’s a fact of life. And it’s a fact of life that I too will someday have to come to grips with for myself. I hope I do it as gracefully as Sierra. Sierra adapted to the changes in her physical being. She slept more and ran less, but she never stopped having those moments of pure excitement and happiness that we see in all dogs. She would still until her dying day go out in the yard and for no apparent reason burst into a run all on her own running in circles and zig zagging around to her hearts content. Those are the lessons I need to learn from my dogs. Have fun and enjoy no matter what the circumstances of life are. Sierra handled everything with grace and happiness.
Having a dog that lives to see old age also gives us as humans a chance to try to come to grips with what the future holds. For humans with dog companions unfortunately the future will always hold the death of that amazing creature that you share your life with. There is no avoiding it. But being fortunate enough to have Sierra live to be sixteen years old I was blessed with the time to think about that and come to terms with the fact that this would inevitably be the case. One can never be emotionally prepared for a death of our companions but I could at least intellectually steal myself for the inevitable. I knew that one day in the relatively near future Sierra’s life would still come to an end.
It is never easy to know how to handle the situation of a dog who is going to die. In situations where a dog needs to be euthanized due to some terminal health concern it is at least for me easier to be secure in the knowledge that I have done the right thing by my animal companion. With Sierra this was a completely different situation. The night we found Sierra clearly having some health crisis we didn’t know what course to take. The last thing we wanted to do was cause her more trauma, pain, or suffering. So we pursued a course that we believed followed that. She had had a similar episode in the past that she fully recovered from on her own. We decided to see if this was something that would just pass and she would recover on her own. At first she seemed to do better then she would not. It seemed to wax and wane. Unfortunately, it was not something Sierra could recover from. She slowly got worse as the night went on and eventually died around 2 AM. It did not seem to be a traumatic or jarring death for her but it also was not the peaceful dying in ones sleep I think we all would want for our loved ones.
I will always have doubts as to if this was the right course of action. Could our vets have saved her that night? Maybe, but at what cost to Sierra’s future life. Would she be left debilitated? And how much fear and suffering would result from an emergency trip driving like a bat out of hell to the emergency vet to possibly result in her death anyway? Would she have been saved that night to only die suddenly on another night alone? After all she appeared to be healthy on recent exams and blood work. These are all questions I can never know the answer to. We chose to allow Sierra to cross over the Rainbow Bridge at home surrounded by those that loved her and spent their lives with her in as much comfort as possible. She was home in her spot with us and that is what she would have wanted. She would want her dying moments to be spent as close to us as possible.
At the end we told her it was OK for her to let go and move on. She didn’t have to stay here and try to continue to be our shadow and our protector. She had done her job. She had imparted the pure unadulterated love that is the love of a dog. When she was no longer with us we cried the tears of people who have lost a dear family member even though we knew it was her time. There is no holding back that flood. Time, long life, health, and old age cannot keep the heart from being torn asunder.
Sierra, you were my first dog as an adult. You set us on this road to leading a life full of dogs that we love so much and for that, I cannot thank you enough. I hope you are still looking in on me from time to time. I’ll see you again some day.