On St. Patrick's Day, we had to put Dakota to sleep. This morning, like yesterday, my first thought was to get up to let her out. Every time I hear something like a dog panting, I assume it's her needing attention. And I still try to step over the barrier to the staircase that's no longer there.
We adopted Dakota as an (approximately) eleven year old geriatric Irish wolfhound/lab mix. For many years she lived with a homeless man, but the man died and she ended up at a shelter. Another family adopted her, but discovered that their daughter was highly allergic to Dakota. They tried everything else first--meds for the daughter, ripping out all their carpet, keeping Dakota out of the daughter's room--but to no avail. The little girl's allergies got worse. The last thing they wanted to do was take Dakota back to the shelter, but they asked everyone they knew and found no one willing to adopt a geriatric dog.
A friend of ours heard about Dakota's plight and knew we were looking for a dog for our girl. I was envisioning a small dog that the girl could have sleep on her bed in the room. The first time I saw Dakota, though, my first thought wasn't 'too big.' She was funny-looking, to put it politely, but her extremely calm demeanor won me over. More importantly, she stole the girl's heart. We took her home.
Dakota had some serious allergy problems from the get-go, but once she settled and her stress-level dropped, those allergy problems eased and she led a normal, if sleepy, happy doggy life. It took her a long time to accept us as family. Her deep sense of loyalty had been wounded by the loss of her first master, and then being adopted for only a short time by a second family, only to be let go ... I wasn't surprised that it took her a while to get used to us. But she did learn to trust us, maybe even love us.
At first we tried taking her on walks with the other dogs, but we learned that although she loved the walks it was too hard on her joints. So instead she walked herself around outside in the garden on sunny days, and in the dog yard whenever I had delicate seedlings in the veggie garden. She was able to make her way up and down the carpet-covered stairs inside and even made it with ease up and down the deck stairs. We trusted her not to wander, and she never went too near the road when she went on her walks.
Whenever we came home after being away for a few hours, we could see her in the front window, smiling, and often she'd let out a little, girly 'woof!' of delight. After months of stress-panting and anxiety-related allergies, it made me so happy to see her experience joy when we came home to her. She always came to see me when I came home from work, and I often took her with me when I worked in the garden in summertime. She sat in the shade and made sure I wasn't attacked by evil squirrels.
Those joyful years passed too quickly.
About six months ago she started having accidents in the house. I also had to bar the way on the stairs because she took a couple of bad falls while going down them. We tried different medications to keep her hips flexible. Some of them worked for a while, and she'd have several great weeks, and then she'd be worse again. Mostly, though, she was just stiff and not in any serious pain. Every so often she'd get stuck in a hole that one of the puppies had dug, but we'd get her out and she'd hobble into the house on her own legs and sleep it off.
Then a little over a week ago she could hardly get up, and she couldn't bend one of her hind legs very much anymore. She started pissing herself in her bed. I had to give her daily baths just to keep her relatively clean, which dried out her skin and made her hips sore from the stress. We took her to the vet, changed meds one more time, but she rapidly got worse instead of better and started to vomit and have serious bouts of diarrhea. When she stopped eating for two days we made another appointment. It was to be her final one.
We'd hoped there would be one more possible route to go, but the vet, a vet I trust, gave us the 'maybe it's time to let her go' talk. We could have given her maybe another 24 hours with a steroid shot, but that shot could have also given her more complications and caused her more pain, not less. And it was clear to the vet that Dakota's atrophied hind legs were not numb like they are in many cases, but causing her a lot of pain. Despite our care and washing and everything else, she was getting bed sores on them, and the joints were very inflamed. One joint was completely frozen. She would never walk again.
The vet warned us that Dakota might hang on for a while, but Dakota let go surprisingly fast. We held her and stroked her and told her what a good dog she was. And she really was a great dog--loyal, gentle, protective ... so much more than I can describe.
Maybe she'd seen her old owner and had run to him. I know she felt safe and happy with us, and she had some really beautiful days with her new pack, but I'm sure to her last breath that she missed the man who'd raised her from a puppy, who'd taken care of her and died with her by his side. I hope that if that was her heart's desire that she's found him and is with him again, living a gypsy life on the Long Road.
It still doesn't feel like time to put away her dog food bowl. I know I should. Maybe tomorrow.