Golden Retrievers Speak: Alanis And Grieving

Alanis:    What happens when a canine loses a canine companion?  Do we experience grief, or do we think our friend will eventually return?    When Jeter left the house on December 31st, was it to go to the groomer, or was it to go away forever?   Does the concept of time even enter my brain?  Can I count the seconds, the minutes, the hours, and the days?     Do I forget that Josh and Jeter once prowled around this house, or can I still sense their presence days, weeks, and months later?

How do I entertain myself, without another dog to keep me entertained?  How can humans replace the bond I had with my canine companions?   How do I walk alone, how do I jump in the car with nothing else in the back seat?   How do I feel about being the first dog to receive a meal, the only dog that gets the nightly treat?  How I can play with a toy, or chase a tennis ball, without another dog offering competition?

Will another dog come through those doors some day, and how will I react to once again sharing all of this stuff that is only now enjoyed by me?

I have three bowls of water to choose from every time I need a drink, and yet I still feel thirsty.  I get a good meal twice a day, yet I still feel hungry.    I am trying to regain my energy.  I am wagging my tail again.  I am panting more, sleeping better.   I am following my owners around the house like a lost puppy, and that is because I am a lost puppy.

Mommy gave me a toy octopus the other day – the type of toy Josh loved to carry and whip around back in his heyday.   I do some of the same, though I am hoping the octopus will come to life and fight back.  It never does, but I will keep trying, for it is not my nature to give up.

This is weird.  This is awkward.  When I was growing up in a different household for my first six months, I was the only dog.  I should be used to this, but I am not.   This is a process.  I lost my best friend before he had a chance to grow old with me.   The dog that would always give me a tongue bath even after I tormented him.

I am a dog.  I guess I am not supposed to “grieve.”  I guess I am not expected to know exactly what “death” is, nor am I supposed to comprehend what it means when a canine companion leaves.

But if all that is true, why does my behavior change, and why am I sad?   You may have some clinical definition of “grieving” in a dictionary, but I can’t read one of those.   I just know what I feel and what I miss.  And nobody can define that for me.

Me:   Alanis has been out of sorts since Jeter passed.   She has definitely improved as the days have gone on.  She is playing more, she is eating better, and is spending more time outside.   She went on her first extended walk today since Jeter’s death (it has been too frigid in New Jersey to go for a longer walk over the past week+), and she did well with a “play date” she had on Saturday.  That date seemed to rejuvenate her, as she likely needed to be around a dog who was willing to play with her.

Do dogs actually grieve?  Doing research on the topic, some experts think that dogs grieve at the level of a small child:  They comprehend the loss, but don’t understand the death.  

Alanis’ behavior has consisted of sleeping in Jeter’s spots (and sniffing around his favorite spots), loss of energy, and being more “clingy” than usual.   She rejected a piece of string cheese the day Jeter died, but her appetite has been mostly intact.  On today’s walk, she did a lot of sniffing.  Whether she had the scent of Jeter or it was something else, I have no idea.  I just noticed an increase in the behavior.

Dogs will process a death in different ways.  It is up to you as an owner to differentiate what may be grieving vs. what may be an actual illness.   It is easy to chalk everything up to a dog missing their companion, but just watch your dog to make sure he or she snaps out of it after a few days.

Tennis Balls and Meatballs: Jeter (July 30, 2009 – December 31, 2017)

Me:  “Can you help me remember how to smile?  Make it somehow all seem worthwhile.”   While this line from a 1990s hit has nothing to do with grief (it is a song about kids who run away), it seemed poignant today when I walked into Wawa.  It was the first thing I heard when i walked in, and it just hit me as being so appropriate.   I have smiled a lot today over the memories of Jeter, and it is the dogs that my wife and I will continue to give homes to that makes it all worthwhile.  They, just like us, can’t live forever.    We have lost two in the last year (Josh in February), which is sad but we will get through it.  Below is Jeter’s last blog entry (though flashbacks are always possible), as he crossed over the rainbow bridge on New Year’s Eve.

Jeter:   Daddy is telling me that he wants to take me for a “final” walk through the neighborhood, since that is one of my favorite things to do.   Don’t ask me why walking around town with cancer in my body on a day where I will freeze my tail off is the definition of “fun”, but I will oblige.  If you have read this blog long enough, you know I am the wise guy dog of the bunch.  If you think I am going to be “whoa is me” when writing this blog post, this is not the post for you.   I live my life with humor and happiness, and cancer, no matter how advanced, is not going to make me change.

When I take this final stroll through the neighborhood, if my dog calculations are correct (tough to punch in numbers with my big paws on this small calculator my daddy provided me), I would have walked somewhere over 2,000 times in my lifetime.  TWO THOUSAND.  And I am supposed to sit here, feeling sorry for myself when I got to do one of the things I enjoy the most that many times?    This is going to be fun, and nostalgic.  I am sure Alanis (who I guess must come, or else she will do her diva thing and whine the whole time we are away) will oblige in letting me do what I want to do on this walk, and not what she wants to do.   I hope the people who commented on my absence recently are looking out the windows today, because I am going to be strutting my stuff like I never have before.   I will be slower, as my illness has greatly impacted me over the course of the last several hours, but I am going to do it like a champ.

Why have my walks been less frequent recently, or shorter in duration?  Because everyone thought I had an injury, and that I needed rest.  Injury?  I wish it was an injury, or maybe I don’t.  Who wants to live out their final months, years, or whatever chronically injured?  Not this dog.  I want to go all out, each and every day.    Regardless, the rest was really not doing me much good, as the “injury” was a red herring for something worse.    But that is OK.  Injured or sick, who cares?  Life is precious, and I am going to make these last hours count just as much as my first hours.  I would say that cancer decided to pick on the wrong dog today, but I am in no mood for such proclamations.  I will say that if cancer thought it would kill the dog that I am, it was wrong.   You think you won, but you didn’t.  I am at peace with my life…and you will never once define me.

See, only yesterday, I was out back chasing a tennis ball, trying to convince you that I was happy and healthy.    You thought I was injured, so you stopped the game early even though I wanted to go on.  I knew (did I?) that this may be the last game I would ever play, but you were convinced otherwise.  Don’t feel bad about that, for I did my job:  I didn’t want anybody to worry.  I wanted you to think that there would be more ball to be played at another time.

Only yesterday, you decided to take away the barrier that stopped me from going upstairs.   The barrier you thought was keeping me from hurting myself further.    You didn’t know it, but unless you had a magical cancer block for my internal organs, nothing you could do was going to prevent me from hurting myself further.  (It is doubtful that even a cancer block would have helped me, either)   I did my job, yet again.  I convinced you that all I had was an achy leg or a sore hip.  I am proud of myself for that, as who wants to think that a tumor was doing this to me?   I had the magic of the fake out – just when you started worrying about me, I was able to flip the script by playing with Alanis, or picking up one of the several Christmas toys Santa Paws brought for us.  I didn’t eat that day?  I figured out quickly that it put you both in panic mode, and that meals must be eaten, even on those days where my body didn’t want to work to digest things I put in my body.

I took full advantage of having the stairs back, as I went up them to jump on the bed to sleep with my mommy.   I needed that last night by my mommy’s side.  That jump on the bed was pure adrenaline – I shouldn’t have been able to do that, but I had to.  I needed to feel the warmth of that bed while laying with my mommy.     Did I cry in pain that night?  Of course not.   I was not going to allow her to worry about me on this special night.  I was going to sleep peacefully and allow myself to enjoy these moments while I still had them.

I thought my game was up when you decided to take me to the vet a few times over the last several weeks.    How can I hide my illness from a vet?    I didn’t even have to, because my symptoms as described are typically associated with manageable conditions.    I wagged my tail, refused to do any hacking, and let you examine me from head to toe.  I had a little mass on my leg?  I am an 8-year old Golden.  Those are fatty tumors!  I wasn’t moving well?  It is frigid outside, my breed is prone to arthritis, and I am 8 years old.  Easily explained!     Don’t sit there and think I am blaming my doctor for what happened to me, because I was a goner the moment it invaded my body.     I am GLAD nobody ran a test on this two months ago, because I likely wouldn’t have been able to live out the final two months I had.  As soon as this was discovered, my life was going to be over.  Prolonging that diagnosis allowed me a final Thanksgiving.  It gave me those final rides through New Jersey to see Christmas lights.  A final trip to see one of my grandmothers for a plate of meatballs.  A final Christmas night with my mommy, daddy, and Alanis.   One last trip to the dog treat bank.   Wait, you don’t know what a dog treat bank is?    It is an amazing concept:  Mommy and daddy drive up to this machine that contains this cylinder.  They drop pieces of paper into the cylinder, put it back into the machine, and viola!  A magical dog treat comes back.  If your town doesn’t have one of these amazing inventions, you may as well move now.

Telling my mommy early this morning that I wasn’t feeling well was hard.  I was restless, refusing to go to sleep.   I was trying to get myself to fall asleep so that nobody would worry, but it became too unbearable.  I guess cancer can bring you to the point where there is no return.  Who knew?  I certainly didn’t.  I had no choice but to start whimpering.  Softly, mind you, because crying too loudly would set off a panic that I certainly didn’t want to hear.   I am too sensitive to that kind of thing.   Thunder makes me run for the hills, and the sound of a fly buzzing in the house puts me in complete panic (thankfully, Alanis eats them for me.   That little brat is good for a few things.)

When my mommy and daddy first visited me on my litter mates back in 2009, I knew right away that I wanted to be mommy’s dog (I probably could have done without daddy, but I guess it was a package deal).  The moment I was put in her lap, I fell asleep.   I was the runt of my litter, and that came to pass through my adult years, as I was a very small Golden Retriever for a male (my weight rarely went above 55 pounds).   My parents were thrilled when they got that phone call from the breeder, telling them that I was matched up with them.   They may have been thrilled, but I was ecstatic when my dog mommy (“Summer”) told me the news.   She gave me a nice, big sloppy kiss when my family picked me up to take me home.    On my upcoming final ride to the vet, I think I will make this full circle – I will put my head on my mommy’s lap as daddy drives us there (editorial note:  That is exactly what he did.  He was so peaceful in that back seat, as if he knew what was coming and was not going to fight against it)

My favorite meal isn’t a $50 bag of the best kibble my parents can afford, and my favorite toy isn’t some $20 green thing with 8 legs that my parents called a “turtle”. (That was Josh’s favorite toy, but my big mentor had expensive taste….)    All I need is a rolled up piece of fried beef you called a “meatball” and a little, round yellow thing you called a “tennis ball”.    Give me those two things, a leash to walk on,  and some water (which I refuse to drink unless it is FRESH! I am a quirky little thing), and my life is perfect.   My mommy and daddy will keep telling me that I deserve to be spoiled, but I don’t look at life through that lens.   Want to spoil me?  Spend more hours of your life with me than you do without me.   That is the ultimate spoil, and I had that for my entire lifetime, which I am grateful for.  I was never alone – on those rare occasions that my parents left me at home, I had dogs here with me.    Talk about a charmed kind of life, no?

My life was full of joy and anxious moments.  I had two seizures in my lifetime, both occurring during the Final Jeopardy theme song.  You think that is a silly coincidence?   After the second seizure, my parents put Final Jeopardy on mute…and I never had another seizure.  My mommy accidentally forgot to mute it one night, and I started making strange noises in my sleep.   You can take me in for expensive tests to see why I am seizing, or you can just cut that damn Alex Trebek out of my life.   Thankfully,  I didn’t have to go under a microscope, and they didn’t have to cut out watching Jeopardy.  Just as long as they kept that damn tune on mute.

One time, I was walking across the boardwalk to the beach, when a man with a big, scary bag walked by me.  I got so freaked out that I slipped my collar and fell to the sand below.   Thud!    That may not have been a fun little adventure for my parents, but I found it to be funny.  I brushed myself off, ran to some steps, and worked my way back up to the boardwalk to continue my adventure.

My biggest mission in my life that everyone says was too short but I think has been more than long enough was helping my mommy heal from her serious, multi-year illness that invaded her body.   It was my goal in life to make sure she felt better before I had to go, and I fulfilled that dream.   How in tune was I with my mommy?   Daddy didn’t even have to ask mommy how she was feeling every day – he could tell just by MY actions.    I would never leave her side.   I did everything I could to put a smile on her face even when she thought there was no reason to smile.   I think to myself now that I was put on this earth to help somebody get through their darkest hour, and that is exactly what I did.   My bond with my mommy was unbreakable.  I went everywhere with her, and she went everywhere with me.

When Josh wrote his final blog post back in February, I had no idea I was going to be writing my own before 2017 came to a close.  I was so sad that day, and for many days that followed, you could find me laying down next to the last “cone of shame” that Josh wore in his lifetime.   Josh may run away at first when he sees me walking across that bridge, but don’t worry, big buddy.  I am not coming to torment you….well, maybe for a few minutes for old time’s sake.

When Alanis first came into my life, I wasn’t all that fond of her.  I may have even growled at her when we first met at a dog park.  Oops!  Sorry, girl – but you came to understand that my nature was to not trust a new dog at first sight.   If a dog came charging at us during a walk, I put myself in front of you, making sure the dog didn’t get near you.  I didn’t know if the dog was friendly or unfriendly, but I never took that chance.   To get to you, he would need to get through me.   Alanis is attached to my hip, and I know she will be devastated to lose her playmate and partner in crime (though she commits all the crimes in this partnership!)   Don’t be sad for too long, my friend – life is too short, and I don’t want you to have sadness.   Take out your toys and play.  Go on your walks, even if you don’t enjoy them quite as much as I do (no dog can possibly enjoy them more than me).  If you want to honor me, do so by mentoring the next dog that walks through these doors.  That was going to be my job, but things can change.  I would do my best to hang on longer if I thought you weren’t up for it.  You are.

My grandmothers always made sure they had treats or meatballs ready when I arrived, even though they didn’t have dogs of their own.  I thank you for all the hospitality you provided, and for allowing me in your homes.  I understand not everyone allows dogs into their homes (losers), so I am happy that my extended family was OK with that.

My daddy played with me, from fetching the ball to wrestling on the bed to a good, old-fashioned game of hide-and-seek.  I figured out all his hiding places, so the game eventually became “Hide, and I will run right to you in five seconds”, but it was still a fun activity.    I found out early on that Josh was the rare Golden who didn’t care much for tennis balls.  I made up for that in spades and enjoyed all the games we would play.  I loved my time in obedience school, even if you occasionally made me sit a bit too long just for a stupid little piece of string cheese.   Why was I so eager to please my owners?  This man deserved at least one pee on his head.

My mommy gave me more love than any dog can ask for.  She would cuddle with me, she would pet me, she would feed me.  She made sure I always had my share of yummy treats, and that I would get to go on as many adventures in the car as humanly possible.  One of my favorite passions was going to the beach, and I enjoyed all of my days as a beach bum dog.    The bond we had was a bond that most owners only wish they can have with their dogs.   I certainly hate to leave you without that constant companion by your side, but my physical presence is no longer needed.  I have stamped myself in your heart and soul, and because of that, I can leave without needing to worry about whether you will be OK.

I am feeling a bit sicker now, and my Daddy wants to take me on this walk.  Will you shut up, already?  You asked me to type this, and now you are asking me to wrap it up.  I can’t please this man – maybe I can do something to make him fall on this walk to give me one last laugh (trust me, it doesn’t take much).    I feel right now as I have been hit over the head with a bunch of bricks, but I don’t let that get me down – I will instead build a house with them.   Yes, I know that something is going on that will put this chapter of my life to a close.  This is not a final chapter, however, as I am always somewhere.  You may not see my smiling face or my wagging tail physically, but you know it is there.  Forever.

I didn’t live my life with a clock attached to it.  I never woke up in the morning, wondering if I was going to be hit by a car or by an incurable disease.  No two days are connected in my life – every time I wake up, it is time for something new.  A new adventure, a new dog food, a new treat, a new toy.  A walk through a new neighborhood, a ride through a new town.

I leave you now in peace, as I know my paws are soon going to walk away from the sidewalks and towards a bridge to much happiness.     I thank you all, and love you all.  My sweet, precious presence will only be stronger when it enters your thoughts and your hearts.

Love and Peace,

Jeter

Me:   There are not enough words to describe Jeter.  He was everything one could ever want in a dog x 1,000,000.  He was delightfully quirky, very loving, and was playing and goofing around all the way up to his final hours.   We are heartbroken, but also know that we made this decision before Jeter could suffer for even a minute, and that will always make us feel as if we made his life complete from start to finish.   While I stayed in the room while he was being put down (I needed that), Colleen was able to last see him as a dog with a wagging tail, as she left before the procedure.   Who wouldn’t want their last image of their companion to be that of happiness and joy?
“Jeter” didn’t really get into it, but I will:  He had hemangiosarcoma , one of the most aggressive forms of cancer found in canines.   Golden Retrievers are, unfortunately, prone to this disease, and it rarely (if ever) presents itself at a time when your dog may have a slight chance to survive it for a few months.  There is no cure, and no way to prevent it.  Jeter had impeccable bloodlines; he was a part of a one-time litter between a very healthy female and a male that was chosen by the breeder after a very careful search.   While this will likely reduce the risk of your dog dying from this horrible disease, always remember that dogs are like humans, and sometimes cancer strikes those who have a family history that suggests it shouldn’t.
Are there signs your dog may have this cancer?  Yes.  The problem is that those signs present themselves in ways that other diseases or conditions can present themselves.  Dogs with cancer will sometimes “limp”, but when you have an 8-year old Golden Retriever, limping usually means arthritis.   Dogs with cancer will sleep more, but when your dog is eight years old, you are already expecting the dog to begin sleeping more.   While Jeter started “hacking” recently, hacking doesn’t mean your dog automatically has cancer.  There are many diseases and conditions that can cause your dog to hack, and many dogs who are hacking (or coughing) may stop doing it after a short period of time.    My wife was more in tune with Jeter’s condition, and did have a bad feeling that something may be wrong.  I tend to worry a lot about our dogs, yet I did not share that same feeling – I was convinced it was arthritis and his advancing age.
When it comes to this condition, you can’t play a “What if?” game.   For one, early symptoms your dog MIGHT show will not lead you to think that you should have an ultrasound done to check for tumors.   While Jeter showed subtle signs, many dogs won’t.  This cancer is known to cause dogs to suddenly collapse and pass while exerting themselves.  That last game of fetch I played with Jeter could have easily caused such a thing to happen.  There is no blame game to play here – if your dog has it, you aren’t going to be able to stop it.
Your vet will explain your options if the disease is caught early (early means that it has not yet spread into the lungs).  In those cases, surgery may be possible, which could give your dog extra months to live.  That is another dreaded part of this disease:  While we got “lucky” in that the decision was made for us based on what was seen in an X-Ray, in some cases, the decision comes down to a surgery that MIGHT give your dog some extra time or ending the dog’s life because quality of life is not guaranteed.  I brought home a Chinese supplement to aid his internal bleeding, and feel it was worth it, because it may have helped him give us those last few hours.  We’ll never know that, but we do know that it didn’t hurt him.
While the fear of cancer could keep one away from this breed, I would advise against that being a determining factor.  They are great dogs who happen to have this black cloud hanging over them.  While most Golden Retrievers will actually die from some form of cancer, keep this in mind:  Your dog is not a statistic, and most cancers will not present until later on in life.  Josh died of natural causes at 12.5 years.   If he would have died of cancer at 12.5 years, he still would have lived a comfortable, long dog life.
If you have another dog in your house, he or she may take some time to get over the loss of a companion.   Let them heal at their own pace.    They will “get over it”, but if your dogs were bonded (like Jeter and Alanis were), it may be a process.  They have to get through their own special set of emotions.  Alanis is sleeping in Jeter’s old spots, keeps going over to the area where Jeter’s leash hangs, and didn’t take a piece of string cheese I gave her last night.    She is better today, but still isn’t at her normal levels of insanity.
Thanks to everyone who has sent on their well wishes – we appreciate them.  The blog will go on, even if only one dog is here at the moment.  She will talk about her experiences dealing with Jeter in due time.  Thanks for reading, and I hope your 2018 has started off well.