Wednesday, October 30, 2013

On Dogs and Men

The day after our son was born, I took the opportunity to go home to get some stuff for my wife back at the hospital, to rest a little, and to have a chat with my dogs.

"I want you to know," I said, "that nothing is going to change." I pat Buddy's head. He seemed to know something was happening. I continued: "Really. Nothing is going to change. We're going to love you when we bring Liam here just as much we love the two of you now, and just as much as we always have. Everything is going to be exactly the same!"

And I didn't just say that. I actually thought I was telling the truth. It was important for me to be truthful with my dogs, as funny as it sounds now, so I said what I said, not realizing everything was about to change.

What is love? Is it just about feeling needed? Our dogs had been the focus of our lives for years, so what happened there, the moment our baby came home? Did everything change because we had a baby who needed us to survive, and dogs that just needed a cup of food and an opened door to the fenced-in yard?

I know they needed more than that. They needed us. But after we brought our son home, we weren't there for them anymore.

Buddy and Gingee were Pit Bulls who were found tied to trees in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. They were fighting dogs that weren't needed anymore. Buddy was big and muscular. He had a lot of bruises on his head, which made us believe he was the bait that dog fighters were using to train other dogs. He was an amazing and beautiful dog, but we could never trust him 100%, and we never took our chances.

Gingee was smaller. She was probably a pure Pit Bull as well, but since she was a little smaller than average, the dog fighters got rid of her too, a year later. And that's how Buddy and Gingee became siblings.

We had a roommate when we lived in Brooklyn, and the dogs were his, but after his drug habit got out of control, we took over. I told him he would never see his dogs again, and he said, "Oh, really?"

He never saw the dogs again.

Buddy died nearly 3 years ago. He was 17, and for a year, he didn't go down the stairs to the backyard, and barely did anything other than lie on his bed. It was hard to see this giant, muscular beast getting old. Even though he no longer slept in our bed, even though he wasn't allowed to come to our room or to the kids' rooms anymore, and even though everything changed since we had kids, he was family, and when a family member is old, you just deal with it. You clean after him. You pat his head when you come home, and you watch his happy tongue come out for a second, before he goes back to sleep.

But eventually we made the call. He hated going to the vet, so we decided to get a vet to come to us. The name of the service is Peaceful Passage, and it's basically a small Orthodox Jewish woman, coming to the house, giving your dog one shot to make it sleepy, and another one a few minutes later, when it's asleep. And it's done.

We were patting Buddy while our kids were asleep. His life was ending. For a second there he looked like a puppy.

"He passed," the woman said.

That was nearly 3 years ago. On Sunday, I went to the website again and filled out a form. In the "Reason" section, I wrote that Gingee was 18 years old. She was blind and deaf. She could barely go down the stairs. She had a giant tumor on her back, and another one on her leg. It was her time.

Three years earlier, when the vet came for Buddy, we asked her if she had ever been called into a house to give a lethal shot to a healthy dog that didn't need it.

"The dogs are old and sick in 99% of the cases," she said.

But of course, now that it was Gingee's turn, we felt like we were the 1% who were killing their dogs because they wanted to be more comfortable.

And why not have a dog-hair-free house? Why not live in a house without dog pee in the kitchen? Why not be able to take a vacation without thinking about dog-related logistics? Did our betrayal come to this? Our betrayal that started the day we brought our son home, which relegated our dogs to a closed section of the house--did it now come to its logical conclusion: murder?

We didn't know until the very end if we were making the call for us or for Gingee.

I don't think anyone can ever know for sure. We can just live with our decision.

When the vet showed up on Monday night, though, she immediately found more tumors and very little blood circulation on her legs. Basically, every step was painful. And now, this once proud dog, who was blind, deaf, barely walking, and devastated by cancer, was about to stop suffering. Her pain was almost over, and all she needed at the end of her life was us, patting her, as if nothing happened, as if we'd never left her side.

And as she was giving in to the end of her suffering, we knew we did the right thing.

"She passed."

In her last moments, when her breathing got faster, and then slower, Gingee was no longer an old and sad dog. Just like Buddy transformed into a puppy in his last moments, I could see Gingee as our Brooklyn dog, running around in circles, happily jumping at anyone and anything. And I could see us, young and happy, living our wild years with her.

On those last few minutes, she was our constant. She was our Brooklyn wild years, and she was our Silver Spring. She was there when we were partying, and she was there when we were struggling.

And she was our Baltimore years. She was there when we got back on our feet. She was there when we started a family. She was there when friends came into our lives and she was there when friends left us. She was there when Buddy died. She was there to welcome us from the hospital, and from work, and from school... At first, jumping happily, and by the end, barely opening her eyes. But she was there. Our constant. And now there's a void.

Nothing will fill that void. There will not be another dog. I can't imagine going through that again. I love dogs, and I will always defend the reputation of Pit Bulls as the most loyal and loving creatures on Earth, but I can't do this again. I can't watch dogs get old again. I can't.

I was actually scared of dogs since I was a kid, when an off-leash puppy chased me around the neighborhood. Our roommate in Brooklyn had to cage Buddy and Gingee when he was at work, because I was afraid they were going to bite me.

One day, in an attempt to do a better job training his dogs, he decided to take them for a walk individually. He took Buddy first, and since Gingee was relatively small, I said she didn't have to be caged. When they left, she was confused, since her owner and her brother weren't there, so she stood next to me and cried.

"He'll be back soon," I said. That was the first time I talked to a dog. It made sense.

She continued to cry, so eventually I started patting her head.

She kept on crying, so I improvised, and started patting her under her chin.

And then, all of a sudden, she stopped crying.

Her tongue came out.
Her eyes closed.
Her tail was wagging.
And I was in love.

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  1. This is a beautiful tribute. I'm so sorry.

  2. Great post Oren, and so true. I am glad Buddy and Ginger had so many years with you guys.

  3. Oh, my heart. I'm in tears. Sending love, and I completely understand every. single. word.

  4. I have had to put two dogs down, one for health issues (cancer and no longer eating), another had to be put down for aggression. she was randomly attacking the other dogs and I couldn't take the risk of her turning on my newborn son. We thought about trying find another home for her, but my wife and I didn't want to hear about how she ended up attacking another dog or worse a kid. We decided that we had to put her down. It was the hardest decision of our lives. It did feel like murder, and it was selfish because I didn't want to feel responsible for some poor kid getting permanently scarred.

  5. What a sweet tribute to your pups. Putting a dog down is never easy, but in these situations, it was for their best. They become part of the family and make our lives so much more full. I absolutely love Pit Bulls. I've never had one, but have no doubt would love to have one. This story had me so choked up. I'm sorry for your loss. =( ~Mimi

  6. I'm sure it was the right thing. Another person would have given it to the SPCA, so they would have killed the dog instead, so I think it's great that you did that yourself. It wasn't the dog's fault that she was aggressive, but if there was nothing to do to help her, she couldn't be helped, you know? I never trusted Buddy 100%, because of his past, but I knew that at least when I was around him he wouldn't harm anyone. I didn't trust him to be around kids if I weren't around, though.

  7. Thank you. Every time I see a Pit Bull on a walk, the owners do this dance when they sees me with the kids (holding the leash closer, and moving to the other side of the sidewalk, to the road, or to the other side of the street), because they assume we're all going to be scared, and every time I try to make them comfortable and let them know our family is in the Pit Bull Fan Club forever.

  8. This reminds me of when my best friend, Lucky, died. He was with me from age 5-18. MY brother and I were there for his passing. Even though it was hard, I am so glad I got to be there to kiss and pet him as he went.

    So sorry for your loss.

    We do the best we can for our pet family, but it is true that things change once kids come along. Now one of my cats, morbidly obese, is living on our balcony in an attempt to help her loose weight, but also because she has bathroom issues that I just don't want in my house. I feel horribly guilty though!

    Also, this reminded me so much of THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN. It's a novel told by a dog. I wouldn't read it right now, but eventually--it is something you have to pick up.

  9. Am I the only one concerned that you are afraid of watching more dogs get old and die? For someone with your type of love and understanding (especially with Pit Bulls, hug!), you should share your life with more dogs, and save THEIR lives in the way Buddy and Gingee saved YOURS. Don't waste such a gift!!!

  10. I don't know what to say, really. Sure, you're right. But I also know it's not going to happen. If we do get a dog again, it probably will be a Pit Bull, but at least for now, we're taking a break, and that break may be a year long or a lifetime long. I'm not going to feel bad about not getting dogs I don't know--I have enough guilt about the dogs I did know.

  11. Thanks. The guilt is bad, isn't it? On the one hand, sure, who wants to clean pee twice a day? On the other hand, the dogs would have happily given their lives for me, so I should have at least been happy cleaning after them... But it gets old after a while. Buddy ruined every piece of furniture we had, and Gingee peed on the same spot in the kitchen almost every day, to the point where the supporting wood in the basement is rotting.

  12. The guilt is horrible. We adopted her at 11 weeks old and have had her for 10 years. It's worse because the other cats are inside and Mao (the fat cat) and the other cats don't understand why she is out on the balcony. Jason wanted to have her euthanized because her quality of life is so bad. I insisted we clear up yet another of her UTIs and just keep her outside until she lost weight. We tried all summer by limiting her food (cats are munchers. So outside we could regulate her food while the inside cats just had their normal bowl of chow out.) Mao only lost minimal weight. So then, we bought special high protein low calorie food. Her weight gives her all these bladder problem. She can't clean her rear-end. She reeks of urine. We have to bath her, which she hates and its disgusting. She can't groom herself so I brush her weekly and wipe down her coat. A vet said she might have hypothyroidism, which is rare is cats and not treatable by meds. :( I think she sorta likes it outside because the other cats tended to beat of her because she was gross (I suspect). But she doesn't get as much love and cuddles...and she has to deal with it being colder. :(

    My cats would not give their lives for me. Of all the cats, Mao is the least affectionate and caring. The other three love me. Mao has always been indifferent. It makes alienating her easier, but I still feel horrible.

    There is a reason I never got another dog after mine passed when I was 22/23. Dogs are more like people and it is harder to say goodbye to them. There is more guilt. My dog, who I left with my mom when I went to college, used to hide behind the table and refuse to meet my eyes every time I left. WHen I had an apartment, and could have taken him, I didn't. I didn't think he'd like town living and all the stairs or the change of scenery at an older age. I remember the last time I left him. I had this feeling it was the end. He still ignored me. Always so happy when I came home. :( I don't know when I will ever be ready for another dog. I think I should have taken him with me. :(

  13. That's tough Oren. Really touching piece. I'm glad you and your wife enjoyed Gingee so much and that she saw you through so many phases of your life.
    Our older son has been asking for a dog alot lately. I am not sure if this piece makes me want a dog more or less.

  14. I hope I didn't make anyone rethink having dogs (even if after all these years, I feel like we're done. At least for the foreseeable future).

  15. This was a beautiful post, Oren. I've never even owned an animal, but that doesn't really matter, does it? This is about loving a creature, and being responsible for it, and it's about grappling with loss and guilt and memories, and the fact that things change. Really, I appreciated this.

  16. This is a wonderful blog. Not only does it explain, beautifully, the relationships between owners and pets (which non-pet owners will never understand). Positive eloquence showing the hardest part of loving a pet. I went through the same thing with my cats. Those of us who have loved and lost pets are a true community

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