She's just a dog.
That's what I tried telling myself as my wife, my son and I took our dog, Chloe, on her final trip to the vet. In fact, I'd been repeating it to myself as something of a mantra as I watched Chloe decline over the past few months.
She had recently turned 16, which, according to the little conversion chart in the vet's exam room, put her in her mid-80s in human years. Jack Russell terriers never really grow up; their maturity level is frozen at about age 3. They are the perpetual adolescents of the dog world.
But Chloe had slowed down considerably. She had trouble standing and walking and could barely see where she was going. She would occasionally show some of the old spunk, snapping at the cat or rousing herself to confront another dog who had wandered into her territory. But there wasn't much spirit left in her.
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This was a dog who, in her prime, caught a bird as it attempted liftoff. That accomplishment imprinted in Chloe's brain the notion that she could catch birds whenever she felt like it, although she never was able to repeat the feat again.
This was a dog who once climbed onto the kitchen table and ate an entire plate of boiled shrimp while we were out of the room. This was a dog we found inside the Have-a-Heart trap we had set for whatever creature we thought we heard rustling around in the closet. Chloe's muzzle was smeared with the peanut butter we had used to bait the trap.
Mostly, though, she was a basic dog. She slept nearly all the time. She begged for scraps from the table, usually successfully, and was always near if I was carving meat or frying bacon, ready to pounce on what might "accidentally" fall to the floor.
She lounged all over the house, on beds, couches, chairs, even in her own bed. As alpha-pet, she also had first rights to the heat vents on the floor in the winter. Everywhere she went, she trailed tiny white hairs that impregnated themselves in upholstry, clothes and whatever else she might rub up against.
In middle age, she got plump. The vet told us to put her on a diet, which we did only half-heartedly. But even overweight, she never lost her energy; she was always game until near the end.
Dog owners put up with a lot -- the hair, the expense, the smell, the illnesses, the barking, the early wake-up routine, the constant in and out, the digging, the wandering off, the fights with neighbor's pets, the stained rugs. People must have looked at our dog and asked themselves, what's the attraction? I know, because I've done it with other people's dogs.
I am not one to regard my pets as children. I don't anthropomorphize them or give them much more credit for insight than I suspect they really have. And sometimes they drive me crazy.
So, what is that mysterious attraction? I suppose, in part, it's their always being there, always glad to see you, constant, needy but also generous of spirit, antic and often entertaining. And when they're gone, something goes missing in your life.
Losing a pet is one of the most universal experiences humans have. With a dog's normal lifespan of 15 to 20 years, a person could lose four dogs or more to old age alone, not to mention the ones that get hit by cars or fall prey to some other fatal event. When we get a dog, it is a near certainty we will end up saying goodbye to it someday, so it shouldn't come as a surprise.
After we gave the go-ahead, Chloe's death was fast and peaceful. The vet, who performed expertly and compassionately, was consoling. Still, it was painful. We should have been prepared for this moment, but there is no way, really, to steel yourself for it.
After reviewing the cost of having Chloe cremated, with ashes placed in a nice wooden box, we opted to take her home and bury her in the back yard. The vet put the body in a plastic bag inside a small cardboard box, very tidy.
My son and I dug a deep hole under the fig tree, took Chloe out of the bag, placed her in the grave and said our goodbyes.
For the record: She never really was just a dog.