Last Wednesday morning I tidied my small study at home where I work. The cleaner was coming but I did not want her to go in there.
I vacuumed the carpet and laid out a selection of beds around my desk for my dog, Wolfy, to choose from. We knew at that stage that Wolfy was about to die. I hoped I would have a few more days, at least one more night.
But my boyfriend said to keep him alive was cruel. That morning he had gone to work and left the decision with me. Now I was preparing a room for my beloved good boy to spend his last day alive. The vet would come at 7pm; Wolfy could be given a sedative then a massive dose of anaesthetic that would kill him in seconds.
We knew at that stage that Wolfy was about to die. I hoped I would have a few more days, at least one more night
He lay beside me at my desk on a huge pile of soft, slightly smelly bedding. An ailing gentleman, his breathing was a little wheezy and he’d lost a few kilograms in weight. His ribcage under his scruffy fur was like a xylophone. There was a bandage around his left elbow where a tumour was removed just after Christmas.
Other people loved telling me how he looked old, tired, and asking questions about his age, but to me he stayed the same he had ever been, my soulmate and a beautiful boy.
I can only guess Wolfy’s age, he was probably around 12 — I will never know as I was his third owner. He was found in 2014 near Manchester, an unchipped stray. His second owners gave him up. Then I found him. What luck!
Wolfy started slowing down the year before lockdown. He would pant and cough. I kept thinking he was hot, or tired or stressed.
I took him to the vet. Actually, he was struggling to clear fluid from his lungs. Turned out to be the symptoms of congestive heart failure. The vet gave him two to three years to live. That was two years ago.
Modern veterinary medicine worked wonders, but still I longed for him to be ‘old Wolfy’. To bound up the stairs and jump on the bed, or zoom from the spot he was sniffing to come back to me.
He still came and put his head between my knees when I sat down. He never really lost the ability to hop onto a nice soft sofa. But his spirit was dampened by illness. I wanted him to sneak some food from the table — to be naughty.
It was very difficult for me when people said Wolfy was ‘getting on’, that he was a ‘senior dog’, in the ‘winter of his life’, ‘an old boy’ — whatever euphemism you want to use. As I saw it, all those phrases described was the terrible truth that my dog would die soon.
I tried to accept that Wolfy was going to die but his presence has been a constant in the past seven years. We’ve done everything together. I took him to meetings, we went on holidays, he’d curl up next to my table when I went to review restaurants (or on the seat if allowed) and patiently, politely, wait for a taste of my food.
When he ran away from a dogsitter, I wrote a bestselling book about him called Lost Dog. It’s subtitle: A love story. A movie script has been written, a hot Hollywood producer has optioned it. Perhaps Wolfy and my love will be a film one day.
He still came and put his head between my knees when I sat down. He never really lost the ability to hop onto a nice soft sofa
And now he won’t be there — he won’t lie on the steps into the kitchen watching me cook, he won’t nuzzle biscuits from my hand, he won’t look up from the sofa when I open the door. On Wednesday last week, I watched as his stiff but still so handsome and regal haunches swayed down the alley behind my flat. He still had his dignity. I watched and thought: This is the last time I will see this.
I felt so sick. Why didn’t I know or think about this period in a dog’s life? Why wasn’t I prepared for it?
I understand now why people say it puts them off getting another dog — almost inevitably you will outlive them and the price we pay for loving and being loved back by a dog is the responsibility to give them a good death at the end.
What a responsibility that is.
I was grieving already, fearful, panicked and sick with it.
It first looked like he might die a few months ago. One night I lay next to him, massaging his paw, exhausted and sad and nodding off in between the half-hourly chimes of my father’s grandfather clock. He weathered it, he rallied, our wonderful vet removed the tumour. We knew these were the last weeks and months, but secretly I hoped for a miracle — another year.
After the operation I had to carry him up and down stairs, but he was still alive, still my Woofles. He still pootled about, snoozed peacefully, loved to snuggle and still had the energy — even on that last morning when we woke up — to shift himself higher up the bed, closer to my pillow.
Even before Christmas, people had started muttering about putting him down. There was a comment about his smell, little digs and tiresome remarks.
‘No one loves a smelly old dog except its owner, who only loves it more,’ said Wolfy’s vet. His reassurances were balm. He told me to ignore all the amateur ‘experts’, but they bothered me a great deal. They made me angry.
This death wish on Wolfy was odd. I guess it’s a bit like when you know people are tutting behind your back about your children’s manners, except what they were tutting about was the fact you hadn’t sentenced your dog to death.
What do older dogs want from life? It is not a question I considered in January 2015 when I collected a lurcher of indeterminate age from Thurrock Services on the M25. Back then, I thought dog ownership was all about lovely long walks and not much else. Back then, he could bound up the stairs to our West London first-floor flat in seconds.
‘Anyone can have a dog in a city,’ I used to shout. Now, I’m more circumspect. The logistics of dogs in old age — failing eyesight, a weaker bladder, arthritic back legs — are not something anyone advises you on when buying one.
Dog behaviourist Louise Glazebrook says this question of caring for an old dog is a serious one. ‘Few of those who took on a new lockdown dog — often a puppy — are likely to have considered the senior years. Yet this, undeniably, is the time it can be hardest to own a dog.
Just as we have to think about our own future,’ says Louise. ‘So the same is true with dogs.’
In the final months, I found myself driving to a park Wolfy loves. It’s a place we’d once have walked to, but all he could do by then were micro walks of about 50 metres to a nice spot where he could do some sniffing and sit and look at the sun, or enjoy the cool rain — he was always a winter dog — then turn round to go home.
Meanwhile, my other dog — a streak of energy at three years old — has had to learn to walk herself. She zoomed around us in wide circles, thankfully smart enough to fit in to this new situation.
As Wolfy got more deaf, so he didn’t like surprises. When my young nephew leapt on him while he slept, my old boy turned round and bit his hand. My nephew, seven at the time, was mature enough to say: ‘That was my fault. I frightened him. I’m sorry Wolfy.’
But really it was my fault. I should have had my old friend’s back and protected him.
His once-keen senses were blunted, the world was starting to surprise him.
Louise says: ‘If you have children in the home or visiting, you need to be aware of deafness, blindness, arthritis and many other things that might make your dog more threatened by their environment.
‘These incredible creatures have spent their lives by our side, it’s the least we can do, to consider them now and accommodate their twilight years.’
Wolfy’s vet is Andrew Carmichael, a veteran who has seen 50 years of general practice as well as time as an anaesthetist at the largest veterinary hospital in the world in New York. He’s seen it all, but he is not cynical.
I kept waiting for him to say ‘it’s time’, but his mantra has always been: ‘If it can eat, drink, stand, walk, if it’s peeing and pooing OK, and sniffing and showing some interest in its environment, then that life is viable.’
There were moments when I thought it was the end, but actually antibiotics and some brilliant pain-blockers restored Wolfy to a slow but good life.
My advice is to try to get your old dog in to see the same vet as much as possible so that the animal’s decline can be properly observed and tracked.
As Andrew says: ‘What is often mistaken for simple old age by owners is in fact a treatable disease that is causing them pain.’
I’d expected Andrew to be more brisk about the death bit, given he has lived through times when animals weren’t catered for by the incredible life extending magic of modern medicine.
But he admits he struggles to euthanise his own pets. ‘I can’t even put my cockerels to sleep.’
So how do you tell when it’s time? What people always say in the park doggy community is: ‘You will know. He will “tell” you.’ But I’ll be honest, I never had that. I don’t think he ever did “tell” me.
The experts are more nuanced in their life-and-death decision-making. Louise ‘read everything, researched everything, but still found it hard to pinpoint the right time’ to have her dear old bulldog, Cookie, put to sleep.
‘People kept saying, you will just know. Which actually isn’t helpful at all.’
The day I decided Wolfy should die was sickening. But giving your dog a good death is your last great duty. One crucial question Louise says every owner must ask is: ‘[Are you] keeping them alive for you?’
As the end grew nearer, Wolfy clearly wanted to lie outside under the open skies as much as possible. The night before he died, in fact, he lay down by my boyfriend on the bed-time wee walk and didn’t get up.
Was this him telling us? My boyfriend thought so. ‘He wants to die,’ he said.
As the end grew nearer, Wolfy clearly wanted to lie outside under the open skies as much as possible. The night before he died, in fact, he lay down by my boyfriend on the bed-time wee walk and didn’t get up
I walked closer and lay next to him on the grass for a while. I stood up and asked him to come and I saw the struggle and the devotion as he rose on his wobbly legs and came towards me.
That dog kept going for me because he didn’t want to leave me nor me him.
It’s excruciating. I still couldn’t tell what he wanted.
Sometimes I carried him up to sleep with us, these were such sweet nights snuggled into his scented soft back fur.
My God, I loved that dog. I think he is the love of my life.
It was like a slow car crash knowing what was coming as the health issues built up, and I started to unravel. I left parking tickets unpaid, forgot to pay the congestion charge. By the time I eventually paid the bill, hounded by bailiffs, it was more than £500.
I had a big work project that I needed to concentrate on, and just doing that and caring for the dogs was all I could handle.
I want to raise my arm and flex my biceps and say I am a strong woman but, in all honesty, I fell apart.
I could not cope with the thought of life without Wolfy.
I paid the animal rescue charity where I found Wolfy £160 for him.
In return for that money a universe of love and happiness was opened up to me. What a gift dogs are! When Andrew slipped the needle in and I felt Wolfy’s heart stop beating inside his soft, warm body I could have laid down and died with him happily.
Of course this immediate crushing feeling of loss will pass and in the grand scheme of tragedies, especially now, I know an old beloved dog dying doesn’t figure.
Of course this immediate crushing feeling of loss will pass and in the grand scheme of tragedies, especially now, I know an old beloved dog dying doesn’t figure
But if you have an old dog, and are perhaps a bit in denial about the stage of life they are at, I just want to say that honour the slowing down, don’t fight it. Let them dictate the pace. I once longed for old bouncy Wolfy, but now I’d have any versions of him.
I found the small patch of fur that had come off when Andrew shaved his arm for the anaesthetic to go into his vein. Stooped down, holding it in my fingers, I ran it across my top lip.
Unlike most human relationships, a dog and its owner remain in tactile intimacy their whole lives together.
It was unbearable as I stroked and kissed his beautiful form on his death bed, sinking my fingers into his silky fur knowing it was the last time I would feel it.
I had always imagined that Wolfy would die eating sausages, but actually, when the time came he had lost interest in food.
One thing he never lost interest in was a tummy rub. Still, in his last few hours, he had a little strength to lift his front leg so I could get good access to the soft fur on his chest.
That final day, we lay next to each other in his favourite stinky bed. We looked at each other unblinking for hours.
Saying I love you and thank you doesn’t mean much to a dog, though the vet said the sound of my voice would mean something as he drifted off to eternal sleep.
So the last words I kept saying were: ‘You’re a good boy. Such a good boy, Wolfy. Good boy.’
That dog just brought so much good into my life. Even if my heart feels like it is breaking, it remains full of undying love for my beloved Wolfy.