By Bill Stork, DVM
“This must be the worst part of your job”, or “I could never be a vet”, owners will say on the dreaded day. There is truth. Not once have I jumped out of bed, and thought, “Boy, I can’t wait to go out and put some dogs to sleep today." Equally true is, in the hands of conscientious owners and loving families, euthanasia is a gift. Whether 13 years or six months, animals who have lived every good day possible, do not have to suffer or be in pain until they naturally pass.
It’s never easy. And after 24 years, there are still tears.
Jenny and Jon Dotzler are the family you hope to have on the other side of the fence. They lived at the mouth of the cul-de-sac, across from the Catholic Church, with the requisite 2 kids, and Mikey.
Just as Havoc is the Miniature Pinscher who doesn’t bite, and Brady is the Labrador who won’t get wet, Mikey was the Beagle who wouldn’t bark, bray, or run the other way.
[Mikey, the world's sweetest beagle]
Jenny and Jon are the work-all-week, Saturday morning clients we look forward to. Mikey would stand in the corner of the exam room at the end of a slack leash. At the sound of his name, he’d drum his tail a half-dozen quarter notes between the wall and the hollow-core pocket door. We’d ask about soccer and little league, while padding the exam table like The Princess and the Pea. Mikey knew idle talk. The closer it came to “show time”, his tail would fall silent. His head would drop 15 degrees, eyes looking up so all you saw was his sclera, to the extent I apologized to him for every needle.
Mikey had his first seizure when he was four years old. We often don’t know the cause of seizure disorders or epilepsy. It can onset at any age and can present as subtly as profuse hyper-salivation, or momentary loss of awareness (much like conversation with a teenager). Mikey had grand mal seizures, and sometimes in clusters that required late-night runs to the Veterinary Emergency Service. He became unconscious, paddled, and lost control of his bowels and bladder.
Mikey’s favorite days were curled up in a chair, sleeping face to the sun, or warming someone’s lap. Jenny couldn’t feel her feet for an hour after Mikey slept on her legs from Johnson Creek, Wisconsin, to Baltimore, Maryland.
The only drama Mikey ever brought into the Dotzlers' life was completely beyond his control. Unless you consider his love for the peace and splendor of the early morning and his insistence that he share that time with Jenny… and food. Daylight savings, or Central Standard Time, made not a lick of difference to Mikey. There was to be a cup of kibble and his small pharmacy of seizure meds in the bottom of his bowl by 5:00am, or Jenny was taking paws to the face until the situation was rectified.
Then came Chesney.
If Mikey was a Basset Hound on valium disguised as a Beagle, Chesney is an ADHD Tasmanian Devil on Red Bull… in a Beagle’s body. But he needed a home, and the Dotzlers are both kind and optimistic.
In our first visit, searching for reassurance, I pulled up one of my “pearls”. (Claire calls them psychobabble B.S. She’s helped me recognize when she can do without them.) "You know, one of the inexplicable and beautiful principles of the universe is that animals invariably evolve in the likeness of their families,” I said, trying hard to convince myself and the Dotzlers. All the while thinking, “Man, I don’t even know if Mittsy can help this one.”
I have since inserted the Chesney amendment, “Animals often evolve in the likeness of their families.”
They executed our best advice and took him on leash walks, sometimes from Johnson Creek to Oconomowoc and back. Somehow they avoided the temptation to return with an empty leash. Not a question would be asked or tear shed if Jon had just shrugged, and pointed to the vacated collar, “He was there last time I looked.”
They took classes and went to dog parks. They gave him Kongs and puzzles to occupy his mind, and Prozac to ease his anxiety. There was hope that by association Chesney might assume some fragment of Mikey’s mojo. Instead, he was the little brother who never slept, farted on your head, and punched you as soon as mom turned around. He would attack Mikey to the point of drawing blood, for intersecting his path as he followed his nose around the back yard as he patrolled the perimeter of the fence-line. Somewhat understandably, he was especially ruthless when Mikey was still fighting through the fog, after a seizure.
He’d rip toys from Mikey’s mouth like the bully on the playground, but when the object of contention was edible, the table turned. Not that the Dotzlers would take any pleasure at his expense, but after dinner when a plate with some residual gravy and a bit of chicken skin was placed on the mat between the two dogs, the kindly Dr. Jekyll would bust out his inner Edward Hyde. Mikey would pin his ears, bare his teeth and back Chesney into Dodge County.
Jenny and Jon are as committed as they are tenacious. At times it seemed they weren’t going to sit around and wait for a tumor for “til death do us part” for Chesney. “Maybe if we just forgot to shut the gate one day…” before their conscience would get the best of them.
When we saw Mikey and Jenny in the evening, it usually wasn’t good.
For most dogs, once we are able to establish therapeutic levels of phenobarbital, we see fewer, shorter and less-involved seizures. In Mikey, it seemed that susceptibility to seizure and kindness rode the same chromosome. We increased his dosages and added medications. In the face of all our best efforts, trips to the Veterinary Emergency Service, and intense prayers, the electrical instability in his cute little head eroded his mojo to the point there was no “Mikey” left.
On the day Jon carried him into the exam room, he stood on the floor without expression. He didn’t look up, or down. His head tilted softly to the right and he stared at the baseboard. When we spoke his name, his tail hung flaccid.
The Mikey we all loved, had left the building.
I can hold it together when the Carhartt and callused construction guys cry. Still I tried not to look at Jon.
When kids say goodbye to friends they’ve never known life without, it takes me to the whisper grass under the cedar trees when Cooder could no longer stand. Paige lay on my back with her arms wrapped ‘round my neck. With their cheeks pressed together, 12-year-old Jack Dotzler wrapped his arm around Mikey’s chest. I looked through the streaks in the barn dust on my bifocals to find his vein. When I saw the flash, I released the tourniquet and waited between the heaves of the young boy’s sobs to push the plunger.
Mikey’s chest rose, then his lips fluttered in a final “huff”. The tears flowed freely as each of the Dotzlers bent to kiss the “M” on his brow, and tell him, “I love you, Mikey”.
The process of mourning is different for every family. We wait for the right one, at the right time. Last Friday, Jenny was on the schedule with a three-year-old “Terrier Cross”.
For those of us who ponder the details of Life After Death… I present Pepper.
The Bible says, “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.” Sleep with one eye open; your comeuppance has arrived by way of San Antonio, Texas.
Pepper is 21.7lbs, in a 12-pound package; all-the-better for ballistics. She’s largely white, with a black patch over her eye, easily distinguished from her prey (Chesney). She’d been with the Dotzlers for a year, but I hadn’t the pleasure to meet her just yet.
I see Jack Russell Terrorist on the schedule and my first thought is, “I hope there’s a cow with a breached calf somewhere in the far reaches of Jefferson County, so I can turf him to Dr. Clark’s side.” My next thoughts, “I’d hate to miss the Dotzlers”, and “God would never burden them with Chesney Version 2.0.” I’m glad I didn’t try and fake an illness. After meeting Pepper, I’m re-working my tournament brackets. In 128 chances it’s never happened, but if a JRT can be as sweet as Pepper, a Number 16 seed can beat a number 1. I’m picking UW-Whitewater to beat Kansas in the first game of the South Regional of the NCAA basketball tournament.
Tell Pepper you need blood for a CBC and a Chemistry panel and she’ll stand like a figurine with her little chin in the air, exposing her jugular vein. Not unusual for a JRT, but for most it’s usually a ploy, in order to bring the phlebotomist’s nose close enough to rip off. Show her the nail trimmers and she’ll present her right paw, flexed at the wrist like Queen Elizabeth meeting Sir Paul. Pull on a glove and lube the index finger, and you’ll find even Pepper has her limits.
To every respirating, ambulating mammal on planet earth, Pepper is cute as the Pillsbury Dough Boy.
Two-hundred years of breeding fearless little dogs with endless energy in order to bolt badgers, foxes, and groundhogs from their den has been compressed and focused. Pepper wants to play, 24 hours a day. She’ll pounce on Chesney, bite his neck and push off, like Emmitt Smith losing a linebacker. Once she’s worn him down, Pepper will sit on a chair, staring at Chesney, daring him to fall asleep. When the first eye falls shut, she doesn’t so much as shudder. At precisely the moment the lids touch, she’ll go airborne, and latch on just below the collar to ride Chesney around the house or yard. Just when Chesney can’t get any madder, she’ll disengage.
“You can’t hit what you can’t see.” - Walter Johnson
He’ll try and lunge, bite or attack, and all Chesney comes up with is a mouth full of where she hasn’t been since yesterday. The poster boy for learned helplessness, he can often be found curled in his bed… if Jenny takes Pepper for a walk.
Chesney will soft-walk toward a rawhide, picking the placement of every paw like a cat stalking a starling. He’ll stop short, look all ways, and rotate his Beagle ears. Without so much of an atom of odor wafting through his olfactory to suggest she’s in the area code, he’s all but convinced Pepper has been re-homed. Nevertheless he’s been programmed not to risk another step. With back feet nearly off the ground he’ll purse his lips to purchase the prize. From nowhere comes a white flash. Left is a blank tile without a trace the treat was ever there.
Under most circumstances, Jenny and Jon would be on the behavioral hot-line to Mittsy for an emergency consult… stat.
But, unlike many modern-day incarnations of the Jack Russell Terrorist, Pepper is true to the intentions of Reverend John: "An important attribute in this dog was a tempered aggressiveness that would provide the necessary drive to pursue and bolt the fox (or Chesney), without resulting in physical harm to the quarry and effectively ending the chase, which was considered unsporting."