Becoming Perfect Again: The Gift of a Hospice Dog
I didn’t expect to fall in love; we rarely do.
I met Dusty a few weeks before his 14th birthday. It was his 4th admission to the shelter after being originally surrendered in 2016 at the age of 10, but this time he was classified as “end of life.”
I was initially drawn to him because he eerily resembled my soul dog, Tovi, who died years earlier, and if I’m being honest with myself, it felt like a second chance to save him.
I first saw him on our shelter’s website the night before I met him. His short little legs, stocky body, black muzzle standing out against his golden, velvety soft hair…and those fuzzy pig-tailed ears stole my heart.
Let’s stay; I have a type…
I had no intention of adopting a third dog. We adopted our second dog months earlier, and I was still adjusting to being a mom of two and the added responsibilities that came with that. Even so, I felt butterflies in my stomach driving to work, knowing I would soon meet this familiar soul. The rational part of me knew three dogs was more than I could handle, but the emotional side was winning this internal debate. I hadn’t met him, but I knew he was meant to be mine.
Serendipitously, he was my ‘desk dog’ that morning. My heart melted at the sight of him. I got down and snuggled him in my arms, inhaling his familiar old dog smell. He didn’t look anything like his pictures; I realized those photos were carryovers from his youthful profile when he was first at the shelter years ago (note the mouth full of teeth in the above picture). That didn’t matter to me; his fragility made me love him even more.
At that point, he had congestive heart failure resulting in a constant cough, a large lump that protruded from his neck, he was 95% deaf and had a total of three randomly placed teeth — including one front tooth that stuck out horizontally — and a tongue that hung out of his mouth because he didn’t have the teeth to support it.
In some ways, this laundry list of medical issues made the decision easier — more temporary — so it involved less rumination around whether I could handle three dogs. Two days later, after he met Jason and our dogs, Millie and Ethel, it was a done deal, adoption papers signed. He was ours, and we held his fragile life in our hands.
Tovi died traumatically, spending the last weeks of his life in the ER following complications from a surgery intended to give him more time. I promised myself:
1) We wouldn’t put Dusty through any aggressive medical treatment, simply allowing nature to take its course and sit gently beside him for it;
2) I wouldn’t get attached because I was going into this knowing it would be short-lived.
His homecoming gift was a fabulous spa day and hairstyle. Within the first weeks of adopting him, we had his three last remaining teeth removed (it wasn’t a total breach of promise #1). They were severely infected, and removing them came with the potential to improve his life quality. It was a risky but successful surgery and brought months of relief. His cough wasn’t as pervasive, and he gained a new energy level. He did lose his trademark protruding front tooth, but our gummy mouthed man was healthier. The morning of his surgery, a garbage collector stopped and asked if he were a puppy. “No, he’s actually 14!” I said proudly. I shared my apprehensions as I explained that we were leaving for his surgery. He looked at him and said, “Little man will do great, he’s a fighter, I can just see it.”
Fighter, he was.
His ailments didn’t stop him from living his best life. He was insanely happy and always looked like he was smiling. He was wise with age and not afraid to ‘bark’ up when he needed something. He loved hanging out on our screened-in porch, and even though he didn’t interact much with them, he enjoyed being in the presence of our dogs and wagged his tail high when he met doggie friends. Not only did he love to walk, but he thrived during them. His body swayed as he tried to run — a prolonged and adorable run — unable to contain his excitement to be outside. We looked forward to our long evening walks once the summer heat cooled, allowing Dusty to set the pace. In 45 minutes, we didn’t get far, but we loved watching him sniff and proudly mark the greenery. We live in a tight-knit community, so when there’s a new dog in town, people take note, and he quickly gained fans of all ages.
He took after his mom’s passion, starting a 14th birthday fundraiser to benefit the Baltimore Humane Society, the shelter that had given him so much throughout the years. He had a goal of $1,400 but exceeded it, raising over $2,200. Total. Rock. Star.
I’m not going to glorify hospice care, though.
While we focused on filling the rest of his life with as much joy as his little body could hold, it was exhausting: physically and emotionally draining. The following months brought a roller coaster of emotions, but the one constant was the pure love I felt every time I looked at him.
I felt overwhelmed taking care of two other dogs whose needs were very different than his. The walking was hard — REALLY hard. I tried my best to expedite a fence, but between HOA approval and companies back-ordered for months, that wasn’t happening anytime soon. Dusty walked at a different pace than our girls, so except for our evening walk, when Jason was able to help, we took short walks in shifts that took up a large portion of the day. There were times Dusty would walk with us, pushing himself out the door, not wanting to be left behind (it wasn’t ideal, but I caved every time). I couldn’t hold 3 leashes without the girls pulling him down, so we referred to him as the “self-walking” dog, his leash dragging as he religiously followed the pack a few feet behind, while my very tolerant girls did their best to accommodate the snail pace.
Falling in love is easy, but getting to know a dog takes time. Eating and medicating were a challenge. We tried — no exaggeration here — store-bought, raw, homemade, lowest quality, highest quality, even cat food. He would settle on something for a few days and then decide he didn’t like it anymore. I learned that he liked boiled chicken mixed with a little wet food and that wrapping meds his in deli-sliced turkey was much easier than wrapping him in a blanket like a burrito to administer manually. We got in a groove, though, and once his teeth were removed, I think eating was less painful. He began to look forward to his meals and furiously bark when he knew it was mealtime. He had a predictable mealtime routine. After eating, he walked over to the rug, took a nose dive into it, and rubbed his body around in a dance. Once back up, he raised his tail, peed in his diaper, and I would put a fresh one on. We were syncing.
I woke up an hour earlier to get him ready in the morning, already exhausted from interrupted sleep the night before. In true mom fashion, if I heard him drinking gallons of water, I got up to change his diaper and instinctively popped up at the sound of any cough to check on him.
On my workdays, I sent our girls to daycare so Dusty could have a dog walker (Millie doesn’t do well with strangers in the house.) With the costs associated with the dogs’ care, I was essentially paying to work. There were many days I questioned if it were practical even to keep my job. While I tried to stand strong, life as I knew it was being turned upside down. I had my fair share of moments wondering why I took this on, but I never regretted it…not even for a second.
And then, Dusty became incontinent, which led us to find out his kidneys were beginning to fail. This was devastating after seeing such an improvement in his health following his surgery. We had been convinced that maybe he wasn’t so “hospice” and speculated on how long he would live, proud that we would be able to keep him alive far past his initial prognosis.
I followed his levels, getting his blood drawn weekly, and gave him IV fluids to flush out his kidneys. Learning about diapers was a game-changer for this frazzled mom. Even the diapers came with their stress — they often slid off, so I was stalking him to make sure the diaper was on, and when they did stay on, they needed to be changed at least 10 times/day. We could have invested stock in Nature’s Miracle for the accidents. He also had a new trademark, the “lion cut,” as the bottom half of his body was shaved, so he wasn’t wetting his fur while sitting in his diaper.
Despite his health beginning to decline, he was still eating and enjoying walks, so I knew it wasn’t yet his time. We referred to him as “high-functioning” hospice.
There were many days I fantasized about Dusty being my only dog and devoting all of my time to him. He was not chaotic; managing three dogs was. He was my Velcro dog. He followed me everywhere, his short arthritic legs and wobbling his awkwardly shaped body side to side as he walked. His gentle presence reminded me of simpler times when I had my calm Tovi, a feeling I’ve never stopped longing for. My relationship with Dusty triggered buried resentment toward myself for impulsively adopting my reactive Millie and living a life with a dog I didn’t sign up for — I say that with love, and honesty, and a lot of shame for even thinking it because I had made peace with that many years ago and I love Millie dearly. But it’s my truth.
Every time we fall in love, it’s a different experience.
I’ve never done well with chaos. I get overwhelmed easily. I cry when I get frustrated. I isolate. I like things in my house — and life — to be neat, orderly, and clean. But here I was, living in chaos, and while I had my moments, I didn’t crumble. I learned to problem solve with practical ways of managing the challenges taking some proactive control, but ultimately, I had no choice but to embrace what was. Living in the mess and staying the course strengthened my emotional flexibility and resilience. I think that was the greatest gift he gave me: To love so much that the mess around me didn’t matter.
It’s a unique experience to be the end-of-life caretaker for a dog you have no history with and no baseline to compare quality of life. In some ways, the sense of distance was to my benefit. My vision wasn’t blurred by years of emotional attachment trying to keep a dog alive to the point it becomes selfish. Going through my journal, I had written, “It’s like doing the process backward, and I’m not certain how exactly to navigate that, but I’m enjoying the journey.”
Dusty died 84 days after we adopted him. He declined quickly in the span of 10 days. His heart was failing, and it was getting harder for him to breathe. The days leading up to his death, knowing all week that we had ‘the appointment,’ was the hardest part. Until you’re faced with it, we don’t think about life having an expiration date, and I essentially had to choose it. I’ve never carried that burden before. They say that they tell you when they’re ready, and he did. My friend Jamie said it best in a text after her last visit with him when she couldn’t get him to go out, “He just seemed so tired and unable to keep fighting it. He is probably just ready to have some peace and be free from a body that doesn’t listen to his mind anymore…It’s such a hard time, I know, but also a nice thought knowing he will be perfect again tomorrow.”
The night before he died, I cut chunks of his hair and placed it in a jar to inhale when I would no longer be able to snuggle him. I covered his paws with non-toxic paint and gently lifted them onto a canvas while he lay still and relaxed. He also wrote a poem about aging, which appears at the end of this piece.
He was euthanized on a rainy morning on the screened-in porch he loved so much. I held him in my arms with Jason, Millie, and Ethel by his side. We cried during our last moments, but the experience of having our family present and telling the vet stories about him made it feel like more of a celebration of life. When the heart that caused him so much pain stopped, I knew he was perfect again. I wrapped him in a blanket and placed him in a soft dog bed she had waiting on her car's passenger seat.
While we miss him terribly, we are thankful for the time he gave us and us him. We can only hope we brought a fraction of the joy into his life as he did to ours. After writing this sentence, I decided I didn’t like it; it reads like one of those obligatory sentences said from a place of being humble. The truth is I KNOW we did — I’ve never been more sure of anything. He had the time of his life.
And we’re OK, really. This loss is different than the loss of a pet I shared years of my life with. Life didn’t stop the way it did when Tovi died. Dusty’s time had come, and helping him transition was a gift we gave him. I kept the promise I made when I adopted him: to allow nature to take its course and sit gently beside him for it. The one about not getting attached, I broke that.
We went back and forth with what to put on the nameplate of his ashes, but we decided on “DUSTY WEINER.” Although it is pornstar-esque — and always made us chuckle when checking him in to the vet or calling his prescriptions into the pharmacy — he was a Weiner at the end, and we wanted to display that proudly.
I woke up this morning, and life was back to normal like nothing ever happened. I slept through the night. Taking the girls out to do their morning business was easy and quick. I went biking without worrying about how long I would be leaving him alone. I didn’t resent Millie. There was a part of me that felt relief, not only from his suffering but from the exhaustion of being a caretaker. The beautiful thing about grief is that all of those emotions can co-exist, and that doesn’t mean I loved him any less. I said to Jason, “Things are back to normal today, it almost feels like the last three months never happened, is that weird?” He replied, “It’s different; he wasn’t Tovi, your soul dog, who you had all of those years with — we were here to help him get to
This essay also appears in Medium