The weekend was cold and bright, and the darkness has settled in ahead of the shortest day of the year. My beloved dog, Banjo, snapped at V Sunday morning, a singular event that has forced us to choose between our dog and our daughter. In an instant, we chose to put him down.
I remind myself that he’s 10, a ripe old age for a dog as large as he is. He’s more like a little horse. When he was younger, he pranced like an Andalusian stallion. These days, he doesn’t enjoy walks because they hurt too much. The dog who loved running off-leash (and who behaved better off-leash than on) but returned every few minutes to check in with us, is gone. In his place, a dear old fellow with a thicker waistline and white beard who blinks at me when I unclip him as if to say, No, please don’t take me off-leash. I need the security of your hand to guide me. The devoted dog who’d lie near me in the evening—and follow me from one room to another—now goes to bed early. It’s hard to say when it started, but he has become withdrawn.
I roll the lime-sized fatty lump (a lipoma) on his cheek and notice it’s now larger and rock hard. I never believed the vet when she said it was unrelated to the glaucoma that put a blue cloud in his eye, ending his sight. I had hoped, foolishly, that his ability to dart after a ball in the garden meant that whatever was wrong with his rear half wasn’t hurting him too much.
His legs slip out from under him and he’s fallen a few times. His back legs are unsteady and spindly, and he squeezes through our legs more and more, asking to be petted. It is obvious to me that he is in pain. The random growls and whimpers betray the usual canine stoicism.
V has been on the receiving end of warning growls for some time now. Stay away from my food. Leave me alone. Don’t pull my tail. I appreciated Banjo letting us know he didn’t want to be disturbed. For a creature who never took to his human sister, he has been extraordinarily tolerant of her advances.
Sunday morning was different. There was no warning growl. Before I could intervene, V had whacked his lower back a couple of times to ‘pet’ him, and Banjo whipped around, snarling. The line under her eye suggests his teeth made contact, but thankfully didn’t break the skin. The force of an 80-lb dog knocked over my 32-lb toddler. It was after I was cradling her in my arms on the edge of my bed, thankful there was no blood drawn and horrified by the amount of saliva in her hair, that I realised I had picked her up. Instinct overrode the clinic’s instruction not to lift more than 20 lbs until after my beta on Friday.
Sitting on the edge of my bed, cradling the child we fought so hard to have, I saw the curtains behind me reflected in the closet mirror. They weren’t drawn all the way, and through the small opening I watched as a small bird landed on the fence in the yard. Of all the hundreds of pickets to land on, it had chosen the only one where I would see it through the gap in the almost-closed curtains. The bird jumped a few times, rearranging itself. Is this a sign? Are we doing the right thing? Am I pregnant? Is this old life making way for new? The bird flew away.
Minutes later, V had recovered. The rest of us hadn’t. Banjo cowered, distraught, under the desk in DH’s office. I uttered the terrible words: We have to put him down. That’s it. No more chances.
Banjo has had many chances. As a puppy, he was feral and had no bite inhibition—a consequence of being taken away from his mother at only five weeks old. He was found with his mother and three brothers in a snow-covered ditch near some train tracks in Queens, New York. The little pack was picked up by City Animal Control. Banjo’s mother was destroyed, deemed “unadoptable” because her breasts were full of milk, and her pups would have been destroyed too because, at five weeks’ old, they were too young to neuter. Were it not for Sean Casey Animal Rescue—then a tiny animal shelter operating out of the Vet Port in the cargo section of JFK airport—Banjo’s life would have ended shortly after it began. I’d seen Banjo’s adoption photo and knew that little pup right there was my dog. Three weeks later, DH and I wandered through the back lot of JFK airport, looking for the one-man animal shelter. I half-expected to see a crated giraffe en route to a zoo, when we found the shed that Sean Casey was working out of. To our surprise, we could take Banjo home that day. We weren’t prepared for that, so Sean gave us a broken cat travel crate, and we flagged down a cab. Banjo spent the rest of the day in my lap. I didn’t mean to become his mom, but to Banjo that’s exactly who I was.
He’s always been a difficult dog. Allergic to grain, salmon, pork, and dairy, which rules out most dog food and treats. Smart enough to figure out how to open drawers and window blinds. Smart enough not to be able to easily fool. A “highly reactive” barker who rears up on his legs like a horse when he perceives a threat. He learnt quickly that when he did that, the ‘threat’ would quickly back away. That kind of reinforcement was impossible to unteach. Basic obedience was easy—I taught him bite inhibition by withdrawing my hand and with a high-pitched “Ep!”—but he will refuse even chicken when stressed, so unwiring a deep-rooted suspicion of everything has been nigh impossible. We trained him the best we could, but it wasn’t enough to turn him into a dog who was accepting of people. The shelter said he was a German shepherd/Labrador mix, but as he grew we presumed German shepherd/greyhound mix (or “shyhound“). “He has all the intelligence and protectiveness of the German shepherd; and all the sweetness and skittishness of the greyhound,” I’d explain. A dog for whom the world is starkly made up of people in his inner circle or firmly outside of it.
That is, until V was born. He wasn’t interested in the mewling newborn, and the screeches of the baby sitting up made him slink away. It was only when V began feeding him scraps from her highchair that he became temporarily fond of her. V was put in a new category of conditional inner circle—based on whether she had food or was going to throw his ball. For someone who never fully warmed up to his human sister, Banjo was remarkably patient with her.
His saving grace is that he loves dogs (especially little dogs) and that he prefers to avoid conflict. He gives a wide berth to the snarling little dogs straining at the end of their leashes or the big, mean dogs who purposely bump into other dogs’ shoulders to assert their dominance. Once, a five-year-old boy deliberately stomped on his tail, and Banjo just blinked. Another time, my three-year-old niece wanted to see what would happen if she hit him around the face, hard, with a bicycle helmet. Another dog might have bitten her, but Banjo crept behind my legs for protection.
That’s why his behaviour Sunday morning is indicative of the amount of pain he’s in. (Thank Dog for the bite inhibition training—his mouth is gentle.) The kind of aggression he showed V is unlike him.
Banjo turned 10 on December 1st. For a big dog, he’s pretty old. The fatty lump on his cheek, although not cancerous, must be related to the glaucoma in his eye. He has a few new lumps and bumps that I’ve been keeping an eye on. But it’s his rear half that is the concern. For years, nails on his rear right paw have scraped the sidewalk. Last summer, he began stumbling, his legs would give out under him and he’d fall. We spent thousands and thousands of dollars on a diagnosis. By process of elimination, the specialist diagnosed a slipped disc. Excruciatingly painful, the only possible cure for which is surgery.
I watched an 11-year-old Lab shuffling outside the animal specialist hospital. Half her coat was missing, and she had a long, red scar down her flank. I wondered if she’d been hit by a car, she looked so terrible. I asked what had happened, and her guardian told me it was cancer. First surgery, then chemo. I looked at that Lab and felt it wasn’t really fair to put an old dog through that.
I can’t stop crying, but I do so discreetly. Banjo is Mr. Biofeedback. A raised voice or the F-word is enough to make him tremble and hide under the nearest table, preferably one with my legs under them too. This is the dog who would go and find DH when I was secretly crying, wracked with miscarriage grief.
The past two mornings have started with the heart-sinking remembering that my dog is not long for this earth. I’ve grimly gone to pee in a cup to test my first morning urine. Every morning since Saturday has brought stark BFNs. I’m not handling the BFNs as well as I did last cycle. Partly because this time I was so sure it had worked—the feeling of pressure and cramping, and an instinctive Mama Bear protectiveness for my uterus—and partly because this is the week I have to say goodbye to my dog.
Banjo is blissfully unaware, of course. All he knows is that every day is suddenly a lots-of-treats day. He’s enjoyed licking yoghurt pots and bowls of chicken soup. There is more chicken to come, cooked especially for him. And he is allowed up on the bed any time he wants. He is being spoiled.
I scratch his head between his ears, right where he likes it. I hold his face in my hands and he gazes at me from his one good eye. In those moments of trust, I usually say in the soft voice I assigned to him, “I sendin’ you a telepafick messidge.” I don’t know what message he wants to send me now, so I give him one of my own. I’m so sorry, my darling boy.
I’ve never watched someone I loved die. I am determined to show my dog the same brave stoicism that he has shown. I will hold his face and tell him in a happy voice that he is a wonderful dog, my best dog, my most faithful and loyal companion. I will not let his final moments be filled with anything but love.
I have never seen the dead body of someone I loved. Everyone in my family is cremated, and so too will Banjo be. The kind vet tech told me that he will be picked up on a Tuesday and his ashes returned the following Tuesday. What will happen to his collar? Do we take it home without our dog or is it returned with his ashes? Will I know the moment his body disintegrates into stardust?
Thursday December 22nd at 4.30pm. I’m not likely to forget that sequence of numbers, but I put it in my calendar anyway so I can add DH and his mom, who will want to say goodbye. She will watch V while DH and I head west towards the sunset with our dog for the last time.