Today the wind howls madly outside the house, hurling snow from trees, sending clouds of fine powder across the yard. I watch the trees sway in dance, waiting for one to lose its balance. This is not the peaceful snow fall that I love; this is a bleak gray threat that makes me wonder why people choose to live in this harsh environment. But I am sad today and it feels like the wind mourns with me.
Yesterday I said good bye to The Beagle.
The Beagle lived with me for fifteen years. He was an exceptional beagle. He didn’t bark much, mostly at people walking by the house or campsite and then briefly. He chuffed and bayed on the trail of jackrabbits but not much else. He howled only when he heard our voices on the answering machine. The pack was everything. He did not like his people or fellow dogs to leave the house without him. He was loyal and protective. He also wanted to be top dog, continually challenging people and other dogs. Yet he was affectionate and reliable. He might wander off but he always came back.
To be honest, I didn’t want The Beagle at first. Just before Thanksgiving, my youngest daughter, then a seventh grader, saw the beagle puppies in a pet store and wanted one. There were two, both males. One was smaller and friendly, putting his nose up against the window of his case. His brother stood back and barked. When an employee pulled out the small friendly one, the brother growled and guarded the smaller puppy, trying to keep the employee away. I didn’t like either puppy. I preferred female dogs. We had a lovely nine year old female Springer Spaniel. I was happy having just the one dog. I had recently started working full time outside the home. I had taken on additional responsibilities at work. I didn’t have time for a puppy. My daughter argued that she would take care of the puppy, feed him, train him, and walk him. But I had just finished teaching Where the Red Fern Grows and didn’t want a hound. She loved the book, Shiloh. I didn’t want a dog from a pet store. She wanted a beagle for her Christmas present.
My husband and I searched for a breeder on the Internet but couldn’t find a puppy in time for Christmas. I suggested we wait for our daughter’s birthday in the summer. That Thanksgiving, we drove to Palo Alto to have dinner with my husband’s family. The entire trip, our daughter honed her skills in argumentation. On our return Sunday, we went to the pet store. One puppy was left, the aggressive brother. He seemed lonely without his pack. We gave him a new pack.
He was an adorable puppy. He was also the hardest dog to housetrain. He was barely housetrained. He had a strong need to mark his territory. The Christmas tree was a target. He snuck into the guest bedroom whenever anyone stayed there with another dog. The Beagle figured that all the plants in my sunroom made it an extension of the outdoors. The Beagle was also a thief. There was no safe place to set food. He was capable of jumping onto a table or the kitchen counter. Once he escaped from our house and ran into a neighbor’s garage and stole hot dogs that she had not yet put away after her Costco trip. He was irascible.
Yet I loved that dog. He had boundless energy and incredible endurance. For years, He got up with me at 5 am and ran four or five miles. He hiked for hours. I could let him off leash and know he’d return. If he dashed off after a rabbit and didn’t return, I knew he’d be under the car waiting. There were hiking incidents. One time he was with my husband and two daughters when he tangled with a rattlesnake. Several times he rushed into tall grasses and ended up with burrs in his ears that required surgery to remove. And he was way too fond of tracking bear scat.
In some ways he was the perfect dog: rugged and compact. He could hike all day and then go back out the next day. The Beagle had this endless energy, because like most hounds, when he wasn’t ‘working,’ he was sleeping.
He was a great traveling companion. We took him to Death Valley where a group of Girl Scouts asked if they could take his picture. On a trip to Mammoth Lakes, I took him on the bus to Red’s Meadow so we could hike to Devil’s Postpile. He didn’t like being a lapdog but he could behave himself when necessary. He was the perfect hiking companion. On a trip to the alpine lakes above Saddlebag Lake, he kept my friend and I on the right trail. No wrong turns for The Beagle.
But I knew things were changing four years ago. At the end of a hike, he chased after a rabbit. I assumed that he went back to the truck, but he wasn’t there when I arrived. I retraced my steps to where I had last seen him, and then hiked off trail through a meadow, where I found him about half a mile off trail, just sitting, looking confused. When I took him to our California vet, an older gentlemen from Kentucky who just loved “these dogs (beagles) because they just run through the briars, don’t let anything stop them,” he asked if I had noticed any signs of confusion or senility. “These dogs usually don’t live past twelve, thirteen,” he warned me. “The last few years, they often get a little senile.” Once in a while, The Beagle would stop and pause as if trying to remember what he was going to do, but mostly he seemed to get cranky rather than senile.
He could remember how to climb up on the kitchen table or counter. He never forgot meal time. And if he saw my grandson eating, he waited patiently for grandson to take his eyes off his food. The Beagle loved peanut butter sandwiches. And once he snatched something, he bolted it down so you couldn’t make him drop it.
Friday morning he snatched a doughnut off the kitchen table, an act so outrageous and funny and normal, I was totally unprepared that afternoon when he had a seizure. I had just gone upstairs to my room when I heard him choking on the stairs. I rushed to him and found him trembling. At first I thought he was just having trouble getting up the stairs.
The Beagle had been to our Connecticut vet two weeks ago. She had done a thorough work-up because I had reported that he seemed touchy when I touched his belly. His blood work was in normal parameters. An x-ray showed that his hips were not as arthritic as I had feared but he did have a mass. An ultrasound indicated a large tumor on his spleen. This explained why he did not want me to lift him up or stroke his belly. He started a regime of anti-inflammatory medications. He obviously felt better, trotting around the yard, stealing food, demanding the best dog bed from the other dogs. Until now.
The trembling was just the beginning of The Beagle’s seizure event. I brought him up into the room and petted him while he convulsed. When I thought it was over, I ran down to get a pain pill the vet had prescribed but he had not needed. When I came back up, he was again convulsing but just slightly. He snatched the cheese covered pill from my hand. That was his last normal cantankerous act. When he stopped convulsing, he could not walk normally. He would lie down and then lose control of his bladder. He tried to follow me back down the stairs, but he couldn’t negotiate them. I had to carry him. He hates being carried. I took him outside and he just stood there, then he remembered to sniff but he didn’t mark. He didn’t eat dinner. He slept next to the bed but must have moved several times. I had to clean the carpet in the morning.
Overnight he had become much worse. He could barely stand. He didn’t sniff when I carried him out. He just stood there in the snow. He wouldn’t eat breakfast. He just flopped on the carpet, trembling. Had the cancer metastasized? Did he have internal bleeding? Had he lost brain function? I did not know. All I knew was that he was suffering. I gave him a pain pill and called the veterinarian’s office. My regular vet’s partner agreed to see us before the regular appointments began.
This is never an easy decision. I had options: I could let nature takes its course and possibly prolong his suffering. I could seek medical intervention that might prolong The Beagle’s life for just a few more months. I could seek medical intervention that would end the suffering. It was obvious that The Beagle would never enjoy the things he loved again. He could not walk around the yard marking territory. He could not run with the other dogs. He could not sneak up on the table and steal food. And I knew, if The Beagle wouldn’t eat, then he must be suffering. He never refused food.
I have made this decision before. Two other dogs of mine have lived to an advanced age. In both cases, much like this weekend, I woke up and realized that the time had come. My companion shouldn’t suffer because I didn’t want to let go. It is an easy discussion when talking about pets. We control our pets’ lives, for better or worse. We control the quality of their lives by how much we exercise them and what dog food they eat. Are they companions? Or property? It doesn’t matter. Our pets become an integral part of our lives. We love them yet we have to make decisions for them.
We can make the decision for our four legged friends, but we have to make the decision for ourselves. I would not want to live a life where I could not enjoy the things I love most.
I miss The Beagle. The pack dynamics have shifted in the void left by his death. The pointers have been sharing the large dog bed: P rincess taking The Beagle’s spot. Peanut didn’t want to go out in the cold. Normally he would have followed The Beagle off the deck. Dude sniffs around the house, looking for The Beagle. But he’s gone. Farewell, little buddy.