We didn’t have too much trouble getting Sophie, our 13-year-old mixed breed dog, into the back of the car — she just needed a little help with her back legs. She’s done this many times, making trips to the vet and the dog park, and going on vacation with us. But this trip was a little different.
When she was a puppy Sophie hated to go in the car. It would make her anxious to the point that she would begin shaking and slobbering. We’d have to lay newspaper down on the car floor just to drive her a few miles to the vet. But eventually she got used to the idea of traveling, and we once even took her with us as far as our beach vacation.
I like to think that beach vacation was one of the highlights of her life. She took walks on the sand, and loved sitting on the deck of the beach house, basking in the sun and watching people walk and bike and drive down the beach road.
We got Sophie when B’s older son went away to college. She came as a rescue dog from the North Shore Animal League, a no-kill rescue and adoption organization. Her younger son wanted a dog to keep him company while his brother was away at school and his mother went back to work.
Her son bonded with the dog, played with her and fell in love with her — despite the fact that she wasn’t too active, or too bright. The truth is, Sophie was the laziest dog I’ve ever seen. She didn’t play with doggie toys; she didn’t chase balls or sticks; she didn’t even eat that much. Mostly, she liked to lie around and sleep, or watch us with her soulful eyes, and then ask to be petted. She loved to be petted.
They took her to a series of training lessons. She learned how to sit, but not much else. She refused to come. She didn’t lie down or shake. She never understood the concept of heel. In fact, she didn’t even like going for a walk. We had to coax her out the door, then pull her along when we walked around the block. But as soon as we turned for home, she’d suddenly move out front, now leading the way, anxious to get back to her favorite activity, which was lying on the floor, keeping watch around the house.
Despite her poor performance at doggie school, Sophie was a well-behaved pet. She never climbed on the furniture. At night she kept watch outside our bedroom door, in the hallway or the bathroom. When a thunderstorm came, her anxiety would hit, and she’d climb into the bathtub. That seemed to give her a sense of security and comfort.
She almost always waited until we woke up before she barked to go out. It was only in her later years, when she had some urinary issues, that she got impatient and would yelp a few times around 6 a.m.
B’s son went off to college, and then a career, but Sophie stayed at home. She was always there to greet us in the morning, and was deliriously happy whenever we came home after we’d been out … even if only for a few minutes. She became a passable guard dog. She’d bark when anyone came to the door. But no matter who it was, after a couple of barks she would sit down and nuzzle the person’s leg and ask to be petted.
She was pretty good with other dogs, and I like to think she developed a friendship with my daughter’s dog. Whenever we arrived at her house the two dogs would sniff each other and go out in the backyard together. After that Sophie would curl up in my daughter’s dog’s bed — and her dog seemed okay with that, satisfied with finding a spot on the rug instead. But it was at my daughter’s house that Sophie learned to eat her dinner, only because if she didn’t eat right away my daughter’s dog would steal her food.
As Sophie got older she developed arthritis, like a lot of dogs do, and now for the past few weeks she couldn’t get up the stairs at night. Her back legs had become too weak. But we were in for a surprise a few days ago. We had a thunderstorm during the night. In the morning we couldn’t find Sophie. Finally, we looked behind the shower curtain in the upstairs bathroom, and there she was, looking at us with her soulful eyes. We helped her out of the tub and she gingerly made her way down to the first floor. That proved to be the last time she was upstairs.
It was last fall when we noticed that she seemed to be drinking more water and peeing a lot, and maybe having a little more trouble than usual with her back legs. Her squatting looked a little awkward.
We took her to the vet, and he thought she might have Cushing’s disease, an endocrine disorder common in older dogs that would explain her thirst. He gave us some pills and suggested we come back in a few weeks.
She did seem to get a little better, but when we went back to the vet, and after he poked and prodded her, he said we should get an ultrasound. Sophie might have a tumor. If she did, he told us reassuringly, it was likely benign, or if not, probably slow growing.
We went to get the ultrasound, and then later another one. She did have a tumor. The vet explained that the protocol was surgery, followed by chemotherapy, but it wasn’t worth it, not for a 12-year-old dog. The tumor seemed to be small and non-invasive, and we could hope that she had plenty of time left — as much time as any 12-year-old dog.
When we went to the Carolinas this winter, we left Sophie with my daughter, and she did okay. After we got home we took her back to the vet for a checkup. He could feel some tumor activity, he acknowledged. But she hadn’t lost any weight. Was she still eating? Yes. Were there any elimination problems? No.
So we went home, knowing that her time was limited. But then her decline began to accelerate. It soon became hard for her to stand up. When she walked into the kitchen, her legs splayed out on the slippery tile floor. We started to bring her water and food dish into the TV room so she didn’t have to get up. Before long, we were feeding her out of our hand.
B finally made the call. She told me, through watery eyes, that she’d made an appointment at the vet for the next morning.
That night we took Sophie out for her usual evening walk. She tripped out the front door and lumbered down our short driveway and then just seemed to stand there, looking out on the street. Finally she hobbled across the street, did her business, and slowly made her way back to the house. Several times she just stopped, as if unable to go on. We coaxed her along and back into the house, where she settled on the TV room rug and went to sleep.
And so the next morning we got her into the car. The vet had us come in the side door, where there were no steps. She made her way inside and sniffed around the floor of the office. Then we lifted her onto the table. We stroked her and petted her while the vet prepared a shot. The first one would just put her to sleep — she’d barely feel the stick. The vet explained that a second shot would stop her heart. B and I would stay for the first shot, but not for the second.
The vet was very supportive and made some light conversation, then pointed out that Sophie’s legs were swollen — a sign of kidney failure. We were doing the right thing.
Sophie barely flinched when the vet stuck her back leg. She kept looking at us with her soulful eyes, suspecting nothing, I think, but we’ll never be sure. We continued to pet her as her eyelids drooped and her stare became vacant.
She’s asleep, the vet told us.
But her eyes aren’t totally closed, I protested.
I petted her some more. There was no reaction. She was clearly unconscious. And so we paid the bill and arranged to have her ashes brought back to us. It would take about a week.
B and I drove home in silence. She called her son, who now lives in South Carolina with two dogs of his own, along with a wife and two kids. He knew it was coming. We all knew it was coming. Still, it’s hard to say goodbye to a dog.