The bonds we build with our an­i­mal friends are like no other. Small won­der we grieve so deeply when they have to go

Grand Magazine - - FEATURE - By Martin Van Nierop

RI­LEY WAS LIKE a fluffy brown teddy bear as he peeked out at me from the breeder’s arms in her north Water­loo kitchen. The gold­en­coloured mother and aunt cir­cled the kitchen linoleum, anx­iously look­ing up at Ri­ley, who was the last of the lit­ter that spring in 1999.

Ir­ish Wheaten ter­ri­ers, with their dis­tinc­tive black face, are play­ful, loyal dogs, and can be per­fect fam­ily pets, friendly with chil­dren. Ri­ley was not 100per-cent per­fect phys­i­cally, but we didn’t care. Al­though he was pure­bred, his ears didn’t quite lay flat like a Wheaten’s were sup­posed to sit; they were curled, more like a col­lie’s.

And his tail was bobbed at about two inches, as short as any I’d ever seen — cer­tainly not long enough for pulling him out of holes he’d ea­gerly ex­plore. I joked, some­what darkly, that who­ever had done the tail-bob­bing had cut it pretty close. But he was per­fect for our fam­ily. He was a happy dog, with lu­mi­nous brown eyes. >>

>> And I re­mem­ber the breeder say­ing that first day: “His breed lives on aver­age about 12 years…. ” It seemed like an eter­nity.

When he was young, our two daugh­ters would yell, “Go Ri­ley go!” and off he’d race around the house. Ears pinned back, he’d spin in cir­cles, then run full speed around ev­ery room, tak­ing cor­ners like a grey­hound.

Like most dogs, he loved rid­ing in the car, head out the win­dow, ears flap­ping in the breeze. On walks in the park, he’d pull with all 45 pounds of mus­cle to­ward the ground­hog holes he knew by heart, div­ing head­long into the open­ing of any ground­hog den – it was in his ter­rier DNA.

Ev­ery day he was the of­fi­cial greeter at home, watch­ing out the front win­dow and rac­ing to the door, his too-short tail wag­ging, eyes shin­ing with un­re­served love.

We had him 14½ years. He was part of our fam­ily. He was my spe­cial buddy.

He started to de­cline about age 11, es­pe­cially af­ter the trauma of full knee surgery to re­pair his snapped ACL.

Last Au­gust, his body wracked with arthri­tis, deaf and hardly able to walk, he was put to sleep in a small ex­am­in­ing room at Mitchell An­i­mal Hospi­tal in Kitch­ener. The de­ci­sion was so tough, we’d put it off for months.

Tears welled in my eyes as I fi­nally car­ried him from the car into the vet hospi­tal. I was hardly able to speak. He didn’t know what was about to hap­pen, but I did. .

There was grief and the ter­ri­ble guilt of know­ing — that I’d been the one to take him in for his fi­nal breath on Earth. For months af­ter­ward, there were flash­backs of those last mo­ments, then feel­ings of empti­ness and sad­ness.

And, it seems, all of that is nor­mal. Many pet own­ers go through what our fam­ily did when they lose their com­pan­ion an­i­mal, whether it’s a dog, cat, bird or other favourite pet.

Bo­jena Kel­mendi has been pro­fes­sion­ally coun­selling people for grief and loss for 10 years. Most of her prac­tice has in­volved the loss of a hu­man, in­clud­ing fam­ily mem­bers, friends and com­pan­ions.

For the past four years, she has also been a part-time clin­i­cal coun­sel­lor for the On­tario Vet­eri­nary Col­lege at the Univer­sity of

Guelph, help­ing pet own­ers come to terms with the death of their com­pan­ion an­i­mals. The griev­ing process, the jour­ney that en­sues, is the same, she notes.

“It takes a huge toll on you, the bur­den of the de­ci­sion falls on your back,” says Kel­mendi.

It’s a bright sunny day in early spring and we’re sit­ting in her of­fice in the Mona Camp­bell Cen­tre for An­i­mal Cancer, a mod­ern, state-of-the-art fa­cil­ity at the vet­eri­nary col­lege. Down the sparkling hall­way, a black lab waits with its owner, hap­pily greet­ing any­one who comes by. In a nearby wait­ing room stocked with dogs treats and a cof­fee ma­chine for the own­ers, two dogs — a small ter­rier and a dark-coated retriever — wait their turn to see the vets. Kel­mendi says people han­dle the loss of their beloved pets in dif­fer­ent ways, but for many it’s as hard as los­ing a hu­man com­pan­ion.

“A loss is a loss, and it af­fects you emo­tion­ally and phys­i­cally,” she says.

For some, the loss of their pet, whether through sick­ness, old age or sud­den trauma, can be dev­as­tat­ing. The hu­man-an­i­mal bond runs amaz­ingly deep, so it’s no sur­prise they take it so hard when the end comes. At the col­lege and the cancer cen­tre, she sees it all the time. “Mak­ing the de­ci­sion for euthanasia is one of the hard­est you will ever make, and you don’t want the pet to suf­fer, so hope­fully you know the mo­ment when it’s time to go. We love them too much to see them suf­fer.”

The pro­fes­sional col­lege staff, as well as fam­ily vets at area clin­ics, give ad­vice to rec­og­nize when the time has come. Kel­mendi helps the own­ers to pre­pare, to un­der­stand it’s the right thing to do and to cope with the feel­ings that in­evitably over­whelm them. She does one-on-one coun­selling and runs a group ses­sion twice a month on Tues­day evenings. Those los­ing a beloved pet of­ten ex­pe­ri­ence the ac­cepted five stages of grief and loss — de­nial, anger, bar­gain­ing, >>

An­i­mals have a way of melt­ing our hearts and be­com­ing im­por­tant mem­bers of the fam­ily. Pic­tured here are: Tekka (above), a Ger­man shepherd mak­ing a splash; Ger­tie (left), a golden doo­dle stop­ping to smell the flow­ers in Guelph and Rocki, a cat who adopted a fam­ily in Kitch­ener.

Clin­i­cal coun­sel­lor Bo­jena Kel­mendi (left) meets with Win­nie Mines and her pug named Rudy at the On­tario Vet­eri­nary Col­lege at the Univer­sity of Guelph.

Pho­tog­ra­phy To­masz Adamski

A fam­ily photo cap­tures Ri­ley, the Wheaten ter­rier.

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