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