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Saying goodbye to your dog

12/1/2005

Saying goodbye to your dog … oh, what a heart-hurting, gut-wrenching experience it is.

Most likely many of you have had such a moment and you know the pain.

Meanwhile, those who haven't, but who still have a dog to love, often will find themselves looking ahead with regret or even fear when their time comes to say goodbye.

We also know the death of a loved member of a family, human or animal, is a grievous moment, differentiated only by the depth of a heavy heart. In either case, the pain is inescapable.

Nothing that I may write will eliminate certain despair when it's time to say goodbye.

My dog, Raven, the original television star, died last month.

While my intentions are not to rekindle that sad memory, sharing the painful process might be helpful for those of you whose final day with Fido will surely arrive.

As I reflect back on the Labrador retrievers that have brightened my life, the least painful goodbyes were those that required nothing from me but a very heavy heart.

Coot, a male, was 10 years old and stricken with cancer. When the day came to say goodbye, Coot was in the basement, refusing to touch his favorite treat.

I called the vet. ''I'm bringing Coot,'' I sobbed. I dreaded the next step, loading Coot into the truck.

He loved being in the truck. It meant we were going to do something fun, go fetch stuff or go bird hunting.

This ride in the truck wouldn't be for fun; and I was glad Coot didn't know it. Or did he?

When I returned to the basement to get Coot for his last ride, I was in for a surprise. Coot spared me. He was already dead.

Kyla was the next doggy love of my life and a black Lab who pointed ringnecks like, well, like a pointer.

On a hot October day in South Dakota, Kyla flushed a dozen ringnecks from one spot. Shotguns fired; hunters yelled. And birds fell.

Kyla rushed to do what retrievers do. She was 10 years old and knew the routine. Quickly, Kyla searched for downed birds and fetched those she found.

Suddenly, before I could say, ''Good dog,'' her energy quickly faded, her panting turned heavy and laborious and her breathing became desperate. She fell to the ground. She refused water.

What I didn't know was that Kyla was having a heat stroke. She died a few hours later.

Soon after, Raven, the original, came into my life. I also knew that twice — with Coot and with Kyla — I had avoided the ultimate agony, the decision to ''put down the dog.''

(More kindly we like to say, ''putting the dog to sleep.'' Let's be honest. You don't bawl your eyes out over a dog that's going to sleep.)

Over the years, this unwanted moment, this dreaded decision came up in conversations with Raven's veterinarians, Norb and Jay Epping.

How do you know when the time has come? How can you be sure it's the right thing to do? Your head spins. The questions are many. Your answer is final.

Jay Epping said a dog will often tell you that the time has come. Raven had quit eating and drinking.

Norb Epping said if you come to realize your dog isn't enjoying life anymore, maybe that's the time to say goodbye.

Raven's tail had quit wagging. I peered into Raven's old and sad eyes. There was no glimmer of hope. She was 12 years old; there was no turning back the clock.

Yet, was this the right thing to do? But to keep her alive and spare my pain would be a selfish thing.

No, the dog you love deserves dignity.

''It's time,'' I cried. The vets agreed. The time had come to say goodbye.


Ron Schara may be reached at ron@mnbound.com.

Schara's 250-page book, "Ron Schara's Minnesota Fishing Guide" (Tristan Outdoors; $19.95) is available by clicking here or by calling 888-755-3155.

October through December, Ron Schara's short feature "The Outdoor Beat" airs at 7:55 a.m. ET Sundays on ESPN2. Click here to view this week's show descriptions.