This is the posture that Ruby used to adopt, sat with her nose in the air, right beneath Tonia’s feet, whenever vegetables were being chopped in the kitchen. It was an attitude of expectation, that we came to call, “Assuming the Position.” She only ever did this at Tonia’s feet, because Ruby knew Tonia was a soft touch when it came to vegetables. And Ruby also knew better than to beg when I was in the kitchen.
I knew that Ruby was aging. She had heart disease, and kidney disease, and skin problems, and I’ve seen them taking their toll for many months. I had noticed that her most endearing behaviors were dropping away. She stopped Assuming the Position. She no longer chased butterflies. She used to love crunching ice cubes, but had stopped running to the kitchen every time she heard the freezer door open. Sometimes she’d take an ice cube if it was offered, and mouth it for a while, before dropping it and wandering off. Most noticeably, she had stopped following me around the house these last few months. Well, not entirely. If I left a room for too long, she’d always come and find me. But she wasn’t right behind me anymore. She’d usually wait a few minutes where she was, to see if I came back. As if she were weighing her need to be with me, against the exertion that following me required.
All of these things I had noticed. They just didn’t translate as “very sick dog.” Much like that twisted sock I wrote about last week, all the signs that something was awry simply didn’t register. In my head I saw an “older dog”. Not a dying one. She was bright, and happy, and though she moved at a slower pace, and I knew she had health issues, I convinced myself that with the right food, and a little more exercise, we’d have her for years to come. Tonia knew differently, and so did our vet. But I didn’t.
Ruby came to us nearly five years ago a very damaged little dog. A former breeding bitch, she’d been a puppy machine, and had spent her entire life in a kennel. We don’t know how many litters she had. We don’t even know how old she was. Somewhere between six and eight, the vet said, when we brought her in for her first visit. She needed shots. She needed to be spayed. She really needed some decent food. She needed people to love her, but what she needed more than anything were people that she could love. I read somewhere that all dogs need some sort of job to do, and this was hers: loving us.
She was in dreadful physical shape when we brought her home, but I can’t describe the condition she was in. It would be too shocking. Worse than her physical condition, the signs of emotional trauma she’d suffered broke our hearts. Though she had no manners to speak of when she arrived, with love and training she improved enormously. She didn’t learn quickly, but she did learn. Eventually all the odd behaviors, the constant pacing, the separation anxiety, and the barking at shadows or flickers of light on walls – all hold overs from her kennel years – all those weird little quirks dropped away and she became a normal dog. A normal dog, with a steadily increasing amount of health problems.
Ruby stopped eating last Thursday, and even then I didn’t think anything was truly wrong. We had recently changed her food to help manage the kidney disease, and I thought she was being finicky. I took her to see the vet again on Friday, and came away with more drugs, and a plan that I just knew would make her better. By Saturday she was worse, drinking little, peeing little, still not eating. We could see her becoming weaker and we began a desperate attempt to find something that she’d eat. We roasted a chicken, just for her, boiled and mashed many varieties of vegetables, squirted maple syrup in her mouth hoping to stimulate her appetite. But the only thing she’d accept were little hard dry dog biscuits, her favorite treats. When she threw all of those up on the lawn a few hours later, and couldn’t keep even water down, I finally got it. We were losing her. And I was not ready.
I called the vet who suggested that we while we could pump fluids into her for a couple of days, he was not hopeful. Tonia and I decided we didn’t want her to spend what could, in all likelihood, be her last days, away from home, away from me, and back in a cage. So on Saturday evening I drove her to the vet for the last time, while Tonia stayed home with the puppy. Our wonderful vet, who has treated Ruby’s myriad health problems over the years, was on call that day. It made the sad journey a little easier. He said that it’s always hard to know when to let them go, and assured me that it was not too soon for Ruby. I held her while he gave her the injection to end her life, and she died in my arms.
For Ruby, whose early life we can only imagine from the damage it wrought, becoming a normal dog was in every way extraordinary. She wasn’t smart, but she was as loving and sweet-tempered a dog as I’ve ever known, and a beautiful quiet presence in our lives. She learned to know joy, and she brought us as much in return.
As Tonia returns to work after a bank holiday weekend, I am grateful for Truman’s company. I’m also more grateful than I have words for, to Tonia, for sensing that I would need a little warm dog body to comfort me, and some goofy puppy attitude in the house to cheer me, much sooner than I ever anticipated.