We said goodbye to Rudy Saturday morning. He had blessed us with his personality, companionship, and love for almost 8 years.
Rudy was a “rescue” dog that my wife, Janet, and I had adopted from the Humane Society. He was a mixed breed, listed by the animal shelter staff as being part German Shepherd and part some type of Retriever. Rudy seemed to combine the best personality traits of a Shepherd and a Retriever. He combined much of a German Shepherd’s intelligence with a Retriever’s playfulness and loyalty. And he was extremely well behaved. He obeyed almost every command immediately. And we could let him out into our unfenced yard without worrying about him leaving, not even to chase a cat or squirrel. And he was very affectionate. While Rudy could sometimes be demanding for attention, he gave back way more than he took. Intelligence, playfulness, obedience, and a loyal, loving nature. Rudy really was just about the best dog ever.
Rudy loved to play ball. He loved chasing after a thrown ball, running as fast as he could after it, the farther the better. He would grab the ball and then run back with it in his mouth. He would stand in front of you chewing the ball to make sure it got it good and slobbery, until you told him “Rudy, drop it”. He would then drop the slimy, saliva covered ball at your feet and turn and take off again for your next throw.
He would often jump to try to catch the ball if it bounced high enough off the ground. Sometimes he caught it, and sometimes it would bounce off of his nose. And if it ended up in the bushes or long grass, well, he seemed to get even more enjoyment out of looking for the ball. You would see Rudy’s head and shoulders disappear in the bush or grass, with just his butt and tail sticking out, wagging rapidly. And when he did find the ball, you could see the pride on his face as he trotted back triumphantly with the prize in his mouth, his tail wagging like a propeller behind him.
His other game was his own invention. He loved to tease you with one of his toys. He liked to approach you carrying a toy in his mouth, being part Retriever he always seemed to have something in his mouth. He would offer it to you like he wanted to play tug-of-war. But he was very adept at understanding the limits of your reach. He would manage to stand just out of your reach, teasing you with this treasure. Oh such a wonderful toy I’ve got here. Aren’t you jealous? Don’t you want it? And when you reached for it, he quickly turned away, keeping the toy just out of your reach. Nope, you can’t have it. It’s mine. And then quickly turn back towards you to tease you so more.
Sometimes, I would pick up one of his other toys, feigning disinterest in the one he had in his mouth. Of course, Rudy would try to get the one you had, so that he could get back to teasing you. At first, he would drop the one in his mouth and reach for the one in my hand. I would drop my toy and grab the one that he had dropped. That put him in a quandary. Now, he couldn’t tease you. Sometimes, he would try to grab both toys in his mouth at the same time, which almost never worked. It seemed that when he opened his mouth to grab the second toy, the first one fell out.
There were times when I could see Rudy pondering the situation. He saw that I, with my grasping human hands, could hold a toy in one hand while reaching for the second toy in his mouth. He tried to emulate me. Holding one toy in his mouth, he would reach out with his paw for the toy that I held. But without grasping fingers, he couldn’t grab my toy and pull it away from me.
Finally, Rudy figured it out. If we both had a toy, he would drop his toy and hold it on the ground with his foot. Then he could reach and get hold of the toy that I had with his mouth. And, if I tried to reach for the toy under his foot, he would push it back further out of my reach.
After you played these games with Rudy, or paid him special attention in any way, his loving and devoted nature would really show. He would follow you around like, as the saying goes, a little puppy. At first, I had interpreted this obsequious behavior as him looking for even more attention. But I came to realize that he was just happy to have someone like you who would play with him and give him so much attention.
The animal shelter had estimated Rudy’s age as around five when we adopted him. We had him for 7, almost 8 years. So he was getting to be around 13-years-old. He had developed a lot of gray fur around his muzzle and he was putting on a little weight. Aren’t we all? And, he now trotted back with the ball after fetching or catching it. No longer running back as he did when he was younger. But other than that, he seemed to be in pretty good health.
Then, last spring, we noticed some sores on Rudy left flank and a couple of lumps around his face. The vet took some biopsies at his next check-up. The news wasn’t good. Rudy was diagnosed with “epitheliotropic lymphoma”, a disease sometimes found in older dogs. The symptoms are ulcerative sores, scaly patches of skin plaque, and lesions around the mouth and eyes. The disease seems to affect mainly the skin with little less impact on the internal organs. The veterinary oncologist gave us the prognosis. Rudy could live for anywhere from 6 more months to 18 months or longer. With epitheliotropic lymphoma, we were told, it wasn’t generally the disease that led to death. Dogs were generally euthanized when the discomfort of their skin condition became too severe.
Rudy was put on a steroid to address the skin irritation and itchiness, and he seemed to do pretty well through the summer. He was getting more and more skin lesions and more sores around his mouth. And sores were starting to show up around his eyes. But they didn’t seem to have much effect on him. He didn’t seem to be in any major discomfort and his mood didn’t seem to have changed. His eating habits were unchanged, and he still loved playing ball and his version of keep-away.
But in the fall, the progress of the disease seem to accelerate. It’s was like Rudy’s body finally wore down in its defense against the effects of the disease. The number of sores and lesions seem to grow rapidly, many becoming open bleeding, oozing sores. And, more importantly, Rudy’s demeanor changed. He no longer spent almost all of his time underfoot, looking for attention, trying to get us to play. Instead, he was spending more time laying off by himself in quiet, warm spots on the kitchen floor. At night, he used to get up and wander. If you got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, you never knew where Rudy would be lying by the time you went back to bed. But now at bedtime, he would go to one of the dog beds, curl up in a tight ball, and lie there almost the whole night. And that was unusual for Rudy, to curl up. He usually liked to lie all stretched out, the better to trip you when you passed by. And there was the constant licking at his sores. Often during the night, you could hear Rudy licking and licking, finally giving up with a big sigh and quietly whimpering until he went back to sleep.
Janet and I both came to the conclusion that it was time to say goodbye to Rudy pretty much at the same time. It was a hard decision. He still perked up to go outside and play ball. And he still got excited at feeding time, especially since we began replacing some of his dry food with canned food, to make it easier for him to chew and swallow. But he was obviously in a great deal of discomfort and probably pain. In the last couple of weeks, he had even pretty much quit trying to get us to play his keep-away game.
Janet called the vet and made arrangements for us to bring Rudy in for the last appointment of the day on Saturday. Rudy had a hard night Friday. He had stayed in one spot the whole night. It didn’t seem like he slept much, spending much of the night licking and quietly whimpering. The first snow of the season started falling Saturday morning. Rudy had always like the snow. He loved to eat it, taking big mouthfuls and giving himself a “brain freeze”. Which made him whimper, but not stop eating the snow.
Shortly before it was time to leave for the vet, I took Rudy out for one last game of ball. He almost acted like the old Rudy. He raced after the ball as I threw it, either jumping trying to catch it or chasing it down. I purposely threw the ball into the bushes a few times so he could root around looking for it. But once we went back inside, he found his spot on the kitchen floor and curled up tightly.
We got to the vets right at the time of his appointment. Janet hadn’t wanted to get there too early, to limit the stress on Rudy. The vet was running a little behind. So, we took turns walking Rudy around outside while one of us waited inside the vet’s waiting room for her to be ready for Rudy. Rudy seemed to somewhat enjoy walking around the parking lot at the vet’s office, even if it was a little cold and the wet snow was falling on his fur, and I’m sure, all of the sores on his skin.
The vet was very kind and gentle with Rudy. She knew Rudy from treating him for over seven years. She liked how Rudy remembered where she kept the treats and marveled at how a dog of his size could sit up on his haunches, almost standing on his hind feet, to ask for a treat. Her demeanor and soothing voice seemed to put Rudy at ease in the treatment room, and the end came quietly.
When we got home later that afternoon, Janet and I both felt that we had done what was best for Rudy. We felt that we had balanced his pain and discomfort with the times when he still acted like the old Rudy. We hadn’t waited too long, but we hadn’t rushed things either. And we both felt that today had gone as easy as possible for Rudy. Janet had paid him special attention this morning and I had taken him out in the snow for one last game of ball. And the vet had done everything that she could to ease any discomfort for Rudy.
Later that afternoon, after taking the trash out, I stood on the back porch, enjoying the slight chill. I watched the snow falling over the backyard. And there, in the inch or two of wet snow, I could still clearly see the path that Rudy had made running back and forth when we were playing ball for the last time.