2008 ULTRA RUNNING ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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  TRIBUTE TO AN ULTRA LAB
 "TATER:"  8-31-96 to 8-21-08

AUGUST 31

 
"Dogs' lives are too short.  Their only fault, really."  ~Agnes Sligh Turnbull  
 
 

"Runtrails & Company" has lost a crew member:


Sweet Tater at age six. Photo by Dallas Milton in December, 2002.

THE SHORT VERSION:

Ten days ago, Jim and I had to make the most difficult decision a pet owner ever has to make: euthanasia for a beloved four-legged companion. Our lovable yellow Lab, Tater, would have been twelve years old today, but she couldn't make it quite that long. Using the common (but misguided) formula of one dog year = seven human years, Tater was almost 84. She was one tough cookie till the end.

Even though we knew for several weeks that her health was rapidly deteriorating and we'd face the Big Decision sooner rather than later, it was Tater who really told us when she was ready to die. We quietly and tearfully reassured her that we understood, and we let her go. To keep her alive any longer would have been a selfish thing to serve our interest, not hers.

Tater's body rests in a grave in our woods, just beyond the tree where I painted a white blaze three years ago to symbolize the successful completion of our Appalachian Trail Adventure Run. Tater was an important part of our team, which I dubbed "Runtrails & Company." Her adventurous, fun-loving spirit lives on in the hearts of Jim, Cody, and me.


"Runtrails & Company" on Day 1 of the AT Adventure Run,
April 30, 2005:  Jim, Cody (age 2), Sue, and Tater (age 9)

This essay is more a reminiscence of Tater's niche in our family, her unique personality, and the fun experiences she had than of her decline; I've detailed that elsewhere in the past few days to help me get through the grieving process. Now I'm ready to move on and remember all the good things about her life.

I'll include photos of Tater at various ages and in interesting places. This dog climbed more mountains, ran more trails, and visited more states than most people do! She had a life any active dog would envy. Years ago Jim commented that if he is reincarnated, he wants to come back as one of my dogs because of the great lives they have!.

PO' TATER

I began an essay about Tater in late July, soon after she was diagnosed with several serious nerve-related, and possibly cancer-related, problems that affected her ability to swallow, breathe, and move. I was also working on an entry about Jim's and my thoughts on turning sixty and realized that one reason I had been thinking more about my own aging process was watching Tater's rapid decline in physical abilities this summer. 

I've joked for the last year or two about Tater and me both being "old ladies with arthritis" that still think we can run like we used to. I could empathize with her decreasing ability to run as far and as fast and as often as she used to. Neither of us can climb or descend stairs (or get into the truck) as quickly or comfortably as we did several years ago. And we both need to rest more often.


Closer to our prime -- Sue (age 51) and Tater (age 4) at Sundance Pass
in the Beartooth Mountains of Montana, summer of 2000. Photo by Jim.

But neither Tater nor I want to give in to our aging bodies. Our minds (and memories) are still younger than our years. To paraphrase a popular saying, "The mind is still willing but the flesh is weaker now." 

As Tater required more and more care during the month of August, and as Jim and I realized more clearly that we'd have to make the tough decision about euthanasia sooner than we'd hoped, I just never found the emotional energy or time to finish my first essay.

Now I present it, and more, in memoriam to Tater. What follows is the long version. If you don't have time to read all of it, you might enjoy the photos.

TATER TOT

"Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole."  ~ Roger Caras 

I am a Dog Person. Dogs have been an important part of my life since I was born. My parents raised German shepherds as pets on our farm and bred them several times to sell the litters. I grew up surrounded by puppies and learning to be responsible for their care. The only time in my life that I have NOT had a dog was during college. Most of the time I had two dogs so they could keep each other company while my ex-husband and I were working.

It took me several years to realize that Labrador retrievers would be ideal for my temperament and lifestyle. I had some high-maintenance Siberian huskies and Norwegian elkhounds when I was in my twenties. After I began running, I wanted to find a breed suitable to run long distances on Southern trails with me (too hot for those Northern breeds). I did considerable research before adopting an adorable Lab-Rottweiller mix puppy that looked and behaved more like a Lab than a Rottie, and I was hooked on Labs for life.

  
Tater at eight weeks (L) and 13 weeks (R); there's that wrinkled brow that showed when she was pensive.

Tater was the third of four purebred Labs that I've adopted as young puppies. She quickly filled a void in the family after Callie, my first female Lab, died unexpectedly from a cancerous tumor when she was only seven. Her male companion, Bubba, needed a buddy. So did I -- Bubba was also seven and no longer able to run with me as much as he did when he was younger.

Poor Bubba. Six-week-old Tater was full of spunk, a cute little ball of pale yellow fur and sharp puppy teeth.

She was all over Bubba (photo above, at nine weeks). Good thing he was a gentle giant, totally laid back.

Tater Tot soon had him under her spell. She often appeared to out-maneuver him, like when she'd hide behind a corner of the house or in another room and pounce on him when he walked by. That was the first evidence she gave as a pup of being able to think ahead. Tater wasn't just a tough cookie, she was a smart cookie as well.

She could also be cuddly and quiet, as in the next photo at age four months:

Tater and Bubba were good buddies for five years, until Bubba's death at age eleven. Here they are at ages four and eleven (this oval photo with punched paw print is from a scrapbook page):

WHAT'S IN A NAME?

Although Tater was a purebred Lab with a certificate of pedigree going back five generations, there weren't any champions closely enough related to justify formally registering her with the AKC or giving her a fancy-schmancy name like I've given some of my other dogs. As it turned out, she grew significantly larger than a female purebred Lab should be and she also had some physical problems that ruled out breeding her (in fact, I've neutered all my dogs). But she made a remarkable pet.

You're probably wondering how Tater got her name. You probably also think I know the answer! Not really. My "ex" named her and never did tell me why he chose "Tater."  It's been fun to give her nicknames, though -- Po' Tater, Sweet Tater, Tater Tot, Common Tater, Spec Tater, Little Spud.  I used plain ole "Tater" to call her or give her commands, but I greeted her with "Hey, Baby Girl" until her dying day and had other "pet names" for her.


Running through the lupines in the Big Horn Mountains, June, 2006

Probably the funniest moment regarding her name was in an agility class in Billings when the instructor was teaching the dogs (and owners) how to use a teeter totter. The command was, "(Dog's Name), TEETER!"  Everyone cracked up the first time I said it to Tater because it came out, "Tater, TEETER!" Even I didn't anticipate what it would sound like. It still makes me laugh.

Maybe you had to be there . . .

ADAPTING TO A NEW "DADDY"

"Love me, love my dog." ~ Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153)  

Tater was three and Bubba ten when we moved from Atlanta to Billings to share our lives with Jim. It really was a situation of "Love me, love my dogs" -- or at least be nice to them!

You see, Jim was not yet a Dog Person. There are family photos of him at a young age with a dog, but he doesn't remember it. Until I moved in with two big dogs, the poor fella had never lived with one. That was probably the biggest adjustment he had to make in our new relationship. It's not that I put the dogs' welfare before mine or his, but he quickly discovered how important canine companionship is to me. We came as a package, for better or for worse.

Fortunately, it turned out for the better. Jim grew close to Tater over the next nine years. He has kids and grandkids; I don't. Dogs are my "fur kids," the creatures I nurture after choosing a child-free life. I was glad that Jim adapted to the new situation and learned just how much fun dogs can be to have around. They really do help to keep people happier and healthier, as many studies and anecdotal evidence show.

The dogs and I also made some behavioral modifications to keep peace with Jim, such as no dogs on the furniture any more:


What, me spoiled??   Tater at twelve weeks of age, before moving to Montana.

We all adapted to the new house rules just fine.

ULTRA LABS: BORN TO RUN

One of the first things Jim learned about Tater was how much she loved to run. Now he had THREE new running buddies! Sometimes I had trouble keeping up with Jim, but he simply couldn't wear Tater out when she was in her prime, whether he was doing speed work or a long run. At ten, Bubba wasn't running nearly as far or fast any more but he got to go along sometimes, too.

One of Tater's unique personality traits was her ability to run somewhat parallel to us in the woods for a minute or two (or more) but out of our sight. She was all over the place yet obviously tracking us by sight, scent, or sound because she'd unfailingly come out ahead of us on the trail and run back to us. (That was another of the things she did that indicated her ability to "anticipate.") We figured some days she was putting in two or three times the distance we were! She was never gone for long, and we never "lost" her in a park or out in the wilderness.

All my Labs have been very lovable, intelligent, active dogs who get along well with people and thrive on running through the woods with wild abandon. Tater's agility as she dodged trees and scaled boulders and deadfall was amazing to watch. Like Callie and Bubba before her, Tater loved nothing more than to ride somewhere, anywhere, because each trip might just end up in the woods or on a mountain trail somewhere.


Jim and Tater enjoying the chilly waters of Lake Tahoe in July, 2001

These treks usually involved a creek, river, or lake, too. That's pure nirvana for a Lab: running and swimming and maybe chasing a squirrel. Heck, Tater even loved going to the vet's office, as did Callie, Bubba, and now Cody, who is five years old. It's a Lab thing. They love people. It's why they've been one of the most popular breeds for many years.

Tater also had the ability to know when we were within a few miles of our favorite running venues in Billings and Roanoke. She knew the turns, and even though she couldn't see out the windows of the van, she had them memorized. She'd pant so hard it sounded like she was hyperventilating, such was her excitement when she knew for sure that she'd be running at Riverfront or Explore Park! If we didn't make the familiar turns, she'd lie quietly in the back until we reached our destination.

She also had trouble containing herself upon exiting the van or truck. She'd grab a leash and play a rough game of "keep away" with Cody while Jim and I got ready to run. Even after we started running, she was still a wild child for several miles. Eventually she'd calm down. This continued until a couple years ago.

Definitely born to run.


Running for the sheer pleasure of running: Cody (L) and Tater
frolic in the snow
near our house in Virginia in February, 2005

Every one of my athletic Labs was able to gradually and comfortably reach the ultra distance (between 26 and 31 miles) from about age two to five years old. None of them except Cody did it more than a few times, but that was more due to various logistics than to their ability or willingness to run and hike that far. For the longest distances I was careful to choose cold or cool weather, soft trails, lots of water (streams, lakes) on the course, and a pace they could handle. More often they ran ten or fewer miles at a time, however.

None of these Labs, including Tater, ever turned down an invitation to run or hike. In fact, each one was quite sad to be left at home, especially when they knew Jim and I were going running. They all knew the signs (it was probably those smelly shoes!). Their demeanor was different if we were just going out to run errands and not RUN, although they loved riding along during errands, too. Their enthusiasm was a joy to see -- their bright eyes and wriggling bodies, bouncing up and down, running to the van or truck in excitement and jumping in, ready to go anywhere we'd take them.


"I don't know where I'm going, but I'm happy to be in this truck!" Tater at age seven.

We've seen Tater slowing down for several years now. She was only about five when she tore one of her anterior cruciate ligaments (ACL) while jumping up to catch a ball. After she healed from surgery, she was back out on the trails with us but we reduced the number of miles to protect her joints. Around age seven she developed arthritis and was diagnosed with hip dysplasia. Both are (too) common in Labs. Tater continued to run and hike with great exuberance for several hours, however, as Jim and I traveled around the country with her and Cody. Several of the photos in this essay show a few of the cool places she got to go.

Last summer Tater was still able at age eleven to run/walk with us for four or five miles. That dwindled down to three miles, two miles, then one by this summer.


Tater walking with Jim at McDowell Mountain Park near Phoenix, AZ last January.

She wanted very badly to go with us every time, but she had to stay home more and more frequently when it was too warm to stay in the vehicle while we ran or walked. Every time I had to tell her that she couldn't go, it broke my heart to see the dejected look in her eyes as she slowly turned around to go to her bed, waiting patiently for us to return. I hated that.

OTHER "TATERISMS" WE'LL MISS

Every dog has its own personality, even within the same breed, and Tater was no exception. She's been the only one of my four Labs to exhibit certain traits that Jim and I will miss:

1. Her uncanny ability to track us when we ran parallel to each other, coming back at us from up the trail (discussed in more detail above)

2. The extra distance she'd run, often double or triple the mileage Jim and I ran. Cody and Bubba are/were just the opposite, sticking to the trail most of the time and doing tangents on switchbacks whenever possible. (Callie was an out-and-back kinda gal, but stayed on-trail mostly.)


Sue and Tater on the summit of Mt. Massive, Colorado's second-highest 14,000+ foot mountain.
Photo taken by Jim in August, 2003.

3. Other ways she "thought ahead," like hiding from Bubba and pouncing on him when he strolled by, or running around to the other side of the house when I'd be out walking or running from our house. When she lost sight of me on one side, she'd run real fast around the back of the house and watch me from the other side. (The Invisible Fence prevents them from going into the front yard.) And she usually stayed there for as long as it took me to come back into sight! Bubba didn't do this, or Cody, even though I think Cody's smarter in some ways than Tater was.

4. "Running" in her sleep. When sleeping soundly on her side, all four of Tater's legs would sometimes move as if she was having a running dream.

 "Dogs laugh, but they laugh with their tails."  ~ Max Eastman, Enjoyment of Laughter  

5. Her special tail wags. One of her favorite ways to get attention was to put her chin on my lap, scrunch up her forehead so it was wrinkly, look at me with baleful eyes, and wag her tail just slightly (half a wag) when she wanted some cuddling or to go outside. When she was happy or excited, her tail would go around in full circles, even when she was running.


Who can resist such a sweet face?

6. Breathing like a "steam engine."  Tater panted very hard when she was excited or exerting herself, even when she was young. We likened it to a steam engine because it was so loud. Although I sometimes worried she'd have a heart attack or stroke when I couldn't calm her down, vets in Atlanta, Billings, and Roanoke confirmed that her heart was healthy up to the time she died. She also had a very high metabolism rate and could eat a fair amount of food without gaining weight. Maybe the two were related.

7. Her bicycle paranoia. I have no clue if she was originally traumatized somehow by a bicycle or if she just inherently didn't like them. She always barked at kids and adults riding by on bikes and didn't want to be near ours, even if we weren't on them. We never could get her desensitized to bicycles.

"Labradors [are] lousy watchdogs.  They usually bark when there is a stranger about, but it is an expression of unmitigated joy at the chance to meet somebody new, not a warning." ~Norman Strung

8. Her squeak. Tater had two bad habits. One that might have gotten her killed when she was about a year old was barking too much. An annoyed neighbor in the Atlanta area left a threatening note when my "ex" and I were out of town. The friend who was coming over to feed her called us in a panic when she found the note. When we returned we tried to train her with a squirt gun, a shock collar, and other behavioral methods. None were successful and it was difficult to control her behavior when we were at work all day. So our vet recommended de-barking surgery. Tater handled surgery well and had a very soft "bark" the rest of her life. She got to bark all she wanted (which was a lot) and no one was bothered by it any more. (This is a controversial procedure in some quarters, but it worked in Tater's case and I'd do it again if I needed to. I haven't had this problem with any of my other dogs.)


Tater with Jim in the Beartooth Mountains, summer of 2000.
She knew that doggie pack meant a fun day was coming up!

9. Chasing deer (and antelope, when we lived in Billings) on runs and walks. This was Tater's other willful habit. We never could prevent it when she was off-leash so she was more often ON-leash. She would give chase for about 100 feet, then come back to us. She wasn't interested in rabbits and squirrels like my other Labs, just deer and antelope. That was a good thing at home in Billings and Roanoke, however, because she'd keep them out of the yard and gardens. Every morning when we opened the dog door she'd race outside, barking and looking for the deer she knew had been in the yard and nearby woods during the night. Since her death, the deer have ravaged our tomato plants. Even keeping the dog door open all night hasn't helped the past week; Cody just isn't interested in deer.

10. Snapping her teeth together to catch annoying flying insects that were "bugging" her when she was lying outside the camper or house. The sound reminded us of one of those electronic bug zappers.

11. Yellow hairs everywhere (and I mean everywhere). I dubbed Tater the "wool dog" because of her thick, soft undercoat. She shed all year long, most copiously for several months in the spring and summer. I swear she was part husky. When I needed dog hair to try to deter the deer from eating our peaches this summer, all I had to do was get the plastic bag full of hair from Tater's recent brushings. She looked like a wet sheep after a bath. It took several hours for her to dry off after a swim or bath, whereas Cody, the "nylon dog," dries off in an hour or two.

 
"Now can we slide down the snow chute??"  Jim and Tater on Sundance Pass in the Beartooth Mountains

12. "Walking herself" by carrying her leash in her mouth. I'll always remember this quirk as quintessential Tater. She never did it outbound on a walk or run, only when we turned around or if she knew we were getting closer to our vehicle. She had such a great sense of presence. She'd suddenly take the leash in her mouth and I'd let go. She carried her head held high, practically prancing along like she was Queen of All Dogdom. She'd do it for as long as a mile, sometimes even running with it. And she usually continued in a perfect heeling position even though I wasn't holding onto the leash. I regret that I don't have a picture of her doing this.

I never taught her to do it, although my laughter encouraged her initially. If she lost her grip and started tripping over the leash, I'd fold it better and give it back to her. Tater learned quickly that carrying her leash in her mouth garnered a lot of attention from observers, so of course she continued doing it. Everybody thought it was cute except Jim. People would smile and invariably say something like, "That's so cute!" or "What a sweet dog!" but Jim wouldn't allow her to do it when she was with him. To keep peace in the family, I let her do it only when Jim wasn't in sight.

But you know what? Now that she's gone, it's one of the first things he told me he misses most about  Tater.

COMMON TATER

Some of Tater's other endearing traits were common to other Labs I've owned:

  • Like Cody, she would often lie on her back in a most unlady/ungentleman-like pose with her hind legs spread out to play with toys in her front paws and/or to get her belly rubbed. She'd just barely wag her tail to get our attention, her soulful eyes imploring us to pet her. She sometimes slept like that on her dog bed, too, until her arthritis made the position too uncomfortable.


It's a Lab thing.  Tater, above, at age seven years in May, 2003;
Cody, below, at seven months (October, 2003)

  • Sometimes we had to resort to spelling certain words in front of Tater so she wouldn't go ballistic. Same with Callie, Bubba, Cody, and about a zillion other dogs in the world. With our Labs, the key words were related to running, riding somewhere, or food. I honestly believe every one of them learned what "r-u-n," "r-i-d-e," "c-a-r," "c-a-m-p-e-r," "b-o-n-e," and "s-u-p-p-e-r" meant when we spelled them!
  • Although none of my Labs have ever been taught to hunt, retrieving things comes naturally to the breed. Tater loved to chase balls when she was younger (that's how she tore her ACL) and got better than my other Labs at catching them. This summer she could still catch a ball from several feet away even when she could barely walk.
  • Tater loved to retrieve sticks, but only in the water. She and Bubba used to swim out, grab onto the same stick, and carry it back together. When Bubba got older and weaker, Tater would out-swim him but let him grab the stick on the way back to shore. Cody never shared a stick with Tater. He always got there first and used evasive maneuvers on the way back so Po' Tater couldn't grab on!


Evenly matched:  Cody + Tater = Jim in weight, approximately.
Playing Ultra Tug at the Foothills CG in Wyoming before the Bighorn 100 in June, 2006.

  • Cody would encourage Tater to play tug with him, however. If she wasn't interested, he'd put the toy or tug rope next to her and bark at her as if to say, "Come on!" Usually he was able to goad her into playing this game. Cody soon grew strong enough to overpower Tater as she aged but she still played tug briefly with the rascal until a few days before she died.


Cody (seven months) and Tater (eight years) play tug with a ball on a rope

  • Although Tater was very exuberant when she was young, she was as tolerant of puppy Cody as Bubba was of puppy Tater. Jim and I joked that "what goes around, comes around" and "Tater needs a puppy" -- meaning, wait until you get payback! After Bubba died, Tater was our only dog for two years. She was seven when we got Cody, a bit too old to appreciate his puppy antics. But she surprised us, tolerating quite a bit of rough play and sharp teeth even though she'd never had puppies of her own. Having a puppy around seemed to make her younger and more playful.


Tater made a good mom and mentor to Cody-pup.  Summer, 2003


Payback!!  What goes around, comes around:
now it's Tater's turn to be terrorized by a young puppy (summer of 2003).


Ouch! He's got sharp teeth!


Tater's a good sport despite the little monkey on her back.


Both dogs shared their toys nicely. (That's a long rawhide bone.)

  • Tater was a good pet therapist, too. She easily passed obedience classes and earned her Canine Good Citizenship award, after which she was allowed to go to nursing homes to visit elderly folks and give back some love and attention. I also did this with Bubba and Callie and plan to train Cody for it.

"In order to really enjoy a dog, one doesn't merely try to train him to be semi human. 
The point of it is to open oneself to the possibility of becoming partly a dog." 

~Edward Hoagland 

  • Like my other Labs, Tater loved to follow me around the yard when I was gardening. She enjoyed lying in the cool dirt, passively watching me. (Cody watches more alertly, hoping for a worm to sniff or a new stick to chew.) Even on her last morning, Tater weakly followed me as I spent several hours in the yard gardening. It was the last enjoyable thing she did, and it took all the strength she had left in her failing body.

 

"LET'S GO CAMPING!"


Cody-pup and Tater inside the camper door, summer of 2003.

Tater loved to camp. She'd get very excited when we'd start packing the camper before each trip and would hang out nearby to be certain we didn't forget to take her! It was cute to watch. She hated it when we boarded her in a kennel with strangers -- who can blame her? -- so I did my best to find pet sitters who would come to our house or let her stay at theirs. She handled that much better but she definitely preferred to go WITH us, even if it meant being cooped up for hours and hours in the back seat alone or with Cody while we were in transit:


Cody's butt always made a nice pillow on long rides in the truck.

On camping trips Tater adapted well to every place we traveled, whether it was a Wal-Mart parking lot overnight in transit or a huge site in a national forest area with a lake or creek nearby. She didn't care, as long as she got to be with us and got to go run somewhere. She wasn't as emotionally "needy" as Cody, who wants to be under our feet more. She was happy to lay outside in the cool grass or dirt until bedtime, barking (squeaking) occasionally at something that caught her attention in the woods..

The only time we've seen Tater lie under the camper is when we're camping. It was a cool spot from the sun, a place to stay dry in the rain. She never laid under it at our home in Billings or here in Virginia. I think it's remarkable that she appeared to choose this location as where she wanted to die instead of a cool patch of grass or her soft bed in the daylight basement "dog room."


Tater and Cody enjoy our usual camping spot near Leadville, CO  (August, 2004)

Let's back up a bit. Without going into all the details of her physical problems the past month, I can assure you it was a physical roller coaster for Tater and an emotional one for us. She required several medications, special food, assistance on stairs, and other modifications to her routine and care. Some days we could see the "old Tater," the one we knew and loved for almost twelve years. Other days were very discouraging, when she wouldn't eat or drink, her GI tract didn't work right, her weight kept going down, she couldn't move around much, and/or she was very lethargic.

Jim and I never knew what we'd find after we were gone several hours or when we went to feed the dogs each morning. It was very stressful for several weeks, but each time she seemed to improve, our hopes were up that the improvement would last a while. It never did.

Tater had a particularly bad night on August 20th and was very lethargic the next morning. After we helped her up, she was able to move around slowly outside for several hours during the cool, overcast morning while I was gardening. Even though I left the basement door open to the "dog room" so she didn't have to wedge through the doggie door, she didn't go back inside the house. She could go to the bathroom by herself. She drank some water but refused all offers of yummy canned dog food (until her last month, she ate only dry dog food). She followed me around the yard and laid in the flowerbed near me but she seemed like a different dog. There was no affect, no sign of recognition, no wag of the tail, no response to her favorite words or comforting strokes.

"Tater" wasn't in there, and it made me very sad.


A much thinner Tater on August 3. This was one of the better days
in her last month, and the last day I photographed her.

I went inside to eat lunch about 1 PM Tater was lying in a shady patch of grass sleeping. Jim and Cody had been out running for a while. They came home soon after I went inside. As usual, both of them looked for Tater before coming upstairs. When Jim couldn't find her, he assumed she was inside with me. Nope. Now I was alarmed, too. Where could she have gone? We went back out to hunt for her in the woods. Jim finally found her under the camper. Since she never goes under there at home, we didn't even think to look there first!

Tater didn't appear to hear us as we tried to cajole her to come out. Her eyes were half closed, her breathing was raspy, she barely moved except to breathe. I ran inside to get a couple sheets so we could pull her out without hurting her. Jim crawled under the camper to place a sheet under her body. She still didn't move or respond to us when we had her out in the grass, so we carried her closer to the house, shed more tears for our little girl, and called the vet.

We knew then that it was time to say goodbye to Tater.

A FINAL ACT OF LOVE

"Euthanasia is a kindness extended to a treasured pet, a decision we make at a great cost to ourselves. It is a final act of love, nothing less."  ("Considering Euthanasia for Your Pet," adapted from Dogs For Dummies, 2nd Edition, by Gina Spadafori and Marty Becker)

Jim and I had talked several times during August about "how we'd know when it was time" to euthanize Tater. We knew we didn't want her to be in pain (she showed that only once, on her last night). We knew we couldn't carry her outside to do her business if she lost complete mobility; even after losing several pounds and looking all bony, she still weighed 68 pounds. We debated whether we were keeping her alive for our sake or for hers.

We asked ourselves if we were in Tater's condition, would we want to live? She couldn't walk well any more, let alone run. She had difficulty getting up, urinating and defecating, eating, and breathing. What kind of life was that? Neither of us would want to keep going in those conditions, and we've spelled it all out in our own Advanced Directives. In hindsight, we probably should have euthanized Tater a couple of weeks earlier.


An  enjoyable trek to the Beartoths with Tater (photo taken by Jim the summer of 2000)

We talked about Tater with two vets, as well as several close friends and relatives who are Pet People and would understand our dilemma. We read articles on the internet like the excellent one above and found comfort reading on-line forums where others talked about how they made the decision to put down a well-loved pet.

All that helped, but we still didn't know the answer until Tater so much as told us the day she crawled under her beloved camper. And even then, it was very hard to let her go.

In my almost-sixty years I've had the companionship of about a dozen dogs. I've watched in sadness as each succumbed to either the "normal" aging process or various terminal illnesses. In most cases it's been my own decision when to end their lives humanely, before they suffered from much pain. That decision has never been easy, however, despite knowing in my heart it's the right thing to do.

This time was particularly hard because I had Tater a little longer than any previous dog. In addition, I've been retired the last nine years and got to enjoy her more than the dogs I had when I was working full time. She was inside the house with me more, she ran with me more, and she got to go on numerous trips with us in the camper instead of having to stay home when we traveled. She was more a part of my life than other dogs I've had (as is Cody, but for a shorter period of time so far).

 
One of Tater's and our favorite places: Mount Hope
near Leadville, CO  (photo taken August, 2001)

Ten days after her death we can laugh about Tater's antics and quirks and remember the wonderful times we had, yet the tears are still close to the surface. Tater was totally dependent on us and we feel not only self-doubt but some guilt. Should we have done more to keep her alive despite her age? Would she have been better the next day? It's wonderful that veterinary medicine has made almost as many technological advances as human medicine, but it's ironic, too. Now it's even more difficult for pet owners to decide just how much testing and treatment are reasonable to keep elderly or sick pets alive.

The euthanasia decision and subsequent loss have been much tougher on Jim than either of us predicted (we already knew it would be hard on me). Tater is the first dog he's ever been so bonded with. He loved running with her and laughing at her antics. He became even more concerned and involved with her care during the last month as he realized she wasn't going to live as long as we thought. He was a tender, thoughtful caretaker, just like he is with his human EMS patients. He's still close to tears at times, too. Who would have thought that Sweet Tater could affect a former non-dog person so profoundly in just nine years?

HOW'S CODY DOING?

Cody watched as we placed a near-lifeless Tater in the van to take her to the vet. We didn't let him go. I rode into town in the back of the van with Tater, stroking her and talking softly to her until the end. She had no response to either of us. Unfortunately, Dr. Webster was off that day; a colleague in his practice came out to the van to administer the injection. (We're good enough friends with Dr. Webster that we think he might have come out to our house, not that it would have been any easier on us emotionally.) 

Jim insisted that we bury Tater at home so she could have a dignified burial. We brought her back and dug a big hole in the woods just beyond the "Appalachian Trail" blaze. Cody sniffed Tater's now-lifeless body and watched as we buried her. At the last minute I remembered that we still hadn't spread Bubba's ashes on a trail or mountain after he was cremated seven years ago. We put his cremains in the grave with Tater and marked it with both of their names.

Old buddies reunited once again:


Tater and Bubba's burial site in our woods

Cody didn't show any signs of distress until a couple of days later. When we saw this normally very affectionate dog become remote, even depressed, we started searching the internet for answers. I found some good articles about canine mourning with studies and anecdotal evidence showing dogs exhibit many of the same symptoms of grieving that humans do when they lose a close companion.. Cody's reaction surprised us before we read those web sites. He often tried to literally wedge himself between Tater and us when we gave her attention. He's been "clingy" all his life. We figured he'd be delighted to have us all to himself, but he really seems to miss Tater.

At first he probably thought she'd be coming back. He seemed to be waiting and watching for her from the deck or yard.  Then he started sleeping a lot more than usual in the basement dog room instead of sitting with his nose against the patio door, begging to come inside. Ten days later we still have to coax him to come inside with us and he isn't his boisterous self on the trail. We've tried to give him more affection, take him with us whenever we leave, and even talk about Tater a little bit. Being the chow hound that he is, his appetite hasn't diminished (a common sign for many dogs), but it's obvious he has been affected by Tater's absence. He's also probably picking up on the emotions Jim and I have been expressing lately, too. He's more perceptive and sensitive than we thought.


The way we were: Cody misses his good buddy, too. 
Photo taken in May, 2006 by Eric Rathbun.

Even though sociable Cody would probably like to have a buddy to play with again, this isn't a good time for us to get another puppy or adult dog. We have too much traveling planned this fall and winter. We might consider getting another dog next spring, or maybe just wait a while if Cody seems to adjust OK to being an "only dog."

[Addendum six days later, September 6:  The last few days Cody has been acting more like his old self, which is a relief. Jim and I are doing better, too.]

LIFE LESSONS?

When I remember Tater, I like to think how much this furry canine and I were similar in our approach to growing older. Even a dog can remind a human about some important life lessons:

  • life is an adventure; live every day to the max


Tater with us on the summit of Mt. Elbert, Colorado's highest 14,000+ foot mountain.
Photo taken August, 2003 when we were all younger and stronger.

  • if someone you love has some odd little quirks, don't let them annoy you too much because they just might be your favorite memories later on

  • although it's fun to travel around the country, some of the best places to hang out are near home
  • don't give up the things you love the most without a good fight
  • don't quit, even if you have to grudgingly acquiesce to Father Time and adapt to your physical limitations as you get older and the joints and lungs don't work as well as they did when you were a young pup
  • play hard until you just can't play any longer
  • cherish the ones you love every day, whether they ambulate on two feet or four, because you never know for sure when you'll have to say goodbye to them. 


Tater's ears flying as she runs toward Jim after another wonderful day in the woods (summer of 2000)

Tater had quite an adventure in her twelve short years. We have visions that now she's racing through a beautiful forest like she did when she was young -- long ears flapping in the breeze, tail going around in circles, eyes bright with doggie laughter, long legs gracefully leaping over fallen trees -- finally escaped from the aged physical body that betrayed her free spirit.

Goodbye, Sweet Tater. A bunch of people miss you.

"My goal in life is to be as good of a person as my dog already thinks I am." 
 ~Author Unknown  

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and (in memoriam) Tater

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2008 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

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