We lost our dog Brian. He was 12 years old. His back legs were rickety and on slippery linoleum, sometimes he would fall. He was going deaf, and sometimes you had to get right next to him before his ears would prick up and he would hear his name. Brian was a big yellow lab, and at 85 pounds, he needed a ramp, and my help keeping him in balance, to get into the car. His dad had died at 9, so we knew he came from a shorter-lived family. But his eyes were still bright, and once we got on a trail, Brian loved to run.
He still loved to prance up to the other dogs and act like a king. He was a sweet dog, and a gentle dog. Years ago, he figured out that cats don’t like a dog’s hello, meaning sniff the nose, sniff the butt and then go play. He always greeted our cat, Andy, in the catlike way, which meant that Brian would lower his head to the height of Andy, and let Andy rub his face against Brian’s forehead, then he’d let Andy curl back and forth in between his legs. Brian knew that when our 2-year old neighbor, Rio, came over, it worked the best if Brian would lie down and wait for Rio to get curious, and get over his bit of fear about dogs. And then Rio would pet Brian, and Brian’s eyes, clear-eyed until the end, his eyes would shine.
I had planned for some time to do a series about Brian’s health, commencing back in 2010 when the wobbliness in his back legs that was already evident when he was a puppy, started getting much more rickety, and we stepped up our diligence on feeding Brian a low-carb, high fat diet. I wanted to share how this diet helped him stay in better shape. I think it did. Here’s a video of Brian, age 11 1/2, back in June, running to catch the great joy of his elder years, which was a dog-toy – a special soccer ball.
As for what Brian ate, almost every morning, it went like this:
- 1 chopped raw zucchini or other vegetable such as broccoli
- 1 avocado
- about 5 ounces of raw chicken or hamburger (the not lean hamburger, such as 30% fat)
- Something like 30 grams of olive oil or Udo’s choice oil
- Some glucosamine powder for all those rickety joints
That meal came to Brian every morning, in a ritual where Greg required that Brian sit and wait until Greg grinned and said, “Okay!” Then Brian would race to his food bowl, and eat in one big inhaled gulp, though really, he always ate his favorite item first, which was almost always the avocado.
Naturally we snuck Brian a few treats all through the day. A slice of cheese from Greg. When we’d eat raw, unsalted nuts, Brian would sit and wait quietly, and we’d give him one. And then there were the special treats of leftover bones from lamb and beef. In his younger days, Brian never wanted us to see how fiercely he tackled these He would hurry outside, where he’d dispatch them, showing all his teeth, and keeping at it for hours on end until all that was left was a bone so bare that it looked as if it was fossilized. Chicken bones? He ate those like pretzels, in three quick cracks. In his older years, he preferred not to take unneeded steps and sometimes chewed bones right in front of us. Over the years, we learned that if we gave Brian too many bones in a single day, it put too much hard stuff into his digestive tract, and then he’d have a day of constipated poop. So we gave him bones on a more moderate schedule, and then his digestion settled back into a normal, smooth, regular as a clock, non-smelly poop. Except when he was spending the night with friends, or with extended family, eating “normal” dog food, in which case his poop got softer and smelly, and sometimes even runny. It seemed the way he normally ate really matched with him.
Brian loved to hike . . . any hike. But as he grew older, he did best on level ground, although a walk on a leash in the neighborhood was terrible for all of us. Brian would get so bored, he crawled. He’d realize how much his feet hurt, and we’d have to drag him home. As for throwing tennis balls? He loved that in his younger years. Out on a trail he’d race those green, fuzzy, zooming balls and catch them in a curling somersault. He loved to do that, but over time, with his inborn wobbliness already, all those somersaults messed up his back. So we threw tennis balls less, and then discovered something better – a dog’s soccer ball. The ball was soft enough that Brian could grab it in his jaws. It was tough enough that it never punctured. It had a handle so that I could carry it without getting all gooped up. And it was slow enough, he didn’t twist so much. We all loved that soccer ball, and it made going out on the trails so fun, I learned that Brian had a lot more energy than I had suspected from taking him for a sidewalk tug-and-pulls around the block. Out on a trail, with that soccer ball, Brian, age 12, would prance. He’d run to get it. We could go three miles and half the time he’d be at a run.
I am grateful for those times with that soccer ball. I can see in my mind’s eye how Brian would jump into a stream on his gimpy legs to retrieve the ball, over and over until finally, he’d had so much fun, he’d stop and shake in a shower of sparkling water drops, and then he’d gaze up at me ,wag his tail and give me such a happy grin . . . he didn’t notice that he had dropped his beloved soccer ball, and now it was racing away with the creek’s strong current . . . which led me to run into the creek and save it for him. I loved the way that he was happy when I did that, and his sweetness on those trails, so that even though he had more trouble keeping his balance on the linoleum, and yes, it was clear he was getting older, those times on the trails, those times when he greeted our cats, those times with our 2-year old neighbor, so many times.
The last video I took of Brian with his soccer ball was in the snow, sometime in December.
Brian loved the all that sparkling, fluffy white. Then just before Christmas, we had an especially heavy snow. After 2 hours of shoveling and snow still falling, I didn’t feel like going for a run with him. So Brian was bored. I found him chewing on something – an old leather glove. He had chewed off three fingers and part of the center. I took it away, but didn’t worry – he had chewed on socks and shoes and children’s toys from the time he was little. So what, about a glove?
The next morning, the sky was blue and clear. We headed to his favorite trail beside the creek. I threw the soccer ball. Brian ran, he grinned and had a lot of fun. But when we got home, getting down from the car ramp, Brian lost his balance and fell off. I lifted him up, and he wagged his tail and limped inside and seemed to be getting better. But when we came back from a neighborhood party that night, Brian wasn’t in the house. We looked all through the yard and finally Greg found him, huddled in a corner, in the coldness of all the brand new snow. It took Greg and I, together, to carry him to his dog bed. He threw up, undigested slices of the morning’s zucchini. He seemed in the kind of pain that isn’t a wincing, crying out pain, but the kind that calls for serious work, and no noise, and short breaths, and eyes sunken down and far away. Looking back, I now know what was happening. At the time, I thought it was all because he had kinked his back when he fell off the ramp. I slept on the floor, beside him, petting him, waiting for him to get better, as he always had when his back got sore. By the early morning, he wasn’t better, so we called a 24-hour vet and took him in.
The x-rays indicated the start of pneumonia, but despite Brian’s age, the vet said Brian was healthy, we had caught it in time, and he had an 80% chance of pulling through. Two hours later, the news grew worse. There was also an obstruction in Brian’s gut. Pieces of the glove? The vet said it would take surgery to get them out. His chance of survival was now 40%. But Brian was a fighter, and the vet said that if all went well, in just four weeks, Brian would be back to his old self. We okayed that surgery, but ten minutes later, the phone rang again. The pre-surgery blood tests showed that Brian’s blood sugars , which had been in the 70s, had just plummeted to the 20s. Which meant that a sepsis infection was gobbling up all the sugar in Brian’s blood. Which meant a poisonous infection had taken hold. It was damaging every cell in Brian’s body, and it was getting worse. It was out of control. Even this surgeon who loves to save dogs, even he said it was time to let Brian go.
We called our sons in San Francisco. As we told them the news, all our memories of Brian came flooding back. All those times when our sons were little, and so was he. The years of them becoming young men, as Brian grew old and sweet. We asked our sons if there was a story they’d like us to share with Brian. Walt said to tell Brian how much he loved how Brian would catch a tennis ball out of the air, without letting it bounce. Amory said to tell Brian how much he liked that Brian really, clearly, loved all us us, and he also loved that HE was a dog. We promised that we would tell Brian all of this. At the pet hospital, they gave us a private room then carried Brian in. He was clearly sedated. His eyes were already far away, and for months he had already been mostly deaf. We tried to tell him how much he meant to us. But each time we began, in a normal, talking voice, it tumbled into sobs. The only way we could say the words was to whisper them, up close his sweet old head, as though each word was a secret that got told the best where we could smell that nutty outdoor smell of his, and we could touch him, and pet him, and give him one more, final kiss. We whispered that there was no way to stop this kind of being sick, so instead of having him linger and get worse and worse, we were going to make it quick. We shared the stories from our sons. We told him how grateful we were to know him, and love him. We thanked him for being such a good dog. Then we opened the door for the vet to come on in. Gently, he touched Brian’s paw, then he moved his hand up to where the IV line with the fluids and the sedatives was taped in place. He stepped back, just for an instant, to adjust a knob on the heart monitoring machine, so its quiet beep went completely silent. In that silence, as we petted Brian, as we kept on touching him, we watched the vet’s hands deftly moving a needle into the IV, then squeezing the plunger. Brian’s breathing faded to nothing. The vet checked his heart and said he was gone.
It was Christmas Eve morning. Greg and I drove to the trail where Brian loved to chase the soccer ball The snow was sparkling, the wide blue sky was above us. The air was still. It was a beautiful day for a walk like that. We talked about Brian and how, in his honor, we’re going to keep walking and enjoying life. Over the weeks since then, we’ve taken many walks. Many friends have told us how much they, too, loved Brian. Our sons, in San Francisco, made him a little shrine. It has a candle, a photo of them and their sweethearts, from Thanksgiving, all together, all hugging Brian. And on the shrine they’ve also put an avocado. — Shelley