A couple of Saturdays ago I was asked âtheâ question again. A dear client asked about a hero of a dog, her old Labrador, Soot.
A suspected brain stem lesion made it difficult for him to stand and walk. The shiny, sleek black coat that stretched over his muscular frame was getting duller and whiter, and the muscles had atrophied so you could easily see bones poking up along his torso. His 14-year-old body was old and tired.
But one part of Soot that seemed oblivious to the ever-increasing effects of his cancer â his tail. It never stopped swaying. It reflected his heart and soul, and I was happy to see him wag it that day just like he had done for his entire amazing life.
He came to us at work as a crazy black Lab puppy. He actually did bounce off the walls early on, but he was terribly sweet and an absolutely gorgeous dog. His energy was challenging, but we had fun. His owners were a young couple wanting to start a family, and were concerned they couldnât invest the time to train and maintain such a big dog.
âDo you know of anyone who would give him a good home?â Maybe I do, I thought. Recently, I had put another black Lab to sleep due to chronic kidney failure, and I thought her owner might need another pet to help her in her grief. I hoped.
So I told her of Sootâs story and his need for a good home and a long-time family. I really tried to sell him as healthy but in need of guidance; an open book for her to train and to heal with. She agreed to come to the office to meet him. When he saw her, he totally clobbered her â jumping up and bouncing, drooling and licking her and constantly beating her with his tail in total bliss. Mission accomplished. Off they went.
As the years rolled by, she trained Soot perfectly. They became involved in a search and rescue group. At whatever time of the day or night, in all kinds of weather, Soot and his owner might be called to go traipsing through the West Virginia hills looking for lost people. They loved it, and he was good, tail wagging the whole way and happy to help.
One night they got a call about a lost hunter. He was a sick, older man and it was awfully cold out. His family was worried that he would die before anyone found him. Soot was on it. After some time searching, they found him off in a clearing, sitting and waiting to be found. He was cold and in need of medical attention, but he was safe. Soot and his owner saved that manâs life. His family was and will be forever grateful.
Because of his life-saving skills, he was nominated to be the National Hero Dog and flown out to California as a finalist on their television show. He didnât win, but the national notoriety was exciting and fun for all involved. He was our hero.
Time began to catch up with him. He developed a heart condition that slowed him down, but was manageable with medication. Arthritis set in, as with all bigger dogs, and supplements and pain management were started. Another neurologic condition affected his facial muscles, turning a thick, square head into a small one with obvious muscle wasting. Lots of changes but nothing that was going to stop him, until that day he could not get up.
The paralysis was in both front and back legs to some degree, and walking was almost impossible. We sent him to a neurologist, expecting the worst news, and it came. A lesion was very probable in his brain stem. There was nothing she or we could do to help Soot any more, except to say good-bye with grace.
And it was me again. I started this pair on their amazing journey and now I had to help them say goodbye. A terrible time to be a vet, but I would not have it any other way. I needed to be with this awesome person who changed the direction of this dogâs life and gave him a purpose and all the love she had. I also needed to be with this crazy, now-old dog that never left my heart. We said good-bye, he took a little breath and his tail was finally still.
Doing the right thing is not about the moment you are in. You have to think bigger. Itâs about the totality of a life and all the good choices you have made. Itâs about taking a leap of faith and trusting things will work out. Itâs about the small and large sacrifices that we all make for the greater good. Sootâs owner never stopped doing all the right things for him, especially at the end.