Death of a Dog

Bringing home a puppy is a countdown to sorrow. Louis C.K.

On January 26, 2024, eleven years after I brought home a wild, wiggly 12-week-old border collie, Dan and I took him to the vet to say goodbye. Buster had two wounds, one on each of his back legs, that his body couldn’t heal. He’d been unable to walk for months, the wounds were getting worse and we were out of viable medical options. Despite his immobility, Buster’s enthusiasm and his love for us and the entire vet team who tried to save him still had him scooting everywhere, his tail wagging vigorously from side to side. When one of his favorite vet techs offered him a last supper brownie, Buster wolfed it down, scattering crumbs everywhere in the small exam room. I offered to clean them up, but the vet asked me not to. “This way, each time I find one, it will make me smile and think of Buster.”

I’ve only owned two dogs in my life. Bronco, our mellow yellow lab, died in his sleep at a kennel at the age of 12 while we were away at a LIVESTRONG event. Although Jimmy and Molly were sad to lose the dog they’d grown up with, they were relieved that he hadn’t died at home. Bronco had been slowing down, moving more stiffly and gingerly, but he was still in good health, so his departure was a shock.

Molly and I immediately started badgering Dan and Jimmy about getting another dog. We also enlisted the help of a dear friend who loves taking in shelter dogs. It was Angie who convinced the boys that we could help a dog avoid an unfair and untimely death by adopting him. Jimmy insisted that the new dog bear no resemblance to Bronco, our calm, 80 pound golden boy. That’s how we wound up with our crazy little all black pup with the tiny white goatee.

From the time he joined the family, Buster was my dog. Molly used to joke that no matter how many treats she offered, how many snuggles, how many invitations to lay on her bed, Buster always had one eye on me. When I stood up, so did he. When I went downstairs, he followed. When I left the room, he went, too. And nothing could convince him to stay with anyone else.

When Jimmy died two years later, Buster was the guardrail I clung to. He had endless patience for my tears, curling up on my lap as I sat on the floor and sobbed. After a while, with a gentle nudge of his cold, wet nose, he’d convince me to get up and take him out for a long walk. Impossible to tire, he’d stay out as long as I needed to shake off my sadness.

When Buster developed a deep wound on his back leg last September, the vet was initially optimistic that she could heal it with antibiotics, infrared light treatments, Manuka honey, frequent bandage changes and bed rest. Within a few weeks, the infection cleared. The wound improved steadily and almost closed up before suddenly getting worse in late December. Shortly thereafter, Buster got a small cut on his other back leg. Within two weeks, that wound had become infected and grown to the size of a poker chip.

It took a meeting with his doctor for me to understand that we were at a crossroads with Buster, facing two terrible options. Although there were still “things to try,” the vet had no confidence they would work for long, if at all. She could operate on both wounds, we could go back to bi-weekly visits for treatment and bandage changes, she told us, and find Buster no better off.

Buster had already dodged death twice – once when he ate a wad of terry cloth towel that lodged like a golf ball in his intestine, completely blocking it. And again when he became paralyzed after bursting a disc in his spine. He recovered from both surgeries, regaining full health in the first instance and relearning to walk in the second, despite dire predictions from the physical therapist that he’d never be mobile again. Last fall, when it looked as though Buster’s initial wound would fully heal, I thought he’d defied the odds again, telling Molly that Buster must be a cat in disguise.

Initially, the idea of putting Buster down was unimaginable. He was still so full of life, despite not being able to walk – happy to be with me, to squirm on the grass in the sun, to sit quietly and watch the deer and wild turkeys in the front yard. Even though his world had shrunk down to the house and the front lawn, he appeared content. But now it was clear that no matter what we tried, Buster would never walk again. He started getting restless and agitated, and I realized he was now in pain. For my energetic pup, this was no longer a life worth living.

Our house feels empty without Buster whose presence far outweighed his 45-pound body. At odd moments, I still find myself listening for him. The click of his toenails on the tile. The loud ping of his metal water dish hitting the floor after he tipped it to one side. The sound of his happy yips as he chased a rabbit in his sleep.

Up late by myself one night, I jumped when the printer made an odd chirp, not, I realized because of the noise itself but because of the loud warning bark that never came. Although I had Dan move Buster’s bed into the garage before we left to put him down, I still make a wide berth around the end of our kitchen island trying to avoid the dog who is no longer there. For weeks, Dan and I compared and aligned our schedules, only to be brought up short by the realization that one of us no longer needed to be home with the dog. I’m not sure when I’ll stop looking for his sweet face peering around the corner, eagerly hoping that I am the one who’s come through the back door.

It was exhausting caring for a special needs dog during the final six months of his life. I got tired of changing Buster’s diapers, cleaning up after his accidents, having to hold up his back end as he walked endless on the lawn before going to the bathroom, taking him out in the pouring rain. Every night before bed, Dan and I took him out together. We tried to be patient as Buster sniffed the air, listened for signs of wildlife and marked the lawn in at least a dozen places. But despite how unrelenting his care was, those trips became a bedtime ritual for all three of us. The last conversation of the day, a disconnection from all things electronic, a few quiet moments together under the starry sky.

In time, we will get a new dog. Another rescue in need of a loving home who will leave his or her imprint on our lives. But there will always be something missing – an irreplaceable relationship with a small, scared puppy who made me laugh and wore me out. A constant companion who gave me his whole heart and helped me navigate the crater left by Jimmy’s death.

For now, I am trying to focus on all the fun I had with Buster even as I grieve for him. I signed up for this sadness the day I brought him home. The fact that I hurt so much is proof of how much we loved each other.

Rest now, sweet boy. No one could have fought harder to walk again, to heal, to stay. I hope Bronco and Jimmy were there to meet you when you crossed over. You took a piece of my heart with you when you left. I’m so sad I had to let you go. I’m so happy you are finally free.

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  • Angie Kelly says:

    Oh Margo, I am so sorry y’all had to say goodbye to sweet Buster. He was a lucky boy to be so well loved by your family.

  • ChereMcl says:

    May your forever Buster live in your heart and spirit. I know he is together with Bronco and Jimmy in heaven,forever bonded to you. Love and Peace to you.

    • Margo Fowkes says:

      Thank you for your kind words, Cheryle. I know you know the pain of losing a beloved four-legged family member as well as the comfort of thinking of them whole and healthy running around with our other pups and family members 💙

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