They’re both dogs from notoriously aggressive breeds.
Rufus and Duke, not so aggro.
Rufus is hyper and anxious.
Duke was chill and peaceful.
Extremely intelligent dogs prone to grave acts of stupidity.
Rufus is mostly on edge, but sweet.
Duke was never on edge, but always sweet.
They both have earned the nickname “lizard” for their rapid fire licking ability.
For whatever similarities they share, there is one they do not.
Rufus is alive. Duke isn’t.
About 11.5 years ago Duke woke up and his back was buckled up. He looked like an upside down u, with four legs. The vet couldn’t figure out what it was so he suggested a trip to a veterinary neurologist (yea, they exist). This guy suggested a complete work up on Duke (MRI, x-rays, etc). While seemingly a little much, I wanted an answer.
Unfortunately, it was $7,000.
I did not have $7,000.
Annnnd cue waterworks. I immediately became upset so the doctor stepped out to give me a couple of minutes. Moments after he stepped out, his nurse came in…with loan papers. Now aside from being in poor taste and wildly insensitive, especially to a grown man practically weeping, it did nothing to stop my sense of dread for Duke.
Fortunately, I have a friend in California who was a vet. I rang him from the examination room and asked what he thought I should do. He said “Don’t do anything right now. Ask for a prescription for a steroid and call me later tonight.”
The doctor returned and I told him I wanted to wait and what by buddy had said. He seemed to understand and gave me a prescription for whatever steroid was suggested (Prednizone, I believe).
Later that night I called my vet friend to discuss what might be wrong with Duke. He was honest and direct. A good trait for any doctor.
ME: What do you think it is?
HIM: I dunno, I’m not there. What are the symptoms?
ME: Hunched back, panting, lethargy. The guy said it could be a slipped disc, a brain tumor or (something else I can’t recall).
HIM: OK. Food and poop and stuff?
HIM: Did he jump anywhere where he may have slipped a disc?
ME: Not to my knowledge.
HIM: Well, for what it’s worth I would have suggested the same diagnostic work up. That sounds right.
ME: Yea, but I don’t have 7K to do the complete workup to determine what is wrong. To do it, I would have to absorb the debt and I don’t really wanna do that, but then I fear I am making a decision based solely on money.
HIM: Dude, if you take the loan, what are you gonna do with the information?
ME: Whadda ya mean?
HIM: Well, you spend 7K to get a diagnosis, then what?
ME: Treat it.
HIM: If he has a brain tumor, are you really going to implement a treatment plan that is pretty aggressive and extremely expensive? Best case is it’s a slipped disc, which may or may not correct itself. If it doesn’t, surgery. From what you have described and what I know of Duke, I would bet it’s a brain tumor. It can happen to Rotties around that age. But listen, I can’t be certain, I’m not there. I’m only going off what you have told me. Also, don’t beat yourself up, I know you and anyone who knows you would say that whatever you decide is not going to be based on money.
I desperately needed to hear that.
ME: So, what should I do?
HIM: If it were my dogs at 7 (he had a Rottie and a chocolate lab) and I were not a vet, I would keep treating him with the steroids. But you have to understand his body will eventually build up a tolerance to the drug. Of course, building a tolerance could take six months or it could take two years. There is no real way to tell because every dog is different. But when he does, you’ll have to make a decision.
Duke was himself within a day, and even puppy-like at times. Unfortunately, for every burst of energy there was a nagging voice in the back of my head telling me that it wouldn’t last. Just when I’d get used to seeing him all happy and full of energy, there would be a bad day where he was either lethargic or despondent.
In the third month, Duke began to slow down and the bad days began to out number the good. It didn’t take a Dr. to tell what was happening. It was just a matter of time. My heart began to break.
It’s true that animals will tell you when they are ready to go.
One morning Duke just went outside and splayed himself out as if to say “It hurts too much. I’m ready.”
I went outside gasping for air and desperately trying not to cry. I picked him up and gently put him in my Jeep as the tears began running down my cheek. Even though I knew this day would come, it never stops sucking. Even now. I tried to find some peace in knowing that Duke was loved by everyone he encountered, that Duke was a good dog, that Duke lived a great life. And even though seven years is young, he provided more love and laughter than most humans do in 70 years and as hard as I tired to remain positive, it hurt like hell. It still does.
It may seem silly but I had already determined he would be cremated and I wanted him to be with his two favorite things as he made the transition to the other side, wherever that is. I had him cremated with the cover to his bed which read Sir Duke, a nod to the Stevie Wonder song and a gift from his great-grandmother, and his very first toy, a stuffed squeaky shark.
Over the past 11.5 years Duke has always been with me. In my heart…and in a cardboard box on my bookcase. I knew one day, when I was ready, I wanted to spread his ashes in the park we used to go to when he was a puppy, Tawny Hill Park in Danbury, CT. He loved it there. For him, there were tons of trails to explore, tons of people to interact with, tons of other dogs to frolic with, sticks for as far as he could see…and the scents, BILLIONS of those. It seemed only appropriate that Tawny Hill Park was were he should ultimately rest.
This past weekend I was finally ready to say good-bye to Duke.
I rented a car and drove from Brooklyn to Danbury to take his ashes to the park. The day was cloudy, a little chilly and, every now and then, a little drizzle. Fitting for a the act. The park was pretty empty, except for a few mongrels…and dogs kicking around. It was just the type of day Duke would have loved.
For Duke, this park was heaven on earth.