How do you know if your beloved old dog, your family pet, is ready to die? Can you ever really know? Is there a right time? How do you know when it's time?

Bernie came bounding into my life 14 years ago, in the first few months of my marriage, in the first few weeks of our first new home. I knew he was my dog the moment I saw him. His gigantic bear-like head with that heroic schnozz was pressed against the kennel that could barely contain his majesic girth in the shelter where I went looking for a dog.

"He's perfect - If you like a lot of dog"

I knew. He knew. When we saw each other we both about lost our minds. That's my boy, I said to the earnest young woman showing me around the Humane Society shelter. "Oh, he's a beaut," she said. "We call him 'Sherman.' Like the tank. He's a sweetie pie. Fantastic temperament. He's perfect - if you like a lot of dog."

He was three months old. Part black lab, part Chow, part panther, looked like a shiny black bear cub. He was 30 pounds of heart and hype when we found each other. His mother was a full, blonde Chow with hair like a canine Farrah Fawsett. Mama was dropped off at the shelter pregnant with him, so he got to be with her, sharing a cage and snuggling all day long. I was convinced this accounted for his spectacular personality.

I knew he was my dog. I just had to convince my new husband, who had not grown up with dogs, that Bernie was his dog, too. We visited him in the shelter several times. He leapt up on my husband's new khaki pants with his enormous muddy puppy paws.

For me, every night without him was an eternity. To build my case, I took the dog to the best vet in town. I wanted to assure my husband that even though the dog is male, part Chow, (can be an aggressive, possessive breed), according to his ginormous bear-paw mitts, he was going to be, well, gigantic, that he was still meant to be ours. The vet confirmed my maternal instincts. He praised his temperament, spectacular personality, and yes, he was going to be big. Probably 90 to 100 pounds.

Finally, after a month I'd worn my husband down and Bernie came home.

Like new parents, within moments we couldn't imagine our life without him.

A dog's life

He celebrated every triumph, grieved every loss, galumphed beside us on every hike through every literal and emotional terrain, slept at our feet, napped on our laps, accompanied us on every vacation, drove across the country seven times with us. He was there when I despaired there would be no baby. He placed himself on bed rest with me at the end of my pregnancy. He was there when we brought our baby home and we all cried that first night. He kept us company through all those long, colicky nights.

Kept us safe from cats burglars

He kept guard against all intruders. "If it wasn't for me, we'd all be speakin' cat," my (former) husband swears he once heard him say. He hated thunder and would hide in the closet. He howled (exactly) like a moose when he wanted a treat. He spent a lot of time, a lot of time, wearing our daughter's tutus and sitting beside stuffed animals for tea parties. He was a wildly enthusiastic audience to all of her living room performances. He was unspeakably patient and endured all our household quirks except for one: He simply could not abide loud sneezes. He would lurch up and leave the room with an unusual air of indignity. When he went up on two legs and put his front paws on the table (not that he ever did that but if he did, is what I meant) he looked just like a bear at a picnic table.

My greatest comfort

He was my greatest comfort, the bearer or all my secrets. His is the face and fur I sobbed into when my brother died. We'd be on the floor for hours. He would lie so still and let me weep.

Bernie was the best company ever. He was the handsomest dog anybody ever saw. We'd get stopped all day long when we took him out with us. "What kind of dog is that?"

"Chowbrador," we'd say proudly.

He was the sweetest, kindest, bear-dog you can ever imagine. He had the biggest, most beautiful face with these soulful eyes.

He outlived our marriage.

He bore silent, non-judgmental witness to the entire arc of 14 years of our lives.

Six months ago he got sick but got better. We knew it was coming.

When a dog is dying

Then a few weeks ago he didn't want to go on walks anymore. He hated getting up. His breathing was labored. The vet did a few more things and made him "comfortable."

Then last week he stopped eating. And wouldn't get up. At all. And the vet said it was bad. And so we faced that horrifying question so many of us with family pets do. Is this the time? How can we decide? What if we're wrong? The vet said only we could decide. So we said how? How do we decide when we don't know for sure? When we don't want to know for sure.

Was our dog telling us to let go?

And it turns out there are good questions to ask. Questions like: Is he eating? Drinking water? Is he getting up to walk? Is he engaging with you? Is he breathing heavily? Does he seem to enjoy anything he usually enjoys, or anything at all?

The truth was he was shutting down. He was letting go. He was in pain.

The vet said in his experience, many families feel confused and uncertain and second-guess themselves about this decision until a little while after.

"Once you get a little distance," he said, "you'll find comfort; you'll see more clearly."

I'm still too sad, too close, I guess. So I'll wait. Meanwhile, I just really miss my dog.

About the Author

Pam Cytrynbaum

Pamela Cytrynbaum teaches at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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