I'd never had to put a dog down until Monday. That's when Rainey, our 15-year-old pit mix, an intelligent pup with the softest fur in the world and a predilection for beer, left us.
We had five days to process the news. Mounting health problems had wasted a 50-pound dog down to 35, her spine poking through her coat like tent poles. She ate less and less and drank more and more, putting unreasonable pressure on an already weakened bladder. Her legs got shaky, her panting lilted upward with every breath, a series of quiet whines. Her confident stride gave way to measured steps.
The main culprit was a thyroid issue, potentially fixed by an expensive surgery that left no guarantees of whether or not she'd come out the other side OK. It was a tough decision; we'd just spent $2700 to fix our other dog's torn ACL, but he was only three years old. Rainey was already lucky to make it to 15, and even a successful surgery wouldn't address all the other problems that had robbed her of the puppyesque aura that chased her into her teens.
That put my girlfriend Katie in an impossible position. She had raised Rainey since she was a puppy, either a serendipitous gift from above or the product of a happy coincidence. The strawberry-blonde mutt was the calmest dog at the shelter outside Fort Worth, her only name a perfect match to Katie's last. They spent a couple years in Texas together before moving to Nashville for graduate school, which is where we met.
My first meaningful interaction with the dog came my first year at Vanderbilt. I spent my first home football game drinking grain alcohol and not going to my first home football game; Katie drove my car back to her place to sleep it off on her couch. I stumbled onto a bed and spent the next three hours with a furry nurse curled up at my side, a wet nose occasionally checking to see that I was still alive.
Rainey was immediately my favorite. Her empathy extended beyond hangovers. She licked away tears and stayed anchored to the bedroom when you stayed home sick from work. When she lay down beside you, she slumped onto your legs first, slowly sliding to the side to ensure the best possible contact. With the exception of UPS and FedEx drivers, she loved people more than anything else, soaking up attention with the big, mouthy smile gifted to her by the pit bull genes in her DNA.
I jumped at the opportunity to dog-sit when her owner left town, holding her in an apartment that didn't allow dogs but still found treats for Rainey in the front office. She found a wasps' nest the first weekend she stayed over, devouring it in several bites without flinching. Thanking god for extended leashes, I took her on a different path for our walks from that point. Somehow, even after relaying that story to her owner, I'd get the chance to take her again and again.
Years later, Katie would move up to Wisconsin, where we now live together. After seven years in the heat of Tennessee and Texas, a January move to Madison was anathema to her. She moped through the first five months, spending the first refusing to go to the bathroom in the snow. We bought her a seasonal affective disorder lamp, hoping some faux sunlight would snap her out of it. She never sat still in front of it long enough to make a difference.
Nothing seemed to, until one day she broke the code. Rainey, the dog who'd rather chew wasps than eat honey, realized snow was edible. She'd vacuum sidewalks clean and crunch through piles of broken icicles until we would reel her back inside, just hoping to keep her from hypothermia. For the past 7 years, anyone trying to put an ice cube their a drink did so with a pair of pleading pleading brown eyes staring up at them from knee-level.
She was slowly morphing into a cranky old lady when we moved into a house in the suburbs. We adopted another dog -- a five-month old pit bull puppy -- to keep her on her toes, thinking the exercise would keep her young. Bmo loved her, doting on her day and night. If she got up, he followed her, trying to lock her into play time. If she lay down, he lay next to her, resting his giant rock skull on her back or hip and feeding off her warmth.
She hated it.
When it came to playing, Rainey was more like a giant cat, content to soak up your body heat on the couch but rarely offering up anything but indifference when pressed to play. Her level of dog-sibling acceptance never rose beyond tolerance, and her lifelong aversion to traditional dog behavior shined through. Holding a rope or ball in front of her elicited dismissive stares; the dog seemed borderline offended by insinuations she should fetch anything. The only toy she ever cared for was a pink sock monkey she'd carry around once a week when her oft-dormant canine instincts kicked in.
Within three days, Bmo had chewed its eyes off.
Rainey held on to her youth as long as she could, and despite some growing white patches around her snout, still looked like a puppy. It was only after spending extra time with her that you could see her age. Five mile hikes through the dog park now ended after one. Leaps onto her cozy spot on the couch took two or three tries. Thunderstorms she'd slept through earlier in life now rattled her, leaving her whining through the night.
The last straw was the thyroid issue that gave her a never-ending thirst and left her trying to discretely lick up the urine spots she'd leave behind while laying down. Always a people-pleaser, she wanted to keep things clean until the very end. Surgery may have prolonged her life, but her best days had passed her by. She was in pain. She wasn't the same dog anymore.
The least we could do was give her the sendoff she deserved as a part of our family. My stepdog lived her best life the past five days. She enjoyed long walks with stops for back-first flops onto plush green lawns, rolling out to get as much of that fresh-cut grass smell as possible. She took trips to the dog park, where she could sniff other dogs on her terms before taking off down a trail. She earned one last drive to Capital Brewery, where she'd come to the bier garten with me for so many summer trivia nights to get doted on by strangers, and one final dog bowl of water spiked with light beer.
And, best of all, she had her first steak, courtesy of our best friend out here, the one who had taken her whenever we had to ditch Madison for friends’ weddings or other trips. He picked up a New York strip for the pup last Friday, bringing it back for her as one last splendid feast. Always the lady, Rainey ate the sides first -- sauteed potatoes -- before tearing into her meat. The whole process took about 90 seconds; her smile lasted the next two days.
She couldn't have known her last day was Monday, but it still seemed like she had an idea. She walked with more power in her hips despite not having touched her kibble over the past week. Her eyes, fighting the battle against oncoming clouds inside her retinas, had a different light in them. She was more patient when we'd grab her and pull her close. She let Bmo nap with his head on her hip.
It didn't make the decision any easier, but there was a comfort in that. Rainey wasn't going out on the top of her game, but she was giving us the best possible Rainey to remember her by. We took her to the vet before her haywire thyroid could cause her organs to calcify -- before the pain got so bad she couldn't enjoy the last few days of the Wisconsin summer. We took one last walk around the neighborhood before we left, stopping to lie down on the softest lawns and beam a wide-mouthed, missing-teeth smile at the neighborhood she'd called home the past four years.
That's going to be the way I remember her.
At the vet, we had one last quiet moment to say goodbye. We fed her treats topped with spray-cheese and ensured she knew just what a good dog she was. When the doctor asked whether we'd like to stay for the procedure, there was no question that we would hold her until the very end.
Rainey Rainey went out peacefully, drunk off sedatives and with a stomach filled with cheez-whiz and other assorted foods dogs dream about but rarely get. She had the two people she'd spent nearly every day of her life with stroking her head and telling her how much they loved her. She didn't whine, she didn't cry; she just fell asleep and never came back, off to a land with soft couches, plush green fields, and no annoying younger dogs to harass her.
We should all be so lucky.