John and I have always had pets of some kind. Birds, hedgehogs, dogs, fish and crawdads, you name it. But dogs have always been our biggest investment emotionally. We've had six dogs, total, and each was an important member of our family.
When John and I first married, we knew we wanted a dog. As a result, one of the first things we did to our new house was to fence the yard. In those days, conventional wisdom wasn't what it is now. In the late seventies, most people simply opened their front doors to send their dogs out into the neighborhood to relieve themselves. But we were adopting two Newfoundland puppies, and it just seemed to push the envelope to expect our neighbors to clean up after our dogs. At maturity, both would weigh over 180 pounds. Imagine the poop scoop we had to buy!
We ended up with two Newfies because one of them, Oolum, had a significant heart murmur (sub-aortic stenosis) at birth. This breed has carried this problem for years because of breeding errors in the fifties and sixties. We'd arranged to buy Noble, our puppy of choice, but when the breeder announced that the biggest pup was going to be put down because of the severity of his problem, we decided to give him a home with Noble instead.
Oolum lived approximately 11 months. He died of heart failure when his heart became so enlarged it could no longer pump blood effectively. But Noble, our initial purchase, lived to be a ripe old eleven.
In addition to fencing the yard, we built the dogs a kennel. We attached a doghouse to our house with a doggie door to our laundry room. We had a custom door for the doggie door that could lock if need be (families do take their dogs on vacation!) and another door with a heater built in to insert if weather conditions sank below freezing.
We almost never used the heater door. Newfies have two coats, the long silky black coat we all see, and a thicker, oil saturated undercoat that protects the breed from cold. We had to decide, early on, whether or not these dogs would be indoor or outdoor dogs, but in the end, the dogs chose for themselves. They wanted to be outdoor dogs, the yard was big and they liked to run. So every winter, Noble's coat would become tremendously full, and the following spring, he would 'blow' so much coat we could fill ten black garbage bags with his shedding.
Once we brought home our babies, Noble became very attentive to them. When John traveled out of town, Noble would sleep in the house, either in my bedroom or theirs. Both boys could pull hair, poke eyes and perform other acts of doggie abuse, and the most Noble ever did was get up and amble outside.
Over the years, Noble "fathered" our family. He protected us, played with us, swam with us, slept with us, ate with us and helped raise our kids. He was always gentle and patient. Occasionally he would bark, but only when he felt he had something important to announce (like the UPS van).
When the boys were toddlers, they fed him, helped bath him, chased him, snuggled him and just generally used him. And Noble loved it all.
Frankly, he was the perfect dog.
At the end of Noble's days we were at a loss. He had gradually lost weight and had developed arthritis in his hips and legs. He wouldn't take pain pills no matter how hard we tried to force the issue. Instead, he would try to chew at the pain. This only led to further problems. In the end, we chose to end his pain by euthanasia.
Putting a dog down is the hardest thing a parent has to do. The children adored the dog, and didn't have any memories that didn't include Noble. We were upset in our own emotional worlds, but the loss of the dog for the children exacerbated it. In addition, we were worried about what the kids would think when their parents put Noble down. What ultimate power parents wield!
We chose not to tell the kids of our decision, assuming that they weren't able to appreciate how painful decision to do so would be for us. But we took Noble to the vet's office for our pet's end of life, and it was clear to the kids from our tear streaked faces that Noble had died there.
Losing a beloved pet is deeply painful for children. Ours learned first hand how finite life is, how devastating death is, and how beloved a pet can be. In the years following Noble's death we would have other dogs, but Noble, with his gentle demeanor and protective nature, was the most generous and nurturing.