All Good Things…

Posted on March 18, 2018 by Lynn Henderson

I have written before about my wonderful co-pilot Koda, my 14+ year-old German Shepherd Cross. We met in vet school, somewhere around 2004. It likely wasn’t the greatest idea to get a dog during such a busy time of my life, but I went to the Humane Society to ‘look around’ and there she was. (By the way, here is some free advice: There is no such thing as “Just looking around” a humane society. Pets at shelters are sticky; you will leave with one…. or many). Regardless, we met in my second year of vet school and were fast friends.

Dock DogI concluded early on that she was crossed with something crazy – a Border Collie?, a bolt of lightning? I was dealing with a lot of energy in this little creature, and quite possibly a keener intellect than my own.  She was painted like a German shepherd, black and tan just as expected, but she was a compact version. My family had always had purebred German Shepherds and so I was keen to introduce my mother to this amazing German Shepherd ‘puppy’ I had stumbled upon at the Human Society of all places! My mom wasn’t overly complimentary.  She was kind enough about my new addition, but there was an underlying layer of purebred-dog-loving superiority I could sense from subtle comments such as “THAT’S NOT a German Shepherd!?”…..hmm.

It mattered little to me – this dog was my dog, whatever the hell she was made of. We soon joined obedience classes (which Koda likely could have taught), and moved on to agility shortly thereafter. It was a challenge to stay on pace withBeach Dog her during class. When it was our turn to run the course, she would get ahead of me and randomly start completing obstacles – then look back at me like “See what I did!?”  I would get her back on track with me and begin to send her to the next object, and she would already be going back and forth through the tunnel, then be halfway up a ramp……aargh!  I was most definitely the weakest link in this chain. I’m sure Koda will thoroughly voice her frustrations at having such a slow owner in her memoir elsewhere. There would likely be something in there about how on earth she got such a Basset Hound for an owner. Alas….

Since becoming besties, Koda and I have lived in seven homes. She has been with me through multiple career shifts, the birth of my daughter, and the loss of my marriage. For the last eight years, she has unfailingly been my co-pilot while I traverse the world of mobile veterinary practice. She quite literally sits on the passenger seat all day, un-moving. She will not bother pets I am transporting. She will not jump out of the van if a window or door are left open. She will not forgive me easily when a McDonald’s drive-through window fails to yield old-fashioned plain Timbits – Man do I get a face when that happens!

And so it is with pets – we go on day-by-day with our lives and suddenly become acutely aware of the fact that our companion is aging. I was taken aback by this with my beautiful girl – I was indignant. Here I am working in companion animal geriatric and end-of-life care, and my own dog is suddenly, quite obviously geriatric. Bullshit. The first thing I noticed was the loss of her hearing. Clients often describe to me that it seems their pet’s hearing was “there one day andKoda Pond then just gone”! Now I get it – My explanation for this is that as long as a pet has some level of hearing, they respond to us in the same ways they always did, and we do not notice. Then suddenly, when his/her hearing deteriorates just a bit more, they cannot catch our commands and suddenly seem quite acutely deaf.

My old girl is basically deaf. If I clap my hands together very loudly, I can often get a head turn, but more often than not, I am standing at my backdoor clapping and yelling like a maniac towards the hind end of a dog who is happily, obliviously sniffing in the garden.

Oh My God….It’s happening to me.

Koda began having troubles with her hind end a few months ago. She is still able to get herself outside for pees and poops, but has a very hard time on my tile floors generally. She slips on her hind legs and splays out on the floor, or seems to drag one or the other behind her like a stiff peg she is no longer in control of. I briefly think of my active agility-eager puppy of years ago and am saddened by her stiff, painful body. I am angry at time and biology, angry at my veterinary degree that feels useless in this arena. I can cry just imagining my world without hKoda Parker. So this is what my clients experience….? Then I feel arrogant, and remorseful – for ever having advised anybody about how to care for their geriatric pet. How did I know? What gave me the right? I was just the veterinarian in each of those scenarios – I wasn’t in love with those animals.

I know these thoughts are not my truth. I know that I tried to be present and loving for each client and animal I have supported through the end-of-life. But the helplessness I feel as an owner watching this process ‘happen-to-me’ causes me to say untrue and unkind things to myself, about myself. I recognize this process as anticipatory grief: I have learned about it. Dammit, I have TAUGHT about it! Now I am embarking on my own journey through it. At times  feel it will break me, the loss of this beautiful best friend of mine. I feel like I will no longer be able to do this work – How will I be able to be present during a client’s grief, or perform a euthanasia ever again? Will I not be broken? Perhaps I will become a florist, or a cake decorator…?

I know it will be trying, and gut-wrenching.  I can only imagine I will not be very fun to be around at times after she is gone.  But I believe that this depth of feeling will only make me better at the work I do – more driKoda and Kidven to learn and grow as a palliative care veterinarian, more supportive to the people I serve.  I suppose I can guess and hypothesize all I want – the only reality right now is one foot in front of the other. It will be what it will be, and I will come out of this whomever I am meant to be.  This magnificent old dog continues to teach me lessons about love, about life, and about what I am made of – and I will continue loving her through each day, and beyond.


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