belaAnnie and I euthanized our dog, Bela, on January 2nd of this year. I still think about her every day. It probably seems strange to some people that an adult man can get so attached to a pet — when I was in high school the ‘cool kids’ made fun of me because they would see me walking the family dog (instead of, I suppose, hanging out with them — but I like more animals than people). Perhaps Bela’s end seemed so sad because her last weeks were not happy ones and I feel responsible for that. Bela didn’t want to go to the vet… the veins in her legs had collapsed because of her bad circulation and both the vet and the technician had a very had time injecting the solution that they used to euthanize her. The whole time they were working on her, she was looking up at me and crying; it was clear that she wanted to leave… even though she could barely walk any more. I held her head in my hands, in part because I thought it comforted her and in part because I was worried that she would try to bite the doctor or the technician.

Bela originally came to us with the name ‘Bella,’ but ‘Bella’ seemed a presumptuous name for a clumsy white puppy that liked to hide under our bed and nip at ankles as people walked by. As she grew, she became more graceful, but she also became extremely protective. When she saw strangers or dogs she didn’t know, her hackles rose up and she would snap and snarl. Although she liked our other dog, Gretel (who died of cancer 6 months before Bela was put down), she hated almost all other dogs and even once attacked a neighbor’s dog as it was walking by (resulting in an expensive vet bill for us, a gift basket for the owner and reduced privileges for Bela). Annie couldn’t walk Bela because the dog’s behavior made Annie nervous. Bela became my responsibility and Gretel was Annie’s dog.

I liked walking Bela even though she was what most animal behaviorists would describe as ‘difficult.’ When we saw other dogs on the path, I would keep Bela on a short leash and make her sit and wait as the other dog and its owner passed by. Bela didn’t like having to trust strangers not to attack us, but she learned to trust me to handle these situations; part of what I learned from working with Bela was what I came to call ‘the anxiety loop.’ When Bela saw other dogs, it made her anxious. Her anxiety led to aggression… so when I saw other dogs on the walks, I would begin to tense up, thinking that I was going to have to struggle to maintain control of Bela (especially when the other owner did not have control of their animal). Bela interpreted my anxiety as me being worried about being attacked and would try to defend me. This was the ‘anxiety loop.’ As I learned to remain calm when I saw another animal approaching, Bela found it easier to maintain her composure as well. I find it difficult to describe how satisfying I found it to work with Bela over time and gradually see her behavior improve. Bela had imprinted upon me and would have given her life for me, but had also become a very valued friend to me. In the evenings, when I was sitting and reading or working on the computer, she would lay in the hall or on the bed nearby. When we watched TV, she would sometimes climb up and sit in my lap (yes, I had a 50 pound dog that liked to sit in my lap). She was never a ‘friendly dog’ to strangers or other dogs, but she was fiercely loyal and protective. We used to leave the doors unlocked because Bela kept careful watch.

Last Christmas, we had made reservations at our kennel to keep Bela over the holidays. We were driving down to Saint Louis to see my family and would be away for a week. Stays at the kennel had started to get harder on Bela as she got older. Even though she had her own compartment and run, she didn’t like being in close proximity to so many other dogs and hated being away from home. I think time at the kennel had gotten harder for Bela after her friend Gretel died. Her hearing and eyesight were failing, her legs were arthritic and probably painful and her kidneys and liver were failing as well. Her walks got shorter and shorter. After we picked her up from the kennel just after Christmas, she seemed OK at first, but perhaps her stoicism was fooling me… or maybe I didn’t want to admit to myself that my best friend was dying. She would drink a lot of water and sometimes just stand, gazing into space, while breathing loudly. She barely wanted to go out at all. Sometimes she would stumble and have to sit down. These ‘stumbles’ were becoming more and more frequent. The day after the New Year, Annie made Bela some scrambled eggs with cheese and then we took her to the vet for the last time.

I still miss her every day.

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