August, 2009

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by Toni Seger


I had to put my dog, Julia, to sleep recently leaving a vast cavern in my heart where she used to live, but her death was a positive act and I’m grateful for that. All the quality in Julia’s life had ended and this was the last act of responsible ownership I could deliver. Julia had been an incredibly fast runner with an amazing ability to corner and feint that would have earned her admiration from a star quarterback. On the last day of her life, struggling to breathe, she couldn’t walk. As my husband, Tim, carried her to the car, we promised her she wouldn’t suffer much longer.


I’m not saying euthanasia can’t be abused. Anything can be abused. This is a column about its blessings and, by extension, its beauty. Never having witnessed it before, I was amazed at how beautiful it was to see the pain and anxiety that crowded Julia’s eyes lift and depart. Even as I lost my dog, she lost the terrible state she was in. Still warm and, finally, at peace, I kissed her goodbye. I’m still suffering, but she isn’t anymore and I’m glad of that.


Among humans, the identical act is a great taboo which I find highly ironic. Do we allow euthanasia in animals because we value them less? I can’t help but hope if I’m ever suffering the way Julia was, someone will do me the same favor. Julia’s administered death was, under the rules of criminal law we apply to ourselves, premeditated murder. It was also an act of mercy Tim and I were relieved to have available.


Anyone fortunate enough to enjoy a dog’s love knows, the loss is going to be devastating and it’s worse the longer you have it. We adopted our dog from a kennel when she was very young and we shared her entire life. Humans live a lot longer than their pets which means there’s a lot of joy, grief and mourning in quick succession. Julia isn’t the first pet I’ve lost, but I lived with her the longest. She was almost 15, an elderly relative at the end, but still my little puppy. I didn’t enjoy knowing I was planning her death beforehand, but, at the end, it was the kindest thing I could do.


Dale Carnegie used the dog as a model of a successful life because, once adopted, they’re completely cared for just for giving love. Giving love is not a small thing and dogs are expert at it. I’d like to think our final act on Julia’s behalf repaid her for all that love by an act of love just as great.


Dogs don’t think about death or fear it in any way. They do lots of things better than people starting with the way they enjoy being alive. When you live with one, you get to be the recipient of their ready enthusiasm for just about everything. Towards the end, Julia enjoyed just being outside sniffing the myriad smells of the air. As her ability to walk failed her, Tim carried her out and she looked around herself with the same appreciative wonder and gratitude she brought to all her experiences. Pets feed our egos by being so grateful for the little things we do for them. It’s when they’re gone that we find out how much they do for us. 


Julia knew how to breathe, eat and sleep with a level of pleasure and gusto I will never achieve. As she lost her appetite for everything, my husband and I scrambled to find something that might bring her some enjoyment. On her last morning, she finished my hot cereal. Tired and desperately ill, she still got more out of that bowl than I had. I just eat that stuff because it’s good for me. She really liked it.


Julia’s superiority in the area of sleep is simply untouchable. Not only am I, normally, a dreadful sleeper, but on my best nights I couldn’t come close to the intense satisfaction of Julia dreaming she was chasing a rabbit and the lusty snores that said she’d caught it. On her last night, Julia couldn’t sleep anymore. She was in too much pain and was having trouble breathing. This loss symbolized the last of the great pleasures now gone from her life. The only thing she had left was Tim and I and we were there for her.


Some years ago, I had the occasion to know a woman with a 19 year old cat. The woman was obviously attached to her animal and very proud of the personal care she was giving, but to my way of thinking, the cat was in hell. It didn’t have a terminal illness like Julia which I now consider a tragedy. It couldn’t curl up and sleep anymore, but was always grotesquely stretched out as if seeking some release from its agony. Its owner would hold it and pet it and talk to it acknowledging its discomfort all the while. For years, she had kept it nourished by squeezing a gooey concentrate of vitamins onto her finger where the cat would lick it off in tiny amounts all day. When the cat finally died, the woman proudly showed me a condolence card from her vet complimenting her on the devotion she’d shown to her animal. I thought it was closer to torture with her devotion closer to dependence and fear of the consequences.


The Vet examined Julia sadly and talked about having to put his own dogs to sleep. “There’s fluid in her lungs”, he said. “I’m sure she isn’t very comfortable.” He said we should talk to her and explained that the first thing he’d administer was a tranquilizer. I stared at Julia’s once bright, doe like eyes now glazed with pain. “Look at me, sweetheart”, I said. “Look at me.” She did. And, all at once the pain lifted and drifted off her as she slipped into the best sleep she had ever known.


Co-owner of a media/communications firm; ProseWorks(tm) Associates since 1992, Toni Seger has been a professional writer for four decades. Seger is the author of "The Telefax Box", the first in a satiric trilogy about our overly mechanized lives available at She has produced and directed original plays for stage and television and is an award winning film maker with endorsements from Maine Public Broadcasting. Her film, "The Force of Poetry" is available at