Since I was a very young child, I have been drawn to and connected to animals, primarily dogs… big dogs. I always wanted a dog, but that did not happen until I lived on my own. I was allowed to have rabbits, I received my first two from my younger brother’s rabbit who had a litter, Jostern and Pepper Pot, then a few months later another brother’s rabbit had little ones, I received Sugar Meister.
When they died, I was so devastated, that Ota said no more pets; he could not stand to see me so broken up over the loss. I did get two more rabbits despite Ota saying no more. Purtzelbaum and Rumplestein, who were destined for a stew pot, got a reprieve with me until they were killed by the neighbours’ dogs. Clover was a gift from one of the dog owners to try to make amends for what his dog did (he heard from the neighbours how upset I was). Scheister was a wild bunny I nurtured when the bunny nest was run over by the lawn mower, he was granted freedom by my brother when it seemed he could survive on his own. I even had three chickens as pets… from the chicks my grandparents bought to raise as free-range chickens… yes not smart to make pets of future meals (I could not eat chicken for years), but I love animals and could not stop the love.
As I said, I had to wait until I was living in my own house for my large fur babies. My boys consist and consisted of: Dino (a Doberman Pinscher), who I got one day after he was 6 weeks old. Jacob, whom I called Jake, (a Great Pyrenees, Coon Hound and Rhodesian Ridgeback mix), whom I got one month before he turned four, these were my helpers when I was a caregiver. Even now Moka, another Doberman, I got him at 10 months as his fourth owner, one year after Dino’s passing, and Oreo a tuxedo cat, whom I rescued through the Toronto Cat Rescue when he was 5 months old still supports me in my life’s journey. My boys are a source of unconditional love, acceptance. They are non-judgemental, affectionate. Living alone they keep me company and enrich my life; I could not imagine living without fur babies.
When I was a caregiver, I will be honest, at times having a dog and being a responsible fur parent to my standards, could be a juggling act, to make sure meals, walks, and calls of nature would happen. I was very fortunate, Oma and Ota lived in my uncle’s home and Dino was welcomed there, as well as in the office of my uncle’s tool and die factory. He went with me practically everywhere, to the bank, to the accountant’s, the lawyer’s, everywhere that was dog friendly and welcoming. He stayed with Oma if I took Ota to the hospital or doctors. If he was not with Oma, then he stayed with my uncle. As a dog mama I needed to find the time to walk, play and spend time with Dino, not just for him but for my self-care. While walking in suburbia or in the forest by my uncle’s, I could disconnect from stress, rejuvenate, and do a walking meditation. I could connect with Dino and with nature and the world; it was a break. During these walks, I could be silent, talk to Dino about any and everything, I could cry, I could take care of myself and have a break to breathe in fresh air; be in the moment. Because Dino was so large, I was safe at any time of day and night. My pets not only calmed me, but I also learned how to cherish the moments with them, to be present and aware, cherish what I have in the now.
The bond I had with Dino was also a bond that both Ota and Oma also had. Ota, who never liked touching soft, fluffy animals, found solace and comfort as he was palliative, and was bound to his bed. He would rest his hands on Dino’s head. Dino would go into the house, greet Oma, and then go to Ota. Dino would rest his head on the bed if Ota was awake, if not he would sit or lay beside the bed while Ota slept. Dino would nose nudge my grandfather when he was restless or seemed to be in pain. If I fell asleep, Dino would wake me to let me know I was needed. Oma benefitted also from Dino’s love and comfort when Ota and I were away. She was distracted in a positive manner, feeling purpose in dog sitting, sneaking treats, and taking care of my fur baby as I took care of her husband.
After Ota died, Dino would search each room in the house, and then ask to go outside so he could look on the property for my grandfather. One week after Ota’s funeral, I took him for a late night run at the cemetery. I had returned from dropping off visiting family at the airport. I was tired, emotional and I knew he would like the run, and no one would be there as it was so late, plus the cemetery was out in “the country”. So, at the entrance I let him run and followed behind in my car (Dino was used to running in front of riding mowers and lift trucks, and along the country lane at my uncle’s, don’t judge me as a bad dog owner!). Anyway, I let Dino out of the car at the entrance and he took off, I followed. I was shocked. Dino stopped at my grandfather’s grave. He laid down beside the fresh grave, his head between his paws, a gentle whine is all I heard, when I stepped out of the car. He had found Ota. Dino never searched for Ota after that night. It was the most amazing thing. It was after the blackout of 2003, and neither I, nor anyone else in our family had been to the cemetery since the day of the funeral, one week prior, I was busy with my company. None of our scents could have lingered, as it had rained quite a bit.
Yet, there was Dino, lying beside Ota. Of all the fresh graves, Dino found Ota; I swear this is the truth! Dino missed Ota too, and that was his goodbye.
When Oma came to live with me at first I just had Dino, Jake came about a year later. Dino was a large protective loving beast, yet so docile that even a toddler could walk him. He was also a great help, as he was in tune to Oma’s Alzheimer Days; the days where she was more confused; not her “normal” self. I would notice that he would not immediately go directly to greet her some mornings when we got up. I soon made the connection that the days he would avoid going to her for affection first thing in the morning, were more difficult days for her. Like many service dogs, Dino was aware of what was going on before I was, he would just sit beside us at the table and would save his greeting until after her breakfast and coffee. I also noted that if Oma became agitated or nervous because she could not remember something, either Dino or Jake would go up to her and bump or nudge her; put their head on her lap or a paw up on her lap or arm and it would calm her. They had the ability to distract her from wherever her mind had gone, to ask for affection. She always gave affection!
Jake came to us skinny at only 68 pounds, his healthy weight was 111 pounds and Oma loved to sneak Jake morsels of food. It is funny, looking back upon the time Oma had with both Dino and Jake, she never once got either dog confused, nor did she forget their names, their supper times, and their treat time. She also never forgot what foods she could and could not give them… the power of animals? Or the power of love? Whatever it was, it was amazing how she connected with my boys and never forgot about them or their care, even if she forgot what day it was, or what fruit was or was not in season.
With Ota’s death, I learned that animals miss their deceased loved ones, so I arranged for Dino and Jake to say goodbye to Oma when she died. Though it was not a common occurrence, at the time, I was told I could bring the boys for a visitation at the funeral home. I did take them during non-visitation hours. I mean it was not uncommon for me to walk with my boys beside me and people would cross the street, I had no desire to stress grieving members of other families as they visited their loved ones. I also did not wish for the funeral home to receive complaints or negative comments for allowing my boys.
I had told my boys Oma died; they knew something was up because of my tears, my grief. I told them we were going to see Oma for the last time. Oma was on the second floor of the funeral home, I took Dino and Jake up the elevator, and as we approached the room, I noticed Jake’s head start to lower, he became more vocal in his whimpers and whines as we approached the casket. Jake had a harder time to look at Oma, but still he walked up to the casket, laid down with his head resting between his front paws. Dino had quieter whimpers, but he rose up, placed his front paws on the casket near Oma’s head, leaned down and gave her three licks at her hair line between her ear and temple. I sat down with Jake to comfort him, Dino came over and gave Jake a lick on his nose and Jake nuzzled him back and was quieter. Dino returned to the casket, jumped up again to give Oma three licks, then turned and gave me a hug. Yes, a hug; I taught all my boys to hug, a trick that has impressed many…but this time Dino said “I love you, Mum.” Then Dino went again to the casket, rising on his back legs, gave Oma three more licks, and said “I love you”. He then returned to my left side and laid down. Jake was on my right, and we sat in silence for a few moments…we all cried together, we comforted each other, we all grieved, me with my boys. Animals grieve too.
There have been many stories and documentaries of the amazing abilities of animals: Seeing Eye dogs, to detecting cancer, to alerting someone of impending danger from natural disasters to medical afflictions, like epilepsy, or raised glucose levels. Animals help us overcome many things like PTSD, assist as therapy dogs, or helping humans with disabilities and limitations. They help and enrich our everyday lives to going to war and working with law enforcement. They guard, protect love and enrich our lives. They fulfill so many roles in our lives: stress reduction, companionship, feelings of safety, increased health longevity, healthier lifestyles, the list goes on.
Pet owners know they are more than just animals and pets. They are in fact, honoured family members. Yes, we grieve them too when their end of life comes. When that time comes, it is a family member I lost. The grief is just as deep as for another loved one. My boys have seen me through good and bad, happiness and sorrow, they have listened and supported me, sometimes they were the reason I would get out of bed or drag myself outside for physical activities. They have motivated me, sometimes their actions invigorated me. They were present and kept me in the moment, they have helped me cope. Some people never understand unless they share the bond of unconditional, non-judgemental acceptance, love and companionship. Some people don’t understand and that’s okay! For some they are animals, not humans. But for me, they are my joy and a wonderful source of love. For me animals are pure gifts. I don’t understand how people can live without the blessings of pure “pawsitive” love from a four-legged soul…
HHA's next virtual Pet Lovers Death Café will be held on Thursday, June 8th at 7:00PM. You can register to attend here.