Yesterday was beautiful in its opening moments. Bluebirds were sitting on my shoulder and the hardest decision I thought I might have for the day was what flavor my smoothie for the morning might be. Then I had planned for a bit more of the saddle experimenting I had begun earlier in the week trying to see what fit Cistine. I fed Heidi, the GSD, and Gracie, the diminutive Yorkie, and sat to watch them and drink my coffee. Heidi finished her bowl and was wandering around the kitchen and eventually ended up near my stool. Gracie came over to join us. Then, out of no where came the attack. Heidi placed a huge paw on top of Gracie’s back and suddenly Heidi had Gracie in her mouth.
Gracie’s shrill screams were curdling and I instantly, but in that freeze frame time standing still mode, pounced on Heidi and tried desperately to get her to release the little dog from her teeth. I don’t know how, but did, and Gracie ran away with the screams of an animal in sheer terror piercing the now not so still morning air. I put the shepherd away in our room and went to find Gracie to assess her injuries. She had some bite marks on her neck and she was already in obvious deep shock so I grabbed her and left for the vet’s office while my daughter called ahead to let them know to expect us.
I drove in a daze. Where had this attack come from? And why? These two unlikely pups, theirs a pack of two, had gotten along so incredibly well since Gracie joined us, playing together, and even the day before I had seen them cuddled up in the cool grass under the martin houses, waiting for me to finish barn chores. This, I had not seen coming, and I was stunned.
The attack had not been Heidi’s first to other dogs over the years, nor second, each time violent, terrorizing, and brutal but always with some provocation. A shepherd bites once and holds on and requires a very serious effort to get them to release their prey. Fortunately for Gracie this attack had been made from a very old dog with broken teeth and her death would have been the most likely outcome had it come from Heidi in her youth.
I left Gracie in the hands of the vet, but before leaving I spoke with my vet about the possibility of euthanizing Heidi. I knew that my thoughts were emotionally driven but I had to admit that I could not allow the risk of another possible attack, to Gracie, any other dog, and certainly not my grandchild who frequents our house. Even though Heidi had shown nothing but tolerance for little Margaret’s climbing on her bed and cuddling up with the “big dog”, my trust in her was gone and even the thought was intolerable. I drove home devastated in my dilemma. It was my responsibility and my decision to make, and either way was not good.
Over the years of dog ownership I have had way too many suffering animals put to sleep. The first was another shepherd, the dog who never left my side during my high school years. I returned from college once to find a pitiful suffering shell of my old friend and I took her to the same clinic Gracie was taken to. I held that old dog in my arms and felt the life slip silently away. Since then I have had to repeat the same painful dance with life and death many times, each time excruciating in its sadness of loss but with the knowledge that in their death the dogs were relieved from the bounds of their suffering or illness.
The contemplation of euthanizing Heidi was different though. She suffered daily getting up and down stairs with joints that no longer worked and hurt her constantly despite the pain meds I stuffed her with, and her quality of life was very low. The difference was that she had not given up yet as the others had when it was their time, relieving me of some of the difficulty of the decision . My decision for Heidi was a heavy and overwhelming burden that weighed on me through the rest of the morning. Heidi was my best friend, my shadow, my companion. She was my, dog. How could I really imagine intentionally killing my buddy? I spent the hours in a blind funk until I made the choice, and then I cried deep and hard.
Knowing her hours to be her last, in a very surreal way, I spent them focused on making them good for both of us together. Heidi knew something was up and never took her eyes off me nor left my side. We went to the barn for her last visit. She swam in the pond and even watched, the ever vigilant shepherd that she was, as we dug the grave we would put her in later in the afternoon. I groomed her thick coat and fed her a full bowl with chunks of steak mixed in, this her last meal. Finally the call came from the vet that Gracie could come home. I loaded the big dog in the back seat of her truck and we headed down the too familiar road to the vet for her last ride. My head was throbbing and tears were burning my face and Heidi sat contented on her bench seat, her throne for ten years, doing what she loved the best, going for a ride.
As we pulled up to the clinic, she must have smelled the place and knew it. Heidi let out one of her typical shepherd sounds that is part sigh and part question, looked at me, and then back out the window. The vet came out to the truck to give her the first shot which sends them into a deeply relaxed state. We held her and patted her broad and beautiful head and said our goodbyes. The vet gave the final shot and with a few lingering breaths, then one last exhale, she was gone. My beautiful, gorgeous, intelligent, friend was gone and would be no more, forever. We gathered the very lucky to be still alive Gracie and left to go home with a now silent shepherd laying behind us.
In the hours after I had let my anger and horror subside at the attack, I pondered so many things, weighing them all and came to the terrible decision that I made based on two things. One, I could not trust the dog to not repeat this behavior, and two, that she was miserably making it through each day in pain that I can not gage because she was the most stoic beings I have ever been around. I feel horrible and have a pressing guilt that perhaps if had done something different in her life that it wouldn’t have had to end this way. I will never know that answer. It was what it was, imperfect, beautiful and at brief times horrifying, but I loved that dog and she me. We buried her with her favorite toy so that she can play with it forever in her final sleep and we covered her with dirt and tears.
Today Gracie is more alert with the pain meds fading, but is traumatized, scared, and confused. She timidly keeps looking for her buddy, the buddy who taught her the ways of being a dog, where to potty, what to avoid, what to chase, and how to survive being a farm dog. Heidi was the one who took her under her wing and was always her back up. Theirs was a complicated and comic relationship with their size differences and breed types, and despite that it was sweet and good. Heidi was Gracie’s buddy and mentor, but who, inexplicably attacked and very nearly killed her. Gracie’s trauma, on many counts, will take some time for her to heal.
It will take time for me to heal, as well.