Sassafras Lowrey is an award-winning author and Certified Trick Dog Instructor. Sassafras’ books have been honored by organizations ranging from the American Library Association to the Lambda Literary Foundation.
The death of a dog is devastating to any owner. When you’re involved in dog sports and that dog is also your teammate, the loss can be even more profound. This autumn my beloved Champion Trick Dog Charlotte died after a very intense but short battle with thyroid cancer. Charlotte wasn’t an easy dog but, as many trainers will attest, it’s the challenging dogs that we learn from the most.
The final challenge was deciding when the right time was to end her pain. Assessing quality of life and making end of life decisions is difficult for all dog owners. But for those whose pets are also teammates, there is an extra layer of loss and grief. For some dogs, quality of life deteriorates quickly, while it occurs more slowly for others. Owner/handlers needs to be thoughtful, aware, and communicative with their veterinary care team about their dog’s quality of life.
Quality Of Life
Quality of life refers to an overall level of health, happiness, and comfort that a dog is experiencing. Understanding and assessing quality of life is challenging and will be unique to each dog. It’s something that should be individually determined by you and your veterinarian. Quality of life also depends on what disease your dog may have, and what the prognosis is. Your vet will be able to give you specific signs and symptoms to watch for depending on your dog’s diagnosis. This can help you assess if your dog is medically deteriorating.
If your dog has been given a terminal diagnosis, getting a second opinion and seeking a specialist is an option. Your vet will likely have referrals to specialists for everything from cardiologists to oncologists. Specialists can guide you further in terms of treatment options and decisions. Pursuing a second opinion with a specialist is an option which may be guided by a variety of factors. This includes your finances, the stability of your dog’s condition, your dog’s comfort and tolerance in veterinary settings, and how your dog’s condition has or hasn’t responded to medical treatment up to that point.
As they age, canine athletes are going to naturally slow down. That can be challenging for dogs and owners alike. After they ultimately retire from sports or activities, it’s important to find ways to keep dogs’ minds active and their bodies well-conditioned. It can be hard to notice a deterioration in quality of life since, for many dogs, it happens gradually. If you spend a lot of time with your dog, it can be easy to miss subtle shifts. I keep a daily activity and training bullet journal for all of my dogs. I found that this daily log was especially useful to refer to after Charlotte’s terminal diagnosis. It allowed me to see how few of the things she loved she was still doing, and how active she’d been just a few weeks prior.
A deteriorating quality of life depends on the dog, and how they are engaging with their home, family, and routines. Red flags for deteriorating quality of life include not eating or drinking, lethargy, or a noticeable change or disinterest in engagement. Watch for your dog developing a lack of interest in normal routines and things like play, training, and walks. Remember that quality of life will look different for each dog. Work with your veterinarian to pinpoint areas to watch for depending on your dog’s temperament, overall health, and diagnosis.
Accepting a Terminal Diagnosis
Assessing quality of life and end of life decisions can be especially challenging for the owners of canine athletes. Spending all day, every day with a dog/teammate can make it hard to see how serious a condition has gotten. On my dog Charlotte’s last day, our vet gently told me that taking her to her favorite beach would be too strenuous for her, even though she had been so active just weeks earlier. As your dog’s health deteriorates, it’s also important to allow your dog to take the lead on what activity they can and can’t participate in. Gauge their interest and energy levels to help you determine what quality of life looks like for your dog at this stage.
Deciding that a dog’s quality of life has deteriorated to a point where euthanasia is the most humane option is one of the hardest things that any of us will ever have to do. It can be extremely difficult to accept that your best friend and teammate won’t be by your side for much longer. Many owner/handlers go through a period of denial or disbelief about the severity of their dogs’ condition. It’s OK to need and ask for support during this difficult time. Lean on your vet as well as family and dog world friends for perspective on the severity of your dog’s condition and if/how their quality of life has been impacted.
When the time finally comes for your dog to cross the rainbow bridge, know that it’s OK to grieve in any way you see fit. Consider support systems like the AKC Pet Loss Support Group to find solidarity and peace through talking with others who are feeling your pain.