I have finally scraped myself together well enough to write this piece. As someone who has always put my thoughts into words to help me process experiences, especially the tough ones, writing about the loss of an utterly fantastic dog is both wrenching and healing.
We made the decision to humanely euthanize Ava on October 30. Her death means we have said goodbye to three beloved pets in under two years. Sherman in November 2018, Leroy in September 2019, and Ava just days ago.
Ava was a dog of my heart. She came to us as a foster dog and was immediately home for good. We don’t know what her life was like before she joined our family, but the clues we gathered suggested she had almost zero training at five years old and had been fed scraps instead of dog food. She wasn’t underweight, but her coat was pathetic and scraggly.
Ava wanted so badly to please us, and proved herself capable of demonstrating “sit,” “down,” “leave it,” “come,” and “take” within weeks of her adoption. After a little time to adjust and feel safe, she also learned to show her belly for rubs, which she relished. She had zero desire to learn any fancy tricks. She wasn’t a fancy dog. I have never met another dog who slurped so loudly or dribbled water everywhere when taking a drink.
A number of heads combined estimated Ava to be some combination of a collie-type dog, a Rottweiler, and maybe some German Shepard. Once her nutrition was consistent and appropriate, she grew a plush and soft black coat, with long amber feathers on her legs and tail. Tufts of hair grew on her feet as well, giving her what we affectionately termed “Grinch toes” and refused to buzz away.
Our Sherman adored Ava. Honestly, every dog I’ve ever met loved her. She was like everyone’s mother hen: as loving as you could ask for, but not afraid to firmly keep you in line. While we were fostering rescue dogs, Ava showed the newbies how to be a house dog and look after a family, while Sherman helped them have fun.
Ava loved toys that squeaked. The most obnoxious the noise, the more she appreciated them. She went through a number of rubber chickens, always glum when the squeakers gave up and the poor, abused bird could only wheeze.
When I went through a stretch of wretched insomnia a few years back, Ava kept me company voluntarily while I sat up and waited for sleep.
While our twins were tiny things, Ava got up for every feeding in the wee hours. She never needed to be terribly close to the babies, but she was not satisfied unless she had a clear sightline on them. Most of the time, she parked her fluffy self on the front entry mat, staunchly positioned so the door of our home could not possibly be opened from the outside while we stumbled through yet another round of diapers and bottles on sips of sleep.
As the girls grew, Ava’s devotion shifted gears but did not ebb. She liked to sleep directly in front of their bedroom door when they were in their cribs for the night. She strutted proudly with us when we walked together, first beside the stroller, then the wagon, and finally with wary eyes on toddlers who didn’t always manage to stay upright.
Visitors to our home were greeted by a bark that would have deterred most folks with ill intentions. Ava took her self-determined role as guardian of the family seriously. If you were invited in, she quickly settled and let you scratch the soft ears that always seemed too small for her head. Anyone who wasn’t welcome, however, would have been foolish to attempt entry. I have never met another dog who could so effectively raise all its fur up, like a cat, to appear bigger when it meant business.
If Ava was happy, her bottom jaw bounced in time with her breaths. If Ava was thrilled, she curled her mouth into a cheesy smile and wagged her whole body.
I will never claim that Ava was a perfect dog. Nearly the entire harvest of my vegetable garden disappeared in increments one year, since she snacked at will. Rodents of all varieties, especially squirrels, drove her bananas. She sat looking up into the mountain ash in our back yard for hours one summer afternoon, refusing to come in until I convinced the squirrel to depart with a blast from the hose.
If we forgot to put a poopy diaper straight into the garbage, she loved nothing more than to shred the diaper and snack on the contents. It is easy to forget simple steps when caring for two babies, so we had a miserable scene to clean up more than a few times.
Once, while at least one of our babies was still in NICU, I came home to a sample can of infant formula that Ava chewed open and licked clean. She smelled the powder through the cardboard and feasted on enough formula mix to make a dozen 8 ounce bottles. I have never heard a dog belch like she did for about 36 hours afterward. She was visibly bloated from the lactose, but I doubt she regretted her decision.
I could tell Ava stories for pages. She was gentle and protective and funny and sweet. I could write on and on about all the reasons we loved her.
Writing about the good things would stop me getting to the part that hurts so much. Unfortunately, avoiding the pain won’t help.
The Electrician and I agree that part of our commitment to our animals is to give them the best quality of life we can for as long as a good life is possible.
In 2017, Ava jumped off our back stairs and landed awkwardly on the cement patio. The impact ruptured left cruciate ligament and the meniscus in her left knee. It was an ugly injury and a painful condition that had to be addressed.
At that time, Ava was 7, in great health, and expected to do very well if we attempted a surgical repair of her knee. I asked all my doggy contacts for the name of a good canine orthopedic surgeon, and Ava ended up on the operating table of a positively wonderful vet who got her “back on her pins” in his words.
The TTA surgery to restore function in Ava’s knee was extensive and expensive. Our investment in putting her back together was about two months worth of mortgage payments. Given her age and the possibility of an excellent recovery, we never regretted spending the money and we were grateful to have enough saved to cover the cost.
We had another three years with our girl, for which we will always consider ourselves lucky.
As she aged, Ava’s joints deteriorated. She developed arthritis in her shoulders and especially in her hips in the last fifteen months or so, which supplements and eventually prescriptions helped manage. We found a food she enjoyed that was specifically made for dogs with painful joints that also seemed to help. Ava did well, but she was clearly slowing down over the summer and needed a pretty substantial dose of anti-inflammatory medicine daily starting about three weeks ago to be comfortable.
A week ago tomorrow, Ava repeated her brief flight off the back steps in pursuit of a squirrel. She squealed when she returned to earth and my stomach swirled.
Ava Bear was unable to bear more than very slight weight on her right foot. We continued with her arthritis pain management and hoped she just broke a toe or sprained her foot. After 36 hours, I made her an appointment with the vet to find out what was up, hoping and praying all the while that my suspicion was incorrect.
The vet exam revealed, devastatingly, that Ava ruptured the cruciate ligament in her right knee. We had a beautiful soul with a useless knee, a rebuilt knee, and compromised hips. She was eleven.
I talked it all through with the vet, relaying information to The Electrician who stayed home with our daughters. Because of the pandemic, I was unable to go into the clinic and speak with the vet in person, so I tried and failed to keep it all together in my parked car while we discussed options for Ava.
We could have taken her back to the surgeon who fixed her left knee. We know him and trust him.
Looking at it as objectively as we could under the circumstances, what we saw was a wonderful dog who had the deck stacked against her.
The TTA surgery is significant, and the rehab period with multiple physiotherapy sessions a day takes at least 12 weeks. During the first weeks, at least, we would need to administer serious pain medications and prevent her from opening her incision, which was about 25 cm last time.
During the months of recovery, Ava’s left knee, which was not factory parts, would have to support far more weight than it was designed to. The arthritis in her hips would be aggravated by the imbalance in her stance and gait.
The first knee repair was a great decision. Ava was in glowing health before her injury and was happy for all but a few days right after surgery. She healed exactly as planned and regained her mobility smoothly. Repairing her knee granted her more than three happy years.
We knew that attempting a repair on the right knee would be unreasonably painful for Ava due to her aging body, and very stressful for her as her movement would be restricted for weeks. Her mobility might never return and she would always have joint pain. Winter is looming and the likelihood of her slipping and injuring herself further before she could heal was high. I deeply feared putting her through an ordeal that taxed her body and her mind when she deserved better.
The Electrician and I looked at our sweet old gal and realized that we could not ask Ava to go through another huge surgery in hopes of having her stay with us a little longer. It would selfish to ask her to suffer in the hopes of having her stay a little longer.
We booked her final appointment.
Because of restrictions due to Covid-19, we had to leave Ava in the vestibule of the clinic, where staff took her to the back after we backed up to a safe distance. I understand the precautions against disease, but allowing her to be taken out of my sight seared my heart. The clinic agreed to allow us in to be with Ava when she departed, so I tried to be grateful for that kindness.
We were finally allowed inside when Ava was ready for the procedure. She was gleefully munching liver treats on a soft blanket when we came into the room. I had a chunk of ham sausage in my pocket that I tore into pieces for her. Someone had cut a piece of red coflex bandage into a heart and stuck it to the wrap that kept the IV line in place.
What we told our beloved dog during our last conversation with her is sacred and I won’t share it here in detail. We told her what she has meant to our family and how much we love her.
The vet who helped Ava to the other side was not our normal vet. I bristled at the thought of a stranger being included in such an emotional process.
Ava noticed when the first medication, the sedative, entered her body. When I’m an old woman who doesn’t care about my chin hairs, I’ll still remember how Ava tried to stand up and protect us, because something didn’t seem right to her and she was on duty until the end.
We spoke to Ava, told her she was safe, and helped her settle. I rubbed her belly. The Electrician stroked her back. She snored gently when she fell asleep.
When the next syringe stilled her beautiful heart, the best dog I’ll ever have sighed gently and was free.
We chose to feel the pain of losing her so she didn’t have to experience more pain of her own. That’s the best definition of love I know.
This year has been so hard for so many reasons. Losing Ava hit me like a wrecking ball when 2020 had already drained all my reserves. Our house is strangely still, even with a pair of toddlers tearing around. Many times since she left, I have started to get her food and pill at the regular times, or to call her, only to be reminded that she is gone.
For the first time in a very long time, we are a home without a dog.