Cass is outside barking in the yard next to dogs that are ten times her size. She’s a Jack Russell Terrier, mightiest of all the little dog breeds, with a jaw the size of a Spaniel’s set atop her 14 lb body, a bundle of muscles that propels her on the daily across the chasm from our backyard retaining wall to our kitchen’s back steps. She can no longer hear when the Amazon truck pulls up the driveway, but she can tell when the Great Pyrenees and the Foxhound trot around the side of the house, that it is time to send off the alert bark. “Alert! Alert! Intruder alert!”
She’s friendly despite her protective nature. She has always been one to bark a few times at a stranger, before folding back her ears and letting her tail wag like an oscillating fan, fairly telepathing, “Pet me! Pet me! Oh, pet me!”
If you watched Wishbone on PBS in the 90s, then you know how smart Jack Russell Terriers can be. Wishbone, after all, was a match for all the famous sleuths in popular mysteries. Cass is as smart as Wishbone, no doubt, but not built like him. Her legs are shorter, her ears set more to the side, giving her a Yodaesque silhouette. Now that her facial fur has faded to white and her hearing gone, she would certainly horrify the judges at a fancy dog show–but we have never been in it with Cass for the looks, have we?
I started looking for a small dog when Seamus was a toddler, because he had developed a fear of dogs. A few experiences with aggressive dogs barking or lunging for his face when he was in his stroller or learning to walk had resulted in him crying and carrying on to a severe degree around any dog. (Mind you, he was on the autism spectrum, but we wouldn’t know that for years to come.) When you have small children–and I had three in less than four years–you visit parks often. Dogs are *everywhere*. A fear of dogs can be devastating for a child’s development in this circumstance, so I set out to “fix this situation.”
I needed a calm, small dog. Say that aloud with me: “I need a calm, small dog.”
If you’re an expert on the species, then you know how tall an order that was. It is very easy to find a small dog that needs a good home. It is moderately challenging to find a calm dog that needs a good home. After all, it’s more the “troublesome” dogs that end up put up for adoption by their owners. Easy-going dogs tend to stay where they are, with their happy parents. I didn’t want to take a chance on a puppy, and figured that an adult dog with an established personality was my best chance at finding a dog that would remain calm throughout his or her time with my children. Any dog that had a face-to-face stance (or taller) with my toddler was out the question, as these size dogs sent him cowering in fear. That ruled out even medium sized dogs.
Eventually, I wrote to a number of dog rescues explaining my very specific request. I didn’t get a lot of responses, but I got the one that counted: I heard back about Cass. We went to meet her in a public park, where she rolled over and showed my then-husband her belly and did her “Pet me! Pet me!” routine immediately. She was one year old, and recovering from having a litter of puppies. She had been dumped on the side of the interstate in Louisville. As soon as the rescue had her spayed, she came home to live with us, forever!
A lot of people treat their animals like babies, but I don’t think Cass ever saw me as her mother. We started more like roommates, and over time, we became friends. She was the worst to walk with–always pulling, to the point of hurting my hips, although there was that one time I let her pull me up a hill to Community Park in New Albany while I wore roller skates behind her–a disastrous experiment that led to me practically crawling back down the hill on hands and knees while strangers walked Cass down on her leash. She loved walks, though. She and I took the boys to the bridge often, where we threw rocks into the water to see who could get the biggest splash.
Cass saw me through my divorce, sharing my bed, although only sleeping at my feet–never letting me cuddle her like I wanted–and keeping me safe through the sleepless nights when my children were with their father. She loved my Pom “Britches” who came to stay with us for a year. She was friendly to Bean, the dog of a girl I dated for awhile. Bean had doggie roommates and Cass loved them, too.
Cass was and remains a rascal. When she was young, she’d jet out the front door at every chance she got, to chase squirrels. In a flash, she’d be blocks away. The boys and I had a regular engagement of hurriedly jumping into the car to chase her until she tired enough to be caught. Even now, she digs in the back of the fence of our yard, and we are never overly surprised to see she has gotten out into the neighbor’s yard to play with their dogs and children. (We do fix the holes in the fence, and the gaps, but she is a great digger, and she finds her way out like the Raptor in Jurassic Park! Clever girl.)
In her old age, Cass has mellowed. She is kind and loving to all the other dogs, including our Pomeranian, Lord Grantham, who she has treated like her own child since his adoption five+ years ago. She saw our little girl born ten years ago. She is closely bonded to Parker, who became her step-dog-brother eleven years ago. And, she loves Tim. She loves me. She cuddles on the bed with me now.
Cass has never been like a baby to me, but she seems to have gravitated in her old age to seeing me as the pack leader. We used to compete for this title. She thought she was the boss of me the first couple of years, at least–but now, although she can’t hear me, she follows me everywhere. When it is nap time, she happily lies right next to me on the bed, and even lets me put my arm around her, although inevitably, at night the bed grows too crowded, and she makes a nest in my closet to snore the night away.
Yesterday, I took Cass for a walk. We hung out at the park and there were so many neat smells. She still pulled on me some, but as in other ways, she has mellowed in that regard, as well. Her eyes are bright. Her ears are happily Yodaesque. Her tail wags like mad. You could not tell looking at her that she has stage four kidney failure, but she does. We went to the vet yesterday after our walk and I got the news today.
I knew this day would come–the day when I would have to look at my life partner, my sister, my friend, and decide for her that she should not draw breath much longer. That her suffering should not be prolonged longer than necessary. In truth, although she has all the signs of being an alert, happy old lady dog, she has been vomiting quite a bit and even if I kept her on IV fluids daily, it would only prolong the inevitable.
So here we are. I have not made the call yet. I have not told the kids yet. Only myself, Tim, the vet, and Cass herself, know.
The kids grew up with her. The one who was afraid of dogs used to hold her like a baby on his lap. He is now an adult, and he loves animals of all kinds, including all sizes of dogs. My sixteen year old has been staying at his dad’s house, and I wonder what Cass thinks of that–surely she misses him. I hope he will choose to come and say goodbye, but I can’t force him, and it’s tricky to handle.
My oldest, who doesn’t think he even likes animals that much, will be devastated, I can promise you that. He has a huge heart and he doesn’t remember much of life before this little dog was in our lives.
The other dogs will have no alpha mama to boss them around (although I suspect Samson will step in to fill that void).
I feel like I am losing a sister. She is my baby, and she isn’t. My peer, my protector, my best friend.
When we put Lee (Tim’s dog) down a few years ago, it was rough. I felt guilt, horror, sadness, grief…I loved Lee. I picked him up off the side of the road, myself, as a puppy, but I didn’t spend the years in-between with him like Tim did. I saw him in and I saw him out, but in between, I only wondered and hoped he was okay.
Cass, on the other hand, has been my responsibility all this time. I’ve done my best with her. When she went in for a dental last year, I half-expected the vet to tell me to save my money, fearing some invisible malady would be detected. She said no such thing. Just pulled the bad teeth, pronounced Cass to be happy and healthy, and I left knowing every day was a gift with my precious, old, healthy girl. I can do the math. She’s 105 in human years.
She zips up and down the steps, flies off the couch, and plays with the other dogs–or, she did play, until recently. If I’m honest, she has been doing more sleeping the past few weeks than playing. It has been a few weeks since I’ve seen her digging a hole, although this afternoon she was staring hard at the dirt, as though she might be ready to go after another mole.
I’m going to miss this dog. I’m going to miss her in ways my heart and mind can’t begin to enumerate. She’ll always be with me, I know, but it won’t be the same. I feel as though she’s been at my ankle so long, she is part of me.
I don’t want to lose her. I don’t want to lose her. I know it’s inevitable. I don’t want her to suffer. The vomiting she’s doing is because the kidney failure puts so much urea into her blood, it makes her feel nauseous. I can’t imagine how awful that is. If I were her, I’d probably sleep all day, too.
Today I will tell the kids. Tomorrow I will make the appointment, or Tim will. I hate this, but I love her. I love her, and it’s time to say goodbye.