In the developing thought process of the Communicative Approach, serendipity reveals other small trails that still need to be explored. Learning to communicate with our dogs in their unique language has other important uses besides training. And maybe, just maybe, some of the other uses will prove to be more important (and beneficial) than the original intent.
This occurred to me during a conversation with a close friend. My friend is a dog-lover, an artist, and an empathetic soul. Her Chocolate Labrador has eclipsed his 15th year of a very happy life, and sadly, the years are beginning to show their effects. She is faced with that decision we all inevitably confront. This very sensitive lady was looking for something that would make an end-of-life decision less traumatic…for her.
This is not to criticize her…In the end, these decisions affect us emotionally as humans more than they do our dogs. We tend to keep them by our side as long as we can bear the pain in their eyes…And that is another reason that we need to learn the Language of Dogs. After all, they should make such a decision for themselves, and we should listen to them. I’m not implying that dogs understand the concept of death. Nor do they believe in some canine concept of an afterlife. Dogs do not practice religion, or possess spirituality. But they do understand what it means to be happy, comfortable, loved, and secure. They also understand when these qualities are missing.
Your dog has communicated to you throughout its life that it enjoyed a rousing game of fetch, that it was comforted by your presence, anguished at your separation, distressed by that man in the white lab coat poking him with a needle. Your dog also managed to communicate to you that his tummy was upset, he enjoyed the table scraps you surreptitiously slipped him, he reveled at the belly rubs you gave him. At some point, your dog communicated affection for you, by laying his head on you, secure in the knowledge that you would scratch him. (Yes, I know that some would say that laying his head on you indicates dominance, but it’s just not always so.)
Hopefully, the point that you and your dog have always communicated, is made clear.
Why should this connection fade at the end?
At the foundation of the Communicative Approach is understanding the language of your dog. I can think of no more profound event than life’s end, for our dogs to speak to us. While none of us look forward to this eventuality, it will happen. Dogs pass away from us. If we listen to our own thoughts, we are apt to prolong the process to sooth our own needs and fear of loss. But your dog has a very different viewpoint.
As a dog, his understanding of death is non-existent. He thinks not of an afterlife, nor does he wonder what lies beyond. He does know the Now. He may not be able to see clearly, he may not be able to walk more than a few steps, or pain may be filling his thoughts. He may feel gnawing hunger, because eating is not possible. All of these things are revealed in your dogs eyes, which long for you to throw his ball.
“Throw his ball”, you say? Yes indeed…Even in their lowest state, what your dog remembers are the good things you and he did together. Ball games, running thru the forest putting his nose into any interesting nook that he came upon. Swimming in the lake, jumping off a dock, chasing the other dogs in silly games of rough- and -tumble tag. The dog remembers belly-rubs on your bed, the bully sticks that he devoured with gusto. Your dog remembers the joy he felt when you returned home to him from a work-day. The eyes of your dog are truly “windows into his soul”. Our four-legged friends have the very non-human ability to see and remember the very best of a life lived in earnest. Humans tend to jump from one misery to another. We remember in landmarks of pain, sorrow and anguish, with interspersed moments of joy. Perhaps that is a failing of too much thought…Too much focus on the negative aspects of life. Anyway, it’s all too human, and canines are not possessed of such burdens.
Beyond getting too wordy or philosophical, this is how I will deal with the end of life decisions for my friend. When his eyes no longer show the desire to run, play, and enjoy living, I will allow his last thoughts to be of those things he loved best, rather than the pain of want…I will sit beside him, and remember with him. I will do this before the pain becomes unbearable for him. I will make our final moments together peaceful, without stress. He will know only that at this moment we are together, and will always be. His eyes will speak to me of Autumn days in the forest, chasing his favorite toy into the rolling whitecaps in summer, training together for our work, and the joy of finding the lost. I will do my very best to see that these final moments take place at home, and not in the sterile environment of a veterinary office. I will not tell him that he is leaving me…nor will I beg him to stay. As always, I will allow him the dignity of his life, the joy of his spirit, and the beauty of his soul. When his eyes tell me, “It’s time to go”, he will not see me cry. Our time together will be happy and joyful until the sand slips thru the hourglass of his life.
Only then will I give way to sorrow, and I shall do so only in seclusion. And though it may sound so, I am not Planning for my dogs death. That will take care of itself as it has for time immemorial. We will live my dog’s life in joy and celebration of each day. When my friend tells me, “It’s time for me to go…” we will part ways as we came together, with a smile and a deeply felt, “Good Boy!”