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!”



  1. Georgana Ford says:

    I was guilty of being selfish early on in my dog rearing years. I couldn’t bear to let them go., so, ‘made’ them hold on, for my benefit. Then something happened that changed my way of thinking, forever and made me reflect on my self serving decisions years before. I started doing rescue and one of my favorite “kinds” of dogs” were the old seniors; I did gsd rescue. I was familiar with senior pups coming in to the shelter; left by their self proclaiming “loving” owners. They just couldn’t bear to see their beloved pet die, so brought them to the shelter so someone else would care for them until they left us. This both infuriated me and broke my heart at the same time. I was determined that the seniors would not spend their last days in such a harsh environment; usually ill and scared and not understanding why they were no longer with the people they loved and were so loyal to. They are considered a species beneath us, but, I can say, almost everytime a loved owner falls ill or is injured, the loyalty of their dog never wavers and he wi;; lie with his master until the end then grieve his loss the way dogs do. And they’re less evolved than humans?
    My most memorable rescue was a 13 yr. old female German Shepherd, whom I named Gracie. She had whelped her last litter 9 months earlier and only produced 3 puppies. Her following cycle, she failed to conceive so was no longer ‘worth’ anything to the owners. She had been left outside in a run to produce pups like a machine.
    The pain in her eyes was heartbreaking; so full of knowledge and pain you wouldn’t think a dog could have. She was dejected and interested in nothing. She had retreated within herself and was awaiting her end. I know she going to be mine. The vet found her full of mammary tumors; inoperable at her age. I cried; for her and myself. I wanted the time to show her how life should be; could be.
    Her arrival to my home was unremarkable at the most. She wouldn’t hold her head up and just went wherever I led her. Her only resistance was when we stood at the threshold; inches from being in the house. The extent of her isolation from human contact became all too real. After an apprehensive but curious few moments, she was checking out every interesting corner she could find. The cat noplussed her completely. She had absolutely no interest in the other dogs. She explored a bit then approached the sofa, put one paw on it, and seemed to recoil at her lapse of judgement. I reached down to pat her and assure her that the couch was not off limits; she immediately dropped in a ‘down’ position with her eyes squeezed shut; waiting for the blow she knew was coming. I was so saddened by this. After several minutes of soft words of reassurance and gentle resolve, I was able to get her to once again stand. Tentatively she put one paw again on the sofa. Still so wary, she put her paw back on the floor. I was disappointed at myself for not being able to reassure her. Then, as you all, German Shepherds possess the ability to instinctively know what their human wants of them. I was laughing, a truly happy laugh, when Gunny, a retired military dog, with his ground down canines and a happy outlook on life, jumped up on the couch, curled up and stared at Gracie with a small grunt like woof.She accepted his invitation and the sofa is now her bed of choice, even though it’s a bit of a struggle some days to get up on it.
    Gracie was a happy dog after a couple weeks. Since she had not really bonded with her owners, she became very attached; following me everywhere. I loved it:)
    I was blessed for 4 months with my Gracie. One morning, I came into the living room where Gracie slept on the couch. She had been easily housebroken within a week. Being outside all of her life, that was just natural to her. Then I saw it; that look. A combination of pain and pleading to stop the pain. I didn’t want to cry in front of her but I did; shamelessly. I put my face in her neck and wrapped my arms around her. She leaned into me. I swear she understood I was hurting for her and we were saying our good-byes. I called my vet. I can’t go through the details; too difficult, but she just KNEW what was happening and she seemed to know she was finally going to be pain free and released from a body that limited her. I was still unsure if I should do this; angry at myself because I swore I would not be selfish. My fears were quieted; the look was back but this time, her eyes were full of gratitude. I held her as she left me; face in her neck, crying shamlessly.

  2. Barbara Thorbjörnsson says:

    There is nothing I can say that could come close to how profound and touching I found this reading to be. Thank you for writing it and sharing it.

  3. Thank you for such a thoughtful and loving insight. My girl, Abby, a boxer/mastiff mix had a massive stroke which left her completely paralyzed and blind 3 yrs ago this upcoming February. I spent the day with her after her stroke (I could not lift her to take her anywhere and had to wait for my sister and my best friend to come over. It took all 3 of us to get her in the car). I put water on her tongue, wiped her when she lost control of her bladder and bowels, and gave her tid bits of her favorite food, ground turkey for 8 hours while we waited for help. When my sister and friend arrived, we all 4 went to the vet. I knew I was losing my girl, but I had to let her go. I sat waiting for the vet to tell me there was some hope, maybe a surgery, that would restore her to how she was the day before, full of life and love. But I knew that wasn’t going to be the case. When came back from all the tests, he told me there was nothing he could do, I knew I had to let my best friend go. It was the most difficult thing I have ever done, I am crying now as I write this, remembering that day. I asked the vet tech to help me get her on the floor with me, With her in my lap as much as I could get her 75 lbs there, i cradled her. My sister and my friend couldn’t handle it, they were both crying hard, and both said their goodbyes to a girl who had loved them more than they had loved themselves at times. But I had to be strong for my love. I rocked her in my arms, I thanked her for being my love, for rescuing me from my sadness sang her a song and told her all about Rainbow Bridge. As she closed her eyes for her final sleep I kissed her sweet face and finally let my tears fall. She is still with me, not only in my heart, but her ashes are in my bedroom, where she slept with me and my cats. My intention was to scatter her ashes at the beach, a place she loved to go. But Im not ready to let her go yet, I had to release her from her pain, but mine continues. I have a new boxer girl, Tali, who I adopted 2 days after Abby passed, due to her previous owner beating her right in front of me. I like to think Abby opened the door by leaving me, for Tali to be saved from her abusive life. Tali is dog aggressive, so I would not have been able to take her had Abby still been alive. Tonight I found a lump on Tali’s leg. Fear filled my heart, and tears my eyes, that I may have to lose another friend so soon. Boxers tend to get cancer, and I fear that will be my girls fate. But I will be there with her through ever step, and when the vet says she can no longer fight, I will let her go. Not for me but for her. She too will stay with me, beside my Abby, in the bedroom and always in my heart, until it is time for us all to be together, including my 3 kitties, for all our ashes to be spread together. I hope they all leave me before I leave them, I could not bear to wonder what would become of any of them should I leave first. but my heart will break with each passing, a little of my soul will go with each one. I will be strong if it is necessary for me to chose for them, but I will never be the same without any of them. they are my humanity, my loves.

  4. Matt Carey says:

    Thank you, Robert. It means alot to us. Your article provided us guidance in our tough decision. It should be posted in every vet’s office for dog lovers like us to read.

  5. Wendy says:

    Although this was very hard to read, I needed to read it. I have a very tough decision to make tomorrow and I felt I couldn’t do it for my own selfish reasons. This has helped me understand the right thing to do. Thank you for your insight into my pup’s world. As hard as it is, I know the right thing to do.