About Face—A Dog Story

I got her at the pound on my 26th birthday, a fluff-ball Shepherd mix with big brown eyes, floppy ears, and a perfect black diamond dead in the center of her tan forehead. She was just seven weeks old, not yet ready for adoption. I lied to get her out. They found her in the San Fernando hills and thought she was feral, but I told them she was mine and I’d lost her on a hike up near Mt. Wilson.

I named her Killer Dog Face. Killer as in cool. Dog because she was one. And Face after a term of endearment my mother used to call me. I figured she deserved three names like most everyone else had, but I called her by her last name almost all the time.

My beautiful Face.

Over two feet tall and 70 pounds by her first birthday, her paws and ears remained adorably exaggerated against her slender but muscular frame, and for almost ten years everyone thought she was still a puppy. An impressive athlete, she could pace me on my bike at 25 miles an hour, and clear a five-foot wall or a six-foot wide river in one fluid motion.

I worked from home, so we were together practically 24/7. Tail would be swishing and she’d have her happy smile on when she’d periodically lope in throughout the day from sunbathing or chasing squirrels and crows in the backyard. She’d smooch her muzzle into my thigh, then rub her body along my legs rather cat-like, soliciting for strokes. I loved her company, felt sated when she was with me. Face was easy to be with, required little and listened well. And she always made me feel important, and valued.

I taught her to Stay. Drop. Leave it! And that was about it. Stupid dog tricks were degrading. She accompanied me everywhere, muzzle out the window, jowls flapping in the wind while she took it all in, reminding me to get out of my head and absorb the moments at hand. She greeted most everyone with a tail wag and her happy grin. Face was a gentle lass and she genuinely liked pretty much everybody. I gave her a home, and the attention she required for her security. She made me feel wanted, appreciated, safer, and not so alone. Forever forward, our relationship will remain one of the most stable, even exchanges of love and respect I will ever know.

I found out about the slip disks in her spine a few months after her 10th birthday. We had gone hiking in the coastal mountains of Marin and she took off after something pacing us along a grove of redwoods. When I called for her, she was way down in a gulch, and I could tell she was struggling to make it back up the hill to me. The vet said she’d probably messed up her back, and that even though it was treatable with vitamin supplements, eventually she would get arthritis from the bad disks pinching her nerves. And though it took another five years, the vet turned out to be right.

I never expected to be faced with having to put her down. I assumed she’d go off a cliff chasing a squirrel or miss when jumping over a river and I wouldn’t be around to save her. Everyone kept telling me it was time. At 16 she had hip problems, and walking problems, and was becoming incontinent. I felt sad for her a lot, watching her struggle to get up or stay up while excreting. And then I had my son. And Face wasn’t the baby anymore. And she was sad a lot too. Her health problems went from bad to worse and picking up her poop all over the house where an infant crawled was more than just disgusting. It was a health hazard.

I’ve always thought that if I ever got a terminal disease, I would choose to end my life before I was unable to do so. Before I lost all my faculties I’d go in the garage and turn on the car or find the right drugs to take me over the edge. It never dawned on me to think differently until I was faced with the responsibility of having to make that choice for a loved one.

I sat on the floor next to my dog in her newly confined space in the tile entry wishing she could tell me what to do. She lay in her bed with her head in my lap as I scratched her muzzle, then behind her ears. She rolled onto her side for me to scratch her belly. Her pained expression turned to momentary bliss as I gently stroked her, recalling some of our time together. Yellowstone; Breckenridge; Yosemite; the Grand Canyon; watching her tear after birds on the countless shorelines we’d strolled. We’d shared some grand adventures, but mostly quiet exchanges of affection, like the one we were sharing right then. Perhaps these moments — the times I stroked her or rubbed her belly made living in pain worth it. Who was I to facilitate her death? I was suddenly torn by the choice I had to make.

I had her put down eight months after her 16th birthday. She couldn’t walk. Her hind legs kept giving out. She wasn’t eating, or even drinking much anymore. I made the call on a Saturday morning. A certified veterinarian came to my house with a truck, complete with a metal table and loaded with medical equipment. I carried Face to the truck and placed her on the table, then stood there stroking her and crying. The doctor softly informed me that he would be giving my dog a tranquilizer, then taking her to his office where he would administer the fatal cocktail that would kill her. He assured me she would drift into blackness forever without waking. I didn’t ask what they’d do with her body. I didn’t want to know.

I held my dog’s head in my hands while the vet administered the tranquilizer. “Thank you for sharing your life with me, for being my friend,” I whispered to her as the doctor removed the needle from her hindquarters. “I love you. I will think of you often. I’ll miss you terribly, my beauty. Goodbye, sweet Face.”

She lay on the cold metal table and stared at me until her eyes closed. I stroked her head one last time, lay my hand on the black diamond marking on her head and kissed her between the eyes.

As I left the truck the doctor assured me I’d made the right decision, the “humane choice.” I stood at the curb until the truck pulled away, held my arms clasped on top of my head to hold in my brain, and contain my emotions. My quiet street was deserted again, and I looked around for my dog to come inside with me when it hit me, my Killer Dog Face was gone. My arms came down and with it any facade of composure. I sank to the sidewalk sobbing. I must have sat there for 20 minutes crying, until I got up and started walking, then running.

I ran as fast and hard as I could, for as long as I could, trying to outrun reality, trying to outrun my grief. My beautiful Face was dead, the first loss of a loved one I’d ever experienced, and the idea of her gone from my life was so profoundly empty, black, lonely, that it made me physically ill by the time I got to the bridge. I stopped in the center and threw up over the side into the L.A. wash.

When I finished vomiting I stood gripping the cool metal railing of the bridge and staring down at the thin stream of water below. “I HATE YOU!” I screamed. It was dusk by then. No one was around. Not a whole lot of people even knew about that bridge. At one end was an upscale residential neighborhood, on the other were exclusive condos. “You killed her and I HATE YOU!” I yelled at the top of my lungs, knowing I wasn’t speaking to anyone, nothing was hearing me.

“May I help you, Miss?” He asked softly, but it startled me anyway. I hadn’t seen him approach. He had come across [the bridge] from the condo side. He was Indian, from India, middle-aged, with soft brown eyes and dark, close cropped hair. I think he thought I was going to jump off the bridge.

“My dog died,” I told him. I started crying hard again hearing that reality aloud. I don’t know why I told him. So often when people ask we’re supposed to pretend we’re fine because they really don’t want to know anyway. “I really loved her.”

He nodded, let a few moments pass in silence then said, “My aunt died last week. I’m still very sad. I miss her very much.” He stood a few feet from me, his head slightly cocked to one side. He let his eyes rest on mine.

“I’m sorry about your aunt,” was all I could think of to say. The man had put his aunt on par with my dog, and I was humbled, and grateful.

“I’m sorry about your dog,” he said. “I hope your sadness will temper in time with good memories.” He gave a slight bow and moved across the bridge.

I watched him until he disappeared into the neighborhood beyond, and left the bridge soon after him. On my way home I let my mind wander over my time with my Killer Dog Face. I cried. I even smiled once or twice through the tears.

My sadness has tempered over the years. Most times when I think of my beautiful Face the memories are sweet. But to this day, 20 years later, the pain of her loss still fills me with unmitigated terror, a now ever-present awareness of the enormous cost of love.

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