To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
to let it go.
In Blackwater Woods by Mary Oliver


To Love What is Mortal

By Deborah Jones, Ph.D.


We know the deal when we get a dog.  In all likelihood that dog will die before we do.  We will enjoy the warmth and total joy of puppyhood, survive a typically rocky adolescence, and develop a lifelong relationship that gives us happiness and pain over the years.  And then some day they will be gone.  


Those of us that are trainers form even stronger bonds.  Our dogs become our working partners, our teammates, our travel companions, our walking advertisements for our work.  We know that even though we think we teach them, they teach us so much more.  Every one is a different unique individual with something new to show us.  


We also know that every so often a really special one comes along.  People often talk about a ‘heart dog’.  That one that you will have the hardest time losing.  The one you will think about and talk about for years.  The one where the pain of loss stays with you forever.  Personally, I think they’re all heart dogs, yet still, some do make a much stronger impression than others.  

When we love another living creature we willingly open ourselves up to pain and loss.  There’s no way around it.  We might try to deny it or ignore it, but it comes with the love.  We can’t avoid it.  Yet we seem to be continually surprised at the strength and depth of every loss.  Every person’s grief is their own to carry through the rest of their life with them.  We can try to ignore or deny it.  We can distract ourselves in a huge variety of ways to try and avoid it.  But grief is a patient creature.  It will outlast your feeble attempts to pretend it doesn’t exist.  

People will try to minimize your grief and pain.  “It’s just a dog”.  “Go get a puppy and you’ll feel better”.  “There are more important problems in the world than this”.  “Are you STILL upset about your dog?”  These people, either consciously or unconsciously, really don’t get it.  We love who we love and the grief over losing them is real and strong.

Sometimes we have to actually make the decision to help our dogs die.  What a horrible and wonderful ability that can be.  To release a dog from pain or fear is a blessing.  To hold that power and make that choice is a horrible responsibility.  In my case, to make that decision due to serious aggression was the worst choice to make and yet the only choice that could be made.  Every day I regret that choice and every day I know it was the right one.  It’s a special kind of hell that I relive over and over.  

I assumed that I would outlive Helo.  But I never would have guessed that on a sunny summer afternoon he would kill his housemate and I would have to make the decision that, at 3 years old, he was not safe to live in this world.  



In the beginning I didn’t want to love him.  I was so broken and depressed after my son’s death that I didn’t want to be responsible for anyone or anything.  But he was there, he seemed destined to be mine, and he needed me.  Apparently I needed him just as much.  He helped me in ways I could never have imagined.  He helped me find a way to keep living when I didn’t want to.  He was my silent companion for hundreds of miles of forest trails.  I started to heal as we hiked.  I was sure we had many more years of companionship and adventure together; until we didn’t.  

I have no idea why this horrible thing happened to us.  I have no idea why two of our dogs died within 12 hours on a normal beautiful day.  I only know that if I had to do it all over again, I would still love Helo like my life depended on it.  It did.  And I know that letting him go was awful, but had to be.  Something else I also know is that there is no moving on or getting through this.  There is only carrying it with me as I keep living.