Lessons from a Dog's Life
Updated: Apr 16
I recently, for the first time, had to put down a pet.
The Duke was a hulking black Lab who’d been with me through thick and thin. I met him about ten years ago. I’d recently moved to Kansas to accept my first chief of police job in a small town on the Kansas-Colorado border. At the same time, I’d married and become a step-father to a six and a twelve-year-old girl. There were a lot of firsts going on in my life, so it’s only appropriate that I should have decided to pile yet another responsibility onto my proverbial plate. My duties at work had taken me to the local animal shelter. It was a bare-bones place, where many of the larger dogs were kept in outdoor pens. That’s where I met Duke. He was a chronic runaway whose family had finally declined to pay the requisite fees to come claim him. He’d been there long enough that the Kansas dirt had turned his black coat into a shade of gray.
I publicly shake my head at people who baby their animals or talk to them as if they can understand the English language, so my behavior the night I brought him home was hypocritical at best. As I set about the task of cleaning the hundred-pound lab in our basement’s walk-in shower, we discussed the way we’d need to bond and work together if we were to ever become a decent bird-hunting team (or even convince my wife to let him stay). The Duke must have understood, because he became a part of our family for a decade. He was indeed a chronic runner, and I spent many angry evenings combing our small city for him after one of the girls left the gate open (or he learned to climb a fence). Countless hours of study and training culminated in a decent hunting dog, as well. He was never the best; but he was certainly better at retrieving than I was at hunting.
Those ten years were filled with lots of “firsts”. The first time all of the training finally kicked in and he actually retrieved a downed bird. The first time he actually returned home on command. The first time he stole an entire plate of cookies that my wife momentarily left unattended on the counter. But the “firsts” weren’t limited to training or even dog stuff. As pets do, he became a part of our family. Though I wasn’t allowed to admit it, I was young and scared. It’s easy to make enemies in my line of work and everyone in the small town knew who I was and where I lived. I worried for my family when I wasn’t home. The big, friendly dog showed himself too also be fiercely protective. It gave me a sense of peace to know he was there with them when I wasn’t. He was there at holidays. Like me, he was often forced to pose for ridiculous pictures with the girls for Christmas cards. He was there when we brought home my (now 8-year-old) daughter. Hunting trips, family vacations, good times and hard times; he was a figure in them all.
Duke’s association with our family ended as it began: me sitting in a sparse room and talking to him like a fool, as if he could actually understand English. As the years passed, he had slowed down. Pheasant hunts (with their days full of grueling walking) gave way to stationary pastimes like dove hunts. Eventually, even these were too much. His famous escapes became less fantastical. When he did find a way out of the yard, he didn’t go far. He eventually spent most of his time laying near a family member as they read or watched TV, but eventually even that became difficult. Three months ago, I took him to the vet, convinced he was done. Medicine made things a little better, but even science can only do so much. He was finally in so much pain that living was, obviously, miserable. I’d like to tell a Hallmark style-story of our final moments together, of some clever words I uttered to make it so much better. But the truth is that I probably didn’t muster the strength my friend needed to see as he breathed his last breath. Just like that, our decade of firsts, all the growing we did together and all that I owed that noble animal, came to an end.
Later that night, after I came home and broke the news, my eight-year-old daughter and I went for a walk. I know that God is at work in everything and I try to encourage my children to see that in each situation they encounter. Admittedly, it was hard to do in this particularly scenario. I suppose that I could have talked about how great Dr. Riddle was as we went through the process, or how much better prepared we were thanks to the “extra” three months we’d had with the dog (because of the medicine). But as my daughter and I trod the path that Duke had so often walked with us, I found myself telling her about the day I met him. When I’d asked about him, the shelter manager told me that he was scheduled to be put down. He’d been at the shelter in the small town for so long that they no longer held out any hope of his being adopted. In fact, the veterinarian had been there earlier that week. They’d put down two other dogs, but ran out of serum before they reached Duke. He would most certainly have been euthanized when the vet made their next visit.
Without much change in circumstance, there is a world in which Duke would have never been a part of our lives at all. If the serum hadn’t run out or if I hadn’t happened upon the shelter that day (I don’t even remember why I was there), there would have been no “firsts”. There would have been no memories at all. There would have been no Duke with the Couches.
We live in a broken, sinful world. It’s full of corruption, unrest, pain and even death. It’s so very easy to lament all the bad things around us. All too often, I think, we fail to consider the good things that do happen. As I explained to my daughter, we can be sad about losing Duke, but we need to remember to be thankful for the ten years he was with us. It’s easy to ask why God lets bad things happen, but we need to remember to be thankful for the many good things he’s done as well. The Almighty used that dog to teach me so many things over the years. I suppose it’s only fitting that my friend’s final act was to teach me one last, important lesson.