Comforting an Old Dog

By Shirley Zindler, March 2015, Updated July 2016

Sheriffs dispatch called me on standby about ten o’clock on a Friday night. They had a caller reporting an injured dog at an address out in the country. I pulled up in my animal control truck and met with a kind hearted family who pointed out the dog huddled behind a grill on the deck. They said they had tried to approach but she growled at them. I shined my light and that direction and the beam fell across an old, beat up pit bull. Her ears were cropped short, the eyes in the gray face were filled with fear and a large tumor hung from her belly. I heard a low growl. “Hey Doll, what are you doing here?” I called softly too her. Immediately I heard the sound of her hairless old tail beating against the grill.

I’ve been doing this job a long time. Most scared dogs that have wandered away will bolt for home when confronted.  It was very likely that this old girl had been dumped put out of a car here, under cover of darkness. My heart broke for her and I called her again. The tail beat louder but she was afraid to come to me. I set my catch pole down and approached with a slip lead, talking to her the whole time. I was finally able to stroke the sweet face and slip the lead over her broad head.

I tugged the lead, trying to coax her out but she seemed to have no idea what the leash was. Finally I scooped her up and carried her to my truck. I settled her on a thick blanket and looked her over. The tumor was larger than an orange and she had several smaller ones as well. She was missing some of her hair and her skin was a mess. I could see that her mammary system had been used over and over. The skin sagged with the evidence of many litters of puppies.

I made the old dog comfortable at the shelter and put her on the vet log to be seen the next day. I dreamed about her that night, wondering if there was any chance that a family with few resources was missing her. Maybe she had gotten disoriented and wandered away from an elderly person who loved her but had no money? Maybe they would be frantically searching for her and we could help them with some vet care? I’m an optimist that way.

The shelter vets gave the old dog an exam and ran bloodwork the next day. I checked up on her and she was settled on a cushy thick dog bed although it was hard for her to lay comfortably on the tumors. We had saved old dogs with tumors bigger than this one though. One dog, Peaches, had come in with a cantaloupe sized tumor. The vet did surgery, she recovered fully and was adopted into a loving home. My own old pit bull Patty, had also come in terrible condition and with tumors. She had surgery and was doing great. I was hopeful.

I went in and sat with the old dog whenever I could and she climbed in my lap and cuddled as close as possible. I stroked the gray face, scratched behind her bad-ass cropped ears and massaged her muscles until she sighed with pleasure. I brought her special treats too and laughed to watch her tail wag and her cloudy old eyes light up when she smelled them.

Her stray hold passed, not surprisingly, with no one coming to claim her. I finally had a chance to ask the vet staff about her. She’s riddled with cancer, I was told, and her blood work looked terrible. She was dying. My eyes stung and I choked on the lump in my throat as I walked away. I so wanted her to have a few good years, with people who pampered and adored her.  I knew she had likely been an outdoor breeding animal, used only to produce puppies, and I wanted to make up for it.

I sat with the old dog for a long time after work. I cherished this sweet time with her at the end of her life and tried to think of some other options but in spite of her good care at the shelter, her condition had deteriorated even more while she was there. Soon she would be in pain.

I had hoped to be with her the next day, as she slipped away in the gentle arms of the shelter staff, but I was tied up with emergencies and wasn’t able to make it back. How I wish she could have belonged to someone who loved her. Someone with the decency to hold her and drip heartbroken tears on her sweet face as she took her last breath. I know my dedicated co-workers would have been kind to her though and that is a comfort.

People often tell me they couldn’t do my job because they love animals too much. I tell them I love them too much not to. It’s not about my pain, it’s about helping the animal. What if no one were there to comfort this dog at the end of her life when even her owners betrayed her? Even though we couldn’t save her, I like to think we made her last days as nice as possible under the circumstances. Sweet dreams old lady. 

Shirley Zindler is an animal control officer in Northern California, and has personally fostered and rehomed more than 300 dogs. She has competed in obedience, agility, conformation and lure coursing, and has done pet therapy. Zindler just wrote a book The Secret Lives of Dog Catchers, about her experiences and contributes to Bark’s blog on a regular basis.