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Making the Heart-Wrenching Decision to Put an Animal Down

11/08/2013 06:00 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Knowing that "we always have choices" was put to the test for me this past week, as I considered all of the choices related to the serious health condition of our sweet dog, Amber.

We rescued Amber almost 10 years ago, when she was about six weeks old. She was so small, my husband kept her warm in his jacket pocket, with just her little head popping out. It took her about five minutes to adjust to our family, and then the entertainment began. A mixture of Border Collie, Australian Cattle, Retriever, and who knows what else, her energy and enthusiasm were endless. I had never before witnessed a dog that chased birds flying in the sky. I had never owned a dog that could and would retrieve a ball for hours at a time. My throwing arm tired faster than her legs.

And she smiled. She actually smiled.

She greeted people with a human-like hug. Standing on her hind legs, she wrapped her "arms" around their waists and smothered them with wet kisses. She understood what we were saying, both verbally and with our actions. Her intelligence amazed us.

Amber was the "middle child" in our family of dogs. Simba, our Sheppard/Lab, was five when we brought home his active and energetic new little sister. Since Simba's self-imposed responsibility was guarding our home and family, he was often puzzled and probably confused about Amber's priorities. Retrieving and running around seemed like a colossal waste of time for Simba. He much preferred spending his time protecting his family on long walks, letting all the dogs in the neighbourhood know that he was on guard duty.

When Amber was about five, we rescued another adorable little puppy who we named Harley. Harley and his litter-mates had been pulled out of what was apparently a horrible puppy-mill. Amber was delighted about becoming a big sister to Harley and she assumed all of the responsibility for training him. We were fascinated as we watched her communicate with him, teaching him about what he should and should not be doing. It was incredible to watch.

They quickly became inseparable. They slept together, cuddled in a dog bed or on a couch. Amber included Harley in our games of fetch, and she taught him how to chase squirrels. Their relationship was one of genuine love and respect... truly heartwarming.

Only dog lovers can really appreciate and understand what it's like to live with dogs -- and the lessons we can learn from them. I believe that their average life span is shorter, because they don't need as much time as humans do, to get everything they need out of life.

They understand gratitude and appreciation. They know how to forgive. They love unconditionally. They are patient and positive. They "get" life.

Everything happened so quickly in the last few weeks. Amber was diagnosed with a malignant tumor on her shoulder. After major surgery, plenty of pain meds, sleeping with her on an air mattress in the kitchen... we were faced with decisions. We had choices to consider.

Do we continue with aggressive medical care? Chemo? Radiation?

Amputation? No way.

Do we wait for a few weeks to see how she's doing, knowing that she might be in pain and would be unable to tell us?

Do we end her life in a peaceful and humane manner? That is one choice we have with our animals -- not a choice we have with humans. (End-of-life choices -- that's a different blog.)

There is no right or wrong answer -- the decision had to feel right for our family. We felt that Amber had been a great dog and that she deserved a decision based on her needs, not ours.

We did not want to say goodbye. But she did not deserve to live on in pain and discomfort. She trusted us to make the decision that was right for her.

She may have had changes in her health, but it seemed to me that she never lost her ability to understand and communicate. I felt as if she knew exactly what was going on.

We took her to the vet yesterday, to be euthanized. Harley came along. They walked in together with courage and fearlessness. The humans were sobbing -- the dogs were fine. She lay down on a blanket, calmly... peacefully, and the vet did her thing.

Simba died two years ago and our house feels much too quiet with only one dog. We will definitely rescue another. Harley will undoubtedly embrace and train a younger sibling.

Amber, rest in peace. We will never forget you.

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