Duke, a 10-year-old Lab mix, came to live with us almost by accident. We had been fostering dogs for a couple of years already and had established a system that worked well for us: Get and foster ONE dog at a time, two if — and only if — they were very young sibling puppies. Since we have four dogs of our own (two house dogs and two farm dogs), these important limitations not only kept us sane and within a reasonable budget for feed and veterinary care, but they also allowed us to really focus on making our fosters ready for their forever homes.
I had recently seen a fluffy, black puppy in the intakes of the shelter where we get most of our fosters. She was very similar to Gemma, a dog we had just placed. (We were going through a phase of fostering black dogs, as they have a reputation for being overlooked while in shelters.) So I told one of the shelter employees we would pick her up the next day.
That same day, I saw a Facebook plea for someone to foster Duke — an older OTI (owner turn-in) who was losing weight and generally not doing well at the shelter. Duke’s was not the only plea I saw that day, as the shelter routinely featured dogs who needed out for health reasons. Knowing we were getting a puppy, I just kind of filed it sadly away, which I have to do with most of the shelter’s requests for help. It takes in 22,000 animals a year. We simply cannot foster every dog in need.
Cut to the next day. On the way in, I said to my husband, “While we’re there, let’s just go see if Duke got out.” The extreme, heartbreaking nature of a longtime, beloved pet spending his retirement years in a shelter was more than I could just “file away.” The idea that he might still be there, withering away, was too much to take. We found him. Still there. And we got a little more information from his kennel card.
Duke had been surrendered because his owner had terminal cancer and could no longer care for him. I turned my sad eyes up at my husband who, without hesitation, said to load him up. At that time we had one senior dog (Diva was about 15), who we realized took almost no effort anymore as a pet. We could squeeze in one more. And so we left with 10-year-old Duke and 3-month-old Piper, and figured we’d make it all work.
Our first unforeseen event came on the way home, when I noticed Duke had testicles. Sigh. I called and made his appointment that day. Part of me felt bad for setting up a neuter for a 10-year-old dog, but I live in a world of absolutes on this. No intact dogs, ever. They may seem old and uninterested, but if a female in heat turns up (and living on a farm in rural Texas, this is not that remote of a possibility), she can serve as a fountain of youth. Count on it.
Duke settled in nicely at home both before and after his neuter. He was an old dog, with old, creaky bones. He was happy to lie quietly in a dog bed, on the sofa, in the yard — anywhere and with anyone. And he seemed to really appreciate what we did for him, even if he didn’t know who the heck we were. We got him on Rimadyl for his stiffness and set to fattening him back up and getting him a forever home for his final years.
A few weeks after we got him, Duke had an “episode.” He started drinking excessive amounts of water, and one night he wandered behind our sofa and couldn’t figure out how to get out. His crying woke us up. I took him to our personal vet and asked if they could check for diabetes. That would maybe explain the thirst. The wandering I thought could well be dementia; 10 is fairly old for a big dog. $200 in tests later, all we knew was that it wasn’t diabetes.
The vet mentioned that some of his blood levels gave her the idea that he might have some kind of cancer, but further expensive tests may or may not turn up anything. We decided, in that moment, that Duke was ours now. Come what may, we would be his family and try to make the rest of his life as comfortable and easy as possible. We were not going to adopt out an old, limping dog with dementia.
Duke had a fairly normal life for an elderly dog. He was still active and interested in things indoors and out. He was slow, sure, but he was basically a normal old dog. And it was like that for a couple more weeks. And then we saw it. In a very short time, Duke had begun to show a noticeable and growing swelling at the right rear knee. The Rimadyl was keeping him moving fairly well — better than before he started on it — but it didn’t take us long to notice that the swelling and that leg were painful to him. I started Googling and completely deflated when I hit the article on canine osteosarcoma. This was it. I was sure of it. The weight loss, the limp, the sketchy blood tests.
We had a vet appointment already scheduled for Piper that day, so I just asked the doctor, “You know the old dog we brought in, Duke? Do you think he could have osteosarco — ”
The word wasn’t even out of my mouth yet when she said, “Yes.”
I remember having only one thought. A repetitive, “Dammit. Dammit, dammit, dammit, dammit.” Osteosarcoma is a very aggressive, very quickly metastasizing cancer of the bone. There is no cure, and the only treatment for otherwise healthy dogs is amputation of the affected limb.
This was not an option for Duke. Poor, wonderful Duke, whose teeth were already ground down to nubs, whose precious family jewels had just been clipped like a 50-cent coupon, who lost his person of 10 years for reasons he would never, ever fathom. Duke had cancer. Aggressive, metastasizing cancer. Dammit. Dammit, dammit, dammit, dammit.
Though we had already committed to keeping Duke happy and comfortable for the rest of his life, we had not realized how short that commitment would end up being. We increased his meds and watched him closely. The tumor went from a mushroom-sized lump to a tennis ball in an astoundingly short amount of time. We increased his meds and watched him closely.
And when, only a couple weeks later, we saw in his eyes that he needed us, I took him to our vet and released him. I wept like he had been my dog for his entire 10 years. I thanked him for being a good dog and told him he would be able to run soon. He passed in my arms, and I wept a little more. I brought him home, and we buried him with and as one of our own animals. And I gave thanks.
As a livestock farmer, I see every single point on the circle of life with greater frequency than most. I have a profound appreciation for quality of life and have grown the skills to understand the need for and how to handle a quality death. I felt like Duke found us for a reason. He needed someone who knew these things. Who could see his needs and meet them when the time came.
He found us because he needed to find us. And in some strange way, I feel like we needed him, too. The experience was so meaningful to me. The whole reason we foster is to give homeless dogs a chance to feel love and find a home. And while we never thought of hospice as being part of that, we absolutely do now. We lost our own senior dog, Diva, a year or so after Duke. We have not fostered a senior since then, but I am sure we will. We’re just playing this fostering gig by ear and waiting for the dogs who need us to find us. And find us, they do.
Read more by Lisa Seger:
About the author: Lisa Seger (who goes by Blue Heron Farm on most social media platforms) is a former office drone turned dairy farmer and cheesemaker. She found that cubicle jobs just didn’t allow for enough quality animal time and so made animals her work instead. Like all dairy farmers, she has virtually NO free time, but what little she gets is generally spent in pursuit of rescuing, fostering, and placing homeless dogs. Or being a smart-alec on the interwebs. Follow her on Facebook.