Wally was my friend, my playmate, and my favorite dog. While it is typically frowned upon to admit to having a favorite amongst your human children, as a “pet parent,” I hope you will not be offended if I admit that Wally was my favorite. (I’m quite certain that my other dogs know this and are OK with it; Wally was their favorite too.)
Wally was a West Highland Terrier, with a bouncing, happy gait, a beaming smile, a tender heart, and cancer. When we learned of his diagnosis, his doctor estimated that Wally had about two months to live, but he stayed with us – happy and blissfully unaware of his death sentence – for eleven months. In that time and over the rest of his amazing life, here is what I learned from him.
Every day you wake up is a good day
Most dogs are happy, so when I tell you that Wally was the happiest dog I’ve known, that is really saying a lot. He was relentlessly smiling. Yes, dogs can smile, and westies have a remarkable feature called “the westie grin.” They are master communicators, and Wally told us he was happy every single day – even his last.
Walk every day
When the doctor told us that we would be losing him, she mentioned a few things would help him “stay comfortable.” Top on her list was a nice, long walk. We knew our dogs loved walks and we enjoyed taking them out, but until then, walking was an optional family activity; something we did if we could fit it in. We started taking our walks seriously and made it an almost daily occurrence. Regular exercise is great for your brain, your heart, and your outlook. We can thank Wally for our daily habit now.
If the others won’t play with you, play your own game
Even at his advanced age, Wally loved to play. He played by running as fast as he could around the yard and daring the others – and sometimes us – to catch him. He would run around and over obstacles, take flying leaps off the furniture and change direction in mid-run to keep from getting caught. Sometimes his siblings played a little too rough for his liking; their preferred play looks more like paw-to-paw wrestling, with lots of rough and tumble contact. This was too rough for Wally, but he never let it stop him. He just ran circles around the others and played his own game. If they followed, great. If not, he was still having fun his way.
Roll the windows down
Dogs have a very different sense of smell than we limited humans. That is one reason why they love to ride in the car with the windows down, their heads out as far as they stretch, their hair blowing in the wind. When Wally and his “brother-son” (Long story. Let’s just say Wally was quite precocious at 9 months) had just joined our family, they were a little crazy, as puppies often are. After they both jumped out of an open car window in a Walgreen’s parking lot, their days of riding with the window down were over. So the day I took Wally to doctor for the last time, I figured the odds of an escape were pretty slim. I rolled down the window, and Wally had his fun. He was curled in a little ball on the passenger side, wrapped in a blanket and barely awake, but he leapt to his feet, balanced his little body on the door handle, and had the ride of his life – but first he shot me that beautiful grin to say “thank-you.”
Any time is the right time for a tummy rub
Wally loved to be cuddled and held; he had a way of getting what he wanted from us. Whenever he wanted a tummy rub, he would flop over on his back, look you right in the eye, and wait. I used to say “no” to some of these requests and tried to make tummy rubs a bedtime thing. Once I knew we were losing him, Wally and everyone else got tummy rubs whenever and wherever they wanted.
Say thank you
Wally loved his treats. I know, if you’re even still reading this, you’re probably dismissing all of this as just normal behavior for a dog. And you’re right. But Wally had a way of looking you right in the eye, giving you that grin, and letting you know how much he was enjoying his treat. The way he said “thank you” gave us a lot more pleasure than he was getting.
Keep chasing what you want – even if you never catch anything
Living outside of Phoenix, Arizona, our yard was home to an assortment of lizards, birds and other desert creatures. Wally’s natural hunting instinct inspired him to chase any moving thing around the yard. Thankfully, they were all faster than he was (although there was that one time I found him playing with just the tail of a lizard …) But he didn’t care. Every single day, Wally would poke around between the rocks and chase anything that would run. It was the chasing, you see, that was the point.
Everyone you meet deserves your love
During our walks, we met a lot of people. Some of them were fellow dog lovers, some weren’t into it. But Wally couldn’t tell the difference, or didn’t care. He looked at every human encounter as an opportunity to receive and give love. I watched him win over more than a few people who didn’t seem interested, until he started flirting with them.
Mornings are for cuddling
As a consultant, my schedule varies every day, depending on the needs of my clients. I used to push Wally away in the morning, needing to get the day started. I thought I didn’t have time for his favorite ritual – cuddling under the covers. After his diagnosis, I set the alarm 15 minutes earlier, so there was always time for nice, warm cuddle. My surviving dogs and I are still benefitting from that habit.
Say “I love you” with your eyes
One of the great sorrows in my life with dogs is not being able to hold vocal conversations with them, the way I talk to other people. But they have so many other means of communicating! When Wally looked into my eyes, I could feel the rush of oxytocin, what Paul Zak calls the brain’s “love potion.” Berns’ latest book, How Dogs Love Us, destroys the false claims that humans are just projecting their feelings on their pets. Dogs show the same response to oxytocin when with “their people” that we do when we are with our loved ones. So never doubt it again – your dog loves you. And you are both hard-wired to experience it in very similar ways.
Sleep like you mean it
Dogs sleep about ten hours a day, so I have a lot of photos of sleeping dogs in precious poses. When it was time to sleep, Wally would find a comfortable spot and drop into a deep sleep almost immediately. Especially as he got sicker, I noticed that his sleep sessions seemed to be almost intense – like he was working hard to get as much rest and restoration as possible.
Roll in the grass every chance you get
Wally and our other male, Dingo, enjoy a peculiar connection to grass. You see, we don’t have much of it in Arizona. So when they find a patch of lush, green grass, they stop everything and roll in it. It almost looks like they are swimming in it. Wally was a daily reminder that the physical pleasures of the world are important, that we should never miss a chance to enjoy them. The warmth of sunlight, a gentle breeze, the caress of the grass, these were all the most important thing in front of him at the time.
You never know how much time you have, so use it all
We were told by an expert that our remaining time with him would be short, so we were determined to maximize every experience, every day that we had left. It turns out that this is true for all of us. You just don’t know how much time you really have, so you’d better use it all. I know our entire family grew closer as we tried to squeeze every precious second of Wally time out of the days we had, and I’m so grateful we had the chance to say goodbye a million times. But death doesn’t always work like that. You always think there will be more time to say the things you want to say, to show the love you have for someone. That just isn’t true, so make the most of whatever time you have.
When it is time to go, there’s no crying
We were able to limit Wally’s suffering to little more than an occasional stomach flu, until one really hard night. The next morning, as I lifted the covers for Wally’s morning cuddle, he looked me in the eyes and we both knew. I drove him to our appointment with the window down and sat with him as he fell asleep for the last time. I was surprised that I didn’t cry until much later. I was too full of happy memories to feel sad. And so grateful that I was able to help him pass so painlessly.
I know that when it is my time to go there will be someone in my life who has spent every possible moment with me being alive. And I intend to sleep like I mean it.