The Descent of Blue

Everybody who met Blue said he was the best dog they’d ever met. Everybody was right, of course.

In the years since his rocky ascent, which I wrote about five years ago, Blue became his own establishment, a pillar of our little neighborhood, as recognizable as any street sign.

He was out all the time, accompanying us on walks, jogs, and bike rides through every nook and cranny of Saranap. And when he wasn’t out and about, he was in front of our house, watching the cars roll up, hoping to see his favorite UPS driver so he could tour the truck and get another treat and pat on the head.

Our mutual comfort with him free-roaming in front of the house peaked when we traveled to Colorado this spring and couldn’t find a full-time dog sitter. As a last resort, we hired our neighbor to feed and play with him a couple of times a day while we were gone.

The calls came quickly: Blue was howling, whining, crying, carrying on and making a huge fuss. I relented and told my neighbor next door to open the side gate and let him out front. I told the teenage dogsitter to leave the gate open after he fed Blue. The howling stopped, and there Blue stayed without a leash or a collar for three more days until we returned home. When the Uber driver pulled up to our house, Blue was on the porch, curiously watching until he recognized us, and then he trotted down the driveway to welcome us back.

In fact, the only time he was leashed was when I’d sneak a free ride, letting him pull me along on a bicycle or rollerblades. That was a long time ago. The rest of the time, he was off-leash, trotting alongside or slightly in front of me, slowing down only to see if he guessed correctly where I’d turn at an intersection.

Yes, I was that guy running with his 100-pound chocolate lab through downtown Lafayette and Walnut Creek and everywhere else with no leash. People would either stare at me or not care at all. A few smiled and nodded in respect. They knew this was a special dog.

The mark of any great partner, I suppose, is trust. Other dogs can be good, kind-hearted animals that love their people with every fur in their coats. But you wouldn’t trust them on a busy street, or in a room full of elderly people, or with a hot steak resting on the counter.

Blue was great because I could trust him. I could trust that he would make good decisions, that he could read the room, that he would know when to slow down and stop at the edge of the sidewalk on a busy street.

This was peak Blue, between ages 3 and 5. In his “middle age”, he was perfect. No problems at all.

Starting about two years ago, it started to change, and then it all went downhill in a heartbreaking hurry.

I remember when he started to slow down. Quite literally: I could no longer run with him. The days of him pulling hard enough on his leash to drag me around the neighborhood were a dusty dream.

I started to jog long distances a few months before the start of the pandemic. My neighbor Neil would invite me out, and we’d hit anywhere from 5 to 10 miles in the hills and all around our rolling suburbs. Blue used to keep up, even staying a bit in front. Neil was amazed that Blue’s big frame would take it all in stride. I beamed proudly. Yea, Blue was my boy.

Over the course of the following year, as the pandemic rolled on, Blue fell further and further behind us during our jogs. It was subtle at first. I blamed his feet or maybe something he ate that morning. As the allergies gave him ear, eye, and skin infections around his face, he looked older, and I thought maybe his knees or hips were giving out.

Blue with his itchy eyes.

In retrospect, I think it was his paws. He’d spend a lot of time licking the webbing between his toes, and they would get really red. It wasn’t comfortable for him to jog, so I eventually stopped inviting him.

He used to get so excited when I would put on my jogging shorts and then my socks and shoes. He would watch me intently, waiting for me to get to the door, and with a single nod of my head, he would go racing out.

That was Blue before.

The Blue after would lie down just outside the front door, his paws hanging over the step, still watching me but not interested at all in joining. I could see him lower his head to his front paws as I jogged away. That’s the way it was for the last couple of years of his life.

I remember the first time he got a really bad ear infection. I didn’t know what it was, so I didn’t pay much attention. He shook his head all the time, which we’d gotten used to, but also, in retrospect, this was a bad sign. I didn’t act, and I let his ear infection get so bad his ears puffed out like little balloons. They got thick and stiff, and I could see green and yellow puss in both of his ear canals.

That was an expensive vet visit. They loaded him up with antibiotics, anti-fungal shampoo and lather, and antihistamine pills for the itching. He also got a thorough ear cleaning, which led to his deep fear of vet hospitals. After that first ear cleaning, he hated going to the vet. Blue is not one to have strong negative feelings about anything, but boy, did he try to avoid going into that vet hospital ever again. I had to drag him out of the car multiple times when that pesky ear infection returned.

I eventually learned that this condition was seasonal. Winters were good times. The months between October and March were generally clear. Blue’s coat would soften up, his ears wouldn’t swell, and he wouldn’t scratch and lick and chew his skin during the winter. But I could tell that spring was coming as the head shaking and non-stop scratching came back. The skin around his eyes would dry out, and he’d scratch the hair off of his chest, leaving a red oozy welt that had a hard time healing up. It was painful for all of us.

The vet bills piled up, and I gambled on one final treatment, a visit to the animal dermatologist in Oakland to get an allergy panel and immunotherapy treatment. The doctors figured out what dusts and pollens Blue was most allergic to and told me to inject him with trace amounts of those allergens every month for a year. I did, and the symptoms became far less severe.

The ear infections never went completely away, but the skin problems eventually subsided. For that, I was relieved. Blue lived the last couple of years of his life in relative comfort with his skin. The ears would get stinky but not puffy as they did before. It was a smell we just had to get used to.

And then came the seizures.

He had his first one in June 2021. We were in the midst of a huge remodel and living down the street in a rental house. Blue was sleeping in our girls’ room, where they had bunk beds. Around midnight we heard a loud noise, a thump, and then more bumps and thrashing. My wife jolted out of bed and went to see what was happening in their room.

“Ryan! Something’s wrong with Blue!” she said hurriedly.

I remember seeing a huge animal, completely out of its mind, saliva dripping from its mouth, a blank stare across its face, convulsing on the floor next to the bunkbed where my daughters were still sleeping. It didn’t click for a moment that this was my dog.

Blue continued to seize. I grabbed both of his legs and dragged him into the hallway, and shut the bedroom door. I told Melissa to go into our bedroom and shut the door too. I thought Blue was either rabid or about to die. I had no idea what to do, but I stood by the front door, watching him come out of his post-seizure malaise. He stared back at me; his head cocked, ears perked as if seeing me for the first time.

I coaxed him out of the house, relieved that whatever had gripped him was wearing off and called the emergency vet. I drove him over and talked to the nurse. She came out to the car and looked at him, and after hearing me describe this event as some sort of exorcism, she shrugged and said he had just had a seizure.

“A seizure?” I asked.

She explained that it can be caused by anything and that medicines can help. She said he was probably fine to go back home but that we should try to see a vet soon. It’s impossible to know when the next seizure will hit.

I made Blue sleep outside that night, a pattern that we would get used to with his nighttime seizures. He’d usually get amped up after his seizure, making it hard for all of us to go back to sleep. We had to tune out his whining to be let back in. That part was as hard as the seizure itself.

Then there was the cleanup. He peed a lot during the seizures. Sometimes he defecated too. This would be messy, not the ideal activity at 12 or 1 or 3 or 4 in the morning. It would happen at all hours of the night.

And then it started happening during the day, too. One morning, when we were moved back into our house but still finishing the paint in some rooms, our painter came to the front door, knocking hard. He said something was wrong with Blue. Another seizure.

One time Blue was resting on our bed, which we let him do sometimes in the mornings. He started having a seizure. Instinctively, I shoved him off the bed with my feet. He started scratching the brand-new walls. I had to move him again and wait for it to stop. He peed on the carpet. Ugh.

Eventually, we determined that we’d have to block Blue in the living room and put padding and blankets down every night, so we did. Sometimes we caught the seizure, making cleanup a lot easier. Other times we didn’t since Blue had a habit of finding the cool spots on the wood floor in the summer and sleeping there instead of on a blanket. Other times we just made him sleep outside. My wife would feel bad for him and let him in as soon as she woke up.

This is the downside of having a dog. It’s a commitment, in sickness and in health, up to a point. And I was getting tired of it.

A little more than a year after he started having seizures, we hit the final straw.

I took Blue down to the creek behind our yard. He loved the creek and I’d take him down during my casual work phone calls. I threw rocks, and he chased them into the deep bend where it was deep enough to swim. He just loved it.

I threw a rock for him to chase and turned and looked for more rocks. When I saw Blue coming towards me, I noticed that he had a limp. He didn’t seem bothered by it. In fact, he started barking at me to throw another rock. I figured he had a stick in his paw, and he’d run it off if I threw a few more rocks, so I did. When he approached me again to bark for more rocks, the limp appeared worse.

I turn around and headed back towards the trail that led up to our backyard gate, knowing he would follow. I could see he was having trouble with his left leg. Oh boy, I thought. This could be bad. Blue made it up to our yard, limping the entire way without putting any pressure on that leg.

The vet told me the worst-case news. The X-Ray didn’t show anything wrong with his leg bones or hips. That meant the problem was ligaments and that it was most likely a torn ACL (the dog version). The remedy was an $8,000 surgery and a long rehabilitation. This was a price in time and money that I wasn’t willing to pay.

We came home to have a think.

This was hard. I saw the writing on the wall, but I didn’t want to read what it said. I could acknowledge what it meant, but I didn’t want to understand it, digest it, or plan for it.

Blue was a mess. My friend, the dog I picked and brought home and took on miles and miles of runs and hikes had reached his limit, passed it even. Maybe I was to blame, maybe it was all those jogs. I thought about that, too, asked myself if I had pushed him too hard. I didn’t know then. I still don’t.

I do know that he was happy during those golden years. He loved being with me, and I wanted him to be right there too.

After sitting on it for two months, I made the call. I found a veterinarian who did house visits to gently put my Blue down. I scheduled it after my 40th birthday party and a dad’s weekend at my family’s cabin in Pinecrest. I wanted Blue to partake in all of that, and I wanted me to embrace the limited time I had left with him.

It’s a weird thing to have a doomsday clock, a knowing that a life was going to end on a specific date at a specific time. The days went by. I talked to Blue. I spent more time with him at night. I told my daughters to tell Blue they loved him. They could tell he wasn’t feeling well and that his lame leg was bothering him.

I brought Blue to the bus stop the morning that the vet came. I made sure my girls gave Blue a big hug before they went to school. That was hard.

The rest of the morning was shot. I paced. I sat. I held Blue’s big smelly head in my hands and kissed him. The minutes moved slowly until, finally, I received a text that the vet was on her way. I brought Blue outside and waited.

The process was pretty simple. She started with a strong sedative to make Blue go to sleep. It took a while. She had to increase the dose before he finally became drowsy, eyelids droopy, and put his head down to rest. We fed him and talked to him. I think he liked all the extra attention and fought the sleep.

Once he was down, the vet gave us a few minutes to say goodbye. This was it. My old friend, loyal as a shadow, was going away forever. How do you say goodbye? I patted his head and nodded to the vet. I walked away and leaned my elbows on the fence overlooking the creek where he and I spent so much time together. I cried like a baby.

And then it was done.

I had spent the prior two days digging a grave for Blue under our huge oak tree. I read that it needed to be three feet deep, and Blue’s frame was long. This was a lot of dirt and the summer dirt was hard. I had to pause to buy a hatchet to cut through some thicker roots. The vet helped me wrap Blue in a sheet and place him into the grave. Then she quietly and politely let herself out.

I know Blue’s body is still there, breaking into smaller and smaller pieces.

But I like to think his spirit, the essence of who he was, now is in some outer ether, re-living this love that he got from all of us, but especially from my two girls.

They loved him. We all did.

You’re my boy, Blue

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