Saying goodbye to our dog taught me how to bid farewell to my father

Saying goodbye to our dog taught me something about how I want to bid farewell to every loved one in my life.

This time of year in San Francisco is especially beautiful. The pink skies in the evening are filled with all sorts of clouds, while the mornings have a slight damp chill as the marine layer slowly pulls back its cover off of the city. Frequently, I find myself rising before dawn so that I can watch the city wake up. The quietude allows my thoughts to roam, most recently toward thoughts of loved ones and death.

image from www.grouchypuppy.comMy beloved Shepherd-Husky, Cleo, died a year ago, and it was tough on us to witness her decline in health. She was a big dog, robust and full of personality, until she wasn't. I saw her, again, and again, meet each new physical challenge, and win. She faced allergic reactions to foods, diabetes, seizures, blindness and dementia. It was a huge blow to suddenly realize that she was fading, that the grim reaper had his grip on her and wasn't letting go.

I had to let go, before she did.

A year before Cleo passed away, our vet told us we would know when it was time to say goodbye to her. He was right.

Watching her closely, getting down on the floor to see what life looked like from her eyes, and just spending quiet time together, I saw her decline. Her body was steadily deteriorating no matter how much I loved her.

Cleo loved exploring the sights and smells of the city. She was the mayor of our neighborhood. From shopkeepers to school children, everyone knew her. She was larger than life!

The look of joy on her face after she had pooped was priceless. Her posture erect, she'd proudly kick dirt back over her deposit, daring the next dog to top it. No wonder people thought she was a boy. More than a few times I took a few handfuls of dirt in the face while I bent to scoop her poop. She would look back at me grinning. I'm sure my laughter fueled her zealous display.

It was heartbreaking when Cleo began losing control over when she pooped. I saw her face when it just rolled out of her and onto the sidewalk. She stopped caring about an activity that had been her signature for years. Now her wobbly stance and loss of control, produced a dispirited expression.

I learned so much about myself and what "quality of life" means from this dog. As she came to the end of her life, I appreciated why we should not dwell on the past, or only focus on the future. She showed me how to be present, and to quietly embrace our time with loved ones.

When the time came to say goodbye to Cleo, I felt that I had done everything I could to be ready. I would only find out if this was true later.

A year has passed and I have the chance to lean on those experiences, to see how they stand up with the recent death of my father.

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What was so special about this dog? One year later

I've been thinking a lot about my dog Cleo. It's been a year now since she passed away. With each day, the grief I have experienced has eased, my emotions less volatile.

I miss her like crazy, that hasn't changed a bit, but I can appreciate more fully that her time had arrived. Having in-home euthanasia performed last year was the right thing to do for her. Even if we weren't ready for her passing, I truly believe she was.

It was like she was waiting on she knew how big her presence was in our life, how significant a part she played in our family. She knew the size of the hole that would be left behind.

My husband and I have had dozens of conversations revisiting various milestones and significant changes in her quality of life in that final year. Each time, one of us recalls a vivid moment that spoke volumes about her declining health. We both saw how the sparkle in her eyes, and the thump of her tail were fading under ever-present exhaustion and stress. 

Now that she has been physically absent from our home for a year, what honestly was so special about this one dog? 

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The Five Myths of Having a Senior Dog

Three years ago, while looking across the room at my old dog, I had five fast responses to anyone fearful of loving a senior dog pop into my head. Reading through them this weekend, I still think they hold up and make good examples of why you should never let your fear of heartbreak prevent you from having an old dog in your life.

After our Cleo passed late last year, I have had many encounters with older dogs and each time they made me laugh and shake my head at these myths. 

Some people think having an old dog is the opposite of fun. I beg to differ with them. 

Check out these five myth-busters:

Myth 1. They're boring.

Fact: How can you be bored when you have this face around keeping you in stitches?

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Myth 2. They're expensive.

Fact: We eat the same foods as she does, only minus the kibble. Even her pills are delivered via high-grade liverwurst that we share.

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My vacation included cleaning sleepy eyes, offering affection, and sausage bits to stray and pet dogs in Turkey

Going on vacation should be fun. When you have a dog, if you cannot take them with you, leaving them behind can be tough emotionally. It's also not fun if your separation is distressing for both of you. When you love a dog like I do, and your furry best friend is aging rapidly, you choose to stay with them every chance you can rather than leave them, even for an hour. You can question my relationship with her and call the depth of my attachment unhealthy, but I can look back now and say with confidence that I squeezed every ounce out of our limited time together.

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Up, Up, and Away!

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Stray street dogs in Istanbul can track animal lovers

A tagged stray dog hangs out in Istanbul. Most of the street dogs I saw in Turkey wanted to be near people. At one point it seemed as if they were tracking me, a known animal lover. These loose dogs showed up at every place I went, and didn't hesitate to come close. Could they smell my desire to clean out their eyes or give them a soft pet?

Istanbul's street dogs seemed to be content either observing the flow of pedestrians, or napping in the sunshine. They were calm and sweetly passive to feet stepping very close, or in this case letting me sit near him on the bench to chat for a minute. 

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Most of the dogs I saw in Istanbul were somewhat healthy looking, considering they lived outside and fended for themselves. This is a busy, crowded city. I was glad to see most people here either ignored the dogs, or were pleasant to them. Given the amount of cars and buses on the streets, I expected more aggressive behavior from people towards the loose dogs. Sure they honked at dogs walking in the road but that was all.

I was also kind of amazed to watch how the dogs navigated the crowds of tourists. The dogs I saw didn't spook easily and had a level of confidence in their behavior that told me the majority of them must be getting their needs met somehow.

I hope whatever they are doing in Istanbul is spreading to other Turkish cities and rural communities. The majority of dogs may not have a home but they didn't appear neglected, or abused, as I saw in some of the smaller towns.

My big struggle during this trip was deciding how to respond when I came across one of these dogs. What would you do if this happened to you on vacation in another country?


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How many dogs of Instagram are there?

I used to think I was crazy because I loved taking pictures of my dog. Years before Instagram I used my pocket Sony digital camera to grab shots of my dog's antics or sweet moments snoozing on the floor. After getting an iPhone, I jumped early into using the cool filters and frames of Instagram.

Seeing moments like the one I captured in this photo a couple months ago, I realize that not only am I not crazy but I'm quite normal, at least in San Francisco.


A photo posted by Sharon Castellanos (@city_girls) on Feb 5, 2015 at 11:54am PST

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Nine ways an old dog shows that they love you

It has been such a gift to have a dog grow old with me. Adopting her as an adult made our experiences interesting, and after our years together, I'm convinced that senior dogs rule. 

Spending time together I learned about her likes and dislikes. We discovered her favorite, over-the-moon, reward. Hint, liver or sardines, in either order, or even better, together.

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Living with my first old dog had me experiencing life in a new and unexpected way, giving me a point of view that helped me better understand my aging parents.

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My dog is living and sentient, not a wagon wheel coffee table

The time has come for every state to let go of defining dogs as property. Remember that scene in When Harry Met Sally, when Carrie Fisher is fighting with Bruno Kirby over a wagon wheel coffee table? That ugly table is property, the blue plate in Billy Crystal's hand is property, a dog is not.

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Resolving pet custody disputes. Should a dog be considered property, if we are finding more court cases of people getting awarded visitation rights? 

Case law from the United States shows that two distinct tests have emerged to resolving pet custody disputes: firstly, the application of pure property law principles as discussed above; and secondly, the application of a ‘best interests of the animal’ test which has similarities to the ‘best interests of the child’ test used in many countries to determine the residency of children in disputes between parents. On the whole, the courts in the United States have used the property law test and rejected the ‘best interest of the animal’ test. However, in a growing number of cases the courts have been reluctant to rely solely on property law principles. 


The pivotal scene of "that's mine, this is yours"


How do you feel about dogs being legally defined as property, like a toaster?


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Why do older dogs sleep so much?

While visiting my 82 year old father recently, he said naps were his favorite thing to do these days. I thought about that and remembered my love of power napping in college. Who else loves naps besides 82 year olds? Older dogs and babies, that's who. And power napping? Beside students, I'd add shift workers and puppies.

Think about it for a minute.

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Why do older dogs sleep so much? Probably the most likely answer is that they burn fuel fast and need to recharge. Also, like that rechargeable battery, the older they get, they stop holding their charge as long.

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Senior dogs give love even when you don't ask

Last weekend, my husband and I were walking in Napa before breakfast. As we passed by the fairgrounds, I slowed down to watch a man slowly walking by the entrance with his pair of Shelties. They were beautiful dogs and in the distance their fluffy bodies reminded me of my beloved Cleo. I smiled at them and seeing our interest, the man made his way in our direction. Nudging my husband, I whispered to slow down. Hopeful that he was friendly and wanted to engage with us, I was thrilled when the stranger steered his dogs directly towards us.

He told us how he noticed our interested faces across the parking lot. I half-listened to him and immediately spoke directly to the dogs. They were soft and silky, playfully sniffing us and leaning in for some pets. They swirled around our legs, very happy and comfortable with our affection. The man told us the dogs were seven and nine years old but from their energy level you'd never have guessed. 

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How beautiful are Shelties?     Photo credit: Jenny2513

That pair of senior dogs knew what they were doing. These Shelties were giving us some much needed love, even though they didn't have to. You know, it's not the first time I have noticed that older dogs seem to know stuff that we don't, like when to offer affection to passersby. It happened the week prior as I walked to the store in my neighborhood.

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Resetting your course: How a dog's memory is helping me navigate

Pet loss isn't unique. How we manage it is. Losing my beloved dog hit me hard. It has thrown my writing life for a curve. She was my primary inspiration for topics, and motivation for striking up conversations. More than three months have passed and it's been a challenge without my canine compass.

There is a feeling of lethargy that is foreign to me. Moving through the day sometimes feels awkward, like wearing an ill-fitting sweater or jacket with too tight sleeves that ride up your wrists. Our dog had my full attention for years and guided much of my writing for the past five.

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How do you reset your course when it feels like the captain is missing?

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You too can find inspiration from strangers dogs

My canine muse is no longer under foot or snoring down the hall, but that doesn't mean she isn't working her magic by way of other people's dogs. 

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Her presence is missed more than ever because now that the immediate grief is passing, we are talking about our memories of her.

We recently laughed and pointed down at some deep scratches on the floor saying, "Remember when Cleo would fly down the hall when you came home, then hit the couch and end up dancing around your legs?"

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2014 Highlights Include #DogsWeLove

Dogs show us there is joy to be had from living in the moment. Your day, and whole life, can include uncertainty but find a sunny patch on the city sidewalk, and you might find yourself enjoying a moment. Something as simple as a sweet look between man and dog can lift your mood. Senior dogs in particular can make great teachers. When I look back over the past year, my old dog influenced me in many positive, and meaningful ways.


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Grouchy Puppy Founder Sharon Castellanos, and Cleo, her muse

I've compiled some of the best stories from 2014 that show us how dogs are like gardens, why dogs are perfect for introverts, and what my experience was like letting my beautiful dog pass on ahead of me [...] 

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If my dog spoke she would never say this, would yours?

This holiday season has been rough because the loss of my sweet old dog is still fresh. We have delayed putting up any decorations that remind us of her, and we skipped putting up stockings all together because I can't bear to see hers.

Given that my dog didn't need me now, I decided to fly to Arizona to visit my mother. She's up there in age and with our shared background loving dogs, I knew she'd know what to say to help me manage my grief.

Have you ever had one of those times when you are just so surprised by your reaction to something? Where you are caught off guard by the passionate response you have to a random commercial, or highway billboard or maybe a magazine ad.

I had one of those experiences as I paged through the SkyMall catalog while on the plane south. SkyMall was filled with every gadget no one really needs. As I flipped the pages, my eyes landed first on a $24 "Pet Tiding Stone" that memorializes your pet using a rock and not your pet's ID tag or collar. Then scanning to the right, I see this...

Screenshot 2014-12-12 14.51.10...and I almost lose my sh*t in broad daylight.

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