May 11 was a tough day in the Connelly household. Our 15-year-old German Short-hair, Gus, reached the end of the line. Gus was an exceptionally tough bird dog and, following every downturn in his health, continued to rally over the last year. Finally, there were no more rallies remaining.
Gus was a great family dog and grouse finding machine, but he was more or less an accident. We had ordered a shorthair puppy but no pups were produced from the planned breeding. Learning of another litter, we bought Gus. A couple of months later the original breeder contacted us and told us to expect a Christmas puppy.
That year we took delivery of two shorthair puppies that were as different as night and day. Gus was extremely athletic, he would hit the water for an enthusiastic retrieve, hold a point all day, and be your best buddy in the evening. He was known to occasionally steal someone’s beer and enjoy a swallow or two. Meg, on the other hand, was a true princess dog and expected to be treated as royalty. She seemed to consider Gus a clown that couldn’t find a chicken in a coop. The only things these dogs had in common were incredibly strong drives to hunt and uncanny abilities to find game birds.
I used both dogs for hunting and field research. Meg was all business and always helpful but never entertaining. Gus’ outgoing, goofy nature made him a real hit with coworkers. His help was critical to completing some challenging work on sage-grouse winter feeding ecology. That research called for collecting a few grouse during winter. The problem was sage-grouse are notoriously difficult to approach during winter because they usually occur in flocks and will flush at the first sight of a potential predator. Gus was a master at finding and pointing birds that failed to flush or landed separately from the flock. As a result, Gus is listed in acknowledgment sections of several scientific publications.
As time passed and Gus and Meg entered their 14th year they slowed considerably and it seemed obvious that Gus would not see his 15th birthday. Still, he was alert and appeared to enjoy patrolling the back yard, while Meg was happy to lay in her bed, relish the occasional treat, and view the household activities. Gus surprised us with a late winter rally. He made it to his 15th birthday in fine form for his age. Nevertheless, we knew his time was short and kept a close eye on his health. He continued to eat and sometimes helped finish Meg’s meal; begging for treats never got old for Gus.
I’ve owned hunting dogs for over 50 years and had to confront the grim necessity of euthanasia on many occasions. I cannot offer any kind of wisdom with respect to end-of-life care other than be sure to consult with your veterinarian. Each dog and each circumstance are different. We can normally identify an older dog in failing health but we stumble over what to do about it. I think it comes down to the dog’s quality of life. Sometimes dogs exhibit symptoms of pain or illness that help guide our decision. Other times, things are less obvious and we have to be aware of changes in the dog’s behavior such as eating habits or incontinence that signal distress. Then, for the dog’s sake, we have to muster the courage to make a difficult decision.
As of this writing, Meg is still with us but likely won’t see her 15th birthday this fall. Like Gus, she’s had a great life and was able to dictate that life mostly on her own terms.