A good dog never lives long enough: Saying goodbye to a great friend and companion

Cheyenne has always been vocal, and in her older years, her repertoire of sounds grew to include hoots, croaks, squeaks, growls, grunts, whines and teeth-chattering in the presence of food.

On a recent night, while I struggled to sleep, I heard a low and harmonic whine, like a persistent plea, from our living room. I got up from bed and found our oldest Lab panting on the floor. Her front legs splayed as if to balance herself after a fall.

Many times before, I answered Cheyenne’s call for attention and was able to console her with an ear scratch or a treat. This time, I knew she was in significant pain — her ears pinned back, and her heart raced. Her vocalizations rose in a pitch and timbre that would not be consoled.

The distinct voice of my first duck dog, once eager and excited, was now insistent with another more haunting sound. I worried she was facing the end of her life, at just 12 years old. You might brace yourself and know that it is going to happen to you, yet when death comes to a loved one, it’s natural to shake your head and think, no, not now.

I gave her a pill for pain and, for the first few hours of the night, I offered her treats and a dish of water. She turned her head away from these and continued her distressed cries as if they were part of a private conversation not meant for me.

Still, I listened, scratched her ears, and told her how much I loved her. I quieted myself instead of her, crying into her fur and clinging to her. The memories of our life together came to me, and I pushed these away like she avoided water. They were too painful to consider.

At one point, I became angry that her vet was not available when I called just before the office closed.


With a few more phone calls, I quickly learned that the Kenai Peninsula was experiencing a shortage of veterinarian help as well as an overflow of new pet owners.

Our office was down from four vets to one, and he was boarding a plane with no other office able to help late in the day. Two weren’t taking new clients, and a receptionist at a third said they might be able to accept an emergency if I called early the next morning.

Cheyenne’s legs were feeble. Her hip dysplasia had weakened her hindquarters, and she limped on her right front leg. Her panting, humming and, sometimes, shrieking in a weak, aching voice made the other dogs in the house restless. Hugo, one of the most attentive English setters, tucked in behind me on the floor and licked Cheyenne’s face. She seemed not to notice.

Then, all of a sudden, she wanted to get up. Although surprised, I helped her stand on her wobbly legs. Slowly, she could walk and hobbled to the water dish across the room as if to say, “I will not be a burden — if I want water, I will get it myself.”

Cheyenne was one of the toughest dogs I’ve been around — the daring runt of her litter and the most competitive retriever of ducks.

[Rest in peace, Parker: Remembering a dog’s short but fun-filled life]

A small single-vet office agreed to see her right away in the morning. Because Steve was recovering from a quadruple bypass heart surgery, I struggled to carry my 68-pound “little potato” down a flight of stairs and load her fragile body into the car without help.

She was quiet now, no more vocalizations. At the vet office, she walked into the building mostly on her own, although on shaky legs. The vet stood and watched us walk across the room. The look on her face was grim, her concern evident.

She knelt and began feeling Cheyenne all over, listening to her heart and labored breathing. An old Catahoula leopard dog lay across a long vintage sofa with floral upholstery and watched us. Two cats bounded into the room and slowed with curiosity.

After an X-ray, the vet talked with me at length about bone cancer, one of the most painful cancers. She was sorry to share the news so close to Christmas.

Steve was first to say that he didn’t want to put Cheyenne through more pain. Even though we both thought about keeping her for the weekend, that would be for us, not her.

We were both allowed in the office for the euthanasia. This time in the life of a cherished dog, when they become lost to you, is unbearable and perhaps ought to be unspeakable. Any words you give to the experience can barely touch on the intensity of the light when it goes out in your life and in your arms.

You remember picking her up as a pup, a tiny and beautiful soft creature full of excitement. You remember how she danced and sang for her supper, how the two of you sat on the edge of the marsh together.

Through tears, you remember the times she brought you ducks, and you both learned about life and death.

The first duck, a wigeon on a lake more than a decade ago; the last duck, a teal that you did not know was the last.

Like a flash, I could see her eyes look to me the way they did when we once crawled a few hundred yards together to get near a pond with two teal. At first, I figured I might get her to stay back as I crawled. Yet, she appeared next to me, glancing at me in solidarity, and shoulder to shoulder, we crawled together — it seemed our ability to communicate transcended words. In the end, there was nothing more to say.

That’s my girl, I used to think and still do — my first duck dog.


The past few years have been difficult and destabilizing for so many, and we have lost so much. But, there are still good moments in all this loss. There are people who show up for each other and others moved to give up mindless habits and distractions to live more fully while they can.

A good dog never lives long enough. Take a moment to find one near you and scratch their ears and listen to whatever they might be telling you.

Christine Cunningham

Christine Cunningham of Kenai is a lifetime Alaskan and avid hunter.