My hardest hardest goodbye to write
Barely one year ago I wrote what, at the time, was my hardest goodbye when my dog Basil died. Now, I’m doing the unfathomable: Eulogizing a second dog.
Ernie, the golden retriever, entered my life when I became an independent adult. I was 25 when I moved into my first house and weeks later Ernie joined me to start an adventure that would last us 13 and a half years.
While I was house shopping, my list of requirements was simple: A jetted bathtub and a big backyard for a dog to run and play. Once I bought a house and moved in I didn’t feel comfortable until Ernie arrived three weeks later.
My house has an upstairs, that’s where my bedroom is. Living in a big house by myself, I was paranoid about sleeping alone up there. What if there was a fire or someone broke in and I was trapped up there with no escape? An odd paranoia, sure, but it’s how I felt.
As most people would appreciate their own space and spread out as much as possible, I slept in the living room on the main floor for those three weeks. At the time, I had the basic furnishings a bachelor would need. I didn’t go shopping every weekend to get more and more stuff for the house. My sights were set on getting a dog almost from the first minute – practically from before I took possession of the property.
I had previously worked as the reporter at a military newspaper in Winnipeg. A military couple had golden retriever puppies and that’s exactly the kind of dog I’d wanted. I met them. The rest is history.
When I went to their house, I was swarmed by six puppies and their mom. As us adults talked, the puppies each took turns coming to see me and I held them as the conversation continued. Some had no interest in me, while other puppies squirmed and wanted to be put back on the ground.
All the dogs looked the same and I couldn’t tell them apart. The human parents, however, made an observation: the puppy wearing the black collar with white paw prints on it came to me twice and snuggled up in my arms both times. In fact, he was the only dog that came to me more than once. It was Peanut, as he was called at the time.
A few days passed and I was preoccupied with work and my new adult life that I forgot about the dogs. It wasn’t until a colleague asked if I’d made a decision about getting one that I remembered the puppies. I said I’d followup with the couple and see if any dogs were still available. When I called, they told me that only Peanut was left. It was a sign.
One of my friends, who gets wildly excited when people have a baby or get a dog, insisted on coming with me to pick up my new BFF. We made a detour so she could spoil him (and me) with a bunch of dog stuff. Coincidentally, she picked out a paw-print leash that exactly matched his collar.
I was thrilled by the new addition to my life but sad to take the dog away from his mom. I thought I could distract him so he would forget about her on the way to my house. On the way, the puppy in my arms woke up and started whining and howling. As I attempted to hush and calm him, I turned to my friend and said, “Oh my god, I’m a terrible person.”
I got home and we played in the hallway. He leaped and nipped and, unfortunately, wet on the floor — you know, all stuff you expect a puppy to do. Thankfully, he was still young enough that he tired fairly quickly and we called it an early night.
For much of the time, the puppy was confined to the kitchen. I had my laptop at the table and carried on with my workday in the same room as the dog. (Note that I’m still not referring to him by name. The reason is coming up.) I hadn’t done much research about how to train a puppy but my first technique was to immediately stop playing with him when he’d bite and nip at my hands. When his razor-sharp puppy teeth caught my finger, I’d say “ow” and walk away. Eventually, he got the idea.
I spent a week working from home and away from the office, thinking that would be enough time to get the dog accustomed to his new surroundings. It certainly wasn’t. I started working half days at the office and coming home to free him from the kennel I felt so guilty about locking him in hours earlier. Soon, he was coming to work with me and playing with the office dog there.
For weeks, I was hounded by people asking if I’d decided on a name for the puppy. I hadn’t. Finally, it was suggested that we run a contest on my syndicated radio show to help choose a name. At the time, we had roughly 300,000 listeners throughout North America and received dozens – if not a couple hundred – entries. The frontrunner the entire time: Ernie.
Thanks to that contest, Ernie quickly became a dog celebrity. Remember, this was before the days of social media and everybody creating profiles for their pets. Ernie had celebrity status, at least amongst our audiences. We made a page on the radio show’s website to post photos of Ernie. In amongst the other content – you know, the stuff that actually had to do with the music program we aired – Ernie’s pages got the most traffic.
He took a liking to the two rabbits I had. When I lived with my parents, we had our family dog put to sleep and my mom said there’d be no more dogs in the house. So, when they were away for a weekend, I’d gone to a pet store and got two rabbits. When I moved to my place, they came with me and Ernie was fascinated by them. In fact, he even gently sat over them as if he were a momma bird sitting on a nest. Really. He soon knew the rabbits as “the babies.”
While he was still a baby himself, Ernie was a troublemaker. He had the run of the kitchen when I’d leave for short periods of time and that’s all he needed to get up to no good. One time, I went to get him a bag of food from the pet store down the street. I was gone for 20 minutes and somehow he managed to get to a plate of chicken that was thawing at the back of the kitchen counter. Damned if he didn’t have the dish licked clean on the floor when I got home. Realizing he’d eaten raw chicken, I panicked and thought he might die. After all, if a human eats raw chicken bad things can happen. In a hilarious overreaction, I called the emergency animal hospital and asked if I should bring him in. It was suggested that I could make him throw up, but the woman on the phone calmly said, “Do you think they have barbecues in the wild, sweety?” Instantly, I felt like an idiot.
Another moment wasn’t just on the kitchen floor, it was the floor. I was at the office and my brother had stopped by my house to get some soil from my yard. The kitchen window was open and my brother said he was calling Ernie when he heard the dog barking. Turns out, when I got home, the kitchen floor right under the window had been ripped up. Thankfully, it was old linoleum that needed to be replaced, anyway. But as the weeks went on and he got bored, Ernie eventually ripped up most of the kitchen floor.
As he grew and his less-destructive personality formed, Ernie became a character that loved posing for the camera, and more so, dressing up in anything. Don’t misunderstand, we’re not talking about sweaters and other clothes people torture their pets with, but rather silly things that were only for him. Any new hat, or pair of sunglasses, had to be his to try on. Soon, he learned to appreciate the attention of having something special put on him.
For my radio show we had a partnership with a Halloween company and they outfitted Ernie with a bunch of cute costumes. Admittedly, he was unsure about the formal posing in his new clothes but eventually got the hang of it – largely because he was bribed with a box of treats the entire time.
As my company grew, so too did my attention to our syndicated programming. Because he was getting less and less of my time, I felt it necessary to consider getting Ernie a playmate to occupy himself. I checked out the city pound and saw a Labrador retriever. I met the dog and within a few minutes knew he’d be a good fit for Ernie: they ran the same way, they played the same; it would be a perfect match.
I was excited to introduce Ernie and the new dog, Basil. In fact, I got my camcorder from inside the house (phones with video weren’t really a thing yet) and captured the exact moment they met. Ernie peed on the sidewalk when he saw the dog and seemed unsure about the new four-legged creature.
Basil, approximately six months old according to the shelter staff, jumped and bounced and bit at Ernie’s ears. As much as the dog tried to play, Ernie looked at me to save him from the youngster. Ernie had met other dogs before but none so energetic and ready to wrestle. I soon had doubts that they were a perfect fit for each other.
Eventually, the two became friends and were literally side by side for nine years. The most they were apart was for a few minutes if one needed to go outside and the other didn’t. For walks or vet appointments, they were a package deal – one wasn’t going without the other. I joked that they were dog-mestic paw-tners because as the years went on and more photoshoots happened for the radio shows, Basil was regularly dressed in female dog costumes because he was the smaller of the two.
Photos of Ernie were so popular that we ultimately licensed his shots to an American greeting card company and my dogs had their own line of products. Years later, my cousin asked if Ernie was on greeting cards because she was visiting the U.S. and saw him in a store. Small world, hey?
My work travel increased and that meant Ernie and Basil would go to a farm for boarding. The woman there operated a dog rescue, daycare and boarding on her property. She noted that Ernie was the social dog who got all of the guests running and playing. The dogsitter said on several occasions some rescued dogs that were timid or afraid of others, warmed up to Ernie and he became their playmate.
Ernie was welcomed at nursing homes to greet the residents. When my grandma moved to a “home” Ernie and Basil made several appearances, but Ernie by far was the favourite. He was gentle and loved the attention from anyone who was happy to see him. With my radio show having me interact with celebrities both from our studio and on red carpets in Hollywood, Ernie was on a first-name basis with the rich and famous. It even became a running gag that celebs would call in to talk to Ernie.
At nine years old, Basil was diagnosed with a blood disease. After rebounding slightly and being his energetic self for a few days, Basil died nine days after his diagnosis. As much as I was stunned having my beloved dog die right in front of me on the living room floor, Ernie was just as traumatized. Figuring out how to get Basil to the veterinarian and leave Ernie at home by himself for the first time in nine years – not to mention dealing with my own emotions in that moment – was difficult. Ernie was locked in the kitchen at the back of the house while Basil was taken out the front door. I’d been gone for less than an hour but when I arrived home at the back door, Ernie, now deaf at that stage in life, didn’t hear me come in and was still facing the door to the living room waiting for it to open.
As Ernie raced into the living room, his nose took him to the front door where Basil exited. He circled the room until I decided we both needed a distraction and went for a walk. Thinking he’d forget about his friend once we got home, Ernie laid on the exact spot where Basil died hours earlier and stared at the front door. Later in the night when I went into my home office to work, I could see across the house that Ernie hadn’t moved and was still facing the door.
Months later, I adopted another rescue dog, this time an abandoned two-month-old husky from northern Manitoba. Ernie didn’t pay much attention to him, as he never had with small dogs. This puppy was also nippy with Ernie. I could tell Ernie was annoyed at times but eventually warmed up to the new dog, now called Charlie.
Throughout his 13 and a half years, Ernie only dealt with hotspots, a common skin condition in golden retrievers. Otherwise, he had no health concerns whatsoever. It was only during his last year that he suffered a leg injury and wouldn’t walk. Thinking the worst – as I had a tendency to do – I figured his days were numbered: he’d never walk again. Wrong. The doctor prescribed him medication and within one hour that night, Ernie suddenly walked into the room as if nothing happened.
Several months later, Ernie had an infection that the veterinarian thought could be a bigger problem, such as cancer. At 13, it wouldn’t be uncommon for a dog to start showing his age and develop health problems. We went for his appointment early that morning and Ernie had to stay at the vet for most of the day. I was working from home but couldn’t focus because I feared the worst. Coincidentally, I was taping an interview with Leeza Gibbons who, earlier in the day, commented about husky photos I posted on Instagram. Off air, we talked about our dogs and she asked about Ernie. I didn’t mention anything was wrong and even ignored a call from the vet as we chatted. Leeza is always such a positive and uplifting person that I needed her good vibes to get me through that afternoon. After all, when I hung up the phone from her, I could get really good news or really bad news about Ernie. I didn’t know what to expect.
After a full examination with tests and X-rays, it was determined that Ernie was… fine. No cancer, no signs of arthritis – nothing. Aside from the infection that was treated and would eventually go away, Ernie got a clean bill of health at 13 and a half years old. A miracle dog? It’s said that golden retrievers usually only live between 10 and 12 years, so I’ll let you be the judge.
Months later, it was a shock when what seemed to be a simple eye infection led to the rapid deterioration of my strong and healthy dog. It was one eye that was pink and watery, then cloudy and red. It was back to the doctor for treatment but soon the infection took over both eyes. The twice-daily routine of eye lubrication and drops didn’t help and within two weeks Ernie was blind. Determined I could help him get through being deaf and blind, Ernie wasn’t willing to adapt and it soon became his downfall.
Despite his age, Ernie wouldn’t slow down. Nothing in his head told him to ease up and he still went at his regular speed while bumping and crashing into things. He got lost in the backyard but sometimes could find his way to the door. Other times, I’d have to go out and rescue him from a corner where he got turned around and trapped. It was tough to watch him navigate and bump his nose into everything. He’d walk headfirst into the table or knock down a lamp in the corner of the room. He could hear clapping so sometimes that was enough to help him find me if he left the room and attempted to come back on his own.
Assuming that our days of hour-long walks were over, I was surprised how well he followed the sidewalks and the usual route we’d take. We quickly developed a system that if we were about to step on or off of a curb, we’d slow down and he’d reach a paw out knowing he was either going up or down. Otherwise, if anyone saw us out walking, they’d have no idea he was blind.
Ernie had a rough morning on the day of my grandma’s funeral. He’d normally know the direction of the bedroom stairs but he took a wrong turn and ended up on the opposite side of the room. Cornered, I eventually helped him to the correct area and then down the stairs. He paused a lot. He wasn’t moving around the house as quickly as he normally would. I was fearful about what would happen for the hours I had to be away. Seemingly wanting to rest, I moved the coffee table and laid out a blanket on the floor for him to sleep in the living room.
Reluctant to leave him to attend the funeral, I was torn about how my day should play out. My parents continually offered to take me home because they knew I feared finding him dead on the floor in the exact same spot where Basil died less than a year earlier. At the funeral I was an emotional wreck. The good thing was I could pass it off as being sadness for my grandma. To a large extent, it was. But she’d died earlier in the pandemic and I’d had proper time to grieve. Ernie, as far as I knew, could go at any minute. After all, I’d already had a shocking and sudden death with Basil so why couldn’t it happen with Ernie who was showing more signs of trouble?
I was away for four hours and thankfully Ernie was still alive when I arrived home. It didn’t appear he’d moved much – or even knew I was gone for that matter. I got him up and moving so we went for a walk that afternoon. He handled himself just fine and things were looking up. Maybe he was just having what my mom would call “a spell.” He was old, he was allowed to have a bad day.
As the days passed, Ernie’s struggles became overbearing. As optimistic as I was, his doctor wasn’t as hopeful. In an email, the doc wrote he was concerned that Ernie wasn’t adapting to the blindness. I downplayed it and assured the vet that while Ernie was having trouble navigating indoors, we were working on getting him acclimated to his surroundings and relearning the layout of the house. But the day of the funeral I said my goodbyes to my grandma and to Ernie. I’d come to terms with the fact Ernie was also about to leave me. Whether or not it was the same day, I had no idea how things would play out. I cried the tears, said how much he meant to me and ultimately thought he would decide it was his time to go sooner than later.
After two weeks of battling blindness, and one week after the funeral, Ernie threw in the towel. We woke up and he didn’t get off the bedroom floor. I tried helping him stand and walk but he just wanted to stay there. I went downstairs to start the day thinking he’d eventually get up on his own. When I’d hear him start to move I’d help him down the stairs as I had for those two weeks. He didn’t start to move. An hour later I insisted he come down the stairs. I took one of my blankets and pulled him onto it. I grabbed it by all four corners and shakingly carried him down the stairs. He made it to the living room on his own (which was only five steps or so) and I quickly spread out the blanket for him to lay on the floor.
Convinced he was hours away from death, I set up shop on the floor beside him and rode out the morning. I had my computer and my phones so I could work as he leaned against my leg and rested his head on my thigh. By mid afternoon, Ernie still hadn’t gone outside, he hadn’t eaten or had anything to drink. His neck was swollen and his face seemed puffy. He would lift his head and pant heavily and then put it down again. It truly felt like he was about to go at any minute.
I considered taking him to the doctor to have it done but it seemed more peaceful having him take his last breaths in the comfort of our home and not on a steel table in a vet’s office. My mom called me a few times to check on us. She insisted I take Ernie to the doctor and have him put down. I told her I was certain he’d go on his own terms and it was just a matter of time.
Making the decision to have a dog put down has got to be one of the toughest calls a pet parent can make. With Basil, it didn’t get to that point. Though with him suddenly dying on the floor in front of us, that might’ve been more traumatic than timing his death with a needle.
I always thought I’d be selfish and keep a dog around for as long as it suited me. He couldn’t leave me – that’s how I viewed it. It was about me and how I needed him. In that moment, however, it’s a different story.
Knowing he was embarrassed if not entirely frustrated every time he got up to move, it became unbearable to watch Ernie. I hesitate to say he was suffering so much as he was struggling. You could argue those are the same thing but I truly believe he was more inconvenienced than he was in agony.
I repeatedly tried calling Ernie’s vet that afternoon. There was no answer. The recording said they were closed that Thursday. I emailed the doctor, who’d always been quick to reply. Hours passed. Nothing. My mom called me again and offered to find a vet in the neighbourhood who could euthanize Ernie that day. I agreed. She called me back minutes later saying an appointment was made for 4:30 that afternoon. I looked at the time, it was 3:47.
The clock was ticking and my heart was racing. Suddenly, it became real. There was now a countdown on Ernie’s life. My mom was picking me up at 4:15 so I had barely 20 minutes to say everything I needed before the plan was in motion. I grabbed my phone and recorded a few goodbye messages as I stroked Ernie’s head. I started manically taking pictures of him because I wanted all the memories I could get – as if the thousands of pictures over the years weren’t enough.
I had Charlie and the rabbits say goodbye. None of them knew what was happening so it was frustrating for me wanting to have a moment with all of them. Charlie was then locked in his kennel in the other room and my mom came to the front door to help me get Ernie to the car. As soon as she saw him, she knew his time had come.
We helped him down the front stairs and slowly guided him to the car. We lifted him into the back and I laid there with him. My mom talked but I remained silent. As we approached the new vet’s office, I talked to Ernie even though he couldn’t hear me. Vet employees came to the car with a stretcher and we slid him onto it. He was carried into the building clueless about what was happening.
They put him on the floor and I was right beside him the entire time. A grown man huddled on the floor with his dying dog. The attendant came in and explained what would happen. I never once looked up, instead keeping my head down on Ernie’s. I signed a paper authorizing the killing of my dog and was then handed a debit machine to pay for the procedure. It seemed so indelicate at the time, especially when I was shown urn samples and told to make a decision while my near-lifeless dog panted on the floor beside me. On two occasions I almost told the employee to fuck off and that I would deal with all of those decisions later.
The doctor came in and looked over Ernie. She assured me I was making the right decision. After a few moments she left the room. Time was dragging on. My mom said the staff was being very nice and comforting. The attendant came back in the room and said everything was about to get underway, then exited again. My mom left and it was just Ernie and me there. I said more goodbyes and snapped several pictures. I recorded videos telling Ernie he only had minutes to live and how he would be missed. I reminded him how everybody loved him and that he was so important to me. I tried to remain calm for his sake but I lost it.
Somebody came in – I don’t know if it was the doctor or the attendant… or both – and started narrating what was happening. I kept my head down and held Ernie. I tried to match his breathing so he wouldn’t feel that I was worked up. Eventually his breathing slowed and he was gone. My sobbing intensified as someone said, “I’m just going to listen for a heartbeat” and then gave confirmation that he was dead. I was told to take my time and exit from a side door when I was ready.
I stayed on the ground for another few minutes before lifting my head and looking around. I was unable to get up and go. I couldn’t leave him on the floor by himself. I had no idea what to do. Not only was I leaving without him, I was leaving him with total strangers who’d never met him before. As I struggled to get up off the floor, I went back twice to touch him. I slowly backed my way to the door, unable to actually face it and go outside. Something compelled me to take one last photo of my dead dog on the cold floor of a veterinary office. I cried harder as I pushed open the door and looked back one last time at my trusted companion of 13 and a half years.
On the way to my house, my mom attempted to console me by again saying how nice the staff was. I had no interest in talking. I sat silently for the 10 minutes it took to get home. My legs were weak and I thought I would collapse walking to the house. I slowly made my way to the door and went inside.
Thinking that Charlie would run around looking for Ernie, I was surprised that he seemed totally oblivious to the missing dog. Granted, Charlie was only five months old at the time, so he likely didn’t understand that Ernie wasn’t there, anyway. Like when Basil died, I immediately went for a walk to clear my head.
As Charlie and I walked around our neighbourhood, I started making the dreaded phone calls about Ernie. Similar to Basil’s situation, nobody knew that Ernie was dealing with a health problem. I hadn’t told anybody Basil had a blood disease so his death was a shock to everyone. Ernie’s eye infection evolved so quickly that I was focused on his recovery and not broadcasting updates to people because I didn’t think it would lead to his death.
I had guilt that I didn’t feel sad enough – that I wasn’t as devastated about Ernie’s death as I had been for Basil’s. It felt strange that by my third call during the walk, I was tear-free talking about Ernie being dead. When Basil left us, it took a while to adjust. The house wasn’t the same. With Ernie, it was much worse. After all, I only knew my house with Ernie in it. He’d been around nearly as long as I. Ernie knew the routines. Ernie had his spot on the couch. Ernie had his place on the floor beside the bathtub. Ernie had his position at my feet in my office. It was all over. That was never going to happen again.
True, there was still a puppy in the house but it wasn’t the same. I hate change and this was one of the biggest changes I had to experience in my adult life. It sucked. You could argue that having an excitable and energetic puppy is a good distraction but I resented him for a time. Suddenly, he had to be Ernie. I looked to him to fill the gap and the moments Ernie wasn’t providing anymore. In hindsight, it was totally unfair to expect from an adopted puppy who was still figuring out his new life in my house.
Eventually, however, we began to bond and Charlie became better behaved than he had while Ernie was around. It’s not the same, but I’m slowly appreciating Charlie as an individual. Absolutely I’m frustrated when his stubborn husky traits show and I get angry he isn’t as well behaved as an elderly golden retriever but he’s slowly figuring things out and becoming my new sidekick.
There will never be a replacement for Ernie no matter how many dogs I have in my life. Ernie’s legacy is that of a dog who made everybody smile and was there for me whenever I needed him – whether he understood his impact or not. All pet parents say their dog is or was the best, but I couldn’t have asked for a better dog than my Ernie Fuzz.