It would have been impossible to miss the three of us on the Georgetown streets. There was nothing special about me or my 13-year-old female German shepherd, Erde (“earth” in German). But the sight of Erde’s brother, Leben, was special: He lounged, comfortably, in a large, green doggy stroller, powered by me.
Leben was paralyzed suddenly in 2012. He got around fine in a canine wheelchair until recently, when his front legs began to show the wear and tear. I began managing him at a new level, ensuring that he was not suffering and that he had a pleasant life.
Most people who passed us on the street smiled, laughed or said, “Poor dog.” To those who smiled, I smiled back. To those who laughed, I clarified that the dog was paralyzed. But to those who expressed pity, I always said, “This is no dog to feel sorry for.”
Leben’s paralysis was not the first of his medical problems. In the first 10 years of his life, he underwent five surgeries involving his elbows, wrists and shoulder, probably brought on by an active life as one of my two constant companions and countless leaps from the rear of my Land Rover. After each surgery, he bounced back, and each time I adjusted our activities to make sure he wasn’t in pain.
Still, managing a 125-pound, paralyzed dog was not easy for either of us. My constant hope was that my mantra, “it’s not his fault,” would kick in before the terrible effects of the caregiver syndrome. It mostly did, but not always.
Eliminating suffering for disabled dogs is as easy these days as it is for humans, but giving them a pleasant life is another thing. For Leben, though, it was easy since his biggest treat in life, and what he considered his job, was to be with me. Over five summers, we embarked on long road and camping trips that took us twice from the District to the end of the road in the northeast in Labrador and then onto the ends of the roads in Arctic Canada and Alaska.
It was on our fourth trip that Leben became paralyzed. We were in northern Ontario, but we returned to D.C. to deal with the paralysis and finished the trip last year. The five trips took us almost 50,000 miles over 250 days and nights.
A consequence of modern medicine after disabling incidents is that the inevitable, devastating diseases of old age have plenty of time to incubate. So it was with Leben. On a recent Monday, as we sat at his favorite outdoor cafe, I discovered a large, previously asymptomatic but fast-growing tumor on his head. He rapidly declined over the next four days and was euthanized in our home. A friend told me that, when I left the room for a moment, Leben strained his weakening body to search for me and relaxed only when I returned. It was his last conscious act.
Leben was no dog to feel sorry for. In return for his consummate loyalty, obedience and stoicism, he got all the care and adventure that any dog could hope for. After all these years, I understand why I gave him his name: It means “life” in German.
The writer is retired from the official staff of the Federal Reserve Board.
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