Losing a Pet, Our Story
The One And Only Kenzie
I’ve needed to share this story for some time now. This took an hour to write, but over a year to start. In the end, it felt good. I’d encourage anyone to write a tribute piece to their pet. We’d love to read them, too.
~Tom Taylor, DVM
The Journey Begins
It was the weekend before vet school started. Mandy (my wife) and I were coming home from Minneapolis. We were both in tears as we had just put her family pet, a Shih Tzu named Lizzie Bea, on an airplane to Seward, Alaska. We were a transition home for Lizzie, for the summer, prior to her big move to live with Mandy’s aunt.
We were both a little shocked at how hard that was going to be. It was a quiet, tearful drive home from Minneapolis to an empty home. We were newlyweds. Three months into this whole marriage thing and this was probably the hardest thing we had to go through as a married couple. If only we had known!
So, how was I going to save the day? Well, I grabbed the Sunday paper and turned to the “pets” section. (This is not how I currently recommend looking for dogs, by the way).
What sort of dog do we want? Well, I once hunted behind a Vizsla named Mandy. Fitting, huh? They were beautiful dogs with a drive that couldn’t be matched. (Also fitting for those of you who know my wife!)
Anyway, there just happened to be a litter in the paper ready to go. Well, we made a call to “just go look.” Has anyone ever gone to “just look”? No.
An hour drive to Carroll, Iowa, and we were headed home with this cute little red fireball named Kenzie. It is possible that we had to stop at Wal-Mart on the way home to buy a kennel, food, leash, treats, toys, blankets, and dishes.
Did I mention we were broke newlyweds still in college? It didn’t matter. We were happy. We thought.
After a quiet 2 days of adjustment, Kenzie found her legs. And teeth. We spent the next 4 months wondering what the hell we had done!
A Tired Dog Is A Good Dog
This dog had the capability to actually run and bounce off the back of the couch when cornering as she ran hot laps back and forth in the house. And by house, I mean run down trailer home that hadn’t been maintained by the students before us. (Proof? Snow coming through the walls by the window in the winter.)
If you were wondering, a Vizsla needs more than 720 sq. ft. to run EVERY day. I’m pretty sure I clocked her at 80 mph at one point. If she wasn’t running, she was chewing. It turns out, I didn’t have time to watch TV anyway, so the remote wasn’t a huge loss.
This dog constantly made us question our patience and morals as we often looked back at that fateful trip to Carroll.
Well, a tired dog is a good dog, so I grabbed a leash and a bike and that dog literally pulled me for the first mile of a 3-mile bike ride. This activity quickly became a habit. There was no control or safety involved, so all my neighbors saw was this crazy guy and a red flash flying by them at the aforementioned 80 mph.
I used this method of exercise for the first few months until I started to question my sanity and general well-being. After I met a few people from school, we formed a “release the hounds” party every day after school. It was therapy for the dogs and us. And much safer for me.
She made two best friends, another Vizsla named Chevell, and a Boxer named Abby. It is quite a sight to see 8-10 dogs run off and chase each other in the field for solid hour. Finally, we figured out how to wear this dog out. But, for those of you who know Vizslas, it only lasts for about 10 minutes. This was the time block we used to eat supper (ramen noodles and coffee).
The next year was more of the same. Running “hot laps” in the house and chewing on everything. A year later, we found out we had another addition coming to the family. This one in the 2-legged variety.
Did I mention we were broke college kids, living in a busted up trailer, with no time or ability to raise a dog, let alone an actual person? The first thing the future grandparents asked was, “What are you going to do with the dog?”
Kenzie, at this point, very rarely was called by her actual name. The other names will not be mentioned, but most of them only had four letters.
Our answer to my parents, in regards to the red devil was, “What do you mean?” After all, we loved this dog as much as we hated her. She only slept one night in her kennel, before she transitioned to our bed, under our covers, of course.
Once in a while she would calm down and be the best study buddy I had. Our study sessions usually included a cold, unfinished pot of coffee on the end table, all my books and binders opened all over the living room, and the two of us curled up sleeping on the couch in the middle of the mess.
Anyway, we were going to keep Kenzie, and just “figure it out,” as any other rational newlywed college kids would. (Notice the sarcasm there?)
Only The Grandparents Were Worried
When the baby came, Kenzie was two and a half years and her good moments were starting to outweigh her bad moments. (Except when company/grandparents came and she still exhibited the 80 mph hot laps.)
If you can’t tell, the hot laps in the trailer were the most difficult thing to deal with. Our friends and family just assumed she did this for 14 hours a day, since that’s the only thing they ever saw her do.
The hot laps continued after Coby was born, and Kenzie just jumped over and around him wherever he was. Somehow, she never landed on him and always seemed to be aware of his whereabouts. I’m not saying there weren’t some VERY close calls that horrified his grandmothers.
We focused so much on the high energy level and pain in the butt Kenzie was, that we didn’t even realize how attached we had become to her. She actually had a longer list of care instructions for babysitters than our child. How did this even happen?!?!?
The Bond Grows Stronger
Apparently, she tricked us into liking her, a lot. We took her everywhere. We couldn’t visit anyone without her in tow. She was part of the family and we were a package deal. We found out really fast who were dog people, and who were not. We quit hanging out with that second group. If you don’t like our dog, we don’t like you. Fairly simple.
I spent the next few years training her to hunt pheasant. Truthfully, she trained me. She turned out to be every bit of the hunter I thought she was. My biggest stress relief in vet school was to grab my orange hat and my red dog and head to the field. We would chase pheasants for hours and lose track of time.
Some of my favorite hunts were just the two of us. I would just let her lead the way, and I would follow. She wasn’t too picky, as she would chase deer, skunks, raccoon, or possum. The car ride there was usually chaotic, with excitement building as we turned down the gravel road (she knew where we were going).
The drive home usually ended with her head resting on my leg. I know many people that don’t understand hunting, but to watch a dog in its element, whether that be hunting, police work, herding, or search and rescue, is a thing of beauty. I take every chance I get to watch a good working dog, with the most impressive being a good herding Border Collie.
Somehow, we survived vet school as newlyweds, with a crazy dog, and a baby. However, I’m pretty sure Kenzie noticed Mandy’s belly getting bigger again. Kenzie knew we couldn’t afford food, so I’m guessing she was aware what was about to happen, again. What she didn’t know was that it was time to move as well.
Kenzie Was Our Constant
In one month’s time, we graduated school, started a new job, moved to a new city, moved into a new house, and added a new baby. The only constant was Kenzie. As it turns out, this crazy dog, now mostly known as Kenzie and less of those 4-letter names, was the only normal thing we knew. We were excited for the changes, but it was nice to know Kenzie was still under the covers in our bed at the end of the day.
During the next few years, her “prime” as I like to call it, Kenzie was the perfect dog. She became a wonderful jogging partner. We shared many pheasant hunts together with many friends and their dogs.
I drove countless miles with her as my only companion on those gravel roads. Words cannot describe the peace that overcomes you when you have quality time with no one but your dog.
She could outrun and out hunt any dog we were with (or at least that’s what I told my proud self). This dog was an athletic specimen–lean, muscular, and fast. She could run like a cheetah. Aside from that, she became a wonderful companion for the kids.
They played fetch, took her on walks, learned the responsibility of pet ownership, and spent countless hours just hanging out. The bond was so strong that if we saw Kenzie sleeping in the hallway outside any of the boys’ rooms, it was a telltale sign they were soon to be sick. It was an uncanny ability that we never really understood, but always trusted.
A few years later, Kenzie survived yet another ear and tail pulling kid and a new house. I think she always felt a little slighted by the addition of new family members.
The Muzzle Turned White
As she started to age, I pretended not to notice the gray hairs growing. In fact, her muzzle was white from her nose to her forehead. However, I could not ignore the fact that at about 10 or 11 years old, she began lagging behind on our jogs. I’m not a fast runner, so this was a big deal.
Her days were mostly spent in her own gliding rocking chair in the sunroom. The sun hit that chair just right, and she could get some serious naps. It’s when I first realized we might have an old dog. She still had bursts of energy and could still play, just not as long anymore.
A Very Close Call
When she was 12, we had our biggest challenge. I got a phone call at work from my wife. It was 7:30 am and my day had just begun. I couldn’t understand the screams of panic from the other side of the phone.
That translated into a quick trip home (about six blocks) to see what was going on. The family met me at the door, sobbing and confused. All I could make out were the words “Kenzie” and “bathroom.” I followed a blood trail into the bathroom where I found Kenzie standing in the bathtub in a pool of her own blood, trembling and weak.
I could easily tell the blood was coming from her neck. Kenzie had somehow been bitten by another dog and held down by her neck in the yard. When she got away, she had enough strength to bark to get back into the house, when she then escorted herself to the bathtub. Keep in mind, this dog HATES the bathtub.
I grabbed her by the underside of the neck as hard as I could and carried her to the car. With one hand clamping her jugular, and the other on the steering wheel, I made it to the office.
She started to become unresponsive. She had a huge gash on the side of her face and multiple puncture wounds on the underside of her neck. Our team went to work.
We got the bleeding to stop. We started IV fluids and a plethora of pain meds and antibiotics. After about 15 minutes, my family showed up. Kenzie was lying on the surgery table wrapped in blankets, covered in blood, and surrounded by medical equipment responsible for keeping her alive.
My kids looked at me and said nothing. They didn’t have to. In my best fake voice, I looked at them and said, “She will be fine.”
Followed by those fateful words, “I promise.”
As she lay there, Isaac sat with her. He would not be going to school that day. She spent most of the day in an almost coma like state.
She made it through the day, which was a huge victory for me. We had a long road ahead, though. I spent the next 4 days with Kenzie at home. She laid in a pack-n-play with IV lines still hooked up and IV medication going every 4 hours.
That weekend, I insisted the rest of the family go to Ames, as it was the home opener for Iowa State Football. Kenzie and I stayed home and watched the game together. I had a promise to keep to my kids that I couldn’t go back on.
But let’s be honest, Mandy and I had a hell of a lot more memories with her than the kids did, so this fight was as much for us as it was for the kids.
Another Hurdle And A Promise Kept
Over the next month, it was a battle to keep her eating and to keep her red blood count up. At the end of that month, she was still not getting better and developed a large fluid filled cyst in her neck. X-rays revealed that she had fractured her neck in the fight and had a dead piece of bone the size of my thumbnail floating in her musculature. This was a source of infection for her that was causing complications.
I decided surgery was the only option. We found the broken piece of bone from her second vertebra and removed it. Like magic, Kenzie gained her strength and appetite back.
It was all downhill from there. She gained some weight and regained her attitude (for better or worse). I felt like we finally cleared the last hurdle at that point.
I had kept my promise.
The Farewell Tour
That fall, she made a full recovery, but must have aged 5 years in the process. She was now officially an old dog.
I decided she was going to make one last trip to South Dakota. This is an annual trip to reunite some vet school friends, chase pheasants, and tell lies. I thought if she were to make one last trip, her “farewell tour,” that we could officially say we won the battle. She tired pretty fast out there, but you could see the happiness in her eyes that made the whole trip worth it.
She had two more stops on her “farewell tour.” The first was a day off for Coby, my oldest son. I let him skip school and we took her to one of her favorite spots and let her chase birds for her final time. It was easy walking and only lasted a few hours, but she worked hard as she always had. I knew her knobby knees and weak shoulder would pay for it the next few days.
Over the next 12 months, Kenzie was pretty much retired to her chair in the sun and became a little distant and crabby. She wasn’t as fond of people messing with her anymore. She slept a lot. She would only eat food if it had an egg on the top, cooked by Mandy every day.
Near the end of those 12 months, we started waking up to her having daily accidents in the sunroom and becoming very agitated, nervous. Walking wasn’t easy for her. Mandy and I knew the time was close. Actually, Mandy knew the time was close. I was in denial.
After a few months of denial, we set a date.
The Beginning Of The End
The last stop in Kenzie’s farewell tour was just her and me. I loaded her up in the car on my day off. We just drove. I stopped at a couple of our favorite spots along the Wapsi. I opened the car door and let her run. Actually, it was more of a trot/jog.
She happened to find a deer to chase and ran off chasing that stupid thing for a quarter mile before I finally caught up to her. She wouldn’t/didn’t listen when I called her back, and I was certain this whole thing would just end with me losing her in the woods. It would have been poetic justice, as she always seemed to call the shots.
When I caught back up to her, I put her leash on and we walked around the woods for a while. I cursed her out for ruining the moment. I got some great photos of some spider webs on the dewy morning weeds and a few really neat photos of Kenzie.
The light was different that day. The sounds were different that day. I wish I could explain it, but maybe it wasn’t meant to be understood.
It Was Time
Well, Saturday rolled around and it was time. We spent all morning just waiting. We took her for a short walk, cooked her favorite food, eggs, and just hung out with her all morning. By noon, we were ready.
We made a bed for her next to the fireplace (her second favorite spot). I put an IV catheter in her back leg and we all took turns giving her hugs. I couldn’t see through my own tears to handle the IV and the medicine, but somehow made it happen.
I sobbed like a baby. Mandy and the boys were no different. We held her and in a matter of moments, she was gone.
The one constant in our life was now a memory. She was a part of every moment in our life as a family. Three homes, three kids, a couple other dogs, a cat, life and death of other family members, highs and lows of marriage and parenthood. You name it–she was always there.
They say you don’t have favorites. That’s a lie. Kenzie was our favorite and always will be. We absolutely love our other dogs, but no dog will ever be Kenzie.
After 15 minutes of sobbing and crying and hugging, a weird feeling came over me. A sense of relief. Kenzie was no longer old. She was no longer having accidents in her sleep. She was no longer in pain when she got out of her chair. She was no longer having panic attacks during storms.
All that was in the past, and I knew instantly that we had done the right thing. I had no idea our anxiety leading up to the day would be harder than the days following. I’m not saying we were done crying, just that the tears were more peaceful.
When The Veterinarian Is The Grieving Owner
I am normally the one trying to be strong for clients and friends, but the tables had turned. It was a bit of a helpless feeling knowing that I still needed to help Mandy and the kids through this as part of my job as a veterinarian, but still trying to figure out how to get through it myself.
We had Kenzie cremated as many people do. That fall, when I went back to South Dakota, I let some of her blow in the breeze in her favorite field. She is also under our new willow tree planted in her honor. (Thank you to the Den Herder Team for the tree.) I will carefully select a few more spots that I know she would have liked.
It’s been a year and a half. I still talk about her almost daily. We miss the heck out of her, and are so grateful she was part of our lives. I will always have dogs, and most likely always have Vizslas (one at a time is all I can handle).
But there will only ever be one Kenzie.