Lessons in Spirituality and Love
By Marc Bekoff

     "Come on Marc, it's time for a hike, or dinner, or a belly rub." I was constantly on call for Inuk, my companion dog - a huge white malamute - with whom I shared my home for thirteen years. And as he got older it became clear that our lives together would soon be over. The uninhibited and exuberant wagging of his huge tail that cooled me in the summer, occasionally knocked glasses off the table, and told me how happy he was, would soon stop. What should I do - let him live in misery or help him die peacefully and with dignity? It was my call and a hard one at that.

     Dogs trust us unconditionally. It's great to be trusted and loved, and no one does it better than dogs. Inuk was no exception. But along with trust and love come many serious responsibilities and difficult moral choices. I find it easiest to think about dog trust in terms of what they expect from us. They have great faith in us; they expect we'll always have their best interests in mind, that we'll care for them and make them as happy as we can. Indeed, we welcome them into our homes as family members, sometimes better.

     Because they're so dependent on us, we're also responsible for making difficult decisions about when to end their lives, to "put them to sleep." I've been faced with this situation many times and have anguished trying to do "what's right" for my buddies. Should I let them live a bit longer or has the time really come to say good-bye? When Inuk got old and could hardly walk, eat, or hold down food, the time had come to put him out of his misery. We stopped feeding him the horrible medicine that made him sick so he could live a few extra weeks. Instead, we fed him ice cream and cookies and he began to thrive. But this was only a brief flash in the pan - Inuk was dying right in front of our eyes, and we knew it. Truth be told, even when eating ice cream, he seemed miserable and told us this in many ways.

     Deciding when to end an animal's life is a real-life moral drama. There aren't any dress rehearsals and doing it once doesn't make doing it again any easier. Inuk knew we'd do what's best for him and I really came to feel that often he'd look at me and say "it's OK, please take me out of my misery and lessen your burden. Let me have a dignified ending to what was a great life. Neither of us feels better letting me go on like this." Finally, we chose to let Inuk leave this earth in peace. After countless hugs and "I love you's" to this day I swear that Inuk boldly strode into the veterinarian's office knowing what was happening, and that he accepted his fate with valor, grace, and honor. And I feel he also told us that the moral dilemma with which we were faced was no predicament at all, that we had indeed done all we could and that his trust in us was not compromised one bit, but, perhaps, strengthened. We made the right choice and he openly thanked us for it.

     Let's thank our animal companions for who they are. We can learn much from their lessons in compassion, devotion, respect, spirituality, and love. By honoring our dog's trust we tap into our own spirituality. Sometimes that means mercifully taking their lives when their own spirit has died and life's flame has been irreversibly extinguished.