On Losing a Dog


In his grief over the loss of a dog, a little boy stands for the first time on tiptoe, peering into the rueful morrow of manhood. After this most inconsolable of sorrows there is nothing life can do to him that he will not be able somehow to bear. – James Thurber

In July of 2004, my brother James held Dutch, his German Shorthaired Pointer, for the first time. On November 20, 2014, James held Dutch for the last time. After ten incredible years Dutch succumbed to the ravaging effects of hemangiosarcoma, a deadly and unfortunately common cancer in dogs.

Ten years, that’s the deal. The lucky get more time, far too many get less. But we all must inevitably face the end. That end – the only end – is heartbreak. When Dutch died I held James and we cried. I wasted no breath on neat and impotent words. James howled an ancient pain.

Some admonish, “While epidemics rage, wars destroy and poverty runs rampant, your sorrow is for a dog?” Some miss the point.


I had given orders which brought death to thousands. Yet here I was stirred, profoundly stirred, stirred to tears. And by what? By the grief of one dog. – Napoleon Bonaparte

The point is this – each and every one of us is alone. Profoundly, inexorably and inescapably alone. We have family and friends with whom we share parts of our journey and parts of who we are, but it is impossible to ever truly understand the experience of being anyone else. We are each stuck inside ourselves with no one but ourselves. Scary, I know.

There we are, stumbling through the darkness, finding our way when we see a wagging tail and we’re made a simple but profound offer. “I’ll come with you!” says a dog. A dog has no journey of their own, no thoughts of past or future, so they give themselves fully to us in a way no person ever could.

James accepted Dutch’s uncompromising offer and for ten years Dutch followed James from Boston to Washington DC, to New Jersey and finally to Chicago. Cities and circumstance changed but Dutch never did. No matter what and no matter where, James would come home and find Dutch wagging his tail furiously with a bone hanging out of the side of his mouth like a cigar. To be greeted at the door by a dog like Dutch is to know, if only for a moment, what it feels to be completely accepted and unequivocally loved. And oh what a feeling that is.

In Washington DC James was a police officer in the narcotics division. He became all too familiar with poverty, addiction, crime and violence. You can never let go of all the things that weigh on you, but you can always count on a dog to help carry that weight. I remember one night when James came home after responding to a particularly harrowing shooting. James didn’t say much and Dutch didn’t need him to. With a deep sigh James settled into the couch, Dutch jumped into his lap, and the two held each other in silent comfort.


I have a Scottie. In him I find consolation and diversion… he is the “one person” to whom I can talk without the conversation coming back to war. – Dwight D. Eisenhower

That’s what we do – we hold them close. We hold our dogs so close that parts of ourselves overflow and fall directly onto their furry heads. So when we look at our dogs we see our worst sorrows, our greatest joys and the deepest part of ourselves for which there is no name. The story of our dogs is the story of us.

Like our own story, a dog’s story ends. Just much, much too soon. We know that, yet we repeatedly subject ourselves to this wrenching pain. Why? I suspect there’s no shared answer, but there is a shared lesson. We must measure life not in loss but in experience. Through our relationship with dogs we experience not just man’s best friend. We also experience man’s best quality – unconditional, selfless love.

When Dutch died, so did the some of the best parts of James. But before Dutch died, he gave all of the best parts of himself to James. It’s a painful trade but it’s one James, I and you never regret.


There’s such beauty in the hard honesty of that, in accepting and giving love [to dogs] while always aware that it comes with an unbearable price. -Dean Koontz

As I’ve said before, a dog can’t change the world but they can change your world. And if each of us can pass along even a fraction of the unmitigated, world changing love we receive from our dogs? Maybe we can see about that whole changing the world thing.

Today we cry and howl. Tomorrow we wake up and change the world the same way Dutch did – one small act of selfless love at a time.


When the Man waked up he said, ‘What is Wild Dog doing here?’ And the Woman said, ‘His name is not Wild Dog any more, but the First Friend, because he will be our friend for always and always and always’ – Rudyard Kipling

445 thoughts on “On Losing a Dog”

  1. I just had the vet out this past Tuesday to help Teddy Bear, our 16 year old (at least) husky, journey into a place without pain. My last words to him we’re “I love you, wait for me”. Thank you for this post. It is heartbreaking to lose him, but it would be a greater heartbreak to have never known him. I needed to read your words tonight.

    • No matter how many wonderful years you share together, it’s never as much time as we want. Instead we’re forced to learn to appreciate every joyful moment with our dogs as more than we could ever ask for. You’ll suffer now and it will hurt always, but I see you already know you’ll never regret the price you pay. Glad we could share a small piece of comfort during an impossibly tough time.

  2. I saved this link years ago in anticipation of this past week. At 3:15 Tuesday morning my beloved friend Bella Grace left behind only her footprints on my heart. This reminds me of the shared grief among lovers of dogs and recalls simpler times of joy. Thank you for sharing this and bringing me comfort. I know we will have another, for it would be foolish to miss out on life’s greatest friendship.

    • We each must grieve in our own way, but I’m glad to know this post offered some empathy and support during and impossibly tough time.

  3. My Jack was diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma in November of 2016. Miraculously, he’s still here, but it’s not been without its up and downs. From time to time I come back to this post because it touches me to my core. Thank you for capturing all of it: the beauty, pain, and joy that comes with loving a dog.

  4. So very true. I am a Rescuer of both dogs and cats. Each one that is brought into my life is unique and special. Man’s cruelty to animals knows no bounds. And, yet they come to me and somehow trust that they have found safety and the love they give is unconditional and beyond measure. Each and everyone is special in their turn, and when their time with us is over they leave footprints on our heart, and a piece of me goes with each of them as they make their way to the Rainbow Bridge, to play and be happy until we meet again. Bless them all!

  5. No matter how many best friends you have the pain is still the worst! Dogs will always be man’s/woman’s best friend! A dog gives you something no one else can. A love very different then anything else asking very little in return.

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