The Life and Loss of Emma the Dog

It has been nearly a month since we lost our dog. Emma was more than just a pet; she was a member of our large family. She was older and in poorer health, so her death was not entirely unexpected. We have been preparing ourselves for that moment for years now. Yet none of us were prepared for how difficult it was to not have her at home and to truly say goodbye.

older dog
One of Emma’s last vet appointments

I have struggled with her absence and if I wanted to write anything about her death. But how could I not? Emma Rae Carpenter was the best, sweetest, and dumbest Labrador Retriever and family dog we could have hoped for. Her life deserves more than mentioning.

Andy and I always knew that we wanted a dog. We had one ill-timed attempt early in our marriage/early in parenthood, and we learned that we really needed to be ready. Owning an animal is not an easy thing. We wanted to ensure that when we finally picked our dog, we would be ready in every way: financially, logistically, mentally, and emotionally.

So why not get a dog a few months before you have your second child?

I know that all our family (*cough, MOM*) thought we were insane; I might say the same about another person. We had lived in Washington for barely six months, Andy had just returned from a deployment, and Lorelei was due in two months. We were going to “just look” at a litter of Labrador Retriever puppies, since Andy wasn’t even sure that was the breed he wanted. Off we went one Tuesday evening in late 2007, with little Anya and my basketball sized belly in tow.

We arrived at a rural home and were greeted by a very nice couple. Their dog had four in the litter, although only two were unclaimed – one yellow, one chocolate. I started looking at these tiny fur balls and eyeing the yellow. But then, this chocolate puppy started following Anya and Andy around. She wouldn’t leave them alone, even when the other puppies went to their mother to eat.

It was truly love at first sight.

Andy and Anya were hooked; all I could see was that this puppy was the biggest in the litter. Her giant paws meant she would likely be huge. My husband and daughter, with their sad eyes, begged me to see how adorable she was (and she was). Finally, the owner knocked the price down since she was the biggest in the litter. That’s all it took. We went home with a puppy, who I named Emma since the other two couldn’t decide on a name.

And they all lived happily ever after…right. If you think this is the part where I tell you how blissful it was to have a puppy, a child, and a newborn, then you are reading the wrong blog.

Puppies are essentially babies, which means we had two babies, neither of which could talk or do things for themself. There were lots of accidents, runaway mornings, garbage eating incidents, and chewed toys. Emma picked Andy as her favorite human, and she was VERY possessive of him. His favorite story is of the night she would not let me enter my own bed with him; I was not as amused. She also liked to chew my things specifically. I went through two hair straighteners, my favorite black heels, many pairs of underwear, and even a phone charger. Emma was a handful, as most babies are.

I would love to tell you that these things changed with age, yet most did not. She was a garbage eater her entire life! There was no garbage can or lock that she could not defeat. Emma would eat anything and everything, and no unattended food was safe for any length of time. Andy always remained her favorite; they would have “moments” on the floor and wrestle one another.

But Emma was also amazing. She played so well with Anya and took to Lorelei immediately (and every baby after that). She was good with our friends and neighbors but protective when she needed to be. There was a pond by our house, and she loved to swim and chase a ball with Andy. Emma was great company when Andy was gone often, and she snuggled with anyone who would let her. She was the sweetest, albeit the dumbest dog – and she kept this personality to the very end.

As our family grew and changed, Emma went along for the ride. She moved from Washington to Iowa to Italy to Germany to Hawaii. She welcomed three of our four babies home. She chased the neighborhood cats from our yard in Italy and was known as the “lion” in our hotel upon arrival and departure. In every village and town we lived, she was known by many as we walked to the gelato shop or the bakery.

Emma made many trips to work with Andy and I and was beloved by all who met her. One of my co-workers at the vet clinic in Germany fed her apples and spoiled her rotten, even when she was naughty. She was once the patient for a class that took a field trip there! Her sweet demeanor and friendly face made everyone fall in love with her.

Emma was always a big dog. She grew quickly as a puppy, which caused some hip problems early in life. Her love of all food coupled with a thyroid problem caused weight gains and health problems through the years. Overweight pets may be cute and fluffy, but their health and life expectancy are definitely impacted. We worked hard to get her down from 94 pounds (yikes!) to a goal of 65 pounds. She continued to have sore hips and back pain, which we managed with pain meds long-term. She loved walks and chasing a ball in the field by our house in Germany, which kept her active and healthy.

It was during one of these games in 2015 that Emma had a significant injury. She ran in an overgrown hole and ruptured her cranial cruciate ligament or CCL in her rear left leg. In layman’s terms, she tore her ACL. We were able to fix it through surgery at an amazing hospital in Nürnberg, albeit at a hefty cost, but her leg was never the same. She could not run anymore and was walking shorter distances. Her energy and mind were the same, but her body was not keeping up.

With every move and every passing year, she started to show her age. By the time we moved to Hawaii, Emma was nine in human years and covered with grey hair. She walked slower and often limped after a short walk around the neighborhood. She was unable to go up and down the stairs anymore; she often dragged her back legs because of neurological issues. Her mind was still sharp, although she had less patience and was exhausted. Andy and I knew that we could not keep her forever and that the Emma we knew was changing.

It was truly the last six months that brought the most drastic changes.

It began with her inability to walk even the shortest distances. She wanted to, but a quick back-and-forth down our street would leave her limping and sore. Then her back legs started to go out underneath her. She would slide into the splits, unable to support herself back up. Her helpless face when trapped in this position was heartbreaking, and we feared about this happening while we were at work and school. Emma even stopped climbing onto her favorite chair because it was too difficult.

She was having accidents in the house with increasing frequency, as if it was too difficult to get up and outside. She was lethargic and tired, and her kidney enzymes were elevated. She lost more and more weight, despite our attempts at feeding her more. Every visit to the vet became difficult – we knew our time was running out but felt that when it was time for her, we would know.

That day finally came when Emma stopped eating.

Emma, the dog would ate diapers and tinfoil; the unashamed food stealer; the dog who wouldn’t get her head out of the garbage even when caught in the act. This dog stopped eating. If she did not eat, she could not take her medications. Without her medications, everything was exacerbated. We tried different food, masking it with things like cheese and lunch meat, coaxing her to eat just a little big…but nothing worked. I made the appointment with the vet, knowing that this might be it.

I thought I was ready to say goodbye.

My family had many pets, and I remembered their deaths and the grief. I worked in a vet office and had consoled many families in my position. Yet nothing prepared me to say goodbye to my dog and to watch her pass away. It was the most difficult yet peaceful death I had ever seen. Andy and I were able to hold her and be with her through all of it. She let us kiss her and love her, and that sweet demeanor was present until her last breath. Emma simply fell asleep – a painless sleep, with her parents holding her.

How do you live without your dog? When do you stop calling out to her or looking for her under your feet? How do you comfort your children and soothe their pain when you are in so much yourself?

I do not have all these answers figured out yet. For now, we tell the good stories of Emma when we feel sad. We let ourselves cry or rage, and we let ourselves miss her. She was our first family dog, and I do not think any pet will ever come close to replacing her.

Emma Rae Carpenter lived a short yet fulfilling life with us, and we feel grateful to have her in our lives while we could. She is free from her pain, which is all we wanted, but we will miss her forever.

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