The Powerful Lesson I Learned from My Dog



I view life as a series of tests. How we handle these tests speaks volumes about who we are and how we grow as human beings. Many of these lessons that the Universe hands us stem from our relationships with people, animals, and our environment. At forty-five years old, I’ve certainly had my share of tests, and although I carry a few scars from my past, all of them have healed and given me an inner strength that has shaped the person I am today.

My most recent test has to do with my Bernese mountain dog, Otis. We bought Otis from a breeder when he was an eight-week-old puppy. I know all puppies are cute, but our little guy was so adorable that I, and everyone who knew him, melted in his presence. He quickly grew into a one hundred and twenty-five-pound giant. Otis was so handsome that every time I looked at him, he took my breath away. If he were a man, I’d relate his striking appearance to George Clooney, his goofy personality to Chris Farley, and his loving soul to Mother Teresa.

I was proud to be Otis’s dog mamma. I took him everywhere. He was, after all, my best accessory. Walking him around Aspen gave me celebrity status. Every few paces, someone would stop me, ask questions about him, and take his picture. If he could write, I’m sure he would have been signing autographs. Living in a dog-friendly town, he was allowed in many retail stores. Even better, I could take him to the lounge inside The Little Nell, one of the most luxurious hotels in Aspen, to meet friends for a cocktail and a snack, and where he was treated like royalty with complimentary treats and fresh water.

Otis was my perfect hiking buddy. I spent a few days a week––rain, snow, or sun––with him by side, exercising together in nature. In the summer months, dogs are allowed on the Silver Queen gondola on Aspen Mountain, so Otis and I would trek up the arduous trail, one of the most grueling workouts in town, and then we’d ride down the gondola, both of us joyfully exhausted.

Then one day, our active life together came to a sudden halt. His back hips had given out on him. I had never had a Bernese mountain dog before. I knew they didn’t have a long life span, but that wasn’t something I spent too much time thinking about. Despite his debilitating condition, he was alert and happy, so putting him down wasn’t something I considered. Since surgery didn’t seem like viable option at his age, I did some research online and decided to buy him a doggy wheelchair. I imagined that it would solve all our problems, picturing in my mind the two of us frolicking around town, walking around the block, maybe even hiking together again.

As soon as the wheelchair arrived, I worked tirelessly helping him get used to it and feeling comfortable. I didn’t realize how challenging this task would be, but I was determined to not give up, even though we had some scary and upsetting incidents. One time, the left wheel went over a large rock and flipped him over. Getting him out wasn’t easy, and although he wasn’t hurt, he was shaking violently afterward. I waited a day or two and tried it again. We slowly made a little more progress. Feeling more confident after he made it up and down the driveway one afternoon, I ran up the steps to our house and left him alone for a moment. When he saw me leave, he tried to follow me. Big mistake. He fell backward. After I frantically unlatched the wheelchair and helped him out, we were both stressed and unnerved.

I tried to give him some time off from the wheelchair, but he could barely walk outside to relieve himself. If I held onto his back hips for support, I could get him out. Struggling to get into a pooping position, he sometimes collapsed in it, and the poop would get smeared into his long fur. This meant I would have to wash him, and he wasn’t too fond of me spraying the hose up his butt to clean out the area. But again, I was not going to give up on my boy. I was going to keep trying, determined to get him moving in that wheelchair, hoping to give him some semblance of freedom and happiness in his last few years. I thought of his situation as a test—for me, not for him. And I was going to pass the test no matter what. Soon enough, things started to look better. I was taking him a little farther every day in the wheelchair, until we encountered a new issue: his back paws were dragging so badly on the pavement that he had developed bloody sores. To remedy the situation, I bought him booties, which he didn’t like to wear, but at least they did a good job of protecting his paws. Soon enough, I managed to get him around the block. It felt like a miracle. His life seemed to be improving. At least that’s what I told myself.

He could no longer walk at all, unless he was using the wheelchair. In the house, he was confined to a small corner on the lower level, near an outside door. He couldn’t even move positions when lying down. Lifting him into the wheelchair was giving me tremendous back pain. But I had no choice. I had to help him. Sometimes when I would pull him into the wheelchair in the morning, he would defecate on himself. Yet still, I wasn’t giving up on Otis. Meanwhile, he had a horrific odor coming from his body. At first, I assumed it was because he hadn’t been properly groomed in a long time and he probably still had poop clumped into his fur. I tried cutting his matted hair, and I bathed his backside as best I could. For the next few days, the smell was getting progressively worse. Suddenly, it dawned on me: the vile odor wasn’t from his fur, it was coming from a bad cut on his lower hip. I had to get him to the vet ASAP.

Upon arriving at the vet, the staff helped me carry my massive Berner into the examining room on a stretcher. The doctor shaved the area around his wound, revealing a massive green and puss filled laceration. I was told that I would need to dress it and treat it a few times a day for the next few months to cure the infection. No big deal, I thought. But then, the vet pointed out that putting him into the wheelchair was probably pulling on the wound, which would make it more difficult to heal. She then suggested, in a soft and kind voice, that I might want to consider euthanizing him.

The timing, of course, was my decision, and she in no way wanted to pressure me. Nonetheless, her words felt like a knife slicing my heart in two. I asked if we could put him into the wheelchair to assess whether the back strap was adding further damage to the wound. Thankfully, when we got him in it, he seemed okay. The veterinarian left me alone for a few minutes to call my husband. While I was on the phone with him, I watched Otis moving around the room uncomfortably in his wheelchair, his back legs dragging, the infection oozing. It was in that moment that I realized letting him go would be more humane than stubbornly believing I should never give up. I made the appointment for the following morning.

My husband, kids, and I spent our last night with Otis cuddling, crying, kissing, crying some more, and hugging him as we all fell asleep on the floor by his side. With a heavy heart, we woke up the next day and placed him in his wheelchair for the last time. I watched him walk up and down our lawn, eating snow. From his front side, he looked healthy, alert, and as handsome as ever. His back side told a different story. For the past few months, I had believed I was being tested. I had convinced myself that with perseverance and faith I would pass the test. But maybe the test wasn’t about how strong I needed to be; maybe it was about learning when to let go. Nothing is forever. And letting go is part of the natural cycle of life. I was so blinded by my determination to help Otis that I couldn’t see the truth. He was staying alive, suffering in that wheelchair for me. As much as it pained me to make the decision to euthanize Otis, I knew it was the right thing to do. He had no quality of life left.

The wound in my heart is still fresh and open as I write this post; although, when I close my eyes, I see Otis vividly––walking in front of me, no longer in a wheelchair. He’s running into my arms, filling me with his boundless affection. I hold him. I kiss him. I thank him for giving me what he came here to teach me: unconditional love and the foresight to know that letting go is also a gift.


About Lori Gurtman
Lori Gurtman is an author living in Aspen, Colorado.


One Response to “The Powerful Lesson I Learned from My Dog”

  1. Error says:

    It s hard not to feel the same way when I see how excited he is just to go on a walk or eat his breakfast or go for a ride in the car. Every day has no agenda and he doesn t need one. He s just happy to be there.

  2. Barbara says:

    I write this comment with tears rolling down my eyes. Your post was beautifully written and anyone who has had a loving dog and had to put them down knows the agony you faced in making that decision. I am sure he is running around in heaven telling his doggy friends what a great family he had on earth.

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