I’m just back from the gym, where I ran into Joan,* my one-time dog-walking friend. I haven’t seen her in at least a year, but I’ve been thinking about her a lot lately, and not because I miss our walks. I really like Joan, but got the sense she viewed our outings as exercise opportunities for the humans — she wore a pedometer to make sure she was getting in enough steps — rather than, primarily, dog-oriented occasions. They often felt to me a bit like forced marches.

Frankie and Sarah (not her real name) -- as close as the two ever got, under duress
Frankie and Sarah (not her real name) — as close as the two ever got, under duress

Still, Frankie and Sarah, Joan’s miniature poodle, were kindred spirits. Neither was especially interested in interacting with other dogs, including each other. I don’t think they sniffed each others’ butts or otherwise greeted each other more than a couple of times in the two plus years that we all met twice a week. Each was careful to keep on the far side of his/her human.

It was a slightly odd but agreeable arrangement and I didn’t mind the exercise.

But when Frankie couldn’t keep up the pace, I bowed out.

A Human with Frankie’s Disease

What I’ve been thinking about was the subject of many of the conversations that Joan and I had: Joan’s mother, Mary, who had Alzheimer’s for more than 10 years. Mary was otherwise quite healthy and Joan, a nurse, was vigilant about her care, not only making sure that life threatening issues got prompt attention, but also arranging for less urgent treatments such as dental work and cataract surgery.

Of course, even with better eyesight, the once vital Mary could no longer read, and didn’t understand much of what was happening on TV.

In addition to monitoring her health, Joan spent a lot of time shifting Mary from one nursing home to another; one had a staff member that seemed iffy, though of course Mary wasn’t able to say if there was really a problem, another grew too expensive for Joan’s budget. She and I often talked about how we would not want to live that way, a burden on others and with no quality of life. We acknowledged that, aside from making sure our Do Not Resuscitate orders are observed, there is no legal way for anyone to help ease our way out of the world.

Not so with our pets.

What I once wrote

I finally screwed up my courage and looked up what I wrote about the topic in Am I Boring My Dog five years ago (!), long before I was actually faced with any tough decisions:

How do I know when “it’s time”– and what do I do when I’ve decided?

It’s ironic that we’re often forced to make end-of-life decisions for dogs, who can’t tell us what they want, but are prevented from carrying out the wishes of humans, who can. But if we’re powerless to design the deaths we might desire for ourselves and for our human loved ones, we can provide them for our pups, shielding them from prolonged pain and suffering. Dogs in turn have the advantage of living in the present, so they don’t anticipate and fear the end in the same way we do (or at least they don’t write turgid novels or make pretentious movies about it).

I don’t disagree with my earlier, more innocent self. I did not, however, anticipate the possibility of the problem being mental rather than physical. It’s difficult enough to figure out when our pets are in pain. The mental discomfort of canine dementia is largely uncharted territory.

Or, I should say, I’ve found guidelines on various sites but they don’t really apply to Frankie.

For example, they ask questions like:

  • Does your dog still enjoy interacting with other dogs? Um, no. Never did, never will.
  • Does he still enjoy going for walks? He doesn’t seem to mind, once I get him on the trail, but he enjoys the car rides there about as much as he did in the past: Not at all.  (It’s too complicated to explain here why I have to drive him to his walks.)

Other questions are more relevant, but they have trick twists.

  • Does he still enjoy his food? Yes, but he has trouble finding it.

You get the picture.

My quality of life

I don’t believe that Frankie is unhappy now; he sometimes paces a bit and often spaces out, but he doesn’t whimper or cry and he seems more annoyed than upset about bumping into things. People who have known him for a long time and see him outside the house don’t have a clue that there’s anything wrong with him; he still has his little prancing walk, though it’s a bit slower.

Mostly, he sleeps.

I’m the one who is sad, who makes constant comparisons — for example, with the Frankie of just six months ago who used to be able to play for 15 minutes with the squeaky carrot, until I got tired, and who now forgets the game after 15 seconds.

Yet for those 15 seconds he’s wagging his tail happily, not saying to himself, Boy, I used to be able to go for a lot longer (which would explain why dogs don’t need Viagra).

And so, today, I try to remind myself that I don’t miss those forced marches with Joan and Sarah. And if Frankie could remember them and could report back to me, I’d bet he’d say that he didn’t especially like them either, that he found Sarah the poodle a bit snooty and standoffish.

*Joan is not a blog reader or much of an internet user in general; she was always a bit paranoid — or should I say prescient? — about being spied on. I nevertheless changed her name and that of her dog (who doesn’t use the internet much either).

10 thoughts on “The Frankie Diaries, 9/22: How Do You Assess a Dog’s Mental Quality of Life?”

  1. Excellent post, Edie. It’s annoying how life seems to throw us a curve after we’ve thought through and determined a logical course of action. Still, while Frankie’s cognition is slipping, he’s not suffering and that is a blessing. Many dogs should be so lucky to have a person caring for them like you.

    1. Really — it sucks when we’re logical and life isn’t, doesn’t it?! That’s very nice of you to say about my caretaking, Amy. Of course, irrationally, I never feel like I’m doing enough.

  2. I once had a Beagle named Louie. He was quirky, he bit, but I became his human. My vet and I decided if the time came and I couldn’t care for him, he would go to Heaven; it wouldn’t be fair to send him to someone else to be bitten up and to re-learn all his quirks. Unfortunately, he beat me to the punch.

    I adopted a terrier mix named Elvis who ended up with CCD. I let him go early because he was staring into corners and yes, sleeping a lot. I was going on vacation and didn’t want my dog sitters to have to make a decision, even after conferring with me long distance. I talked to the woman who ran the rescue from where I adopted him; she never believed in hanging on longer than pleasant for the dog, giving me her blessing…and so, Elvis is now with Louie and others in Heaven (to my mind).

    I currently have 3 dogs “in hospice.” Two I plan to send on before it snows and gets cold. They are currently doing OK but as you note, their quality of life from my perspective is slowly slipping. The third I is doing better than expected….so far.

    What I’ve learned is this is THE part of dog ownership/mom-being which is totally personal because NO ONE knows your dog(s) like you do. Do I think I’ve ever misjudged? Oh, yes, last winter with Cyrano and Betty Boop. Could anyone have made a better judgment? Only if they lived here.

    So, good thoughts, prayers, and karma to you and Frankie. The two of you will know….and your heart will bleed but also be blessed because his life will always be with you.

    1. I don’t imagine the decision ever gets easier for you, Roberta, but I get the sense that you feel more confident in your ability to make it since, as you say, no one knows your dogs better than you do. And that’s a good thing.

      Thanks for your good thoughts etc. I hope you’re right about knowing… but I can say for certain that I believe I’m doing my best to figure it out.

  3. It’s a difficult place to be isn’t it Edie? I agree with your description back then and now. It is one of the reasons I struggle with making the decision. I hate making it for them because they cannot tell me when.

    I think about the mental vs. physical decline and which is worse and think there is no easy answer. Perhaps the decision is easier to make when a dog is mentally and physically declining at the same time, but I know that it is never easier (for me) when it is just one or the other.

    I am so sorry the Frankie you have known is not the Frankie you have now – at least not to the degree he was before. It must be like losing a parent to Alzheimer’s.

    1. It IS difficult — and thanks for your sympathy and empathy. I worried about making the Alzheimer’s analogy because I thought it might insult people whose relatives have the human disease, but I finally decided that pet lovers wouldn’t mind and other people wouldn’t be reading this.

      It’s funny (peculiar, not ha ha): After writing this post, Frankie began having physical problems that I thought might be severe though, happily, they’re not, just arthritis. And I thought, I’m not ready… So physical problems are equally painful.

  4. I have given my canine companions the best care I know how to give and strongly believe in euthanasia for all living creatures. So far my beloved dogs have had good lives until they have given me “the look”. I may be giving myself far more credit than is due, but I strongly believe they let me know that it was their time to exit.
    As you know, my Harmony Girl has CCD. She is the first dog in my life with dementia but I still think she will be able to let me know when she has had enough, and I think Frankie will also let you know. And when he is ready, you will be ready. Or, Dog willing, we will wake up one morning to find that they have passed away peacefully. Then we can have a wake (no sitting Shiva, I think), and cry and laugh and tell dog stories. There will be ice cream.

    1. I hope you’re right about The Look — and that I can recognize it should it be cast my way.

      I was thinking of throwing a party for FOF — friends of Frankie — before he goes, so all my/his friends can help me remember better days and give him as much food as he likes. But of course if he’s capable of high intensity begging and waiting, it probably won’t be time….

      Oy. Yes, to ice cream — and of course alcohol — and yes to avoiding sitting shiva.

  5. Great post today…Gizmo is still a youngster but i remember as my Bruno aged the exact day I realized he was old…and it saddened me greatly, though truth, Bruno didn’t seem sad…he accepted (I guess) that he could only walk so far and much slower and could no longer jump up in the car…with no memory (as we think of it) of the past he lived in his moment till the very end

    1. Thank you. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could channel some of that acceptance of change into our own hearts and minds? I know dogs feel pain and fear, but I genuinely don’t think they feel regret.

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