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Dog owners have a certain bond, almost a secret language that says “I understand how much you love this animal and I know that it will break your heart when you lose them.” Only a dog lover can pick up poop and comment that their dog did a great job. Only a dog lover can sit in traffic for hours with a smile, waiting for that enthusiastic greeting guaranteed from their furry friend, and usually not provided from anyone else in the family. Only a dog lover can let someone kiss their face with a mouth that had just been licking their own bum.

Over the years, friends had warned me that the decision to let a cherished pet go was one of the most difficult they had ever made. At the time, I would nod and agree and move on with my day. As my dog got older, however, and this reality neared for me, I listened more closely to those stories of pet loss from friends.

We were definitely not “dog people” when, years ago, we got a call from a friend that their spouse, a vet, had a dog that needed a home. The criteria was simple: the dog must go to a house with kids, where they will be the only pet and where they would be loved unconditionally. We had to look up the breed, Bichon, and when we did, we saw a fur ball that looked like it never set foot outside. This would possibly be a problem for our outdoorsy and active family. Nonetheless, we moved ahead with the adoption and never looked back.

We called her Coco, and the poor thing had rarely been outside of an apartment or walked much further than a few hundred metres from her home before she came to live with us. She joined a family of avid runners, hikers and annoyingly hyper people and her life changed in an instant. She may have wanted to go home during her first 10 kilometre hike but she soon became an enthusiastic adventure buddy. She overcame her fear of water to become an active kayaker. Well, to be truthful, I kayaked and she sat in the front, legs perched on the bow and nose in the air, sniffing the great smells. I know she was happy as she closed her eyes, let her ears fly back in the wind and joined me for hundreds of trips. If it was raining, we got wet, if it was cold, we shivered together and if it was lovely, well we loved every second spent together in the sun and on the water.

I think she was happiest when spending time with our children who were 11 and 13 when she joined the family. Coco went everywhere with us, wrapped in a blanket when going into stores or hotels with “no dog” restrictions. When friends teased us that we treated Coco as a human child, we would reply that she was sometimes the best-behaved child and we loved all of our kids equally. She didn’t look like the rest of the family because she was adopted.

As Coco aged, she slowed down (we all do) and she ate less, walked less and indicated that her body was giving out. She limped with arthritis, breathed heavily (and snored loudly), and had a stroke that left her temporarily paralyzed. In her last days, she terrified us when she had horrible seizures. After a weekend of seeing her struggling to breathe and watching the spark go out of her eyes, we knew that it was time to visit the vet.

The craziest and toughest part of life is that you can love people (and pets) with all your heart, and you can lose them long before you are ready to let go. Nothing lives forever, and although life is wondrous and beautiful, it is also far too short. I don’t know why dogs’ lives are a fraction as long as humans’, but I do know that we will live on, long after they depart, and there will be a hole in our hearts where they used to live.

Coco had an amazing life, filled with head scratches, tummy rubs and tons of table food (she shared many great meals with us, even though this was likely not good for her). Our house had a dog bed or blanket in every room and every corner had some reminder of this sweet little dog who shared our space: a dog bowl in the kitchen, leashes hanging on the door handles and a cute (but way too expensive) down dog jacket hanging in the cupboard. Strangely, it was her old torn and stained life jacket, a reminder of those many kayak trips, that brought on a wave of tears after she had died.

That last weekend was so hard on all of us, trying to thank this tiny sweet dog for 15 years of companionship, company and love. She left the world like she had lived: loving us and being loved right back.

In the end, that is all that anyone can ask for: to be loved – to give love – and to live every day with joy.

Linda Smith lives in Richmond Hill, Ont.

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