The Death of a Dog Changes You

It’s two years ago today that I said goodbye to Willow, our 6 year-old Aussie. She was, without a doubt, my heart dog, though the words “heart dog” really don’t even begin to describe my love for her. 

After two weeks of her being critically ill and six of those days spent in a critical care facility, we made the excruciating decision to euthanize her.

I have no words to adequately convey how empty and devastated I was. I felt as if I lost my heart when I lost her. 

I wanted to write about her then, and I wanted to write about her as the days stretched into weeks and months without her. Write about my feelings and the darkness of my world, which had turned to black and white. I wanted to express the pain I was experiencing and how much I missed her. I wanted to share with the world, in words, what an amazing dog she was. About how she not only changed my life, but the lives of so many others with her gift of being a canine teacher in our business. I wanted to write about the many lessons I learned from her. I wanted to honor her. 

But I wasn’t emotionally ready, for in order to write about her I had to remember. The memories brought so much pain each time I realized she was no longer by my side. Nor did I have the ability to describe the incredible gift I received having been her person: the person who loved her beyond measure and the person who received the depth of her never-ending, unconditional love. We were devoted to one another. I always said I loved her more than life itself. 

But time marched on. I wrote nothing. Then I felt guilty because I hadn’t honored her in a way I felt was fitting. Oh, the roller coaster of emotions!  

Her death changed me. But her life also changed me. 

So here I sit two years later, finally feeling ready to begin putting into words the emotions that have been swirling around in my heart for these past two years.

I plan to write a book about the learning journey with each of my dogs, the deaths of three young dogs, the deep and dark places I visited after their deaths and the uncanny way that immense grief and sorrow can lead to pure joy. It’s a love story filled with tragedy, anger, guilt, second-guessing and, ultimately, acceptance. It feels like an epic undertaking, and distilling it down to those few sentences doesn’t quite do it justice in my mind. 

Two years have given me the perspective I feel I need to embark on this writing journey to not only honor Willow, but the five other amazing dogs who have forever changed my life with their lives, and the important lessons each taught me: 

  • Abbey, our first dog, a stray we rescued, who lived to be 12 and who helped me learn about canine cognitive dysfunction. 
  • Carter, our first Aussie and my crossover dog, whose tragic death at 2 years old propelled me into professional dog training. 
  • Gibson, who helped me hone my professional training skills and who died at 8 years old. 
  • Cody, who rocked our world with behavior challenges early on and is thankfully still with us. 
  • Willow, who changed my life in more ways than I’ll likely be able to express, and whose death came way too soon. 
  • And Cailie, now 2 years of age, who has taught me to love again. 

It’s a funny thing, making an internal decision to write a book. It starts to feel real. And then it’s another thing to actually say it out loud. Yikes, it was scary! I had to slay some feelings of inadequacy before I could even mention my goal to family and friends (of course, they were all so supportive). 

Then I finally mustered up the courage to reach out to a few published authors and editors in the dog training industry. Thank you, Malena DeMartini, Eileen Anderson, John Visconti, Coleen Ellis, and Adrienne Hovey for your graciousness, support and wise counsel in regard to how to begin this process. I feel like the Lion in the Wizard of Oz who just gained his courage. 

I’m retooling, reorganizing my Doga Studio to allow space for writing (as well as dog training), and I’m making time to work on assignments to enhance my writing skills. 

Cailie in the Doga Studio
Cailie in the Doga Studio

I’ve found myself again. It’s a been a long journey. 

Nora McInerny said in her TED Talk, “We don’t ‘move on’ from grief. We move forward with it.” 

I’m moving forward with trust that I have it in me to adequately share how each of my dogs’ lives and their deaths has made me a better person. 

It’s really a book for me. And maybe, when I finish it, it will be for you too.  

Lisa Lyle Waggoner is a CPDT-KA, a CSAT (Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer), a Pat Miller Certified Trainer Level 2, Faculty for the Victoria Stilwell Academy of Dog Training and Behavior, a dog*biz Certified Professional Dog Walker and the founder of Cold Nose College in Murphy, North Carolina. She enjoys providing behavior consulting and training solutions to clients in the tri-state area of North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, as well as offering educational opportunities and distance consults for clients, dog trainers and dog hobbyists throughout the U.S. and Europe.

Lisa Lyle Waggoner is the author of The Original Rocket Recall™: Teach Your Dog to Come. She’s a CPDT-KA, a CSAT (Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer), a Pat Miller Certified Trainer Level 2, Faculty for the Victoria Stilwell Academy of Dog Training and Behavior, a dog*tec Certified Professional Dog Walker and the founder of Cold Nose College in Murphy, North Carolina. The company’s trainers enjoy providing virtual behavior consulting and training solutions to clients around the globe and offers coaching, mentoring and behavior case support for pet professionals.


3 Responses

  1. I can not believe I stumbled across this tonight. Some would say this morning but since I cannot sleep it is still night for me. Sasha, my dog for 14 years has just been hospitalized for faltering kidneys. She is my best friend and like a child to me. I cannot imagine life without her. The pain of the thought of losing her is so immense I cannot sleep, eat, or function. Thankfully God is giving me some more time with her but I have to face the reality that I may soon lose her. Sasha has been a therapy dog for 12 years. She is also a crisis response dog. So she is more than just my dog. She is also part of my life’s purpose. Reading your book may be just what I need as so many others do not really understand. Thank you for sharing your feelings about Willow.

    1. Hi Holly,

      I thought I replied to this message when you first sent it.Thank you so much for your comment on my article. I feel your pain. Willow’s illness came on suddenly and when the news that there was little hope was delivered by a specialist, I thought I wouldn’t survive it. We dog people love deeply and grieve deeply when they pass, no matter “when” that happens. You and Shasha have shared so much together and the training you’ve enjoyed together deepened that bond. The lives and deaths of my dogs have transformed my life in more ways that I could ever have imagined. I suspect that has been and will be true for you to with Sasha and every other dog who is lucky enough to be cared for by you.

      Who knows how long it’ll take me to finish the book, yet I know it will happen. I was nearly 70,000 words into the memoir when it became too painful to relive traumatic experiences to write about how their lives and deaths transformed my life. So I took a break from writing the memoir and wrote a training book. Crafting the training book was a great coping mechanism. You can read more about my soon-to-be released book here: /rocket-recall-book/

      Please know I’m thinking of you and sending you strength as you navigate this period of time with Sasha. She is lucky to be loved by you.

      Peace be with you,

  2. A dogs death is something I to deal with there’s nothing I can do to change it they were an incredible part of my life and I will never ever get over to the fact that they are no longer here

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