A Warrior Dog’s Last Dance: Facing Death with Dignity and Grace

Dying Dog article (photo of Zeke the dog and his companions, John and Cat)
John Giovine, Zeke the dog, and Cat Saunders (Summer 1994)

By Cat Saunders

In 1994, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek article called “I Love John Because He Treats Me Like a Dog.” It was written in honor of my partner, John Giovine, and his special dog friend, Zeke. In that essay, I introduced Zeke in this passage:

    Zeke is about 100 pounds of Rottweiler, German shepherd, and Doberman. He actually lives with John’s mom, Sally-Giovine Kerr, but everyone—including Sally—knows that Zeke is completely devoted to John.

Much to Sally’s consternation, Zeke totally ignores her commands whenever John gets within 100 feet of the Giovine-Kerr House. Seeing John and Zeke together is like watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance: you wouldn’t think of cutting in.

Don Juan and Dream Dogs

Have you read Carlos Castaneda’s books about don Juan, the Yacqui sorcerer? Don Juan spoke about a warrior’s last dance. He said that if a warrior’s life had been impeccable, death would stand back and wait when it was time for the warrior to die, giving him time to dance his last dance—the culminating and final expression of his life.

Zeke must have been an impeccable warrior, because he definitely had a last dance. I’ll tell you about it, but first let me tell you a little more about Zeke.

With a first name like mine, you can imagine that dogs generally aren’t my favorite animals. However, I credit Zeke with winning my heart and helping me overcome much of my prejudice against dogs. Actually, I used to like dogs. As a child, I was completely enamored with my cousin’s part-wolf, part-German-shepherd dog, who played with me for hours in the woods near my grandparents’ house.

Somewhere along the line, though, dogs became a dream figure symbol for someone in my family who was critical and controlling, cold and sometimes cruel. This person also had many wonderful qualities, just like dogs do, but her mean streak made me fear her the same way I fear the shadow side of dogs, knowing that they (or she) could attack at any moment.

Some dog-lovers think I’m crazy to have these feelings, but John has always been compassionate with my fear. With his help, I’ve been able to work on my dog stuff gradually. Of course, John has an ulterior motive: he wants Cat and a dog.

Cosmic Dog and the Ambassadors of Goodwill

Lucky for me, Cosmic Dog (God’s canine counterpart) provided the perfect solution for John and me early in our relationship. After we’d been together a year, John’s mother, Sally, got a puppy she named Zeke. It was a win-win: John got a dog friend, and our home remained dog-free.

Little did I know then that Cosmic Dog had a plan in store for me. Apparently, it was one of Zeke’s secret missions to infiltrate the murky realms of my dog fears in order to dissolve them. Needless to say, Zeke had his work cut out for him.

John still loves to tell the story of the salacious smooch that Zeke laid on me once at a party at the Giovine-Kerr house. By then, I’d known Zeke for years, and other than the occasional crotch-sniff, he was always a perfect gentleman.

At this particular party, however, when I bent over to pick something up, I felt an enormous and foul-smelling tongue slurp across my cheek. “Zeke!” I cried in dismay. But it was too late. He trotted off merrily, obviously satisfied that he had finally managed to kiss his best friend’s girl.

I don’t know what it is about me and dogs. Despite my stay away vibes, dogs often make a beeline straight for me, even if John’s nearby. I use this fact to tease John about dogs’ inherent lack of intelligence, insisting that if they were as smart as he claims, they wouldn’t seek out a dog bigot who’s wildly pointing them toward John.

John argues that this indicates their inherent intelligence. He thinks I’m quite lovable, so he believes that dogs can sense this, too. Besides, he says, Cat-seeking canines are simply “ambassadors of goodwill” trying to win me over to their side.

The Beginning of the End

Fast forward to June of 2001. By this time, Zeke was 13 and he’d been suffering from physical ailments for many years. His body was riddled with bulging, though benign, tumors; he had terrible arthritis; and in the final weeks of Zeke’s life, his longtime vet in Olympia (Washington) also suspected that he had cancer. By then, however, Zeke was in such bad shape that everyone agreed it was probably time to help him die.

I don’t use the term “put him down” because of the other (derogatory) meaning of that phrase. And I don’t say “put him to sleep” because death is not about sleep. Death is too powerful and mysterious to insult it—and those who are dying—with euphemisms.

During the last few years of Zeke’s life, John and I were renting the top-level apartment of Sally’s triplex on the water in Seattle (she and her husband, Bob, occupied the lower levels). It was a blessing for John to be near Zeke, especially as death approached.

About ten days before Zeke died, Sally said that he hadn’t eaten for two days. Since it appeared he was close to death, John and I went down to Sally’s apartment late one night after everyone was asleep, so we could say goodbye to Zeke.

I put my hands on Zeke and did Reiki to ease his pain. John and I thanked him for his love and for his important role in the family. We said we’d miss him but if he wanted to die, it was okay. We also wept as we expressed our love, realizing he might not make it through the night.

The next morning, I heard Zeke’s bark and looked outside. He was romping like a new dog! I was surprised, but knew that animals (and people) sometimes “get better” a few days before they die. Later that day, Sally said that whatever we did the night before must have worked miracles, because Zeke was eating again.

A Dying Dog and the Fallen Angel

John went out of town for a week over the Fourth of July. While he was gone, I went down to the basement to do laundry, a task normally done by John. To my amazement, I saw Zeke hobbling toward me when I looked out the laundry room door.

“Zeke, honey, what are you doing down here?” I knew stairs were almost impossible for him by then, so I sensed that he’d made that difficult journey in order to say goodbye. I thanked him, then helped him up the stairs. One or two at a time, then rest. One or two at a time, then rest. It took about ten minutes to climb twenty stairs.

A day later it was Independence Day, a holiday with explosive sounds Zeke and I both abhor. When everyone else had gone to see fireworks, I snuck down to Sally’s apartment to comfort Zeke.

He looked terrible. His body shuddered painfully with every breath. I put my hands gently on his flanks to do more Reiki as tears filled my eyes. I told Zeke that if he wanted to wait to die until John was home to be with him, that John would be home the following day.

The next morning, upstairs in our apartment, I noticed that a little silver angel had fallen from its perch atop a door. When I saw that it had fallen, I knew Zeke had either died in the night or would die soon.

John got home that afternoon, and I told him about the fallen angel and Zeke’s goodbye trek down to the laundry room. The next morning, Sally said that Zeke had vomited blood in the night, so she felt it was time. She made an appointment with the vet in Olympia that afternoon, July 6th, to help Zeke die.

Zeke’s Last Dance

For hours that morning, Zeke laid quietly in the back seat of Sally’s car, ready to go, like he had a thousand times before. Only this time, he would not be coming back. It helped that John asked for and felt Zeke’s permission for what was about to transpire.

John and I drove to Olympia first. We waited outside the vet’s office until Sally and Bob arrived with Zeke. It was a gorgeous day. Sally wanted Zeke to die outside, so she chose a spot underneath a flowering tree.

Sally, Dr. Gregg Bennett, and I sat down together in the grass under the tree, while John, Bob, and Zeke wandered the grounds. While I talked with Sally and Gregg, another part of me was observing Zeke. I had a strong sense that Zeke was well aware of his impending death.

I watched in amazement as Zeke traversed the entire perimeter of the grounds, smelling everything one last time, as if he was paying his final respects to the earth that had been his home for 13 years. John also noticed this. I called it Zeke’s last dance.

When Zeke was done with his rounds, he walked over and laid down right in the middle of us, unbidden. Although he hated needles, Zeke did not resist when Gregg gently inserted one into his left forearm.

When the drugs began to flow into his body, Zeke suddenly sat upright and looked straight at the vet, his eyes full of trust and fear and the absolute realization that he was about to go where he could only go alone. It was intense.

While the drugs took effect, Sally held Zeke’s head close and told him repeatedly that he was safe and loved. John and I held his body and did the same thing. After a few moments, Gregg checked for a heartbeat and there was none. Zeke was dead. His body shuddered a few times—a normal reflex for a body shutting down.

Shortly after Zeke died, John’s brothers Marc and David arrived. We all stayed with Zeke for a while, weeping and talking. Then Bob and the three brothers gathered up Zeke’s body in his favorite blanket and put him in the car for one last ride. While John and I returned to Seattle, the others went to the family farm outside Olympia, where they chose a special spot and buried Zeke in the cool evening hours. The fallen angel was buried with him.

When John and I got back home, he bought flowers for Sally and I made a love-note poster out of the article I wrote for Zeke in 1994. When I went down to her apartment to leave the presents, I saw that someone had filled Zeke’s water dish with clean water and floated fresh flowers in it. That undid me.

After Zeke died, his legacy continued to grow. For me, Zeke not only won my heart; he was also my teacher. His last dance keeps inspiring me, and it’s helping me go deeper in my own work with death.

Zeke, honey, you were one impeccable warrior. And you sure knew how to dance!

This article was originally published by The New Times in September 2001 and updated in October 2016.

Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).