Suggested Interview Questions for Author Doug Koktavy

Q. What lessons did Beezer and Boomer, your two black Labradors, teach you about dying?

A. The dogs taught me that dying is not the worst of times; it can be the richest. The gifts that are available during this experience can be truly life changing, if you are open to receiving them. These gifts include accepting that in death, as in life, pain is mandatory but suffering is optional. Also, coming to view the broader picture…the circle of life. I believe these dogs, with their short life spans, were sent here to teach us to love unconditionally and let go. Why is it that pets, especially dogs, have adapted so brilliantly to living with humans? Could there be more going on than simple companionship? My dogs opened my heart to this.

Q. And what did they teach you about living?

A. In my case, the dogs’ illnesses exposed how badly out of balance I had been during this time. Always quick to forgive others, I was mercilessly tough on myself. This created constant self-doubt and guilt. As a lawyer, I was consumed with proof and my ability to control outcomes. I grew fearful when the outcome proved out of my control. The dogs taught me that the love I showered upon them was the same love I withheld from myself. They deserved that love, but so did I. I’m very grateful to those lessons from perhaps the only teachers I’d allow to be heard.

Q. What were your two dogs like?

A. They were sibling black Labrador retrievers that I brought home as young pups. It didn’t take long to realize that Beezer, the runt of the litter, was the serious, contemplative “wise old soul” who seemed to be always taking care of me. Boomer, the alpha dog of the litter, was all about fun and completely living in the moment. Their relationship, exclusive of me, was especially close and loving. Boomer always looked after his brother and insisted on attending each of Beezer’s vet appointments. It was an honor to watch these two brothers live as one.

Q. You note there are many books about the grieving process, some even for pets, but nothing about the process of dying pets. What do we need to know about pet owners who struggle with a terminally ailing or aging pet?

A. Pets aren’t property; they are family members. When they are dying, their owners need permission to feel this personal loss deeply and openly. They also need to keep in mind the purpose that the animal served in their life. Many times, when your purpose is met, you are free to move on. This is true with a companion animal as well. Finally, a relationship with a sick or aging pet provides an opportunity to realize a huge amount of power and growth. Guilt resides in the past, fear lives in the future. Our safety zone is today. Nothing bad ever happens in the here and now. Pets teach us this. The power lies in what we do with this knowledge.

Q. For you, your dogs were a big part of your world. You are divorced and have no kids. Do you think the pending deaths of your dogs were more traumatic for you than others?

A. Perhaps more traumatic, but also more rewarding. I had little support and no shoulder to cry on. The harder I tried to help my dog, the deeper the hole of despair I dug myself. The constant 24-hour care grew increasingly intense, isolating and difficult. However, since I was alone, I wasn’t constrained by others’ opinions and attitudes (“he’s just a dog”) and I was forced to work through this problem with my only available resources—the B Brothers. To my great surprise, that’s exactly where the answers came from, my dogs. I was rather embarrassed at this revelation as all I ever taught them to do was to shake hands. I’m deeply grateful to these two canine teachers.

Q. You spared no expense on your dogs – massage therapy, chemo, acupuncture, special diets, a dog oncologist, surgery, etc. What if someone can’t afford to give their pet all of this care?

A. All the money I spent did very little to slow Beezer’s kidney disease. It was a freight train going downhill. I realize now that many of my decisions were driven by fear and guilt. I’m also aware that my discretionary income might be someone else’s rent, groceries, or child’s birthday present. I’m driven to share my message with financially strapped people because I believe it truly is not about the money. So many decisions can be done in an informed, loving and compassionate manner once fear and guilt are removed. In the end, it’s about one more walk, one more gentle caress, or even one more silly moment that only the two of you understand. Those are the memories you carry and they are free.

Q. You also hired a “dog communicator,” someone, who is trained to talk to dogs and then convey the dog’s thoughts back to his owner. Did you think it was just a bunch of baloney or did you really learn to talk to your dogs?

A. Before Beezer’s illness, I would have snickered at such nonsense. It wasn’t so funny when he got sick and I lost control of my life. Sheer desperation and a recommendation from a holistic veterinarian led to this experiment. The biggest impediment to communications had always been my frantic mind. The conscious thoughts just pushed everything aside. So a great challenge was quieting my mind. Once quiet, I’d look deeply into my dog’s eyes and send a thought. I’d hear the response, not with my ears, but with my heart. I then learned to trust what I felt. The animal communicators were great at facilitating this.

Q. Beezer died from kidney disease. What toll does it take on dogs?

A. Kidney disease drains the body of strength, like it is wasting away. The dog needs to be on a strict diet and keep up its strength, yet feels less and less like eating as the disease progresses. It is like the feeling of having the flu all the time. What the dog eats today won’t work tomorrow, but may work the next day. So the disease is very unbalancing to the human. When Beezer died, his body was very emaciated, which happened very gradually. I didn’t realize the full extent of his muscle loss until weeks after his death when I was cuddling with Boomer, and was aghast that he, in comparison, felt so full bodied and healthy.

Q. Boomer died from bone cancer, a very painful condition. What does it do to dogs?

A. Bone cancer is a bully. It is pain that increases and increases. The best way to alleviate the pain and potentially extend life is to amputate the offending limb. I believe many feel like I did, and may wrestle with guilt over turning their buddy into a cripple. The truth is, most dogs do very well on three legs and adapt quickly. Depending on further treatment, you can enjoy a number of very good days together. Sadly, in most cases, the cancer will eventually metastasize to the lungs, which is the final stage.

Q. How challenging was it to make various decisions regarding medical care for each of your dogs?

A. It’s a tremendous challenge when you place the animal’s welfare first. Grandpa or Uncle Phil can verbalize their wishes. Mr. Mittens the cat cannot. So an inherent struggle is trying to make the right decision and honor the animal’s wishes. One of the most difficult decisions I had was whether to amputate Boomer’s leg. At one point, absent surgery, I knew I would have to euthanize my buddy. With surgery, my alpha dog might become a cripple. So guilt made a prominent presence during these self-discussions. Interestingly, my ego and guilt made perfect partners to inject self-doubt and second guessing at every opportunity. In the end, I made the best decisions possible with the information I had at that time. That knowledge was very comforting.

Q. What’s life like with Dory, your present dog, who by the way I understand suffers from a vision condition?

A. I’m so happy to have Dory in my life. I honor the B Brothers by making room in my heart for this special girl. She is a very well behaved two year old who loves to be the “shop dog” in my in-house legal practice. She also makes a wonderful greeter at book events. I met Dory when I did the owner-surrender visit as part of my Lab rescue volunteer work. Dory has tested positive for progressive retinal atrophy, which means one day she will be blind. This was a big factor in my adopting her. I look forward to each and every day with Dory and chuckle a bit as I ponder what lessons this dog will teach me.

Q. What would you tell people who fear getting a pet simply because they don’t want to eventually deal with the dying process?

A. Many commentators note the unfairness of the short lives of pets, almost as a flaw. I believe just the opposite. The purpose of animals is to teach us, if we are available to listen and learn, not to fear death.

If you are born you will die. It’s our contract from birth. Unfortunately, western society shuns this discussion. Fortunately, the animals provide help. I believe they see death as moving from one side of a circle to the other. Beezer and Boomer came into my life for a specific purpose. So to avoid a pet because of the eventuality of death is to avoid one of the reasons the animal was placed in our lives. Once realized, the end is sad but not despairing.

Q. What role did guilt play in caring for your dogs?

A. Guilt played a great role in my decisions. I left no stone unturned and spared no expense in my search for the magic bullet. I insisted “more is better” and “I have to do something…anything.” Many people don’t have the resources I did and punish themselves with needless guilt. Sound decisions are seldom made when guilt drives the bus. I discovered the greatest gifts during this special time are guilt-free and cost nothing. The path to this resolution involves learning to love yourself as much as you love your pet. This involves forgiveness. Easy to write about, tougher to do, and wonderful to live with. It’s a legacy from your pet that you carry for all your days.

Q. You felt like a brother to your two dogs, both of whom were siblings to one another. What made you feel like their brother?

A. Many people refer to their pets as children. I sensed more equality between myself and the B Brothers. If anything, I was their pupil during the illnesses. I also felt a very deep bond between these animals and myself. I can’t quite explain it, but it was real and special. I believed it wasn’t a coincidence that Beezer and Boomer were placed in my life. I ask myself “what if” my life was to unfold exactly as it did and “what if” the dogs were purposely sent into my life to share this grand adventure? I can’t claim this as fact, but my world has opened to new possibilities by dreaming a bit and having faith in the universe.

Q. When people dismiss that you took your dogs too seriously or that you obsessed unnecessarily over them, what do you say?

A. The Human-Animal Bond is a very deep and personal experience. Frankly, it’s a bit silly to suggest that someone else can sit in judgment over my relationship and decisions with Beezer and Boomer. So I place little importance on these opinions, which seem to be more their own fear talking. I wish everyone could experience the incredible journey through life that our pets take us on. The highs, the lows, the laughter, and even the tears are all cherished memories. They are missing an important act of that theater we call life.

Q. It was so hard to say goodbye to Beezer but then you lost Boomer two years later. How did you handle this 1-2 punch to the gut?

A. As Boomer grew critically ill, I realized his loss would mean the end of the B Brothers team as well. It was a surprising double whammy. However, the Boys taught me that sad doesn’t have to be bad. Sad situations turn into suffering when I layer personal judgment onto them. It doesn’t have to be that way. I learned to leave the judgment behind. In life, pain is mandatory, but suffering is optional. Sometimes I feel a twinge of sadness over the loss of the B Brothers. Almost instantly, sadness is overcome by a deep appreciation for these dogs and their purpose in my life. Appreciation and love flow into my heart like water to a low spot. I just can’t hold it back.

Q. You referenced your dogs as having souls. What makes you believe this?

A. Dogs have intellect, they experience emotions, they remember and they learn. They also possess other intangible qualities we cannot explain. For example, Oscar the cat is a fixture for dying humans at a Rhode Island nursing home. Animals headed for higher ground during the Asian tsunami while the people curiously eyed the receding ocean. The counter argument that dogs have no souls makes no logical sense. I learned to communicate with my dogs on a very deep spiritual level. I felt their responses in my heart. I’m no longer assuming humans are superior to other creatures on all levels just because we have thumbs. We are part of a grand order with the animals and we honor them by acknowledging their place with us.

Q. What was the funeral-process like for your dogs? Where did they end up?

A. My animals passed on at home. The bodies stayed for several hours to allow for their spirits to leave, if that were the case, and to let the surviving animal process the loss. The surviving pet and I then transported the body to the crematorium. Having the dogs’ ashes was a huge part of the process, allowing us a series of small ceremonies. After Beezer passed, I filled a tennis ball (Their favorite pastime) with his ashes and Boomer and I had a short ceremony at our favorite swimming hole, where ashes now reside. I also had a bit of ashes tilled into the soil of my rose bushes. Every spring blossom reminds me of my dogs. So my Labradors are here and there.

Q. In your book, The Legacy of Beezer and Boomer, you wrote several letters to your dogs. What did you wish to tell them?

A. I am a great list maker and believe in documentation. Much like a term paper, the letters helped nail down the lessons I was learning. Writing them, I also felt closer to the Boys. My favorite letter is the Christmas Day essay I wrote to Boomer when he was dying in which I explained how the cancer had given such importance to this holiday and how appreciative I was to spend today with my big dog. Along with letters to both dogs, I also established a Daily Appreciation when we would spend quiet time together in thanks.

Q. You had to give your dogs medicine, cook special meals, administer shots daily, and give them special care. Did you ever envision being their nurse?

A. Being a caretaker for a terminally ill being is the toughest job I’ll ever love. In the beginning, Beezer had morning and evening treatment. Slowly, these two points moved together and I was constant caretaker. At first, this role was frantic and terrifying. Beezer needed a type of at-home IV like treatment, which I administered on the couch. The treatments made me sit still and stay in the moment. These evenings with Beezer turned into loving, private, and introspective moments. Even Boomer went outside to let Beezer and I share this experience alone. This was when I began pouring my heart out to my dog and feeling messages in response. I’ll cherish this part of the nursing journey forever.

Q. Why are dogs the greatest pets?

A. I’m a bit prejudiced because I love Labrador retrievers, but the book really is for anyone who loves their animals—cats, birds, bunnies and ponies are all welcome. After all, they are all family. For example, I have heard from many cat owners who said they had experienced the same emotions I did when their pets were dying. As for dogs, I would say they make the best companions because they are intuitive, loyal, fun loving and never, ever hold a grudge. Labradors are particularly special in my life. They have a non-stop smile and just want to spend time with me. They are wonderful daily lessons on being the person I want to be.

Q. You learned “the gift of today” from your dogs. Tell us about it.

A. When Beezer was nearing death, I saw how important each final day was and how necessary to say all I wanted to say and enjoy every last minute. With Boomer’s help, I approached his dying in a healthier albeit unorthodox way. I thought deeply about cancer’s goal. I saw it was a battle for today. I had been torturing myself with guilt over perceived errors in the past and fear of the future. Cancer’s goal was to destroy today by promoting fear and guilt. I was the power source for this negative energy, not the disease. I decided to make the here and now my safety zone as cancer was powerless in the present. I’d just starve it of energy.

Q. What is “anticipatory grief?”

A. I let anger, fear, guilt and depression take over when Beezer got sick. I called a hospice and was matter of factly told I was experiencing Anticipatory Grief, which is simply grieving a future loss today. It is very real and can be very painful. Most of the books out there deal with the death of a pet. My book takes the reader inside my journey while my pet was sick. I wrote it because I didn’t want anyone to go through this experience alone, without resources. I also discovered that resolving my anticipatory grief when Boomer and, more recently, Coral, were dying, resulted in far less emotional pain after they departed. I do know that grief can continue for months or years if not addressed.

Q. What goes into the decision-making process when you need to euthanize a pet?

A. I gain clarity and peace each time I say that hardest goodbye. With Beezer, I frantically sought out formulas and numerous opinions to stave off his kidney disease. This was stressful and confusing. I was constantly being propelled into the future where fear resides. With Boomer, I finally learned presence. Rather than speculate how many days might be left, I simply took daily counsel with my dog. I said goodbye to my Lab Coral in April. I enjoyed each day with her and trusted her to let me know when the time was right. I also alerted my veterinarian to be on standby. Finally, Coral let me know and I took the pain into my heart so she could be free. It was a sad and beautiful day.

Q. How do you move away from letting fear of disease and death or guilt over treatment choices take over the remaining months, weeks, days and moments with your beloved pet?

A. I was able to do this by realizing that my thoughts control my moods and emotions, not vice-versa. I attached different meaning to illness, treatment and end of life. I did this through self-analysis and daily practice. It wasn’t easy. I also realized Doug got better when I created our own hospice strategy and implemented this strategy concurrent with treatment. This allowed me the extraordinary realization about the grace and beauty attendant to caring for another soul who is departing this world. The experience changed me forever. The best part of my humanity emerged when all I could do was be in the moment with my dear friend. I wouldn’t change one thing, even if I could.