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5 Things I Learned From a Pet Dying in My Care

It was scary and sad, but a learning experience.




PANDEMICS, PROTOCOLS and parameters — that’s my 2020. I’d like to share a story about my state-of-the-art dog care facility and boutique, Wag Central. It’s equal parts sad and hopeful. Let me start with the worst and then set us up for a happier ending.

It happened one Sunday morning this past July — a dog passed away on my watch. I guess I knew it would happen at some point, but are we ever really prepared for such things?

A call awoke me around 6:15 a.m. Calmly, my overnight employee said, “Angela, I was taking the dogs out for their morning walk, and one of them is dead.” I told her I would be there right away. Shaking, I threw on some clothes and hesitated at my daughter’s door as she is truly my right hand. I decided not to wake her, figuring this was something I needed to do for the very first time on my own. Questions were running through my head about what we could have done wrong. What could’ve happened.

Upon arrival at Wag, I was brought to see Riley, who was indeed lying peacefully, but no longer alive, on his cot. After being in our care for a week, the owner was due to pick him up that morning. A quick check of his run card showed that everything looked completely normal: eating and waste habits, and playtimes. He was an 8-year-old neutered pup, a Pit Bull mix who had a devilish smile. I had played with him many times that week, poking fun at his Irish first name and Italian last name.

I asked a staffer to help me hoist him up and bring him to the back of my car, all wrapped in a blanket. I sat there for a moment and collected my thoughts. I knew I needed to contact the owner right away, so I called her. She answered immediately, and my greeting went something like this, “Hi, it’s Angela from Wag Central. I’m so sorry to be calling you this early, but something unfortunate happened last night. When we went to wake Riley for his morning walk, he was unresponsive. It appears he has died last night in his sleep. I’m going to bring him to our facility veterinarian’s office off the property. Are you able to meet me there?”

She was obviously shocked, and began to cry, adding that she had hoped to have more time with him. After I felt sure that she was calm, I got off the phone and called our vet. She told me that she would meet me at her office right away. We both carried Riley inside and waited for his owner to arrive. Shortly after, she appeared with her 5-year-old daughter, and the two of them spent a long moment alone with Riley.


Since it was a Sunday morning, it was easiest for our client to have our vet handle the after-care services (she chose to cremate). I’ve since been in contact with the owner, and she says that there was nothing I could’ve done. Riley was quite ill with fluid around his heart. He could’ve collapsed and passed away at any time.

The owner did not share this information upon check-in, and while I do wish I had known beforehand, I likely would have welcomed the ailing pup into my Wag home anyway, where the last breathing moments of a dog’s life would be about truly being a dog. My gut and head can go on and on about how to make sure this doesn’t happen again, but people only share what they want to share. From a liability standpoint, I don’t feel that there will be any kind of recourse, but it did give me a moment to take inventory.

What did I learn? And what can I share with you?

1. Have a plan.

Dogs can smell death, and if there is ever a tragic injury or event at your facility, remove the dog immediately. I was glad to have a plan in place for where to bring the dog since I choose not to have a freezer for a deceased animal at my facility (though I might eventually change my mind). I am lucky to have such a great relationship with my facility vet and extra lucky that she answered my call on a Sunday morning.

2. Stay calm.

Your response to the situation such as this could be scrutinized for a time thereafter, and your composure and actions during a time of stress are character-defining moments. Darn straight! Keep your immediate emotions in check and know that your personal emotional release can happen, but at a later time in a safe place, like in the corner of your own bedroom.

3. Use this as a teachable moment with staff.

Our vocation in the animal care industry must cover all aspects, the happy and sad, the good and the bad. Prepare them for the worst.


4. Review liability.

After all is said and done, it’s prudent to be reassured that your livelihood is covered whether you are deemed negligent, responsible or held harmless. It will help you sleep at night knowing your insurance plan will cover all of your steps and missteps. Rest in peace, sweet Riley.

5. Plan 30 days out.

When Riley stayed at Wag Central, it was because his family was traveling. Boarding is one revenue stream keeping my business going at the moment. Today as I’m writing this, I’m reminded that in this weird pandemic climate, we cannot plan too far out, so 30 days is my plan right now in business and in life. My oldest daughter, who attends college in Arizona, recently asked what we are doing for the holidays this year, and well, that’s more than 30 days out so I told her, “I don’t know.”

Adopting the 30-day plan has been a real relief to my overthinking brain: 30 days to pay a bill, 30 days to plot work schedules, 30 days of a promise of employment and a paycheck — that’s all I can do. So yes, people are traveling, and while this is out of my hands in so many ways, it has helped me be strong, continue to lead and not make any promises that I can’t keep.



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