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In Memory of Mr. Gregg: How My Senior Rescue Dog Helped Me Through Chronic Pain

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We all have certain vices. Some people gamble, curse or indulge in other influences. My personal vice: perusing the local adoptable animal shelter pages. It was a warm November day when a snow-faced senior lab caught my attention as he smiled into the camera with soulful eyes. My other fur-child was currently residing with my parents 250 miles away as I was unable to give her the attention and exercise she needed while I recovered from spinal surgery. She remained there during this time because I wasn’t able to make the drive to bring her home.

My partner rolled his eyes as I showed him a picture of Old Gregg. I started to make up scenarios about why such an elderly dog would be placed into a shelter. Each scenario left me feeling sad. A few days passed and Old Gregg was placed at the top of the urgent list. The next day, my partner called me as I was leaving work early and we adopted Mr. Gregg (formerly Old Gregg) into our home.

Mr. Gregg seemed uninterested in toys during his freedom trip to the local pet store. He was, however, interested in people. As each person passed, he flashed them a warm smile. We brought him into the house and he was scared to use the stairs. My partner picked him up and carried him to his new bed.

The next day, he learned how to make use of the couch. Within a couple of days, he proudly ascended the stairs and made himself at home wherever I resided. Life quickly became unimaginable without him there to greet each day. He waltzed around the pet-friendly hotel we visited at the mountains, persuading the bellhop to give him more treats with his charismatic grin. He charmed everyone he met. The vet allowed him to prance around the office like he owned it.

Clearly from a previously abusive home, it was surprising how quickly he adapted to his new home. Three things excited him the most: food, treats and my arrival home from work (which was likely because that meant he would get food). Regardless, I looked forward to his smile as I walked into the door.

During the next few months, my health took a turn for the worse. My previous spinal surgery was not corrective enough and I was stuck awaiting approval for additional measures. My outlook was clouded by debilitating depression: the kind that comes when everything starts to fall apart. I was placed back on leave from work and eventually had another surgery.

When I came home from the hospital, I could hear him wailing in excitement before I could get through the door and he practically knocked his caretaker over. My recovery was complicated and my pain continued for months longer than the doctors anticipated. I now know there was a complication due to arachnoiditis; however, then I only knew the pain I felt was continuing.

There were days when getting through felt impossible. Mr. Gregg was always there by my side. He didn’t care when I could barely walk or I cried from the overwhelming magnitude of pain flares. He never judged me on the days when showering and taking care of him were victories. I was his favorite person in spite of these things. Each day, he would nudge the curtains open, prompting me to get up and move about with him. Despite movement being necessary for recovery and increased mobility, this wasn’t always easy, but he was always there to flash me an encouraging smile.

brown senior lab

For a little over a year, Mr. Gregg was by my side. Through heartache, depression, pain, lost friends and a lost job, he pushed me to be a better person. A few days before Christmas, he had difficulty climbing the stairs. He followed me into my bedroom and back down again, never again to greet me at my bedroom door. His legs collapsed from behind him and he was unable to stand on his own. The vet pumped him full of the same muscle relaxers, steroids and pain medicines that had become a daily part of my life. With uncertain terms, the vet suggested we should prepare ourselves.

Within 24 hours, Mr. Gregg was clearly in pain and struggling. With tears in my eyes, I asked him what I should do. I researched stories of recovery. My partner rushed home from work to help me take him back to the vet to make a decision. After all, he was a lab who liked his food and I was unable to lift him. I ran into the next room to put on warmer clothes before my partner arrived. When I came back around to Mr. Gregg’s favorite couch, he lifted his eyes as if to ask me one last time if I was going to be OK, and I looked backed at him as if to tell him it was OK to not fight anymore. His last gift to me was sparing me from making the difficult end-of-life decision that comes with outliving our fur-children.

It was a warm December day when I said goodbye to the esteemed Mr. Gregg. For a while, it was difficult to let go of the guilt. He never showed that he was in pain too. The thing about chronic pain and illness is it is isolating and lonely, even with the best support system and Mr. Gregg there for me each day. He was truly my best friend.

I still catch myself looking for him down the hall, expecting him to be looking back at me with that excited grin. As his face flashed across my Facebook memories for National Dog Day, I am reminded of the strength he inspired. Despite coming from the worst kind of situation, he treated each day as if it were the best day, up until the day he left us. By all accounts, the old man saved me and taught me lessons that will never leave me. We should all be so lucky to live such a full life against the uncertain odds.

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Originally published: August 30, 2017
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