This week, unfortunately I and my family had to put our dog Max to sleep. We’ve had him for over twelve years and he was a huge part of our family. We’re big animal people, and Max was our first dog in a long line of cats.

We picked him out at the pound, a pretty adult cattle dog who was quiet and looked at my mum with big brown eyes and a tilted head. I babysat him in the car while my parents went to buy him supplies, and he looked at me, shuffled over, and lay his head in my lap. It was only when we got him home and got him to a vet that we discovered that he was actually a three month old puppy, and half Labrador, who would grow to twice his original size – a small pony, I always called him. As he settled in, he fancied himself a guard dog, and would loudly and sharply bark at anything to darken our door, even just a plastic bag, and continued to do so for the next twelve years.

He was a pain in some ways. When he was young he would steal and chew things up. He, like all Labradors, would climb over you for even a sniff of food. We had to install a baby gate between the lounge and kitchen because he would eat the cats’ food. He would bark loudly at anything and everything. He only obeyed commands when he wanted to. He would sneak up onto the couch after we’d all gone to bed.

But, for all his faults, Max was a beautiful dog and wonderful companion. When he was a year old, my parents bought me a kitten. Smuff was so small that I could hold him in one hand, and I had no idea how this behemoth would take to him. Max became his second mother – he carried him, washed him, supervised him, playfought with him, and taught him how to hunt. Max would do this again for another kitten six years down the line. He was incredibly intelligent, and knew when any of us were sad or hurting. He would protect us from anything, sounded the alarm when our car was stolen, and was a gentle giant. He was liberal with his kisses and loved a good tummy rub, even up to the very end. He and I shared a bond, and he got older and mellowed, and would happily walk by my heel, play fetch in the park, and did everything I asked him to. Even recently, I was lying on the floor in my mother’s lounge room trying in frustration to hook her new PVR up. It wouldn’t work and I was getting upset. Max leaned over and gently licked my head. And then it started working.

Recently he started to slow down. He had arthritis in his legs, front and back, and we thought this was normal. He loved walks – his spirit was willing but his flesh was weak. He couldn’t make it five minutes down the road without having to stop, panting heavily. We didn’t realise this was the first sign of a bigger problem.

A couple of weeks ago, he went outside in the middle of the night to go to the toilet and didn’t come back in for three hours. My mother found him lying in the backyard, his back legs paralysed. The vet said that he’d most likely suffered disc damage in his back and it could heal with time and care. He went on a crash diet and required pretty much 24-hour care – we had to support him with a towel sling under his back legs. I stayed and helped for a few days, and then headed home.

My mother called a few days later and asked if I could come in again. It was worse this time – he had lost his front legs. I thought they were weak from the pressure that was placed on them when he moved but it was more than that. It was obvious he was in terrible pain despite medication and he wasn’t getting better. We spoke to the vet, and they agreed that another disc had been damaged in his back, and this was not going to heal. After a short discussion, we all agreed that it was time.

Mum and I were with him. I knelt on the floor, patting him, holding his head, talking to him. The vet gave us some treats, and being that he hadn’t had proper food for over a week, he wolfed them down. Max was so eager he accidentally nipped my fingers when I didn’t let go fast enough. It was calm, peaceful, and he went to sleep with me holding him and a tummy full of treats. The vet staff were saddened too – while he was there they noticed how friendly and laidback he was, there were kisses ahoy, and lots of requests for tummy rubs. We chose to have him cremated, and his ashes are in a pet garden at the crematorium.

Even though we’d accepted the fact that he was getting older, and that this day would come, none of us expected it to come so soon. This is the first time that I’ve really lost someone close to me, dog or not, and I’ve been blindsided. I’m not sleeping properly, I’m not eating properly. I had to start university preparation work this week and I thought it would distract me, but I can’t concentrate. Even last night I had to stay up till 3am playing Minecraft because it was the only thing that could calm me. A digital equivalent of a zen garden.

I have a broken heart and I don’t know how to put it back together. So I’m calling on you, my friends, and especially fellow animal lovers, for advice. It may sound silly, all this wailing over a dog, but he was my dog. More than a dog. A friend, a buddy. And I’ll miss him terribly, always.