How do you know when it’s time? This notion is often interpreted in a way that puts a lot of pressure on people when they're already stressed and grief-stricken. You are not alone in thinking: "What if I miss the signs? He looked miserable yesterday but not today. What if I act too soon or not soon enough? How could he ever let on that he wants it to end? But maybe I'm deluding myself that he feels better than he does."
These amazing beings love us and trust us implicitly. They have no awareness of the inevitability of death as we do and they have no fear of it. They are quite sure that we, as their pack leaders, operate only in their best interest at all times. Emotional selfishness is not a concept in dogdom and they don't know how hard we sometimes have to fight against it ourselves. We must assume that the discomfort we see is much less than the discomfort they really feel. We do know of other options and it is entirely our obligation to always offer them the best option for that moment, be it further intervention, or none, or the gift of rest.
Dogs are not afraid of the unknown. For them it's only about whether this day holds enough companionship and ease and routine so that they would choose to have those things more than anything else. They are able to focus on those things beyond any discomfort or pain or frustration they may feel. How great is his burden of illness this day? Is his quality of life sufficient that he has a pleasurable existence and would choose to persevere? If you honestly believe that his condition is such, then that’s the answer and you press on.
On the other hand, he needs to know in his giant heart, beyond any doubt, that his courageous care giver will make the hard decisions on his behalf, despite the fear and sadness that would cripple any owner. If you will always put his peace before your own by assessing whether he would want to continue with his burden of illness as much as you desperately need him to and that you are able to love him as unselfishly as he has loved you, then your obligation is clear.
This is an owner’s ultimate gift to his dog and the responsibility that he/she undertook on the day that dog was welcomed into his/her life forever.
Everyone grieves over the loss of a dog differently. What is right for one, may not be for another. For many, the only way to properly grieve for a dog is with another Cavalier in his/her arms. For others, it may take a long time before they can even consider getting another dog. There is no "correct" protocol! Go with your own instincts.
Some find it helpful to share their grief online with other Cavalier fanciers or on forums especially for those who have lost a pet; some find making a scrapbook of pictures of their Cavalier and include stories about the dog helpful. Some have their dog cremated and save the ashes to be buried with them someday. Some ignore local regulations and bury the dog in their own backyard. Custom headstones may be the choice for some. Do what is right for YOU.
A single day of a deathly quiet, dogless household will convince you that you may need help to get over the grief. But what is important is that you DO need to grieve! It was not "just a dog"!!! Your Cavalier was a part of your family and you gave your heart to this dear dog completely. When we don't grieve over a loss, it can do great damage to our ability to love.