What Saying Goodbye to 100 Dogs Taught Me About the Rainbow Bridge

Nikki was my first best friend. I remember her only through the countless photos my Nanny took of us throughout my early childhood. Nikki was part of an oops litter of puppies when Prissy, my mom’s Siberian Husky, had a dalliance with the neighbor’s Golden Retriever. Nikki and I grew up together. The baby books my Nanny carefully put together are filled with photos of me and Nikki. She’s laying on the floor beside me as an infant. She’s playing with me in the yard. In my most favorite photo of us, she’s wearing her horse costume standing next to me in my full cowgirl apparel as we prepared to go trick or treating. I don’t remember when Nikki died. I know she stops being in the photos around my 7th birthday. I don’t know that I would remember her at all without the photos. Sometimes I wonder if what I have are actually memories – or only remembered snap shots. This is the first lesson. Since my first goodbye with Nikki, I’ve said goodbye 100 more times. From volunteering as a hospice foster home for the Great Pyrenees Rescue of Atlanta, to founding the Rescue Ranch, a Boston Terrier rescue dedicated to special needs and medically fragile dogs – every goodbye has taught me a little more.

When to Talk About Saying Goodbye to Our Pets

It’s hard to talk about losing our pets. As I’ve worked on this post, I’ve procrastinated more times than I’d like to count. I’ve put it off, avoided it, and gotten a lump in my throat as I try to organize my thoughts. It’s like picking a scab you know is going to scar as you explore the edges of grief with your fingernail. This may not be the most polished post – when talking about loss my thoughts get a little disjointed. 

In the book “It’s OK that You’re Not OK” she talks about how we never really put loss behind us. We don’t move on. Instead what we must learn to do is carry the loss. We must learn how to live with a piece of ourselves missing while also carrying a piece of who we lost. As we add the pieces of those that we’ve lost into the holes left behind in ourselves they don’t fit quite right – those pieces that aren’t quite us poke us and cut us and bruise us. And we cherish them. We cherish those sharp reminders even when they hurt. And maybe we build up some scar tissue so it hurts a little less, but the loss is still there.

Sometimes it takes a few hours before I can talk about saying goodbye. With a few of the hospice foster dogs we have loved until their passing I am able to compose their memorial post for social media shortly after. I feel like I know what to say and how I want to share about their life. For other goodbyes – I’ve needed days or weeks to be able to write about their life. When my horse Ginger passed in December of 2020 I couldn’t even look at the photos we’d had done together until months later. It was 4 months before I could share my experience of my own end of life pet portraits. 

And here’s what I have learned about knowing when you’ll be ready to talk about losing a beloved animal. There is no rule about when you’ll be ready. There is no timeline on your grief. You may need to talk about saying goodbye quickly, or you might need to sit with it for a while. But, it does help to share. Talking about the ones we love, even when they are no longer here with us, makes us feel closer to them. As I thumbed through the old cracked and yellowed 4×6’s my grandmother carefully placed in albums 30 years ago I remembered what it felt like to have my small children’s hands wrapped around Nikki’s neck. I could feel how much I loved her – how much I still love her. And sharing a little of her story above, brought her back to me for just a little while. 

Puppy pandemonium with foster puppies running around makes heading out to sessions harder.

When to Say Goodbye to Our Animals

I’ve been a dog rescuer for much longer than I’ve been a dog photographer. And since 2014 – my wife & I have focused on senior, hospice, & medically fragile dogs at the Rescue Ranch, the rescue we founded and run from our farm here in Rutledge, GA. Animal rescue forces you to see the cycle of life at an accelerated pace.

With fostering sometimes you have puppies, sometimes you have teenage dogs, sometimes you have adult dogs, and sometimes you have senior dogs. It’s not uncommon for me to have dogs at every life stage in my house at any given time. And because it’s senior and medically fragile dogs we’ve been most called to help, we experience the end of life with more pets than most.

Learning when to make the call to end suffering has been one of the hardest lessons. Our vet shared with us a piece of wisdome that we now use with many of our senior dogs. He suggested we keep a calendar and mark each good day where our dogs feels good, gets to enjoy things they love, and has an easy day with a smiley face. And we should mark each hard day where our dogs don’t feel good and don’t enjoy things they used to love with a frowny face. When the frowny faces start to regularly out number the smiley days, it’s time to talk about making the decision. He said, “it’s better one day too early, than one day too late.”

If the greatest lesson dogs have taught me is to live in the moment – to fully enjoy the present – then the greatest gift we can give them to to let them go before the hard moments are all they have left. 


This blog is a part of a blog circle with pet photographers from across the globe. This week we’re talking about the Rainbow Bridge. 

Click over to read The Rainbow Bridge with Cahlean of About A Dog Photography.

Be sure to keep clicking the link at the bottom to complete the circle until you wind up back here.

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  1. Jessica

    You very eloquently expressed what many of us feel with grief, our own and that of our clients.

  2. Darlene

    This is beautiful, Courtney. Thank you for all that you do with rescue, and for opening your heart and home to Hospice dogs. You have a heart of gold. I completely agree with “better a day early, than a day late.” It’s the most difficult decision to make, but if they leave us with a little bit of joy, it’s a little bit easier to find that peace. Stunning image with your horse, Ginger – brought tears to my eyes – beautiful moment xo

  3. Nancy

    Beautiful post. Thank you for your work with hospice dogs.

  4. Tracy Allard

    What beautiful Prose Courtney, and as always, gorgeous images.

  5. Angela Schneider

    It must be exceptionally difficult to say goodbye as often as you do in rescue, especially with medically challenged animals. I hope you take time and space to give yourself care and honor the work you do.


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