One year married and facing shattering news about their first pet together, they decided that the last few months for the 7-year-old sheltie/collie mix would not be spent in mourning. The Trents would spend it making memories. Gracie's end of life would be full of life.
"My husband said, 'We have to take her all the places we were going to take her,'" recalls Rebecca.
And so "Gracie's Bucket List Adventures" began — a trip to California, steak dinners, a photo with Santa.
A bucket list might seem an extravagance for an ailing dog, but the relationship between pets and their owners is a complicated thing.
Sixty-eight percent of U.S. households, or about 85 million families, own a pet, according to the 2017-18 National Pet Owners Survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association. What the survey doesn't quantify is how many people consider their pets not mere come-when-you-call animals, but essential members of the household — four-legged family members deserving of treats, toys and TLC.
Does that mean their pets are pampered? Perhaps. Most people know someone who has splurged on an extravagant doggie bed, or a wardrobe of clothes for their pooch, or premium feed because plain old chow won't do.
There are people who FaceTime their pet when they're apart. Who sign up for doggie day care so Rover won't get lonely at home alone. Who hire sitters to keep their dog company and send photo updates of how the day is going.
Does that mean their owners are overprotective? Maybe. But who's to judge?
Many pet owners say they are simply acting on the emotional attachments they feel with these bonus members of the family.
"I do wish there was a word somewhere between 'owner' and 'parent' to describe the really special and unique bond people have with their pets," says Rachel Sauls Wright.She and her husband, Hal, share their Ringgold, Georgia, home with three lovable mutts: Peanut, 7, believed to be a Chihuahua/Italian greyhound mix; Posey, 6, a rat terrier; and Remus, 1, a beagle/German shepherd mix.
"For us," she says, "adopting our dogs meant we were making a serious commitment to love them and to take care of them and to give them the best life possible, 'for better or worse.'"
Wright admits there may be habits that outsiders might consider obsessive.
"We're pretty picky about their food," she cites as an example. "They only eat grain-free, all-natural food and treats that we bulk-order on Amazon.
"We don't board them when we travel, because it stresses the little dogs out," she continues. "Instead, we pay a dog sitter to come stay at our house with them, and I ask her to send me a picture along with an update each day so I know how they're doing."
And the list goes on:"Remus goes to dog day care twice a week, and I religiously check social media to see if they've posted pictures," she says. "I always check in to make sure he was 'good' at day care.
"Alexa plays music for them while we're gone. But Posey is very scared of storms. So if the weather is supposed to be bad, I'll leave the door to our bedroom open so she can get under the bed, and I also usually leave lavender diffusing to help calm her."
"The dogs have their own Instagram account, and I have hundreds of photos of them on my phone," Wright says proudly.
And, she concludes, "Our dogs are always on our Christmas card." Just like any member of the family should be.
Wright says the attention she and her husband pay their pets seems small in comparison to what their dogs give back.
"We work hard to make sure they're getting what they need, whether that means sweaters in the winter or day care twice a week for the one with a ton of energy," she says. "And in return, we get to experience every day with these wonderful, funny, loving creatures who enrich our lives immensely. We really consider them part of the family, and I consider them one of the best things about my life."
Teri Jo Fox is of the same opinion about Rascal, a Chihuahua recently cast as "Bruiser" in a stage production of "Legally Blonde" at The Arts Center in Athens, Tennessee.Rascal will be 14 on April 16. Fox has had him since he was 5 weeks old.
"He has been the best dog and friend I could have ever had," says Fox.
She's had other pets, but none as close as Rascal. They are rarely apart, so home, office and automobiles are set up for his needs.
"He loves to go 'bye-bye,'" Fox says. "He travels well and goes with us most places unless we will be at an event for a long period of time; then he stays home to relax. Otherwise, we have blankets in both cars, a bed at our [real estate] office and he hangs with us most times."
Advancing age has brought its share of health issues for Rascal, including a heart murmur, acid reflex and a spinal condition that leaves him unable to jump. So he's monitored by a cardiologist at the University of Tennessee, takes medicine for his stomach every morning, and Fox and her husband, Eric Whitener, have to lift the 13-pounder into bed or the car, which they gladly do.
"I would do anything for this little guy, and he knows it," Fox says.
Chattanooga veterinarian Dr. William Pullen says he sees "both ends of the extreme" — intense love and acute neglect — among the four-legged patients he and his staff tend at Veterinary Care and Specialty Group, a 24-hour emergency and referral hospital he opened in St. Elmo in 2016.
"We have some come in that have never had basic preventive care and ones that are extremely pampered," he says.
Some owners have pet insurance; some do not. Some have the disposable income to pay for advanced care, such as state-of-the-art scans or even transplants, while others may be able to afford only comfort measures for a beloved pet.
"One thing that's recurrent is the degree of devotion or care is not always related to a monetary value," Pullen says. "Not everyone can afford to go the extra mile, but usually they still feel their pet is a part of their family."
Pullen attributes such devotion to the bonds that naturally develop between humans and their animals.
Pets have personalities "just like we do," he says. "Even within a family, the pet may bond with one member more than another."
Rebecca Trent saw that play out when she and Kyle adopted Gracie.
"I'm a little more obsessive about our pets," she says, "but my husband just had a particularly beautiful bond with Gracie. My husband was her person. Gracie loved me, and we had a great relationship, but there was just something about my husband that she just loved."
By chance, the Trents adopted their second dog, Cubbie, on the same day they found out Gracie had nasal cancer. Her prognosis was dire: three months. But the Trents began feeding her a special diet and supplements and amused her with end-of-life adventures."We checked off so much for her, from going to the beach, taking a cross-country road trip to visit family in California, seeing many states and national parks like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite, multiple camping trips, staying in hotels, attending a Lookouts baseball game, eating steak dinners, dressing up for Halloween and having a birthday party," says Kyle.
But eight months in, with Gracie's cancer progressing rapidly, the Trents knew it was time to say goodbye. Gracie died a week before Christmas 2017. A photo of her with the McKamey Animal Center's Santa Claws was one of the last check marks on her to-do list.
"Two nights before she passed away, we took her to watch a final sunset at Harrison Bay," Rebecca says. "We loved on her and talked about her life and took some beautiful pictures of her."
A year and a half later, they keep a small table of memorabilia. It holds Gracie's urn, her paw print and several photos.
Elsewhere in the house is another reminder of this special dog: the Trents' 3-month-old daughter, named Adalyn Grace.