All Dogs Go to Kevin: How Pet Loss Made Author Dr. Jessica Vogelsang a Better Vet
When Dr. Jessica Vogelsang’s beloved Golden Retriever, Emmett, died, her daughter and son were just 4 and 2 years old. The children had known Emmett was sick, but Dr. Vogelsang (or Dr. V, as she’s known on her blog, Pawcurious) wasn’t sure how to best explain that Emmett would pass away by the time the kids got home from preschool.
So like many pet-owning parents of young children, she waited until Emmett was gone before telling them he’d died, explaining that he’d gone to heaven. Her son, Zach, misheard her, thinking she said Emmett had gone to Kevin.
Although Emmett’s passing marked a heartbreaking day in the Vogelsang household, an idea took hold in Dr. V’s mind, and her first book, All Dogs Go to Kevin: Everything Three Dogs Taught Me (That I Didn’t Learn in Veterinary School) was born. (Emmett’s death also helped her recognize that there were definitely better ways to explain a pet’s passing to children.)
Dr. V weaves in humorous tales of awkward adolescence as a New England child suddenly transplanted into the California sunshine alongside her experience as an underprepared veterinary student, while also sharing stories from her years as a newly minted vet and a brand-new mom.
Vetstreet: Your book title includes a name — Kevin — because of your son’s misunderstanding of where you said Emmett went when he died. But there’s more to it than that, right?
Dr. Jessica Vogelsang: When Zach misheard me, it turned into this whole joke on the blog — that someone named Kevin was running around stealing our pets. But a couple years later, I had a real-life friend named Kevin who died from pneumonia. Kevin was this gregarious single guy, always the life of the party, and he’s the type who would be up there with all the dogs, hitting on the hot angels. I really like the idea of Kevin being up in heaven, taking good care of the dogs.
Vetstreet: Who are the three dogs you refer to in the title?
Dr. V: Taffy was a neurotic Lhasa Apso mix I got as a kid. I was extremely shy and introverted, and my mom was hoping she’d be a way to help me meet and bond with other kids after we moved to California. Turned out, Taffy was also shy and introverted, and it drove my mom nuts that we’d just stay inside together and read in my room. I was having a really hard time fitting in, so to be able to come home from a long day where I felt like I was from a different planet, then have Taffy accept me, it was just what I needed.
Emmett came into my life shortly after I started at a veterinary practice. He was an extremely confident dog and a great therapist. When I had my daughter, he ended up really helping me with my postpartum depression. Being a new mom is really isolating, and people don’t always recognize that; often they shy away, because it’s uncomfortable, but dogs don’t do that — they get in your face and lick you.
Kekoa died while I was coming up with the book proposal, and I had an epiphany that she needed to be a part of [the book]. She was just a nutty, awkward senior Lab with serious separation anxiety. Initially, I spent so much time and money trying to undo the damage nine years of bad owners and scary experiences had done, but then I stopped and celebrated her for the lovely dog she was. She taught me that we’ve got to laugh at ourselves and our quirks.
Vetstreet: You mention other noteworthy animals (and owners) in the book. What’s one lesson you learned from the animals you treated?
Dr. V: One of the ways the dogs — both mine and some of the dogs I treated — made me a better vet was to help me think about compassion for owners, as well as pets. I realized I had to look at every family as a unit, not just a dog attached to a person you had to barrel through to treat the dog.
[Veterinarians] don’t always have the ability to spend a lot of time talking with clients, but when you do get [that chance], it creates a great relationship that helps you, the client and the pet. Trust is built on compassion; dogs are tremendous teachers of compassion.
Vetstreet: You now work in a home hospice and euthanasia practice. How does your experience there tie in with the underlying message of your book?
Dr. V: Saying goodbye to Emmett in my own home was what drew me into hospice, and my hospice work has taught me that, even in death, our pets are teaching us a lesson. People are scared of death, and they want to shove it in a corner, but what they really fear is seeing their loved ones suffer. Pet hospice lets me help people understand that death doesn’t have to be a painful process.
Vetstreet: And that experience helped you in a recent personal situation?
Dr. V: Yes, I just went through all of this with my mom. She was sick and had a hard time articulating to medical professionals that she didn’t want treatment — there was no possible cure, and she didn’t want to waste time in the hospital. Her doctors didn’t want to hear that, but I had her back. And while we only had two months, she didn’t spend it suffering. We spent it together, watching hot air balloons and Harry Potter.
All those dogs taught me an amazing lesson: to focus on the time we had together and not the end itself. The struggles and trauma people experience [in end-of-life situations] are often because they’re busy putting off death rather than appreciating life. To be able to enjoy the time you have left together is a truly powerful gift, not only for pets, but for any loved ones.
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