Sunday, November 29, 2009

Old Dogs

No kind of dog makes me feel as good as an old dog.

Puppies are cuter. They'll do things to make you laugh and then make you go, "Aw." Their enthusiasm for everything is their charm.

Adult dogs are great. They can be your best friend and constant companion. They've learned the art of control and the virtue of patience, but they still remain ready for anything. If you want to get up at two in the morning and go for a walk, an adult dog will always be happy to go with you. For an adult dog, "going with you," is about as good as it gets.

But as the puppy turns into the adult, so, at some point, does the adult dog become an old dog. In an increasingly frenetic world, the old dog becomes increasingly still. He can't compete for attention with a puppy, but he knows he doesn't have to.

As a rule, old dogs know who they are, and are comfortable with it. We see an old dog with bad hips struggling to get up and think it's sad. But the dog isn't sad about it at all, and doesn't know what the fuss is about. He's just getting up, and it's not quite as easy as it used to be.

Puppies are taking everything in, starting to figure out the world. Adult dogs are alert and, hopefully, confident, and every decision they make helps define them. Old dogs are secure in themselves. Let the kids watch and strut and worry. An old dog's done that for years, and has begun to understand the futility of that sort of world orientation.

An old dog has learned acceptance, of his limitations, and the world's. An old dog doesn't sweat it, not because he doesn't care, but because he's learned that sweating it never helps. Old dogs don't get as embarrassed as they did when they were younger. When a young dog stumbles, for example, he's like a person, pretending that it didn't happen, or that he did it on purpose, or that his ankle isn't sore now. When an old dog stumbles, he slows down more so he won't stumble again, and understands that stumbling is just something that happens every now and then.

Over Thanksgiving, I pet sat for an old dog, Benson, a 13 year-old golden retriever who was suddenly consigned to home when his grandma decided she didn't want dog hair on her carpet. Benson lives one door down from me with his mom and dad and two young boys, and he adores his routine. Every morning he walks out of the house to bring the paper to dad in bed, just like a dog from a 50's sitcom. He's unfailingly polite and well-mannered.

And he was unhappy that he'd been left behind. When I came to see him Thursday morning he regarded me coldly and didn't want to be petted or comforted. He wanted to sit there, being mad at the family who left him behind when they left in the car. But then breakfast was served.

An old dog can be mad at the whole family, but he won't let that stop him from eating. Starving yourself never helped a situation. As Benson ate, he wagged his tail. Just eating his plain dog food, that he eats every day, is enough to make Benson happy, even after the terrible betrayal by his grandma. After he ate I gave him a special treat, a piece of a dog treat very much like chicken jerky. He was happy with this unexpected delight, but not overwhelmed. He took it with dignity, lay down where he'd been standing, and ate it happily.

Benson likes me, and he's happy to be fed by me, but he still knew he was left behind, and he still felt the injustice. He's always a good boy; he's earned the right to go on family trips. He doesn't let his sadness ruin the good things about life, though, and one of those good things, for Benson, is eating. He might have been ditched, and been sitting around home, alone, bored, all night, but those aren't reasons not to eat joyfully when he has his breakfast, and then to lie back down with the beautiful dignity you can only find in an old dog.

Most of the dogs I've had grew old with me. Lyric lived with us longer in retirement than she did as a worker, and for whatever reason, remembering her old makes me happier than remembering her in her prime. It's as if all the sweetness of a dog has been concentrated in an old dog, while energy, ego, overwhelming instinctual desires, and other less essential elements of the dog's being have been boiled away. Look into the eyes of an old dog, assuming cataracts don't render them unreadable, and you can see all the dignity, love, and understanding that have made dogs our partners for all these millennia.

Next time you see an old dog, get down on the ground and pet him, and really commune with him. Soak in the wisdom he's accumulated over his lifetime, and be quietly thankful for the opportunity. The dog will be glad for the contact, and will be happy to share his life's knowledge with you, if only you'll stop for a moment, and listen.

(This piece inspired a blogger friend of mine to write her own celebration of her older dogs. It's excellent and moving, and you can read it here).

© 2009, All Rights Reserved, Rich Sands


52 Faces said...

I LOVE old dogs. A ton of them get dumped at our local shelter for no good reason other than the human's not liking their age.

Anonymous said...

I have had four dogs , so far, through their lives and into their final days. I believe that the greatest gift we can give them for the lives they have lived just for us, is the care, compassion and dignity of making their final years of quality. Right now I have six dogs. Two of them are my "old Ladies". they are both hovering around 13. Cleo is was my Alpha female, but she does stumble, because she is losing her sight. But I know she is still happy, and she has her companion by her side.I have even divided my yard so that the old ladies don't have to put up with the nonsense of the two year old "wrestler"
When Cleo's time comes she will be held , hugged, loved, and ushered out with the dignity with which she has lived. Old dogs are by far the best dogs!!

Anonymous said...

I would have to completely agree with you! I just got home from dog sitting for my father and step sister. I was watching four dogs from 6 years to 12 years old. I came home to my dog who is just now pushing at a year and a half old. I love him, and would never trade him for anything! However, those dogs were so calm, simple, adorable, loving, knew the perfect times to play and yet still they let me work from home without a fuss! I love my dog, but he is still having some issues with finding his own comfort when I work from home. He always wants the attention and can never get enough! :) Sometimes I cannot wait until he is older and lays with me as I work! :)

Jaya said...

Concerning the weight issue, I found myself wondering if you can feel all of your vet's ribs and spine??

Post a Comment