Lessons from an Old Dog

My best pal, a shiny, stunning “ginger,” as the British call redheads, is getting white on top.

Surely it has happened gradually, but I suddenly noticed it recently, in full force, for the first time. Staring at her across the room for the zillionth time as she dozed in the blissful sleep of the guiltless, I took a deep breath and thought: She looks Old.  She is Old.  It is time to admit that fact, and to get accustomed to it.  The chestnut red fur that covers her head and long, velvet ears has faded, at the dome of her chunky skull and around her relentless nose, to a heather mix of red dominated by white.

This short-legged, perennially sad-faced, red-and-white hound dog is approaching her birthday, when she will be 12.  She joined my little household by sheer happenstance (see that story here) when she was just seven weeks old, so she’s lived those dozen years rarely more than a few yards away from my feet—whether lumbering along the neighborhood sidewalks; gallumping in the Basset’s trademark, absurd gait, through happy lawns at the park; or dropping hopefully to the floor under the dinner table, where falling rewards so often come to those who wait.  Especially, as she never fails to discern, since the grandchildren have arrived.

We are regular features on the neighborhood sidewalks at prime dog-walking hours, for she considers a good walk spoiled if there are no neighbors to administer attention or other dogs with butts to sniff.  Lately, in these encounters, the neighbors often ask, “How old is she now?”  A fellow dog-lover in our family told me recently she refuses to answer that about her own dog, stoutly declining to tally up the years and acknowledge the passage of time.  Part of me understands and wants to adopt that approach, but the truth tends to earn my pal even more indulgent attention, so I usually opt for transparency.  It helps anoint her, you might say, as the Dowager Queen of the local four-footed populace.

She earns her title not just because of age, but because of who she is.  While bred to chase low-ground game over long miles of open fields in ancient France, and thus evolving for practical reasons, the Basset Hound is surely one of the canine world’s most comedic architectural achievements. Everyone laughs at the sad, droopy face, the massive front feet (and I do mean huge, as one paw entirely fills the palm of my hand), and the strangely thick limbs supporting a stout, muscular torso. Teaching a Basset to drop “down” on command is the easiest win of all dog-training, as the floor is but a few inches below, and such a happy destination for one who relaxes with such utter abandon.

The dozen years this Basset and I have shared began the year I turned 50.  While I often snicker sarcastically at the similar challenges inflicted on old dogs and women of a certain age, lately I’ve begun to think a lot about what a profound gift it is, the chance to grow old together, whether with your dog, your life partner, your friends, your family.  Maybe this dog was given to me, in part, to help me make peace with the passage of time in the way only a dog can do.

What might be learned from watching her change and adapt to being older, as the months crank inexorably forward?  How do dogs know, so instinctively, to accommodate what comes?  I’m sure I’m not the only dog lover to wish we could have an actual conversation.  A hound dog is the soul of exploration and discovery, focused only on whatever is beyond the next bend.  So, if she could verbalize, she’d probably disdain to reflect on aging.  I’ll have to settle for learning from her instincts, and from watching her actions.

As I do, I think:

Why hurry?  If we show intent and direction, maybe the world should learn to tolerate our slower pace.  If we get there when we get there, is anyone really worse off for it?

Patience may be the virtue that eases all other problems, at the roots.  Maybe it really, really is true, that learning to wait for what we want makes the arrival all the sweeter.  This one is a hard sell on me, the perennial, anxious pacer, but she inspires me to take a breath.  And then another.  And when you blend patience with the persistence in the marrow of the hound-dog bones, triumph is virtually inevitable.

Take your medicine. Trust those who say you should.  A little peanut butter may help.

A nap, no matter what length, makes all the world a better place.  It probably contributes materially to No. 2, above.  When in need, drop to the nearest surface, and let gravity have its way with the eyelids.  Life will resume its fervor, soon enough.

Even when age changes the world’s view of us, at certain times, our voice must still be heard.  Refer again to No. 2 above, but when the time comes, don’t hesitate.  One time, with clarity, from deep down in the heart and chest, may be enough to rivet the world on your point.  Save your effort until that’s really necessary.

Finally, in all circumstances, for all things, no matter where the trail may lead, keep your eyes on your beloved and never stray far from the cherished presence.  Keep eye contact whenever possible, for nothing else conveys what the eyes can say.  If you are lucky enough to lay your head on the cherished foot, or in the lap, or at the end of the outstretched arm, life offers nothing more sublime.  What can possibly matter more?




3 replies
  1. Tim Richardson
    Tim Richardson says:

    Nice piece. My designer Bich-Poo mutt Dooley is 14 now. Musing about many of the same things . . .

  2. Kelly Tolson
    Kelly Tolson says:

    Great to read and beautifully said. The best gift is to see your embrace not only of this season of change, but all the ones before it ( and in our 20-year friendship I’ve glimpsed a few ????) and likely to come.

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