My old man dog

The old dog barks backwards without getting up.
I can remember when he was a pup.
– Robert Frost

The signs have been appearing subtly for a few years now: the flecks of gray in the muzzle, the eyes blue with age, the slow climb into the car after a visit to the beach, stiffness in the legs that once seemed so clumsy with youth, more shuffle and less spring to his step. Most recently the change in him is more dramatic: his hearing seems to have gone, whether from chronic ear infections or simple old age he no longer jumps to bark at the mailman and more often than not sleeps through pizza delivery. It’s hard to rouse him from sleep without touching him, harder still to communicate without eye contact.

Buddy is growing old and this realization seems easier on him than my husband and I. I’ve read lately that Labs often remain robust and healthy well into the winter of their lives, yet Buddy seems content to snooze away his days in front of the tv. He’s chosen his querencia, his favorite napping place where he feels most comfortable and to which he always returns with a favored toy or snack offered at the dinner table.

While he is no more demonstrative in his dotage than he was as a pup, he seems much less selective when it comes to the definition of adventure. Ball playing and chasing squirrels or a long walk at the beach remain his favorites, but he will just as happily settle for supervising an afternoon in the garden. He’s become very sly about begging treats and food from the table; mostly he knows best now how to charm us.

The predictable tragedy in our relationship with this dog, with any dog, is that there will eventually come a time for that last walk at the beach or in the woods and a final rememberance of all that has happened in the years since we first brought him home, so many years ago now that we can’t imagine how it still feels like yesterday.

In the meantime, I try to be gentle with him and humor his eccentricities. He’s learned to hate having his picture taken; in fact I had to hold his head today to keep him from turning away from the camera. We feed him a bit more and be sure he always has a soft bed to lie on. I walk slowly beside him and let him stop and sniff at everything without always dragging him forward. We let him get away with sleeping on the furniture because he thinks we don’t know that he does it.

He’s been a good friend these many years and I look forward to taking gentle care of my old man dog.

27 thoughts on “My old man dog”

  1. Laura, this is a touching essay about your old dog. We lost our old dog last year, after observing all the signs of age that you’ve so accurately described. She was with us for 15 years. We miss her still.

  2. I see our dog’s face in Buddy. He is a lab cross, getting white in the muzzle, and he too doesn’t like his picture taken any more. I wonder if the flash bothers him. He will be 8, not very old, but someone recently commented on our “senior” dog when we were out. Why do cats live longer than dogs? Not fair. Buddy is lucky to have you.

  3. *lump in throat*

    I see Nellie in Buddy’s face. Nellie is only 6, but the gray is coming in fast, and she has arthritis that had her vet shaking her head. She’s too young to be this old.

    The theory that “bigger dogs don’t live as long as smaller ones” is pretty true, I think. Our big goofy labs just live so fast.

    **Big kiss on the top of Buddy’s head**

  4. There’s an old Tom T Hall song called “Old dogs, children and watermelon wine”. Look up the lyrics, they tell the truth. Your ol’ dog looks like mine.

  5. There are a couple of poems about dogs that knock the wind out of me (I am thinking of Updike’s poem “Good Dog”).
    Your musing on your old man dog made me think of when we got our current dog. Right after we got her, the friends we were with and I went in to a restaurant to eat, and my husband stayed outside with the dog. Looking through the window, I could see he was talking to the dog and wiping away tears. Afterwards, I asked–what were you saying. He said he told Tipper (the newly named dog) about all the other dogs we had had, and how we would take care of her until she too would join them.
    Now, that brings a tear to the eye!

  6. My life has been graced by many very elderly fur friends. Decades ago one of them in particular led me to my initial consideration of the possible benefits to geriatric wellbeing that can be found in homeopathy, acupuncture, and other traditional but non-conventional therapies. Today, 14 y/o BenBun has more spring in his steps and bounce in his gitalong thanks to Zeel, homeopathy’s NSAID/COX2 without drug side effects. Many vets now extend their support for geriatric patients with such gentle, effective, healing therapies. Even conventional vets can sometimes help with range of motion exercizes. Buddy may appreciate gentle warmth beneath his bones these next few months. Allen Schoen and Martin Goldstein are vets whose texts offer beneficial guidance to those of us with elderbeasts. Love and belly rubs to Buddy.

  7. My dogs hate the flash, too. I try to get them to look up at a toy or crinkly thing I hold out at arm’s length. You get a nice portrait feel to the image, and the dog retains his composure through the painful flash. If you ahve two people for the picture process it’s easier, of course.

  8. For most of us, our first lessons in loss and death come from beloved animals. You have eloquently captured that “predictably tragedy” and why we gladly risk love even and especially on impermanence.

  9. He’s a beautiful old man dog, Laura, and this is such a lovely tribute to him. He’s got a good home to continue growing old in, and lots of love to gently care for him in his dotage. When my sister lost her great dane last year I wrote about it on our blog, Floridacracker left us a comment that I will always remember: Every puppy is a potential heartbreak, but oh that inbetween.

  10. Oh, this post makes me feel all weepy. They are such good friends to us, just by being so constant, and it’s hard to imagine a time when they won’t still be sleeping in that sunny spot. So the consolation is that he has such a good life with you.

  11. Pam: Fifteen years is a long time, but not long enough, right? Buddy will be 12, not so old by Lab standards, but all of a sudden he seems old.

    Ruth: I won’t use the flash because I expect that will bother him. Buddy is a Lab mix also – with Chow we think – his tongue has purple spots.

    Pablo: Don’t want you to be melancholy, but it is nice to remember them once in awhile.

    Susan: Yep – the little ones and cats live a longer life. It’s the same with bunnies – my big ones will pay for their generosity of form. ;-(

    Jimmy: Thanks – they are special.

    Dave: I don’t know that song, but enjoyed the lyrics once I found them on the web.

  12. We lost two of our dogs nearly 2 years ago. Lucky, the Chesapeake, was 15 years old and Spotters, the Border Collie, was nearly 17. They were always best of friends, and died within a couple months of each other.

    It was a very, very sad time for the whole family. They were very well loved and cared for and wanted for nothing. Now that some time has passed, I remember the wonderful times we had and it makes me smile. I still can’t help missing them though.

    I am so happy you still have your Buddy. May he live many more, happy, productive years.


  13. Oh boy, Laura – your post is so tender its painful. Our recent dog history is just like Laurie’s above – incredibly similar.

    It’s sometimes so tough for me to remember the good without being blind-sided by the sadness – guess we all process things in different ways.

    I love your gentle, patient approach to Buddy’s slowing down. He is one lucky fellow.

  14. Enjoying the in-between, I so appreciate your thoughts about Buddy. My favorite: “We let him (sleep on the furniture) because he thinks we don’t know that he does it.”
    I let Baker stand on the kitchen table for the same reason. This is very sweet.

  15. Oh, you’re killing me. Both our dogs (lab mixes)are older and slowing down. For years they were bouncing on coiled spring muscles and now they go up and down the porch steps carefully and slowly.
    Buddy is a handsome boy.

  16. kgmom: I went looking for that Updike poem you mentioned – knocked the wind out of me also!

    Thanks for sharing the sweet story about your husband and Tipper – I’m just as sentimental. I often think that an animal finds its way to us with the help of one who has died, at least that’s been my experience with bunnies.

    Sharon: Thank you for sharing your experience. We’re seeing a relatively new (to us) vet with Buddy and while I like her, she tends to not pay enough attention to the little comforts that I would like for him to have. I think she accepts a lot as just typical of his age and expcts that ought to also, but I’m sure there’s things to do to keep him happy as well as healthy. We bought him a huge bed a few years ago that has special padding for older dogs – thanks for the idea of some type of warming too – I think Foster’s and Smith offers something like that.

    Jenn: Thanks, but it’s not as easy as that! I don’t use the flash at all – sometimes I think maybe Buddy is part Amish and is afraid the camera will steal his soul – he just refuses to face me. When he was younger he would bark madly at me whenever I pointed it at him. Just one of his (many) idiosyncracies!

    Tim: That’s true for a lot of people. Wasn’t that way for me, and I’ve always found it much more difficult to cope with a pet’s death than a person’s.

  17. This is all to close to home to comment on. My Chandler Bear is 12. Have you seen the dog food commercial where they show all these “elder” dogs and state their ages? Makes me count what’s left and I don’t want to do that. Sniff.

  18. Robin: That’s a great quote of FC’s – I love it when he writes about his dogs. I’ll have to look for that post about your sister’s Dane.

    Laurie: Sounds like your two old dogs were friends to the end. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to lose both, but I hear that kind of tale pretty often about animals that share a home.

    Cathy: Time is the key I think, and another dog or cat or bunny to help you remember why you opened yourself to such heartache in the first place.

    Julie Z: lol!

    Standing on the kitchen table is a bit much, but if 90 pound Buddy could manage it, I might just let him get away with it!

    FC: I wish you’d write about them more often, but whenever you do I love that you capture that *Labness* about them. They are such clowns even in old age.

    Michelle: I’m sure you’ve seen that line about it being a good thing that dogs live only for the short time they do, because if they had the lifespan of a person the heartbreak would be unbearable. So true for me (and you, I suspect).

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