What It Means to Love an Old Dog
The Signs of an Aging Dog
Her once deep, rich, dark chocolate brown fur is now a faded shade of mocha, with just a few silvery white hairs peeking out here and there. Her facial fur is a mask of mottled brown fur with heavy tones of gray and white; a few thin, black whiskers dotting each side of her snout. Likewise, the fur on her lower legs and paws are a mingled brownish-gray; the bottoms of her paw pads now a soft and wispy clump of thin white fur.
Like an aging old woman, my senior fur-baby, Ginger, is showing similar signs of canine aging - from her thinning grayish-white fur to the slow and feeble way she gingerly creeps down the steps; weighing each step as if she were walking on a thin bed of ice. She is fully aware of her constant and disabling limitations - both physically and mentally. As she slowly makes her way across the backyard to potty, she notices a small rabbit who has stopped alongside the field to graze on a patch of clovers. In her younger years, she would have bolted full steam ahead in high pursuit of rabbits, squirrels, turkey and even deer - giving each one a healthy run for survival. Her ears stand taut at attention; her snout pointed in the direction of the rabbit's scent. For a split second she considers the chase; then pauses and thinks better of it, given her painful hip dysplasia and arthritic knees. The rabbit seems to sense the lowered threat, and continues nibbling away at the clovers. For Ginger, she is content to lay down in the cool freshly mowed grass and take a late afternoon nap. In fact, she naps a lot these days...
Besides the graying fur and aging joints, Ginger has skin tags on her eyes and chin, as well as other knots and bumps on various other places on her body. She is also prone to patches of dry skin, and other skin irritations, and has knots of fur that come out in small clumps when brushed. Her once razor-sharp, pearly white teeth are now yellowing and dull—barely able to crush a doggie bone treat. Her senior diet now consist of soft dog food, mixed with a little dry to keep what few teeth she has, clean and healthy.
She drinks a lot more water now, yet can go for ten or twelve hours without having to go potty. She'd rather nap all day, which in turn, disturbs her sleep pattern and causes her to be restless at night; hence her nightly regimen of melatonin for canine insomnia. Add to that, a daily dose of glucosamine and buffered doggie aspirin for her arthritis, and an occasional Tums when she's indulged in a forbidden treat. Ironically, her medicine basket kept on the kitchen counter, is quickly starting to fill up with many of the same bottles I see in my elderly parents' medicine cabinet! If only she could get the Medicare Part D prescription drug plan!
A Spiritless and Aging Shell
Ginger is still somewhat mentally alert for her advanced age, and has amazingly sharp eyesight—spotting deer and turkey in the back of the field through the window, from her highness's royal throne on our king size bed in the master bedroom. She' also quite often alerts us to various birds, butterflies and passing squirrels that may be inhabiting the yard! Forever the eternal guard dog! Unfortunately, she has lost a bit of her hearing, and can easily sleep through a slamming door or command to come. Ironically, though, she can STILL hear the can opener when a can of tuna is being opened—her once weekly seafood treat! I'm still trying to determine if she's hard of hearing, or like my husband, has selective hearing!
Once a non-stop rocket of never-ending energy and mischievousness, Ginger walks as if she's in slow motion, pausing for long periods to sniff every blade of grass or foreign object. She lifts each paw as if she were picking up a bowling ball, her breathing quickly becoming labored beneath the overweight stress of her flabby physique and debilitating bones. Every once in a while, she gets a sudden burst of energy - puppy energy - I call it, and bounds freely and enthusiastically down the path, even finding a bit of hidden energy to trail a squirrel or bound after a turkey. But her new found energy is quickly spent as she realizes the puppy has gone on before her, leaving nothing but a spiritless and aging shell . . .
A Special Kind of Love
The love of an old dog is a very special kind of love; a love that not many are fortunate enough to know in their own lifetime. An old dog is the next closest thing to looking in the mirror and seeing your own senior reflection staring back. And with that reflection, you begin to see life through the same brown, loving eyes of your senior canine friend.
Loving an old dog causes you to have greater sympathy for the elderly; realizing that one day, you, too, will move slower, see lifeless clearly and look forward to lazy mid-afternoon naps. Loving an old dog will make you realize that true beauty is not in covering up the gray, but in embracing the silvery softness of every strand—each one the precious gift of another year. The love of an old dog makes each day a little more special, as you begin to realize that life is quickly fading away—for both of you. You find yourself taking more pictures of your old friend - especially when she's sleeping. You find yourself traveling less—afraid to leave her for fear something may happen to her while you're gone. And you find yourself buying your old dog more toys, in hopes of reviving the "puppy" in her—just one more time.
The love of an old dog means ordering an extra hamburger at the drive thru, or buying the marked down pack of steaks in the meat counter. Loving an old dog means getting in the floor and just cuddling with your aging friend, sneaking "snout kisses" and giving long, relaxing belly rubs. Loving an old dog also means walking behind her when she's coming up the steps so you can provide an extra "boost" or even catch her should she fall from the weakness in her back end. And loving an old dog means there's always a shadow behind you, and a warm, snuggly companion stretched out longways beside you in the bed at night!
Forever in My Heart
I've had many dogs in my lifetime, some of which lived as long as 15-16 years old. Ginger will be 14 on October 31, 2013, my "halloween baby". I remember the night she was born, her Moma giving birth on an old loveseat we had prepared for her birthing bed. Ginger was about the third puppy to slide out, and in fact, slid right in between the cushions of the love seat! From that day on, she has constantly struggled through life—from narrowly beating a dangerous bout of Parvo shortly after she was born, to surviving a vicious bite on the snout from an encounter with an ornery, fifty-pound turtle who was wandering through the yard one day.
But Ginger has also had a good life—she's spent lazy summers strolling down the beautiful North Carolina beaches; leaped across small rolling hills in pursuit of deer in the Blue Ridge mountains, and romped hundreds, if not thousands, of miles in the woods behind our house trailing after 4-wheelers and wild turkeys! She has also jogged happily beside me down long, country paths, jumping ditches with the ease and grace of a white-tailed deer!
She has lived in the lap of luxury (for a dog anyway), all her life; claiming the foot of our kingsize bed for her own, and even has her OWN love seat - being much too big now to fall between the cushions! Ginger has had more toys than most four-year-olds, and has dined on everything from ribeye steak to fresh salmon. And every year on her birthday, she is treated to cake, ice cream and of course, a new squeaky toy!
Ginger is, in every way that matters, as much my child as any other mother's child, and I feel very blessed to have had the gift of her companionship and love for the past 13.5 years. Over the years, she has taught me more about life than most anyone else I've ever known. She has brought out of me unimaginable emotional and physical strengths and comforted me in my deepest and darkest hours. She has exemplified unconditional love in some of the most amazing ways, waiting patiently and enthusiastically for my return at the end of each work day—forever the proverbial loyal companion and friend.
She has cried with me, and even laughed at my bad jokes. Yes, she even talks to me in a language that only she and I understand—the language of "old dog love". And now that she is in her declining senior years, I realize just how much loving an older dog has caused me to take my own life just a little less seriously, enjoying the simple things a little more, and caring about the material things a little less...
Thank you, my old furry friend, for teaching me about the true meaning of life—you'll be forever in my heart.