Ends and Beginnings: a Dog’s Life

Nearing the End 

Ruby is remarkably content in her old age, which is saying a lot. This morning on her walk she crouched down to do her business and then couldn’t get up. This has become more common but today was the worst day yet – she literally couldn’t raise herself back up and I could see the struggle. Her hind legs aren’t working much anymore and I try to help her up, then wait until she eventually can lift her frail body. I know I’ve written before about her decline but it keeps getting worse and the elephant in the room along with the dog is this: When is the end? We will go to the vet next week to have some blood work and for him or her (it’s a husband and wife team : ) to examine her, and then we will have the big conversation.

A neighbor used to walk his dog with a contraption with wheels that helped it move when the hind legs went out and I remember wondering, would I do that? My next door neighbors used to carry their dog outside wrapped in a blanket several times a day and I imagined what that would be like. We love our animals so much and we want them to live as long as they can and when do we decide when they’ve had enough of this life? Ruby still has her nose, which means she still enjoys being outside for those incredibly sloooow walks with lots of good sniffs along the way. But so much else has failed. I plan my days around her more than I did when she was healthy and followed a routine, that is, before she was incontinent. Now I do my best to predict the times when she needs to relieve herself. She can’t have scraps we used to sneak her because her teeth aren’t strong enough to chew. She has some doggie dementia, barking at familiar people and ignoring trucks and the mailman, her former nemesis. Much of the time she naps and when she’s awake she is underfoot vying for attention, which we are happy to give her.

I have unconditional love and yet I admit that I often grow impatient with her needs, the cumulative effect of Ruby and V, these two beings I adore who require so much care. Every morning I mash up an allergy pill for V and doggie Advil and joint medicine for Ruby.  V’s is mixed with agave and Ruby’s with wet dog food.  She also has as much dry dog food as she can eat, and yet she is so thin now.  If I didn’t have anyone to take care of I could write more and travel, clean floors less and visit B more often. I don’t think people are naturally selfless, we want and deserve time to ourselves or with loved ones that don’t require hypervigilance. We all need tending, like a plant that needs water.

Ruby, like Ginger and Satchmo, the cats that came before her, does not complain about her end of life struggles.  She sometimes stumbles when she tries to get up the stairs (when he is home, T carries her up and down) and has to try again but she doesn’t whine about her aching back the way I might do when mine acts up.  I remember the cats howling with pain only at the very end, when tumors spread throughout its body for one, the other having kidney failure and it was clear it was time to say goodbye, that it was the right thing to do. But the dog is more complicated than the cats – she’s bigger, not housetrained, more dependent on her people and her diminishing abilities are more apparent.  

Ruby has been a kind of muse to me, I’ve taken her picture so many times over the years. Somewhere I have photos of her wearing my glasses with a book in front of her, with a red scarf draped over her where it looks like she’s meditating, wearing my Howl cap from City Lights bookstore.  Animals put up with a lot from us, and then in time we put up with a lot from them.  It’s a symbiotic relationship. 

I don’t know how much longer she has but the end is near and when I grow impatient I try to see her daily walks as small gifts I’m giving her, opportunities to use that snout that is at the heart of a hound dog. There are pandemic puppies everywhere we look – many are no longer pups, now young dogs with their whole lives ahead of them and I remember that so well. (See below for her origins story.) I took it for granted as we tend to do in youth. More people stop and ask how old she is because she is moving like a very ancient frail animal and I have become like my neighbors, the loyal and steadfast dog people who will do whatever is needed to keep this beloved family member alive and as well as possible for as long as we can. Animals help us heal and then they break our hearts, all part of the process of life.


In the Beginning…

It’s been a momentous Thanksgiving week, in a quiet sort of way.  On Sunday, we took a drive up Rt 80 West (if you keep going, you’ll get to California, but we only made it to Warren County, NJ) to visit Aunt Mary’s Doghouse, a wonderful shelter for homeless dogs, to check out a possible addition to the family.  It’s something we’ve been talking about for a while, but in a vague “someday that would be nice” sort of way. 

Then B had a bonding experience with a miniature dachshund in August, and it  became a more regular topic of conversation.   As an 11-year-old boy going on 17, I think it became especially appealing to have someone in the house who wasn’t always asking him to do something (or in his case, not do something, like leave his shoes in the middle of the floor or bounce a ball in the house) but who could be more of an unconditional friend. 

Earlier in the year I had been researching specially trained “autism dogs”, but like most services for kids on the spectrum there was a long waiting list and prohibitive costs that kept it out of reach.  I also had come to appreciate how important it was to get a dog that would be a companion for both boys, not just a service dog for V. And the fact is that with the right disposition and intelligence,  any dog could be therapeutic, just by not talking or expecting conversation. (None of that “How was school today?  Anything new or interesting to share?” when you walk in the door.) The more I thought about it, or maybe the less I thought about it and the more I followed my instincts, it just seemed like the right time. 

So late at night when everyone was asleep I’d get on my laptop and troll the Petfinders site, looking longingly at golden retrievers and beagles in need of homes. It was like a doggy online-dating service, a long series of flattering photos and upbeat profile  (“I love long walks in the woods, but also enjoy the bustle of city sidewalks.”) and maybe a wee bit of exaggeration in the description: the 1 year old who was probably pushing 3, the svelte looking hound who in reality hadn’t seen 35 lbs for a while. But they were all utterly sincere in their intentions to find that special someone, a forever family with whom they could settle down.  And so we went up to Aunt Mary’s to meet a few eligible adoptees in the fur, with all their imperfections and quirks on display. 

When we arrived they were all standing anxiously at the fence, vying for our attention. Pick me! pick me!   It was charming and yet a bit heartbreaking how they all sensed that this was their moment to shine, to persuade you of their special gift.

Look at me! I’m young and frisky, and my coat just gleams.

No, look at me! I am a bit older, but I’m still energetic, just in a quieter, more centered way.

I will make you feel loved and content.

I will make you feel loved, content, and I’ll make you laugh! Watch me play with this shoe, it’s a riot!

I will be the most loyal friend, I will sleep at the foot of your bed every night.

I will sleep at your feet every night and I’ll even make the bed in the morning, if you just train me. I’m a very smart breed!

It was hard not to fall in love with all of them, all these wonderful creatures  just aching for a home.  It was equally challenging to determine which would be best suited for us, or to let go of preconceived ideas: that no dog could ever be as sweet as a beagle (my beloved childhood dog), or as smart as a standard poodle, or as loyal and tolerant as a golden retriever.  

But that’s one of the wonderful and humbling things about doing rather than just thinking about doing something.  You think you know what you are looking for and then get thrown for a loop.  Someone puts her nose on your lap and sweetly gazes into your eyes.   She has a scar on her nose from some past altercation and a bit of a sag in the middle from a litter of puppies; not as young or small and cute as you had imagined. But she has this beautiful brindle coat and face, and an expression that’s both alert and calm. She just has, I don’t know, that un je ne sais quoi…

I know it can sound pretentious, especially coming from someone who doesn’t speak the language, but I’ve always liked that phrase, the way it acknowledges the limitations of words. I know not what.  Uncharacteristically vague for the French, who place such value on precise use of language.  That thing I cannot describe.  But that’s the  point. There are no words, just the knowing.

And so we rode back home with Ruby the Plott Hound in the back seat; and her nose is on my lap as I write this, as comfortable as if she’d been here forever.

6 thoughts on “Ends and Beginnings: a Dog’s Life

  1. Joan- Thanks for this timely post. Buzz Lightyear, my 19 year old kitty, is also near the end of his journey. I’m waiting for him to give me the look that all my other pets gave me, letting me know that he’s ready and giving me the courage to make the tough decision. My vet says, “There’s never a good time, but there’s a right time.”


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