(Originally published on July 15, 2013)
Senior Dog Moment
I can pinpoint the exact moment I finally acknowledged that Dylan, my 11-year-old chocolate Labrador retriever, was a senior dog entering the final stage of his life.
Anyone with a Labrador retriever or retriever mix can attest that these dogs LOVE food. Anytime a shred of food is within smelling distance (and smelling distance is usually anywhere within a radius of a mile or so), these dogs hone in on it like a Seattleite on a latte.
In the past I couldn’t do anything in the kitchen without Dylan showing up within seconds to hunt for any stray crumbs I might drop. I couldn’t even open the cheese drawer in the refrigerator without instigating a one-dog stampede to the kitchen.
But one day when I was in the kitchen making lunch, I noticed Dylan wasn’t there. I even made a little extra noise just in case he didn’t hear me, but he still didn’t come.
Room Service for Dylan
I found him on his favorite couch in the basement, eyes open, tail wagging slightly, and looking as if he was waiting for room service.
Of course I went back up to the kitchen to bring him a bit of food I would have “accidentally dropped” on the floor if he was in his usual spot in the kitchen.
It wasn’t hard for me to figure out why he didn’t come for some food. The amount of energy he could expend in a day had started to decline, so after calculating how much energy it would take to go up and down the stairs he decided the trip just wasn’t worth the effort.
That’s when I knew the time my food crazy dog had an extremely limited amount of time left to be with us. Or at least it was the first time I allowed myself to acknowledge it.
Watching My Dog Decline for the First Time
I’ve never witnessed one of my dogs as they transitioned to old age. I got Smokey, my only other dog before Dylan, when I was 11. He was only 7 by the time I left home for college, so I missed his transition from a still-spry middle-aged dog to a more feeble, elderly dog.
Seeing him after I had been gone for months was always a shock, but I never had that “a-ha moment” that shattered the barriers I erected between myself and the realization that he would be gone sooner than I could admit.
Reminders that Dylan’s Time Grows Short
Now that I’ve had that a-ha moment with Dylan, these reminders of his advanced age and declining health constantly buzz around my head, deftly avoiding my attempts to swat them away:
- Laying down in the middle of walks. Dylan tires out much more quickly on walks. Almost every time we go for one he stops at least once to lie down and rest.
- He lays down at the bottom of the stairway to our house.We have to go up 45 stairs to get to our front door. Dylan now lies down at the bottom of the stairway for 5-10 minutes to rest before he begins the long climb.
- Sleeping in one spot all night. Our house has 3 floors. Dylan used to move several times during the night to sleep in different places on different floors. Now he sleeps in one place – in the office next to our bedroom.
- Weakening hind legs. He now stands up in two stages: first his front end springs up quickly, then his struggling hind legs follow several more seconds later.
- He’s very lumpy. As some dogs age, especially Labs, they get lumps which are a called fatty tumors. Dylan has several of them.
- Confusion. Sometimes while walking across a room he just stops and stares into space for 15-30 seconds.
- A LOT of gray hair. He doesn’t just have a gray face. He has gray eyebrows, gray feet, gray toes, gray chest gray everywhere.
- Shorter Playtime. He used to be able to fetch the ball for hours. Now, especially when it’s hot, he only lasts about 10 minutes.
- He wants the Early Bird Special. He wants his dinner earlier and earlier (he’s almost got us back to 3PM) so he can be in bed for the night by 7 PM.
- As I mentioned before, he no longer magically appears in the kitchen whenever I open the refrigerator.
Senior Dogs Rock
As much as I hate watching Dylan age, I do love senior dogs.
They have a quiet dignity about them, no use for drama, and are firmly embedded in their routines. They know how to communicate exactly what they want. They’re crotchety.
Their biggest problem? They aren’t senior dogs long enough.
Savoring Our Small Moments
I can’t ignore the signs of Dylan’s quickly advancing age. I can no longer pretend that he’ll be around forever.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
It means that I take time out of my day, regardless of how busy I am, to simply sit with him or I pet him a little longer than normal. Sometimes I slip some extra food into his bowl. Or I patiently sit with him at the bottom of the stairs when he’s not ready to climb them. Or after I put him to bed I ignore it when I hear him get up on the one couch in the house he’s not allowed on.
Doing these things will not ease the searing pain or crushing sadness I’ll feel when he dies. But it does help me accept that he’ll be gone soon and savor the time we have left together.
The good news is that Dylan still has some gas left in his tank. I took this picture 3 weeks ago, and it’s how I’ll always remember him – ears flapping, paws outstretched, water spraying, soaring towards his tennis ball.
The essence of joy.