Old Dogs are the Best Dogs
This is a discussion on Old Dogs are the Best Dogs within the Bob & Terry's Place forums, part of the The Back Porch category; Reprinted without permission, although I think Mr Weingarten would approve.
Something About Harry
Old Dogs are the Best Dogs
By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, October 5, ...
October 12th, 2008 03:02 AM
Old Dogs are the Best Dogs
Reprinted without permission, although I think Mr Weingarten would approve.
Something About Harry
Old Dogs are the Best Dogs
By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, October 5, 2008; W16
Not long before his death, Harry and I headed out for a walk that proved eventful. He was nearly 13, old for a big dog. Walks were no longer the slap-happy Iditarods of his youth, frenzies of purposeless pulling in which we would cast madly off in all directions, fighting for command. Nor were they the exuberant archaeological expeditions of his middle years, when every other tree or hydrant or blade of grass held tantalizing secrets about his neighbors. In his old age, Harry had transformed his walk into a simple process of elimination -- a dutiful, utilitarian, head-down trudge. When finished, he would shuffle home to his ratty old bed, which graced our living room because Harry could no longer ascend the stairs. On these walks, Harry seemed oblivious to his surroundings, absorbed in the arduous responsibility of placing foot before foot before foot before foot. But this time, on the edge of a small urban park, he stopped to watch something. A man was throwing a Frisbee to his dog. The dog, about Harry's size, was tracking the flight expertly, as Harry had once done, anticipating hooks and slices by watching the pitch and roll and yaw of the disc, as Harry had done, then catching it with a joyful, punctuating leap, as Harry had once done, too.
Harry sat. For 10 minutes, he watched the fling and catch, fling and catch, his face contented, his eyes alight, his tail a-twitch. Our walk home was almost jaunty.
Some years ago, the Style section invited readers to come up with a midlife list of goals for an underachiever. The first-runner-up prize went to:
"Win the admiration of my dog."
It's no big deal to love a dog; they make it so easy for you. They find you brilliant, even if you are a witling. You fascinate them, even if you are as dull as a butter knife. They are fond of you, even if you are a genocidal maniac. Hitler loved his dogs, and they loved him.
Puppies are incomparably cute and incomparably entertaining, and, best of all, they smell exactly like puppies. At middle age, a dog has settled into the knuckleheaded matrix of behavior we find so appealing -- his unquestioning loyalty, his irrepressible willingness to please, his infectious happiness. His unequivocal love. But it is not until a dog gets old that his most important virtues ripen and coalesce. Old dogs can be cloudy-eyed and grouchy, gray of muzzle, graceless of gait, odd of habit, hard of hearing, pimply, wheezy, lazy and lumpy. But to anyone who has ever known an old dog, these flaws are of little consequence. Old dogs are vulnerable. They show exorbitant gratitude and limitless trust. They are without artifice. They are funny in new and unexpected ways. But, above all, they seem at peace.
Kafka wrote that the meaning of life is that it ends. He meant that our lives are shaped and shaded by the existential terror of knowing that all is finite. This anxiety informs poetry, literature, the monuments we build, the wars we wage, the ways we love and hate and procreate -- all of it. Kafka was talking, of course, about people. Among animals, only humans are said to be self-aware enough to comprehend the passage of time and the grim truth of mortality. How then, to explain old Harry at the edge of that park, gray and lame, just days from the end, experiencing what can only be called wistfulness and nostalgia? I have lived with eight dogs, watched six of them grow old and infirm with grace and dignity, and die with what seemed to be acceptance. I have seen old dogs grieve at the loss of their friends. I have come to believe that as they age, dogs comprehend the passage of time, and, if not the inevitability of death, certainly the relentlessness of the onset of their frailties. They understand that what's gone is gone.
What dogs do not have is an abstract sense of fear, or a feeling of injustice or entitlement. They do not see themselves, as we do, as tragic heroes, battling ceaselessly against the merciless onslaught of time. Unlike us, old dogs lack the audacity to mythologize their lives. You've got to love them for that.
At the pet store, we chose Harry over two other puppies because, when wrestling with my children in the get-acquainted enclosure, Harry drew the most blood. We wanted a feisty pup, and we got one.
It is instructive to watch what happens in a tug of war between a child and a young dog who is equally pigheaded, but stronger. Neither gives an inch, which means that, over dozens of days, the child is dragged hundreds of feet on his behind.
The product of a Kansas puppy mill, son of a ***** named Taffy Sioux, Harry had been sold to us as a yellow Labrador retriever. I suppose it was technically true, but only in the sense that Tic Tacs are technically "food." Harry's lineage was suspect. He wasn't the square-headed, shiny, elegant type of Labrador you can envision in the wilds of Canada hunting for ducks. He was the shape of a baked potato, with the color and luster of an interoffice envelope. You could envision him in the wilds of suburban Toledo, hunting for nuggets of dried food in a carpet.
His full name was Harry S Truman, and once he'd reached middle age, he had indeed developed the unassuming soul of a haberdasher. We sometimes called him Tru, which fit his loyalty but was in other ways a misnomer: Harry was a bit of an eccentric, a few bubbles off plumb. Though he had never experienced an electrical shock, whenever he encountered a wire on the floor -- say, a power cord leading from a laptop to a wall socket -- Harry would stop and refuse to proceed. To him, this barrier was as impassable as the Himalayas. He'd stand there, waiting for someone to move it. Also, he was afraid of wind.
While Harry lacked the wiliness and cunning of some dogs, I did watch one day as he figured out a basic principle of physics. He was playing with a water bottle in our back yard -- it was one of those five-gallon cylindrical plastic jugs from the top of a water cooler. At one point, it rolled down a hill, which surprised and delighted him. He retrieved it, brought it back up and tried to make it go down again. It wouldn't. I watched him nudge it around until he discovered that for the bottle to roll, its long axis had to be perpendicular to the slope of the hill. You could see the understanding dawn on his face; it was Archimedes in his bath, Helen Keller at the water spigot.
That was probably the intellectual achievement of Harry's life, tarnished only slightly by the fact that he spent the next two hours insipidly entranced, rolling the bottle down and hauling it back up. He did not come inside until it grew too dark for him to see.
I believe I know exactly when Harry became an old dog. He was about 9 years old. It happened at 10:15 on the evening of June 21, 2001, the day my family moved from the suburbs to the city. The move took longer than we'd anticipated. Inexcusably, Harry had been left alone in the vacated house -- eerie, echoing, empty of furniture and of all belongings except Harry and his bed-- for eight hours. When I arrived to pick him up, he was beyond frantic.
He met me at the door and embraced me around the waist in a way that is not immediately reconcilable with the musculature and skeleton of a dog's front legs. I could not extricate myself from his grasp. We walked out of that house like a slow-dancing couple, and Harry did not let go until I opened the car door.
He wasn't barking at me in reprimand, as he once might have done. He hadn't fouled the house in spite. That night, Harry was simply scared and vulnerable, impossibly sweet and needy and grateful. He had lost something of himself, but he had gained something more touching and more valuable. He had entered old age.
Some people who seem unmoved by the deaths of tens of thousands through war or natural disaster will nonetheless summon outrage over the mistreatment of animals, and they will grieve inconsolably over the loss of the family dog. People who find this behavior distasteful are often the ones without pets. It is hard to understand, in the abstract, the degree to which a companion animal, particularly after a long life, becomes a part of you. I believe I've figured out what this is all about. It is not as noble as I'd like it to be, but it is not anything of which to be ashamed, either.
In our dogs, we see ourselves. Dogs exhibit almost all of our emotions; if you think a dog cannot register envy or pity or pride or melancholia, you have never lived with one for any length of time. What dogs lack is our ability to dissimulate. They wear their emotions nakedly, and so, in watching them, we see ourselves as we would be if we were stripped of posture and pretense. Their innocence is enormously appealing. When we watch a dog progress from puppyhood to old age, we are watching our own lives in microcosm. Our dogs become old, frail, crotchety and vulnerable, just as Grandma did, just as we surely will, come the day. When we grieve for them, we grieve for ourselves.
The meaning of life is that it ends.
In the year after our move, Harry began to age visibly, and he did it the way most dogs do. First his muzzle began to whiten, and then the white slowly crept backward to swallow his entire head. Pink nose, white head, tan flanks -- he looked like a stubby kitchen match. As he became more sedentary, he thickened a bit, too.
I remember reading an article once about people who raised dogs for food in Asia. A dog rancher was indignantly defending his profession, saying that he used only "basic yellow dogs." As I looked down at Harry, asleep as usual, all I could think of was: meat.
But Harry's physical decline was accompanied by what I will call, at the risk of ridicule, a spiritual awakening. A dog's greatest intelligence is said to be his innate ability to anticipate and comprehend human feelings and actions. It's supposedly a Darwinian adaptation -- dogs need our alliance in order to survive. In earlier years, Harry had never shown any particular gift for empathy, but as the breadth of his interests dwindled, and his world contracted, he seemed to watch us more closely. My wife, who is a lawyer, also acts in community theater. One day, she was in the house rehearsing a monologue for an upcoming audition. The lines were from Marsha Norman's two-person play "'Night, Mother," about a housewife who is attempting to talk her adult daughter out of suicide.
Thelma is a weak and bewildered woman trying to change her daughter's mind while coming to terms with her own failings as a mother and with her paralyzing fear of being left alone. Her lines are excruciating.
My wife had to stop in mid-monologue. Harry was too distraught. He could understand not one word she was saying, but he figured out that Mom was as sad as he'd ever seen her. He was whimpering, pawing at her knee, licking her hand, trying as best he could to make things better. You don't need a brain to have a heart.
Harry was always terrified of thunderstorms, but as he aged and his hearing waned, as if in a benign collusion of natural forces, this terror subsided. He became a calmer dog in general, if a far more eccentric one.
On walks, he would no longer bother to scout and circle for a place to relieve himself. He would simply do it in mid-plod, like a horse, leaving the difficult logistics of drive-by cleanup to me. Sometimes, while crossing a busy street, with cars whizzing by, he would plop down to scratch his ear. Sometimes, he would forget where he was and why he was there. To the amusement of passersby, I would have to hunker down beside him and say, "Harry, we're on a walk, and we're going home now. Home is this way, okay?" On these dutiful walks, Harry ignored almost everything he passed. The most notable exception was an old, barrel-chested female pit bull named Honey, whom he loved. This was surprising, both because other dogs had long ago ceased to interest Harry at all, and because even back when they did, Harry's tastes were for the guys. Though he was neutered, Harry's sexual preference was pretty evident.
But when we met Honey on walks, Harry perked up. Honey was younger by five years and heartier by a mile, but she liked Harry and slowed her gait when he was around. They waddled together for blocks, eyes forward, hardly interacting but content in each other's company. Harry reminded me of an old gay man who, at the end of his life, returns to his wife to end their time together on a porch swing under an embroidered lap shawl. I will forever be grateful to Honey for sweetening Harry's last days.
I work mostly at home, which means that during the weekdays Harry and I shared an otherwise empty house. Mostly, he slept; mostly I wrote and paced, and my pacing often took me past his lump on the floor. I would always mutter, almost unconsciously, "Hey, Harry," and he would always respond in the same fashion: His body would move not at all, but his tail would thud, exactly once, against the floor.
I didn't really know how important that ritual was until there was no thud anymore.
One night at 3 a.m., a smoke detector in our house began to bleep in that water-torture way, signaling that it needed a new battery. It was mildly annoying, but to Harry it appeared to be a sign of the Apocalypse. He began pacing and panting, and actually tried climbing our stairwell to hide under our bed. His rheumy legs buckled; we caught him before he fell.
So I mounted a ladder, disconnected the bleeping thing, and took out the spent battery. Then my wife spent two hours talking Harry down into a semi-sane condition. She slept on the floor by his side.
It turned out to be Harry's final eccentricity. When he awoke the next morning, he could no longer use his hind legs, and we trundled him off to the vet. Harry had timed his departure thoughtfully. Had he waited a few more hours, my daughter would have been unable to hug him and tell him what a good boy he had been. She had known and loved Harry more than half of her life, and I believe this was not incidental to her choice of career. She was leaving, that next morning, for her first day of veterinary school.
For nearly a week after Harry's death, my wife and I shared a knowledge that we left unspoken, even to each other. It was simply too heart-wrenching to say out loud.
As he lay on the gurney and the doctor began to push the poison into his vein, Harry had lifted up his head and kissed us goodbye.
Get the U.N. out of the U.S.
Get the U.S. out of the U.N.
October 12th, 2008 08:27 AM
Thank you for sharing that. I am a Pug dog person and have had to say "good-by" to three pugs over the years, whose ashes lay buried in our back yard. Our current pug is now 9 years old and getting grey in the muzzle as she approaches old age.
Saying "good-by" to a beloved dog is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.
I will never forget the morning we had to take our black female pug, whom we had rescued when she was 4 years old, to the vet for the last time. We had to carry her on a blanket and as we removed her from the car and started toward the vet's clinic building, she lifted her head, looked around at the outside, looked directly at my wife and I, as if to say good-by, and then put her head back down for the last time.
"It does not do to leave a dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him."
J. R. R. Tolkien
October 12th, 2008 12:15 PM
Tears came to my eyes. I have had dogs before and now have cats. I love both. The feeling of love is the same whether your family includes a dog or a cat. One of my cats (Braveheart who I call my big guy) is lying here beside the laptop sound asleep. He and a couple more try to stay close by when my wife or I are home. Threads like this remind us of what is really important in life, the love and companionship of friends and family even if a family member does have 4 legs instead of two. Thanks for the reminder.
October 12th, 2008 02:44 PM
December 10th, 2008 08:13 PM
Ben Franklin said, "There are but three friends in this life; an old dog, an old wife, and ready money."
Awesome post, Rhino...
"Who is to say that I am not an instrument of karma? Indeed, who is to say that I am not the very hand of God himself, dispatched by the Almighty to smite the Philistines and hypocrites, to lay low the dishonest and corrupt, and to bust the jawbone of some jackass that so desperately deserves it?"
December 10th, 2008 08:25 PM
December 10th, 2008 09:30 PM
"He went on two legs, wore clothes and was a human being, but nevertheless he was in reality a wolf of the Steppes. He had learned a good deal . . . and was a fairly clever fellow. What he had not learned, however, was this: to find contentment in himself and his own life. The cause of this apparently was that at the bottom of his heart he knew all the time (or thought he knew) that he was in reality not a man, but a wolf of the Steppes."
December 10th, 2008 10:48 PM
Friends have an 8 year old irish setter I have know him since they brought him home,I get to watch him from time to time. He is starting to get the gray mug, time goes so very fast.
December 11th, 2008 09:51 AM
January 11th, 2009 10:55 PM
Thank you for that story, I can see my best friend and his actions in your words.
No truer love than that of an old dog can be found. I had to make that final trip with my old friend about four years ago and when I think about it my chest begins to tighten. I was fortunate to have 13 years with him. God rest and wait for me Cujo...
For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the son of man be. Mathew 24:27
January 11th, 2009 11:48 PM
Very touching and excellent story. It has me thinking back to my beloved pets, Dallas - Pit/Lab Female 15 years with me, Fat Gabby - DSH Cat 8 Years with me (Cancer took her). I have 3 loved pets left, one I picked up on the street patrolling (Golden Retriever who jumped in the front seat of my unit when I opened the door LOL), so I adopted this ole loveable guy and my wifes Black Female Dachsund and my 8 year old other cat.
They touch our lives in so many ways. Thanks for this story again.
"I dislike death, however, there are some things I dislike more than death. Therefore, there are times when I will not avoid danger" Mencius"
January 12th, 2009 12:23 AM
This has always been my favorite when someone has lost a good friend.
Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge.
When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge.
There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together.
There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable.
All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor; those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by.
The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind.
They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent; His eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster.
You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.
Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together....
When you have to shoot, shoot. Don't talk.
"Don't forget, incoming fire has the right of way."
January 12th, 2009 04:05 AM
I read and enjoyed this thread when it was first posted. And, since I was starting to dread the day we would lose Sandy, our 14 year old golden retriever, it was especially fitting. We've spent the last week lifting her to get her on her feet so she could go outside. Tonight, her back legs are unable to support her, despite our help. I now have to do something I have dreaded for a long time. I can't stand the thought of losing her, but we also don't want her to suffer. People that are without animals are missing a large part of life....
Coimhéad fearg fhear na foighde; Beware the anger of a patient man.
January 12th, 2009 04:36 AM
My chocolate lab is 12 and almost deaf,I have to pick her hind end up to get her in my jeep,I know that she's had a good life and never went hungry or without love,and she was always happy to see me,except that time she ignored my commands one duck hunting trip so I left her behind on the next one,when I got home and walked in the kitchen she had left me a big present to show her displeasure
"Outside of the killings, Washington has one of the lowest crime rates in the country,"
--Mayor Marion Barry, Washington , DC .
January 12th, 2009 12:14 PM
Sorry to hear that Bumper and dukalmighty. I put Zues down almost 2 years ago and have yet to get another friend. Deep down inside I'm afraid I was spoiled, and all others will disappoint. Nice story, Msgt
Get the U.N. out of the U.S.
Get the U.S. out of the U.N.
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