My dog Tucker is eleven and a half years old, and in his decline. I see it progress a little each day (difficulty seeing; a hesitation before going down a set of stairs; increased arthritis; his hindquarters collapsing as we walk). But he fools me, this dog. There are other moments when that puppy sparkle glints in his eye. He’ll give me a sly doggy smile over his shoulder, an invitation to chase, and trot away under his best speed. Well-trained, I obediently come after, pretending pursuit.
He ambles now, slow as an old man with a cane. There’s no need to rush. He’s earned the right to stop and smell the pee-mail at his leisure, and I’ve grown smart enough to let him. The walks we take now are less about me getting some exercise than they are about him retaining muscle tone. We stroll now, enjoying the sun on our faces, and appreciate each other’s company.
He’s a popular fellow. It’s that handsome face and beguiling personality, his quiet reserve and obvious delight in meeting new people. Several of the neighbors know him either on their own or in conjunction with their dogs. One lady crosses the street to pet him every time she sees him, to ask how he’s doing, to check up on an old friend.
Tucker and I have been together since he was 10 weeks old. He and his litter mates had a difficult start. I don’t know all the details, but the folks at the pound said the pups were confiscated at the age of six weeks by animal control officers from a dirt basement where they’d survived, in part, by eating feces. They were full of worms and riddled with fleas. They had open sores on their little bodies the size of quarters and would cry when they were bathed. It took four weeks to bring them back to health.
We were “just looking” that day at the pound. (You’re laughing and nodding your head knowingly, aren’t you?) As we came up the long flight of stairs to where the dogs were kept, these pointed grey ears came into view, then a speckled brow, then bright eyes…and there he was, waiting for me.
It hasn’t always been a smooth road. I’ve done a lot of dumb things. I’ve had to rebuild our relationship in some ways because of my ignorance. But I’m learning and I’ve found some good teachers (including my gut-feeling, some great books, and Tucker himself). I feel needless guilt about the mistakes I’ve made. Not Tucker. He has no time for guilt, to feel it or to dispense it. He doesn’t even know what it is beyond a momentary “woops!” when he does something he knows he shouldn’t.
Now, though, he’s my focus in many ways. Having developed colitis since his sister’s death in November, he’s on a diet of boiled rice and boiled chicken supplemented with prescription kibble, his many pills dispensed inside meatballs made of prescription canned food. Is it a pain in the ass? You bet. Caretaking for an elderly dog isn’t much different from caretaking for an elderly parent. They have their good days and their bad, days when they’ll eat and days when they won’t, days when they have energy and days when all they want is nap in the sun. I take my cues from him and do what I can to make his remaining time comfortable. All too soon, he’ll begin to show a lack of interest in his food, his weight will drop, and his legs will cease to support him. Maybe I’ll get lucky and he’ll pass away in his sleep. It’s the dream most pet caretakers have but, according to my vet, the illustrious Doctor Jenny Gamble, it doesn’t often occur.
One of these days those beautiful brown eyes will gaze at me a final time. and what we’ve shared will pass between us. I’ll feel his trust, his faith that I will do the right thing for him, and then those eyes will close and our time together will be over, at least on physical terms. But Tucker is one in a million, and I will carry him in my heart for the rest of my life.