Sunday, April 3, 2011

Young Dog, Old Dog

Bisou had another play date with her brother Bear this afternoon.  On these occasions, they wrestle and growl and roll on the ground and wrestle some more and you'd think they're killing each other.  This continues unabated until the humans say "O.k., we've had enough;  let's go home."  The minute we got home, Bisou went for a walk with my husband and the big dogs, and did her usual maniacal running over the fields, just as if she'd spent the day reclining on the sofa.  Now, at last, she's snoozing next to me, digesting her dinner.  She's eighteen months young.

 Lexi will be thirteen in July, and she's old.  I can watch her aging by the day, sort of the way a nine-week-old puppy becomes a completely different being at twelve weeks.  Regular chiropractic adjustments and acupuncture treatments--and my dedication to keeping her slim--have kept her remarkably mobile despite galloping arthritis.  But I can see that every day the world makes less sense to her. 

It's not that she's blind or deaf.  It's more like she doesn't know what to do with what her eyes and ears tell her.  Sometimes I have to signal her twice when I give the o.k. for my always-ravenous dogs to eat their food.  Her eye/mouth coordination, when catching treats, used to be perfect.  In the last couple of weeks, it's dropped to a depressing 80%.

Her love for treats is undiminished, however, and she will gallop uphill for a bit of cheese.  Often, though, when we're in the woods and I call "Dogs, come!"  and Wolfie and Bisou come charging through the undergrowth and leaping over logs to get their treat, Lexi will stay a few feet away, her nose in a mound of leaves, oblivious to the call and the promise of cheese.

Worst of all, she wanders off.  At first I thought it was "selective hearing loss," whereby, having sensed my suspicion that her hearing might be going, she decided to exploit it for her own purposes.  Lexi always has been rather clever that way.  But now I think it's a combination of wanting to do her own thing and truly not knowing what the right thing to do is.

In the house, she's fading into the background, only coming to life at mealtime.  Like the aging Louis XIV, however, her authority over the other dogs is strong as ever.  They still won't cross her invisible boundaries, and though they covet her cozy bed in the TV room, they do not dare to lie in it.

But her end, though it may  not be near, is ever in my sights.  What will bring her down, and when, and how?  She's only twelve and a half, a mere child in human terms....

This makes me think of the children who, until the mid-twentieth century, routinely died in their parents' arms.  We have all wondered how people dealt with the death of one child after another.  We have all speculated that, in order to survive emotionally, parents must have invested less in a child, and that modern parenting as we know it arose as a correlate of the advances in medicine and sanitation that greatly increased the child's chance of survival.  But we will never know for sure.

What I do know for sure is that our emotional investment in dogs has expanded immeasurably in the last few decades.  At some point--was it because of more cars on the roads or more women at work?--we stopped chaining our dogs to a tree in the yard or letting them run loose in the streets. We brought them into the house, into our bedroom, into our life.  We read books about them, took them to obedience and agility and tracking classes.  We reflected on their inner lives, and on the food we fed them. Our relationship with them changed completely.

In this case, however, the relationship changed before science did.  Our dogs still wither and die before reaching--in human terms--adolescence.  One after another, over a human lifetime, we watch them perish. 

When my husband and I were first married, his grandfather's Pekinese, Chang, died.  We thought a new puppy would be just the thing, but the old man wouldn't hear of it.  "I'm through," he said, shaking his head.  "I can't do this anymore."  I am beginning to understand what he meant.

4 comments :

  1. In high school, my boyfriend and his mother lived in what I would call a ramshackle house, about half a boarding house with a kitchen that was slowly sliding off the back (seriously). Poor. Crazy poor for a girl from the suburbs to date. Anyway, they had two German Shepherds that lived in the house. And I thought they were ABSOLUTELY RIDICULOUS. I wasn't from a dog family, but all the other dog families I knew, with big dogs, had them outside. Period. Maybe on the coldest or hottest days, inside for a break, but they lived outside.

    And then we had Dara, the rott mix who lived inside for 11 years with us (she was already an adult when she arrived). And I understood. But I understand your husband's grandfather, too. We're through. At least for a while.

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  2. We kept our first dog in the back yard. Now I wonder, how could we? But I do remember feeling guilty and uncomfortable about it.

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  3. As I read this post, Mr. Bain moved to his comfy bed and gave a very satisfied groan, like he had read it and agreed ;-)

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