My heavy-hearted love for senior dogs
You can teach an old dog new tricks — when it depends on survival
She tapped the other pug’s paw gently. If you blinked, you missed it. But I knew why she did it. The pug wearing the green harness is both blind and deaf. The pug wearing the red harness appears to be hard of hearing but can see. Red Harness knew that Green Harness wouldn’t immediately be able to tell that I’d just walked into the room — that is, until the two 13-year-olds (age 68, according to small breed aging) could smell me. And since neither of them jumped up to greet me when I walked in, it took me a couple of minutes to figure out where they were. I finally found them sitting in a dog bed together, not moving but sniffing the air.
Recommended Read: “No, a ‘dog year’ isn’t equivalent to 7 human years”
Initially this dog walking job just seemed too intimidating. I took it on before I knew what the owner’s dog notes would say. And after I read all of the instructions, I sighed. The devil on one shoulder said, “Cancel it! That’s a lot to handle.” The angel on my other shoulder said, “Don’t be a jackass. Just walk the dogs. Would you want someone to treat you like that if you were deaf and blind?” (Note: My angel has a bit of a foul mouth and no interest in changing her ways.)
I listened to the angel and figured if I was going to decide this walk was a lot of work, the least I could do was try. Although I’d had two dogs growing up (a Labrador Retriever/German Shepherd crossbreed for 13 years, and a purebred German Shepherd for nine years), neither of them went through any major injuries or ailments before they passed away. The Lab started walking slower and wasn’t as energetic, but he just died in his sleep in the basement — no warning. The German Shepherd was walking faster than me on New Year’s Day a few years back, and again, out of nowhere, laid on the hallway floor. It turned out she had cancer, and absolutely no one knew. She was put to sleep the same month.
So I’d never had a dog who actually looked like (s)he got older. But I learned fairly quickly that senior dogs have a special place in my heart. I walked several within the past year, all between 10–13 years old in human years.
- First there was the American Eskimo who couldn’t walk up and down stairs and/or barely in a straight line. I carried her down three flights of steps while she wiggled around. And I put on my sunglasses to hide the tears while I watched her struggle to walk in a straight line down one block.
- Then there was the Louisiana Catahoula Leopard, who’d lost complete control of her bowels. I got used to cleaning up after her and putting down new pads when I entered the apartment. Our morning, noon and evening walks were almost entirely just exercise.
- Then came the Cairn Terrier who could walk no more than a block and had to be carried the rest of the walk. Meanwhile the second Cairn Terrier was terrified of the dog door and would stand outside just staring, too scared it would hit him in the face.
- The Shetland Sheepdog could move and cruise throughout the owner’s apartment — as fast as the latter Cairn Terrier— but just couldn’t handle more than half a block on cement. She constantly scurried into grass and soft patches in the dirt. It was easier to just carry her downstairs and let her release herself in the front yard.
As much as I enjoyed all of these dogs (specifically the Cairn Terriers), there’s a special place in my heart for the crossbreed mixed with Pit and Rhodesian Ridgeback. She’d attacked a skunk four days before I got there and stank to high hell. She also followed me every single place I went and slept under my guest bed for eight days. (If you smell skunk long enough, you become desensitized to it.) She wasn’t very old, but she’d been taking medication since birth due to all the crossbreeding ailments. There’s nothing quite like asking a Pit mix to open her mouth so you can scoop a handful of pills directly down her throat. (I chose sweet potatoes because she kept spitting the pills back at me like sunflower seeds.)
Still though, that just wasn’t the same as a dog who could neither hear nor see me. How would I walk this dog? How would she know where to go? It turns out she was the easier of the two to walk. The minute the other dog tapped her, she jumped up and sniffed me. And then they both followed me quickly to the door. The pug who was deaf and blind turned out to be the bossier of the two, and it was fun to watch. She walked like she was late for work, could easily navigate the steps by count and touch, and could recognize the smell of her favorite trees and grass.
Right at that moment, I realized I’d been nervous for no reason. It was amazing to watch this duo — without sound or sight — work together to guide each other as they walked. When we got back to their home, they both circled my legs waiting on treats. And they could sniff out the treats quicker than I could give them out. This coming week, I’ll walk a set of my regulars — younger, faster dogs, who speed down the street and try to fight any dog near them. I love those two feisty dogs. But it’s these two senior dogs that I’ll walk after the younger ones that’ll leave me in awe for the rest of the week.
You can indeed teach an old dog new tricks. And it turns out that “old dog” who learned a “new trick” was me.