Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The State of Spring

Spring has been arriving. We had so much snow this year that there was flooding in the valley.  This is really a hayfield.

The road was underwater for a few weeks.

Gradually, the maple trees are budding.

I saw this fellow out for a walk with his two girls. They were too camoflaged to photograph well.

Here's the handsome boy.  I took this picture near the spot where I last saw the wild turkeys.  I have seen several coveys of pheasant there.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Old Dogs

There is a commercial currently on television for dog food. It shows a man and woman at a beach at sunset. Beside the woman is her dog. The woman says something like “I never get tired of this, look how beautiful....” She looks at the man. He is staring at the screen of a cellphone. He doesn’t look at her, but holds up one finger as if to say “just hang on a sec”. She sighs. The voiceover says something about the most important relationship in your life.... where you get them, and they get you. It is referring to the woman and the dog. How true it is!

I’ve been thinking lately about my aging dogs and what my relationship is to them. Old dogs are special: they have come so far with you, in a short decade or thereabouts they have learned your secrets and habits, they know all the intonations of your voice, what concerns you, what makes you happy, how you live from day to day. They are a fine combination of guardian and dependent – part den-mother, part child, part protector, and part innocent in need of protection. As they age, they move from a childlike vulnerability to an elder in need of assistance. Where they once were full of enthusiasm, they now move with a measured awareness of their own limitations, a resignation to the effects of aging on joints and bones, eyesight, hearing and balance.

I am living with one senior dog and one dog who is at the peak of her maturity. The senior, Cricket, is almost eleven, which I am told is quite an advanced age for a mastiff. I have cared for her as well as I can, making her food from scratch every day, watching her weight, making sure she gets good medical care. When I got her as a rescue, she was robust and a little pushy. Compared to my older dog Miranda, Cricket was a little less talented with language and knew only a few words. On walks Miranda would follow me as tightly as a shadow: Cricket would run ahead, scouting the air for adventure. Her brashness was described as “enthusiastic”, which in fact it was: she was keen on many things, she loved walks, and it was her great ambition to one day have a cat of her own, she found them enthralling. I used to watch her run ahead of me with a springy trot, and think that her old age would be unmarred by bad joints, her knees seemed so sound.

As Cricket neared her 9th birthday, she was healthy and vigorous. As she neared her 10th birthday, her sleek black face began to whiten, first along the flews, then under her chin. Now her muzzle is almost completely white, and her long tummy hair and the long hair between her toes is as well.

My once enthusiastic, bouncing dog is now very sedentary. One of her springy knees has given way to an unknown injury so that she must arrange her foot underneath her before she can get up. Her tail wags most often now when she is laying down – what used to be a thunderous drumming on the floor is now an abbreviated tap tap tap.

Her aging began (half-empty glass persons would say upon birth) sometime last summer. We had a very bad summer last year. We lost our best friend Miranda, Cricket’s fellow mastiff and comrade. That event itself, though expected since Miranda succumbed to a long decline in her health in spite of our very best efforts, was not the sole cause of Cricket’s slowing. Cricket also had a tumour of some kind on her belly (the histology reported cancer, though I remember the exact onset of growth, and have always suspected it was abnormal tissue growth around a foreign object, like a stinger) and after her surgery she began to exhibit the inevitable signs of aging. She began to limp slightly, a limp that would go away for a few days and then come back. She stopped sleeping on the bed, preferring not to have to find a way off it (getting up was still no problem). She loved being in the car, but gradually stopped riding in the front seat, preferring to stretch out on a baby mattress I had installed in the rear fold-down. She ate her food with a slow thoughtful chew, no longer needing to bully the younger dog Kylie with her forceful scowl. She made fewer trips to the toilet, preferring and able to save up for a few longer sessions instead of trotting out every few hours for a “here I am” squirt. When given a belly rub, her back legs no longer shake in a sympathetic charade, but betray only the merest twitch. I saw these changes in behaviour happen, knowing what they meant, but unwilling at first to believe they were permanent. I always thought back then that she will get back on the bed one day when she is feeling more confident, one day she will be back to her old self. But that day isn’t coming, instead she is changing before my eyes into an Old Dog.

It seems so unjust that the lives of companion animals are so very short. Just when you have found a true companion, a relationship built on mutual trust, they are taken from you.

Post Script: Cricket died on Easter Sunday. I was with her and held her when she passed. She was gone in a matter of minutes. It was heart failure. As she died, she put her chin up and let out a low mournful howl, as if in greeting to her old friend Miranda, and goodbye to us.