Can’t teach an old dog new tricks? No, but you can learn from them: The Wisdom of Old Dogs

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But instead of going after the little scamp as usual, barking indignantly and dancing round the tree, she stayed lying down and looked wistfully after the creature. Astonished, I looked at her – and spotted the grey whiskers framing her muzzle. And her eyes, which all of a sudden looked a little foggy. My dog, Shira, was getting old. How could I have missed it? I had seen it without noticing it. I hadn’t taken a step back.

Parents of grown-up children often speak of the fright they get when leafing through the family album.

They see the pictures of their little ones, playing on the beach and splashing about in armbands in the pool, and they ask themselves: What happened?

Where along the way between childhood, teenagehood and adulthood did we lose them?

How come we didn’t notice they were getting older?

I recently looked at Shira’s baby photos: a podgy, nearly-white labrador puppy, sticking her head through the spokes of the steering wheel in my car.

Encounters with canine companions.

First attempts at swimming, on a long lead, just to be on the safe side.

Fetching a toy bigger than she was.

On a walk half a year later, a teenager now, gangly and awkward, still yet to grow into her paws.

When I first held this wriggly furball in my arms, it didn’t cross my mind that her growing old would be so difficult for me.

After the exhausting puppy years and her difficult adolescence, I relaxed into her adulthood and looked forward to our “retirement” together.

My vision: Shira would sleep all day and I’d write in peace.

She’d be content to lie there by my side, and wouldn’t need a packed programme.

I’d have less work to do.

How wrong I was.

An old dog creates a good deal of work, and demands a lot of patience and extra-special care.

Old age can be a challenge for animals and their human companions.

But it can also be an opportunity for us to get to know and love new sides to them.

We adapt more readily to their needs.

This is our chance to give back some of the unconditional love, patience and tolerance that they have shown us throughout their lives.

I look down at my dog, who is lying under my desk.

She senses that I am looking at her, but doesn’t get up.

Instead, her tail begins to beat against the floor.

Thud, thud, thud.

We are brought together by this noise.

I kneel down beside her and take her head in my hands.

Her floppy ears slip like velvet through my fingers. I trace my fingertips over her body, feeling the nodes of fat here and there.

Shira is still an attractive, slim dog, with glossy blonde fur.

I bow my head and kiss her gently on the soft part of her muzzle under her eye.

For a precious few seconds, neither of us stirs.

We hold on to this magical moment.

Then I get up and turn my attention back to my work.

Shira lets out a long snuffling breath and goes back to sleep.

Moments like this, when I feel my close bond with my dog, take on particular significance now.

I have always been glad to have her in my life, but I am more aware than ever of the finite nature of our relationship, and that makes me value her presence even more.

Shira is 13-years-old.

In human years (about 93) she has long since overtaken me.

When she’s trotting around outside with a spring in her step, burying her snout in the grass, or running riot with her doggy pals, her age isn’t at all obvious.

“She’s still young, right?”

Other dog owners frequently ask me that.

It’s only noticeable in the evenings following a long walk, as she slips off the sofa slowly and tentatively, to ease the strain on her weary bones.

And she has to make more effort to get up out of her favourite big armchair.

On our walks, she lies down more frequently if I stop moving.

That’s right, I have to take the occasional breather nowadays too.

I have been keeping a diary about Shira’s life, as I want to preserve every moment in the hope that it will help me to cope better with the pain of loss – which will inescapably come.

I know what’s in store for me.

I’ve already shared my life with two other dogs, until they died of old age, and I stayed by their side all the way.

Now the time has come to prepare myself once more – as far as that’s ever possible.

Essentially, this is my story too.

I am witnessing a creature I love more than anything else growing old and beginning her journey towards death.

I’m the one who at some point will have to make the yes-or-no decision.

I must learn to deal with change and accept the inevitable.

One day I will take Shira’s life in my hands and will have to decide what to do with it.

And that frightens me.

While writing this diary, I have discovered not only that I am preparing myself for my dog’s old age and eventual passing, but that this is also an opportunity to look back on our life together – on a relationship that has become richer and more intimate with every passing year.

Over the last few years we have both aged, and we have experienced the same things.

That is often the case when you’ve lived with dogs for a long time.

Shira and I have learned what there was to learn in this life.

We know the rules and we have made peace with the world.

We are enjoying our time together.

The most difficult chapters of this book for me to write were the ones about saying goodbye to our beloved pets.

For a while, dear readers, I even wondered whether I should trouble you with them at all.

My publishers sounded a note of caution.

But since this is a personal book, I decided to lay bare the whole spectrum of feelings that life with an old dog has to offer.

How could I write about the wisdom of old dogs without mentioning the most profound wisdom, the most valuable lesson they have to share with us?

Because ultimately, the way they negotiate their final months is their greatest gift of all.

Dogs enrich our lives.

The older they get, the more precious the time we are able to spend with them becomes.

Living with an old dog, helping them through their final years, opens our eyes and hearts.

We discover that old age and death can teach us a great deal, and that being prepared for death also means being prepared for life.

Age: a Question of Perspective

My dog is enough. I got Shira when she was an eight-week-old puppy. Today – at 13 – she is older than me. I look at her and ask her, “How on earth have you got so old?”

Shira’s in a good mood and throws me a cheeky look that says, “You’re one to talk.”

And of course, she’s right. I’ve aged as well. I don’t know how Shira feels about getting older – I’d like to think she just accepts it and perhaps even enjoys it.

Right now, she’s lying under my desk, her back to the radiator. Now and then she stretches her legs out like a cat, digs her claws into the carpet, and looks up at me. Then she takes a deep, noisy breath and goes back to sleep. One forepaw over the other, as if in doggy prayer, she twitches gently.

Ageing is uncharted territory for each and every one of us, despite the fact that humans have been doing it since time immemorial. But it shouldn’t be a daunting prospect to spend the last years of our lives sleeping next to someone we love, dreaming of what has been and what could yet be.

Shira was a sweet little puppy dog who used to romp through the meadows with her floppy ears flying about all over the place. She’d stumble over her oversized paws and snowball through the grass, only to pick herself straight back up again to chase after a startled butterfly.

She’d be gone in a flash. After the puppy years came puberty and her rebellious phase, followed by year after wonderful year with my grown-up dog. And then came the day I realised that my once comical bundle of fur had become an old-timer, who preferred cosying up on the sofa to running after tennis balls, and whose limbs creaked when she stood up.

To all intents and purposes, I was going the same way. The only difference between us was that Shira had aged on fast-forward.

One friend of mine still refuses to be called “old” at the age of 70. Another was given a “cruise for the elderly” by her children as a 75th birthday present, but wouldn’t accept the gift because she didn’t think of herself as an “old person”.

I have looked forward to old age all my life: for me, it’s always represented freedom from societal constraints and expectations. I’d finally be able to do everything I wanted, and people would smile placidly and say, “Look at that mad old lady.”

I celebrated the arrival of the menopause with a “Red Hot Mamas” party. The only guests I invited were menopausal women. We all wore red, and I served spicy food like chilli con carne and Thai curries.

Today I am 67, and my chances of reaching the big 100 are statistically good. Naturally I haven’t been spared the aches and pains of ageing, no more than Shira has. But from her example I am learning how to age positively and how to make the best of it.

The respective life expectancies of humans and dogs have risen continuously over the decades, and are still rising today. For dogs, it has gone up by three years within the last 20 years. This is thanks to better medical provisions and more species-appropriate nutrition and care.

Most dogs reach between eight and 15 years of age. Only very rarely do they make it as far as 20. Researchers at the University of Göttingen collected data from more than 50,000 dogs of 74 different breeds, and established that larger dogs die sooner than smaller ones.

And pedigree dogs consistently die earlier than mongrels. The Bulldog, which on average does not make it past six, has the lowest life expectancy of any breed.

The study’s conclusions should unsettle me: as a labrador, Shira belongs to one of the larger breeds. I can, however, count her a mongrel, because her father was a labrador and her mother was a flat-coated retriever.

Shira. 13 years old? That’s nothing. It goes without saying that I want her to stay healthy and live as long as possible.

So, is there a magic formula for living a long life? I tried to find out, asking dog owners who read my online newsletter to describe life with their pets. I received over 200 responses, and would like to thank each and every person who told me their story and opened their heart to me.

Their anecdotes moved me deeply and brought me to tears often enough. First and foremost, though, their letters gave me hope.

Take, for example, Kathy’s dog Peggi. The 18-year-old crossbreed of Tibet terrier and cocker spaniel spends most of her time with Kathy’s 78-year-old mother in Hamburg. These two old girls have sought and found one another – and both are still fighting fit.

Or there’s Heike’s Malta, a street dog who lived to 16. Pocolino, Rosemarie’s dog, came from Fuerteventura and reached the ripe old age of 20. Filou, Andrea’s terrier crossbreed, is 19. Many of my readers’ dogs reached (or are) 15, 16, or even older. By comparison, Shira is still a young buck, which gives me hope that 13 isn’t so elderly after all.

But did I find a magic formula? Sadly, I’m going to have to disappoint you. There’s no secret recipe for a long life – for dogs or humans. Today, the issues that make dogs “age” prematurely are the same as the ones that affect us: poor diet, overweightness, lack of exercise and insufficient mental stimulation.

Nonetheless, you can do everything “right” or everything “wrong” – it is ultimately meaningless. Nothing can absolutely guarantee that Fido (or you) will live longer. There are endless studies telling us humans how to live, what to eat, and which sports to play in order to reach 100. But you could still leave the house tomorrow and be hit by a bus. So what really counts is the quality, not the quantity, of our time on earth.

So I decide not to keep driving myself mad. Age isn’t an illness, for people or their pets. Shira, according to my online calculator, is 93 in human years, taking into account her weight of 25kg. She has overtaken even my 87-year-old mother.

I pause to take stock. How has Shira changed in her old age? When she is asleep under my desk as she is now, she radiates perfect calm. In my eyes, she is eternally young. We have been doing everything together for years.

Lengthy walks, lake-swimming, fetching balls (okay, I’ve done less of that than Shira). Sometimes I long for her to be young again, but mostly I am enjoying our time together now more than ever. Our mutual understanding grows deeper every day: we trust each other blindly, and we know what the other one wants. When I look at her, I know what she’s thinking. We have a well-functioning daily routine.

But the signs of her age can no longer be ignored.

Her golden fur has thinned and greyed in many places.

She is losing more and more underfur.

To compensate, she wears a fleece in winter and a raincoat when it’s drizzling. She gets cold more quickly.

Her once-dark nose has turned light brown. Little warts and sties have started to emerge here and there, as they did recently in the inner corners of her eyes before disappearing again a few weeks later.

Several fatty lumps have appeared beneath her fur. I took her for a check-up, where they were diagnosed as benign tumours (lipomas) growing around her ribcage.

Shira’s eyesight is also going. Her warm brown eyes look increasingly bluish and foggy, and she’s less sure of herself in the dark.

But her vision evidently does not have as important a part to play in her life as her other senses. Dogs have a substantially keener sense of hearing than us: they can detect sounds from four times the distance we can.

Shira’s hearing, though, has been in decline for months now. Initially she just had selective hearing, but not anymore. How is she coming to terms with that? When I stand near her and call her name, she doesn’t react. Usually I have to touch her gently to get her attention.

At least she hasn’t lost her sense of touch. She detects vibrations in the floor and “hears” me when I stamp my feet.

In fact, her deafness has its advantages: our New Year this time round was a relaxing one, for the first time ever. The things I used to do to try and calm down my frightened dog on New Year’s Eve or during thunderstorms – from special pheromone collars to homeopathic soothing drops, to noise conditioning. Nothing helped.

And now my dog is deaf. It can be exasperating when we go out for a walk and she can’t hear me calling her, but in other situations it’s a blessing.

Despite the firecrackers and fireworks in our neighbourhood, New Year’s Eve this year left her totally unfazed.

The limitations of old age can also have their advantages.

Footnote: Shire died in August 2020.

• Express readers can get 10 percent off The Wisdom of Old Dogs by Elli H. Radinger (paperback RRP £8.99) with offer code F10. Call 01256 302 699 or order online at mirrorbooks.co.uk (Free P&P on orders over £15)

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