For the love of an old dog

photo by Sarah Cramer Shields

My best friend is walking a little slower these days. The dog who once drove me crazy begging for her dinner, now mostly sniffs it and needs to be coaxed to eat. She is deaf. She gets confused. She still gets excited to go for walks, but when we get four houses down the street, she’s ready to go back home again. In the morning, she pauses at the top of the stairs, nervous that her legs might not work the way they used to.

So, I carry her down the stairs.
And clean the floor when her bladder gives out.
And hand-feed her scrambled eggs when she doesn’t want to eat.
And massage her stiff hips.

There are Good Days and what I optimistically call Less Good Days. But I’ll be there for all the days until the end, making her as comfortable and happy as I can. And when there is no more comfort and happiness to be had, I’ll be the one who has to decide that it’s the end.

This is the deal we make when we love. This is the brutal contract we sign when we open our hearts. Whether we adopt a springy young thing or, like we did with Gracie, adopt a senior dog, it’s pretty much guaranteed that they will leave and we will be shattered.

My husband and I walked into the SPCA four years ago and she was waiting for us. She chose us. And when the sign on her cage said “senior” – I winced. I winced because I didn’t want to feel this helpless pain so soon. I wanted at least a decade with this crazy, speckled, toothless mutt. But she was our dog and she made that clear. So we brought her home and bought a bigger bed so she could sleep with us and we promised to be grateful for however long we got. We agreed to the deal.

But now I want to amend the contract. I want to negotiate for more time.

I’m dreading the day when there is no one waiting outside the bathroom door for me. The day when there is no one using me as a pillow as I binge-watch Breaking Bad. What is the point of 11 am if there is no walk with Grace? My shadow will be gone and a piece of me will be gone with her.

But that time is not now. Now, my job is to care for her in this final chapter, for however long that is. My job is to put her comfort above my sadness. I am here for her, in these times that are much less fun than the hikes and trips to the beach that we used to have. I don’t turn away from the hard parts, it’s my responsibility to be as devoted to her as she has always been to me.

This is love in action: I rub her back and give her medication and clean the floor for the third time today. I pester our vet with endless questions. I try to be thankful for these days, even as I know the heartbreak is coming.

The heartbreak is always coming.

This is what it means to be truly alive. To show up and feel what it is to be human – to not turn away because it’s unpleasant. We have to surrender and lean into the whole of it. We fully experience love and loss, joy and pain, happiness and suffering. There is no way to have one without the other. They are intrinsically linked and no amount of negotiating with the universe will unravel them. Trust me. I’ve tried.

We are all brave as hell–those of us who love so entirely. We expect to be broken by our love. But we still do it, again and again, offering up our tender hearts, our endless devotion and our unconditional love for those wise souls who teach us how to be better humans.

And really, I’m not sure that there is a more beautiful way to be broken.

42 Replies to “For the love of an old dog”

  1. What a time to receive this beautiful tribute. I can barely see the page, for I lost my little Parker last night, the largest soul in a tiny body…thank you, Lisa.

  2. As a person who is owned by three rescue dogs, I totally get what you are writing. We know what “the deal” is when we get a dog, even if it’s a puppy. Knowing that the inevitable is happening does not make it easier to watch, however. Just love your dog, know that she loves you, and treasure every moment with her.

  3. Lisa, this is such a heartbreaking read and written with so much love, that it left a lump in my throat, because our family is going through the same experience right now. Our dog (a toy poodle) is sixteen. A friend gave her to us because our youngest wanted a dog, and she was great with kids. She had been her mother’s dog, but her mom began suffering the effects of Alzheimer’s, and started having problems caring for the animal. Our friends mom started telling her that someones dog was wandering her house, and she didn’t know who it belonged to, but that it had to go. Eventually, she stopped taking the poor dog out. So, our friend gave her to us and she became our dog. She was sad at first—missing her former master—and would stay in her bed for long stretches at a time. But, gradually, with our kids coaxing her out, playing with her (sneaking her table scraps), and taking her out for long walks, she came around. We’ve had her for seven years now, and she has been a loyal and true friend always playful, loving, and a true joy to have around. And now, she needs us. It”s been painful watching her gradually slip away, but her unconditional love is being returned in kind. There are so many similarities to the ailments that your dog is going through, that we felt that you could have been writing this about our old girl. I wanted to let you know that your post touched a few more hearts here. :O)

  4. This was truly beautiful. How true that we must embrace the unpleasant emotions, if we are to experience the pleasant ones such as love. I can relate- my jack russell lily just turned 13- she was diagnosed with mammory gland cancer about 3 years ago- but it hasn’t stopped her. She is still so playful and loving but i am reminded of her age when i let her out at night and see her cataracts glowing in the dark and exercise patience when she comes up to the upstairs door out of confusion even though i let her out through the downstairs door… I hope that you get more time with your pup than you ever imagined, thanks for the read. xoxo

  5. Good morning Lisa! I fully empathize with your heartfelt writing having lived about 30 years longer than you and cohabited with multiple cats and dogs from their youth until their final seconds. I simply love animals. All animals. I don’t discriminate. It’s the Golden Rule applied to all. I know what physical and emotional pain feels like and don’t wish on nor support it for any sentient beings. That is why I am vegan. I ask you to considering becoming vegan yourself. It is truly a connection to conscience and heart. Thank you for being a loving care giver to your beloved dog. Thank you for your always inspired writings!

  6. It took me some time to read the whole post. Tears for the most part and memories of my recent loss. I love your attitude. You are absolutely right, we cannot have love with feeling the opposite. I know that they depend on us so much towards the end but they’ve given so much, it’s nothing to us to have to mop a few times, without leaving them feeling distressed. They are a constant in our lives until that day comes. I send love to both of you. I was just commenting on Murphy my Goldie today…. he’s slowed down so much and is emaciated. He does sometimes have a little bucking broncho moment and then squeals a bit as he realises that his hips aren’t working quite that way any more. Hugs x

  7. Sweetie, such a bittersweet post. ♡ I went through the pain of losing a shadow twice so far. It’s so hard and you’ll never forget that friend. I send you hugs to you and your beautiful dog.

  8. Lisa, I found this truly moving. I am going through this too with my 15 year old rescue girl. She has not left my side for more than 14 years. It’s not hard to give her all the extra care she needs now. She is my love. I carry her up and down stairs, lift her in and out of the car, feed her scrambled egg from my hand and clear up after her. I am truly frightened of how I will cope when she is gone. I shall try to believe her spirit is there trotting by my side. What we share with our dogs is true love.

  9. “We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own live within a fragile circle, easily and often breached. Unable to accept its awful gaps, we still would live no other way. We cherish memory as the only certain immortality, never fully understanding the necessary plan.” – Irving Townsend

  10. You should write a longer piece about aging with pets and publish it in a magazine article or book. I’d buy it in a minute. We don’t have a dog but a cat. He’s 18 years old (which is VERY senior citizen for a cat). He has a three step contraption to get up in his window perch. He sways when he walks from arthritis. He can’t remember where his food bowl is or how long it’s been since he last ate. And he has a box of pills and powders and injections we have to give him daily. His name’s Boots by the way. But he loves looking out the window and he LOVES sitting on laps. He gets irritated when his human has to move. Cat furniture, like dog furniture I presume, does not have the luxury of moving! But he is the sweetest old guy I know. 🙂

  11. you made me cry…just went through this last Sept. She was my soul mate. I feel your devastating pain. She chose me and I will forever love my Brandy bear. Thank you for having the courage to adopt a senior.

  12. This is wonderful, Lisa. It also reminds me to really be there for the good stuff, too. To remember that we don’t know how long we have together so hug and kiss and say all the stuff that’s important to say (to a dog or anyone) now.
    “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” ― Rumi

  13. Such an emotionally beautiful way to put it. I think anyone who has ever had a pet (be it a dog or not) will be able to relate to this . I recently lost my pet budgie, after spending a lot of time with him and taming him we had a great bond.
    I still miss him but I know that he is at peace now.

  14. Lisa, I am so deeply touched by your essay on Gracie and love. I know exactly how you feel, and my heart goes out to you, and to Gracie. I had the heart-wrenching experience almost two years ago of suddenly losing my 13 year old beautiful, loving, devoted Doxie, the Dachshund. She was my true love, my shadow, my devotion, and one day I came home from work and she was suffering from a bad heart valve that I never knew she had until that fateful day. She couldn’t breath normally because her lungs were filled with fluid and her heart was enlarged. I rushed her to the vet and there was little they could do, so I had to watch my best friend of all time take her last breath and leave this world, all the while telling her how much I love her and how I will see her again one day in Eternity. The saddest day of my life, by far. I am so sorry, but please take solace in knowing you gave Gracie the best love and life she could possibly have had. It’s so hard to go through, but, like you say, it’s part of knowing you’re human. My heart goes out to you deeply……

  15. This was beautiful. My family recently had to say goodbye to our cat, Snowball. You get used to having that little life around, and then they’re not around anymore. But at least you had them for a while…

  16. I had the old dog experience second-hand (i.e. not decision-maker) twice with Grandma’s now-deceased dogs and a former boyfriend’s. :,(
    Thanks for sharing.
    I had it first-hand with a pet rabbit….at least Gracie has had a good innings with you, however short. There’s a poem by Ruth Rendell (I think, maybe???) about it. Sending hugs.
    I still remember Sam the Labrador, who was only a year or so older than me…we remember them.

  17. What a truly lovely piece. Sorry to hear Gracie isn’t doing so good. Imagine how her life would have turned out if you had never rescued her? Continually reminding yourself of how things could have been if you had not have been her owner must be a source of comfort to you. Our cat, Jasmine has a bad heart murmur and on a recent visit to the vet they’ve said it’s got really bad and that she won’t have a long life expectancy at all. She’s only just turned 2 :(. I know we must enjoy her while we have her and do everything we can for her for now, but the thought of the inevitable seems so upsetting and unfair…We are just waiting for the tell tale symptoms that will then require us to make an extremely hard decision. Like you said, the heartbreak is the price we pay for having such loyal furry companions in our lives and for that, it is definitely worth it. Love and hugs to Gracie x

  18. Oh, sweet Gracie! What a sad but also glorious time in your lives. You are going through the most difficult part of this loving relationship and yes, it is heart breaking. But you are all Gracie has, and I am sooo glad you understand that. As humans, we have each other – our family, friends, lovers, communities. But our pets have only us and it is our duty and privilege to stand by them to the end. God, it is hard, and there are so many tears. But I know you will be there for her, and love her every moment until the end, and beyond. You and Gracie are both lucky – you have each other’s love. I lost my third and last kitty six months ago and my heart still aches, but it is also full of love for my three furbabies. That will never diminish and neither will the love you have for Gracie. I send her kisses and I send hugs to you. Stay strong and love on.

  19. Lisa, thank you for your eloquent words – it’s like you wrote thoughts I didn’t know I had. We recently said goodbye to our sweet furry pal and I found myself trying to untangle a knotted ball of great memories and heartache. As that great philosopher Winnie-the-Pooh once said, “How lucky I am to have something that makes it so hard to say goodbye.” Bless your furry pal.
    P.S. Loved your book!

  20. Thank you, Lisa. For this, and for your kindness to your friend Gracie.
    I thought of this when I read your post:

    “I feel like a fool for grieving for a small domestic predator whose primary interest in me for the past 15 years has been as a source of food and a warm lap to sit in. But she HAS been with me, through happy times and sad, through divorce and remarriage, through many different jobs and two children and a grief so keen that the scars it left behind are still on etched on my heart like the mended fractures in an old china bowl.

    But I will miss the feel of her soft fur under my hand, and the light weight of her on my chest.”

  21. Thanks for sharing your feelings with us regarding Grace! I truly believe pets are not just creatures we open our home and heart to, they become friends, companions, family. Dolly is my first child, she came to us (me and husband) when I was almost 6 months pregnant with my daughter. She chose us, she wanted to share her life with us and provide us so many memorable moments that will forever live in our hearts. Now my daughter is six years old and I have an 8 month old son and Dolly continues to be a big part in our lives. She travels with us, goes to the park with us, and loves being in the middle of every family gathering at our house. I hope she continues to provide us with her endless energy and joy for many more years to come.

    Lisa, now that Grace is a little older and a little slower may I give you a suggestion?
    If there is a Build A Bear Workshop near you, pick a stuffed animal that reminds you of Grace, get the one that can hold a voice recording which is later sewn in, try to record Grace’s bark, her panting, and any other little sounds she makes. That way, once Grace is no longer with you physically, you can every now and then listen to her.

    Hope it helps! 😉

  22. Thank you for sharing Lisa. We said goodbye to our doxie Harley 6 months ago. He was 16 years old, and those last few months were very difficult. And now, our Roxie is almost 17 and is starting to show those signs I don’t want to see as well. Reading your post and all of the comments reminded me that I’m not alone on this journey and there are others who love their fur babies as much as I do;)

  23. This is so beautifully written! I’m sitting here crying like a fool while reading this and I can only commend you for giving this wonderful creature a beautiful life. Thank you for sharing.

  24. Thanks for sharing this great tribute to your best friend. The unconditional love of a dog is something we should all have the chance to experience. I have and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. Cheers to Gracie and to you for allowing us to share your relationship.

  25. Maybe you chose her knowing on a subconscious level her time with you would be relatively short and you would lose her fairly quickly, and it would tear you up. That this would be an awful learning experience. Sometimes maybe we make decisions directed by the subconscious like this.

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