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The pandemic puppy craze has come at a peculiar time for me. As so many people are seeking the comfort and companionship of a young dog, mine has just turned 15.
We recently had a backyard visit to meet another family’s new puppy. He was utterly adorable. He pranced and played, nipped and licked. Our friends beamed as they told us about his first days at home and how he was already sleeping through the night. It was truly puppy love.
Later that night, as I walked behind my dog to give her a boost as she climbed the stairs, and the next morning, when I heated up the homemade food that helps control her kidney disease, I thought about how you don’t consider this level of extra care when you bring home a furry new family member. But that is often what that puppy love turns into.
I am lucky to know this more “mature” love. To love, and to be loved, by an old dog, is truly a privilege.
For a long time, I denied it. My husband would remark on how Skyler, our German short-haired pointer, wasn’t running as much at the park or was a bit slower on the stairs, and I told him he was imagining it. For the longest time, I really didn’t see that my high-jumping, fast-running girl was getting older. But these days there is no denying it.
The chocolate fur on her face is flecked with white and her wise, dark eyes are hooded by grey brows. Sometimes, she will fall while eating from her bowl and wait patiently for someone to help her up. On our daily walks, one of my favourite times of day, I sometimes have to stop and let her rest or pick up her hind legs if she starts to fall. But still we walk.
When we got Skyler, my husband and I had only been married a few years and we had no kids. She learned commands and was house-trained in no time. At home, she always needed to be beside someone, with at least one part of her touching one part of you (and that’s when she didn’t just sit right on your lap). We took her on walks and hikes and marvelled at her speed. At the park, if we took off running toward the end of a field, she would catch us before we even made it halfway. If we put up a gate, she would jump over it. On hikes, she would scale rock walls and then happily hop up and down from trail to rock and back.
At 15, Skyler still needs to be right beside you on the couch or to follow you into the next room. She still gets excited when we even come in the proximity of a hiking trail. On walks, even if she has been slow, when we turn the corner onto our street, she runs and pulls hard on her leash to race toward home. She will nap for most of the day, but when she gets her midday burst of energy, Skyler prances through the house, bringing a toy or shoe or sock that she wants thrown. She has made us laugh endlessly with her antics, comforted me countless times and been my constant companion while I worked from home.
But it is hard. It is sad to see this once fast, strong dog struggle to walk up the front step or to see her pleading eyes when she needs help to get on the couch. The past few years, we have had to forgo family trips because no one else can take care of her any more. We holiday at a cottage or go camping so we can take Skyler with us. My husband spends more than an hour each week making her the special food that helps control her kidney disease, which roughly consists of rice, hard-boiled eggs, beef and shredded carrots.
Though I lament some of the things we can’t do because of Skyler or the extra work her care adds to our day, I know this has taught our children about sacrifice and unconditional love. It’s taught me the same. Dogs give us unconditional, abiding love. The least we can do is give it back.
There is real love in carrying a dog up the stairs and sitting in the back of the minivan because she needs help to get comfortable, even though you get carsick.
At a beach recently, I saw an old Labrador retriever going for a swim near the shore. Her owners told me how she used to be able to swim so far and for so long. They saw Skyler struggling to walk in the sand and marvelled at how good she looked for her age. Then we gave each other that knowing look. The same one dog owners give me when they ask how old she is.
When I had our kids' old red wagon for sale online, I had an inquiry from a buyer who wanted it so he could take his dog, who could no longer walk very well, on neighbourhood outings because he loved them so much. This is what it’s like to love an old dog.
Our friends with puppies are not thinking about this stuff. Nor should they. They have a whole life of walks, cuddles and laughter to enjoy. If they were, though, I would tell them that puppy love will only grow. I would say there will likely be sadness. I would tell them how lucky they will feel.
Abigail Cukier lives in Stoney Creek, Ont.