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First person

Who you callin' old?

Janet MacLeod wonders how some people can be so insensitive. She wants to teach humans a few new tricks

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'Hey old timer!" said the man in the park. As usual, this man wasn't looking at me. And as usual, he had to bend down deeply to pat my dog, who is an exceptionally handsome basset hound named Jed.

"Hey ole buddy," the man murmured happily, clamping his meaty hands on either side of Jed's head, wiggling his soft floppy ears. Jed sighed with contentment at his unexpected massage. Finally, the man looked up the leash to my hand, and eventually to my face. "So how long do these guys live?"

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Seriously?! I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was. This question comes up almost daily, and it never fails to stop me dead in my tracks. Usually, it's from some well-meaning person who admires dogs, but doesn't have one. People who have dogs, realizing how inappropriate this question is, wouldn't say such a thing. To ask about my dog's mortality is akin to approaching someone sitting on a bench with their granny and saying, "What's the life span of this old gal?"

Of course I think about how old my dog is. I think about it a million times a day. The thought is a small, dark cloud hovering over my head, and I am constantly pushing it away.

My dog is 13 years old, and he's going grey. He also walks quite slowly, which isn't that big a deal in the world of bassets, except that it's a little slow even for him. Also, he's almost completely deaf. When I call him he ignores me, choosing to smell a daisy instead. This, too, isn't a big deal. In the world of hounds, answering to one's name is a bit of a novelty.

Jed came into our lives when he was four years old, as part of a package deal that included two cats. We had seen his photo on an adoption website, had fallen in love with his freckled snout, and decided we should meet. The caption under his picture described a small basset hound (he's not) who doesn't shed (he does) and his two beloved cats (they hate each other) who must stay together.

Jim, my partner, and I, almost got knocked over by the 60 pound dog who came to greet us. Jed came skidding up to Jim, gazed up with soulful brown eyes, and arched one caramel coloured brow. Then he wiped his slobber on my pant leg, barked loudly and chased a screeching cat down the hall. Slightly shell-shocked, we agreed to become their new foster family. But once they were under our roof, we knew that Jed (and the cats) wouldn't be going anywhere else, for the rest of their lives.

And it has been splendid! And as first time pet owners, we had to adjust. Cats are easy, but hounds are a challenge. For a short dude, Jed's capable of unexpectedly large antics. We've learned the hard way that he will eat birthday cupcakes (with or without candles), and that he will leap into a swimming pool (even though he cannot swim). And Jed will set his own pace for our walks, going from saunter to jet-speed at the blink of an eye. Of course, that's happening less and less these days, but he's still pretty bouncy, incredibly cute and easily the most popular member of our family.

But clearly the place he holds in our heart isn't obvious to ignorant strangers. "So," continued the man in the park, relentless with his questioning, "He's pretty old, huh?"

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"No, you're pretty old," is what I wanted to say. But I didn't. I bit my tongue in the same way I do to the other insensitive comments. Things like, "Looks like his days are numbered," or, "Do you think you're going to have to carry him home?"

To be fair, not everybody is so inconsiderate. Some people, realizing they're in the presence of greatness will compliment his fine physique, his perky walk or his shiny coat. His bark, I might add, is also quite impressive. Then they will say how wonderfully he is doing "for an old guy," and how we must be doing something right.

Darn tootin' we are! When we bought our present bungalow, we did it specifically because it's only one level. Bassets, for those who don't know, are shaped like giant hot dogs, and going up and down stairs is hard on their spines.

Selfishly, we didn't want to be separated by a staircase. His bed is beside ours, and that's where we want him. Initially, he chose to sleep between us. We know this is bad behaviour, so to encourage him to behave even more badly, we put a bench at the end of the bed. A few years later we added a second, lower bench, to make the climb even easier. But now he's decided we're crowding him, and he sleeps on his own.

The point is, we are a family, and it's rude to ask people how long their family members are going to live.

And so, I lie. When people tell me that my dog looks really old, I'll just make something up. Last week, I told someone that Jed was prematurely grey. Then I told someone else that he was 27, in people years. I told another nosy parker that bassets have an exceptionally long life span. The truth is they don't, but if I were to think about a world without my sweet friend, I would start to cry.

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Recently, another stranger asked me about Jed. He said Jed looked old, and I wanted to punch him in the head. But I just nodded, and said that basset hounds always look old and they always dawdle at their leisure. Then the man asked me how long Jed was going to live.

"Why, forever!" I said, as though it was obvious. And we slowly walked away.

Janet MacLeod lives in Toronto.

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