The Companionship of an Old Dog


Spencer is in decline.  I have known this, intellectually, for some time, what with the two surgeries last year and the enlarged heart, but now I can’t avoid seeing him slowing down, little by little, day by day.  His hearing is reduced to a narrow band of sound frequencies (which seems to include my voice, since he still responds when it suits him).  He gets confused about where I am in the house, sitting patiently outside the wrong closed door in his nearly silent world.  He stumbled on the stairs the other day.  The nose still seems to work just fine as he waits expectantly for the drip or crumb or the special treat from whatever I’m preparing in the kitchen.  I’m not sure about his vision.  He could be nearly blind and still find his way around the home where he has lived most of his life.  True, he still has the famous spring in his Jack Russell Terrier legs when he is excited, but getting excited doesn’t happen often now.

Spencer is not my first old dog, nor will he be my last.  His mate, Bonny, is eight months older, and their pup, Teddy, is nine months younger.  They are aging, too, but differently, less obviously.  Teddy looks like Bonny, a larger, male version of the same white short-haired Jack Russell Terrier with brown ears.  They look much the same as when they were a decade younger.  Spencer, with the broken coat and beautiful markings, long ago lost the defining black around his eyes as it faded to gray, and he now has the unmistakable rounded body of an older dog.  Spencer got the beauty genes but, as it turns out, worse genes for aging.

I remind myself that a fourteen year old Jack Russell Terrier isn’t impossibly old.  Small breeds live longer than large ones, even as long as seventeen years.  People say that most Jacks don’t live to old age because they were bred to be fearless.  They are big dogs in little dog suits who will run into traffic and stand up to coyotes and bears and German Shepherds that can wipe them out in an instant if so inclined.  I believe all of it, and I consider myself lucky to have old Jacks who have survived a world of dangers and lived to old age.  But that’s just it — I have been a Jack mom for fifteen years, and I can’t really imagine life without them, especially Spencer.

You may notice here that I regard these dogs as a family unit, but clearly they do not see themselves that way.  I know animals develop deeply affectionate and interdependent relationships.  I have seen this first hand in two dogs I had long ago, where the healthy older Schnauzer cared for the sick young Westie, curing her companion of mange by cleaning open sores with healing saliva when terribly harsh medications did not work.  But this Jack family more readily proves the proposition that genetic relationship has nothing to do with affection or interdependence.  They are two randy males and a feisty little female, and their dog behaviors breach all bounds of decent interaction among family members.

Moreover, there’s nothing familial about the extent to which Spencer has all the privileges.  We didn’t start out that way.  At first I tried to be fair to all, not wanting anyone to feel left out.  And then I started reading about dog packs and learned that, in a pack, there can be only one alpha dog, usually a male.  The other males understand and accept their lot in life.  By the time Teddy was a year old, Spencer made it clear that in this pack, he would have what he wants, and there would be consequences for Teddy if he should receive something to which Spencer feels entitled.  They all understood the pecking order well before I did.

When Spencer was about four years of age, I took this alpha dog to a dog trainer — one who works with positive reinforcement — hoping to introduce order in what had become a rather chaotic life with multiple dogs.  How nice it would be, I thought, to have Spencer come when I call him or stop what he’s doing when I say stop, or walk nicely at my heel on a leash.  After two lessons, the trainer told me to save my money — he was the most stubborn dog she had ever encountered.  While I flirted briefly with the possibility of intimidation training, he was not going to be intimidated.  His strongest instinct has always been self-preservation, and he will bite if he has to.  I would have liked to convince him that I was the alpha dog, but it wasn’t in me to try to provoke fear in a pet I loved.  Truth to tell, I enjoyed his spunk when I didn’t feel totally out of control.  So I made my peace with his personality — chose love and trust over authority and reached an equilibrium on acceptable behavior.  This strong-willed fellow suited me.  He became my companion in a way the others could not be.  He became my favorite.

Spencer came to me from Jack Russell Rescue in 1999 at the age of four months, after his first owners had purchased him and his female litter mate from a pet shop and named him Elliot and then dumped both puppies and bags full of “I heart Jack Russells” paraphernalia on the rescue service.  I was looking for a companion for my puppy, Bonny.  I was missing my Schnauzer, Sophie, who had outlived her mange-free companion and died an old dog that spring.  I wanted another female dog, but the rescue people, in their infinite wisdom, wouldn’t let me adopt the little female because “females fight.”  Once I met the two pups, I knew the little male was for me.  I now repeat to Spencer the story of how he came to be my dog, in the same way adoptive parents tell their inquisitive children the story of how they were chosen and named and what joy they brought to their new family.  I tell him he was wonderfully soft and beautiful and smelled so sweet, and that I knew he needed a special name and not “Ell-eee-ott,” and how I whispered to him as I carried my warm puppy to the car, with tears running down my face, that he would be my very own Spencer for his whole dog life.  As I said, I thought Bonny needed a companion, but surely, of the two of us, I was the more needy.

Spencer sealed his superiority about five years ago when he gained upstairs privileges.  Basically he wore me down.  Up to a point all three dogs spent the night in their separate crates downstairs, but over time this arrangement became unacceptable to Spencer.  He protested by barking incessantly, both in the evening and at the first light of day in the morning.  I ignored him and cajoled him and yelled at him and even resorted to pounding a shoe on his crate thinking about how miserable I was going to be dragging through work without enough sleep.  Nothing fazed him.  Purchasing a dog bed (monogrammed “Spencer”) seemed like a great compromise.  I could bring him upstairs to the bedroom and he would be happy and quiet.  He lasted in the dog bed about a week and then peed on it in displeasure and took his place on the pillow next to my head.  The dog bed went to the garage and we settled into the routine that we probably should have had all along.  He became my sleeping pal and my sweet love dog.  Like any couple, we adjusted to each other’s sleep patterns.  It is a very workable arrangement.  I get to sleep when I want to sleep, and he has the pleasure of falling asleep and waking up with his person.

I look forward to his greeting me at the door when I come home from work.  After dinner he happily dozes on the bed while I watch TV or work at the laptop, occasionally nudging my arm in the hope that I will take a break and pet him for a while.  Sometimes he gets his way, and sometimes he gets the mindless left handed stroke while I’m focused elsewhere.  I kiss his temples and talk to him a lot.  I don’t know what he understands, but at least he gets the tone of it.  I often tell Spencer how fortunate he is that he has kept his boy parts his entire dog life.  After all, most boy dogs are not so lucky because people cut their balls off.  It seems only appropriate that I praise the beauty of those parts, along with the rest of his body.  It is part of our ritual, part of how we reconnect in the evening after my work day and his day of doing, well, whatever dogs do when we aren’t watching.

The curious thing about old dogs is that they seem to know they are infirm and need more care, and they are grateful for small gestures of affection and kindness that would be insufficient for an exuberant young dog.  It seems to me the gratitude of the aged without the bitterness that accompanies human awareness of our own decline.  I can’t tell whether it upsets him that he is arthritic and climbing the stairs is not the effortless scamper it once was.  I like to think he appreciates when I pick him up and carry him on up from the step where he pauses.

To be sure, there are real inconveniences of living with an old dog.  Occasionally I find a place where he has peed in the house when I’m out.  I chide him, “Is is really too much to ask that you walk another ten steps and go outside?”  But yes, at his age, it is.  So I clean it up and hope that he’ll try harder the next time.  At least he’s not incontinent.  I don’t think he could tolerate diapers.

While I used to think of him as resilient, now his ailments are ominous.  Is the cough he developed over the weekend — the one that kept me up last night — a minor passing irritation, or is it aspiration pneumonia, or the enlarged heart putting pressure on his lungs, or some insidious metastasized cancer?   Should I call the vet?  Is the fact that he relaxes and sleeps enough to assure me that nothing serious is going on?  Am I deluding myself?

I consider, obliquely, the inevitable end.  I can’t plan for it.  I am committed to keeping Spencer alive as long as I am certain that he has more pleasure than pain in living from day to day.  He is my sweet companion, my sleeping pal, and the one who sticks by me when I’m sad or angry — as I tell him, he’s my multi-purpose dog.  Sometimes I look at him while he is  sleeping on the bed and his breathing is so slow and shallow that I am suddenly uncertain he is breathing at all, and I hold my breath, reaching out to touch him, saying a little prayer that he will be warm to the touch.  He always is, and he stirs and looks at me with half-open eyes that say, “Oh, that was nice.  How about more?” And then I think, well, if he died in his sleep, it might be a blessing for both of us.

It makes me desperately sad that dogs are with us for so few years, even if they live full dog lives.  But then I look at how contented Spencer is just curled up in a warm place on his favorite pillow, wanting nothing more, and I think how pleasant it would be to live entirely in the moment.  We foresee our demise and look into a future without us and suffer existential pain; they know what they have only for as long as they have it.  Whenever Spencer’s life ends, and in whatever way it ends, I want to be consoled by the certainty that I gave him the best life I was capable of providing and, as dog lives go, he was among the lucky ones. The best way to get there, I think, is to keep trying and stay committed to making every day a good one for as long as he is still with me.   I told him long ago that he would be my Spencer for his whole dog life, and I intend to keep that promise.

Explore posts in the same categories: aging, companionship, dogs, Jack Russell, old dogs


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2 Comments on “The Companionship of an Old Dog”

  1. Reblogged this on mambeblankets and commented:
    Ran across this love letter to a faithful companion and thought some of our Mambe Pet Blanket customers would enjoy it too.

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