We know for a fact that animals experience a range of feelings, from sadness and mourning, to happiness and contentment but, unlike us, animals don’t experience self-pity, as D.H. Lawrence eloquently and bluntly expressed in his poem Self Pity:
I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.
That alone would be a useful trait to emulate but, in my obsessive studies of my dogs, I found other lessons to be learnt from how an animal goes about aging. Or, at least, my animal, my 11-year-old boxer, Ottie. A boxer’s lifespan can stretch to 13, but 10 to 12 years is about the time this breed bids goodbye to their earthly pursuits, which puts my Ottie squarely into old age. Not that you would know if you met him: other than a white muzzle and neck, a slightly diminishing eyesight and a bit of stiffness in his hind legs, he goes about life as active and purposeful as if all the time in the world still stretched in front of him. Obviously, his big advantage is his lack of awareness of the borrowed time he’s living on.
On closer scrutiny, though, I have noticed Ottie has instinctively made allowances and adjustments to accommodate the changes old age has brought about and, once again, his behavior has yielded involuntary advice I would do well to heed:
1. Ottie’s curiosity is wholly undiminished: nothing escapes his power of observation – not the bunny who has taken residence at the edge of the lawn and who needs to be chased about 100 times a day; not the new smells on the usual walk that must be inspected closely; not everything that can be gleaned from new hikes or adventures I take him on. The world is ever changing and ever interesting: look at every day with fresh eyes.
2. Unwilling to give up socializing with the neighbour’s dogs and horses, and always eager to chase every unfortunate coyote, deer, rat, possum or squirrel trespassing on our property, Ottie has learnt to negotiate the often steep and rugged terrain of the canyon in a different manner: he has carved paths that are longer but not as steep, giving up the mad tumbles in the brambles. The most direct route is not necessarily the most efficient anymore.
3. Ottie loves walks and hikes, familiar or unknown. When he sees the leash or the car door held open for him, he enters a state of frenzy that puts him at risk of a heart attack on a daily basis. But, once on the path, he doesn’t sprint back and forth in mad rushes of energy; rather, he takes a more steady approach, trotting on for hours at a medium pace, outlasting the barely 6 year old Portia, who is still in the “running like a maniac” phase. Regular exercise is key but nothing that will kill my knees or wear me out in the first twenty minutes.
4. Known for his sunny and adaptable disposition, in the last year or so, Ottie has taken to complaining out loud with complicated vocalizing patterns: I am not paying enough attention, dinner is late, he really needs to go out NOW, I have been missing for too long…whatever hits his displeasure, he is sure to let us know. Loud and clear. Life has definitely become too short to suffer in silence – let martyrdom be a thing of the past.
5. New and old humans are always welcome and treated to sloppy kisses – new canine friends, not so much. Ottie knows and loves (or sometimes tolerates) the neighborhood dogs but his openness to new four legged friends on “his” territory has diminished. Visiting dogs don’t stand a chance of being befriended, he would rather hang out on his bed, alone. Treasure old friends – indiscriminate socializing for the sake of entertainment is not fun anymore.
6. When Portia arrived on the scene, Ottie quickly let her know who was boss. Nothing has changed in that department, as Portia is reminded every time she tries to steal his biscuit or to interact with another dog without his permission – she will swiftly find herself belly up, his paws pressing on her stomach. But when she badgers him to concede a side of the couch or the blue bed he was planning to lie on, surprisingly, he lets her have it, as if to say “I am above all this”. Not every battle needs to be fought, especially the ones where we can look magnanimous by conceding, without having lost much.
7. While still perfectly capable to get on the couch (or sneak on my bed) by himself, if I am around Ottie will stand in front of it and wait for me to hoist him up. Why waste the energy? It’s ok to ask for help.
8. Ottie has never been on a plane, I think he would hate traveling cargo, but travelled he has far and wide and he is used to spending time away, in hotels or unfamiliar houses. He has learnt to recreate routines and, after 24 hours of uncertainty, he is back in control of his environment, wherever that might be. But, when we return home, I can see him emit a sigh of relief, happy to see his bed and his bowls lined just so, back within the cocoon of sounds and smells he calls home. As wonderful and exciting it still is to traipse around the world, at this point home just can’t be beaten.
Image of dog with sheep found in the public domain