I have had dogs in my life ever since I graduated college. In fact, I bought my first house after a landlord banned pets and I couldn't imagine living without my Olde English Sheepdog. Dogs have taught me to love, been my best friends, been the one constant in my life; long before my husband and children, there was always a dog who I rushed home after work to care for. I've walked the last mile with many of my dogs and here is what I've learned about aging from them.
1. Even when body parts hurt, it's always good to let your loved ones know you are happy to see them.
We appreciate how hard this is to do sometimes, yet dogs consistently manage it.
In humans, chronic illness frequently leads to depression. At very least, it leads to more-than-occasional grumpiness. It's estimated that up to one-third of people with a serious medical condition have symptoms of depression, says WebMD. And when we feel crappy both physically and emotionally, we aren't always nice to be around. Yet when my Shaggy suffered from hip dysplasia -- and on some days had to struggle to even get up from the rug -- she never failed to wag her tail at the sight of me coming through the door.
By contrast, caregivers for humans are often met with a litany of "what's wrong" from our charges. We are there trying to help and often, we don't feel appreciated. It makes taking care of them unpleasant. If we could find some joy in the visit, in the doing, it would feel much less a burden.
When I reach this point, I hope I still wag my tail at my caregivers.
2. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss.
When the vet discovered a small cancerous tumor on our Golden girl Chloe's lip, we were thrown into the throes of despair. We Googled her cancer, we questioned the vet, and we cried mightily knowing that her end undoubtedly would be near. She, on the other hand, just wanted to play ball at the beach. On the day we got the news, my husband and I sat sobbing in our beach chairs, throwing and throwing and throwing that ball to our obviously oblivious dog. Chloe felt good until the day she didn't. She enjoyed every long walk, every extra treat, every car ride where she got to feel the wind in her face.
She was able to do this because she didn't know her days were numbered. While certainly in humans, many conditions have better outcomes if they are treated early and we are in no way suggesting that you ignore routine screenings or treatment options in favor of ignorance, Chloe sure did bring into focus the advice about living each day to the fullest, treating each day as if it was your last. Sometimes, this requires that we make the effort to actually live life between visits to the doctor.
3. We can all learn new ways to do things when the old ones don't work so well anymore.
Aging is a gradual process, not something that comes upon us all at once. You agree to wear reading glasses, you get your hearing tested, you buy a pair of comfort shoes. No, not all on the same day.
Dogs are great about not getting hung up on the stuff they did as puppies and can't do anymore. Rusty, our redhead Retriever, quickly learned to use a step ramp to get into the higher-than-he-could-jump-nowadays SUV. He'd wait patiently by the SUV door until his ramp was in place and then he'd just amble on up it and take his place on the seat behind the driver. We got him a second ramp by our bed when that became too big a jump too. When we'd go hiking and he got tired, he'd head for the shade and just wait for us -- glad to be part of the family outing and never a whimper of longing for the days when he'd charge ahead of us and we'd have to call him back.
We all make adjustments to aging. But dogs just don't complain about it.
4. Forbidden food may taste great, but it isn't good for us.
Buddy, our big blonde Golden, loved cat food. He would sneak it whenever he could, even though the results were always the same: One ticked off cat and one upset stomach. I'm told it's richer than dog kibble, which makes it taste better. The result in Buddy's case was a bout of the runs that gave his doggie door a workout all night.
I have the same relationship with spicy food. I know it no longer agrees with me but every once in a while -- just like when Buddy thought the cat wasn't looking-- I pig out.
Sometimes, even as we age, it's OK to walk on the wild side -- to take a chance, to roll with the punches and see where life takes us. In Buddy's case, it was always through the doggie door. In mine, it's been a few reinventions of my career.
5. It doesn't get much better than long walks with a friend.
Walking is the cheapest, easiest and most convenient form of exercise. And walking with a friend is the best way to visit because there are no interruptions. Dogs have figured this out.