As a dog trainer, I've spent the last quarter of a century training dogs and influencing their people. As a wife and mom with two young kids, I'm doing pretty much the same thing -- reshaping and conditioning good behavior with my kids and trying to influence my husband. More often than not, I'm bemused by the crossover: the similarities between the counter-cruising golden retriever puppy and my M&M thieving son; the wild pubescent collie and my 9-year-olds' awkwardly demonstrative greeting style; and how I employ treats to persuade and entice both species.
But this week offered me a different reflection. It began with a call from an old client. Kisco, their German shorthaired pointer, was now nearly 18 years old and suffering the usual pangs of age, ranging from incontinence to hip dysplasia. Had it really been 17 years since I'd first worked with this family? I remember the leggy, unruly yet personable Kisco greeting me with outstretched paws and a jowly grin. What was their current dilemma? How could I help them?
This family was moving to North Carolina in a week's time, and were grappling with whether it was fair to put Kisco through the upheaval or was it kinder to euthanize him here, peacefully, and bury him under his beloved oak tree. Remembering the bond of trust and friendship I'd formed with their family and beloved dog, they looked to me to help them make their decision.
We met in the field down the road from their house, and memories of years past were interrupted when they lay Kisco at my feet, his shrunken form hardly recognizable. Instead of handling him, I listened and watched. As the couple spoke of times past, Kisco's eyes tracked them as though he understood each word. In every adventure they shared, I envisioned Kisco skipping to the door, paws upstretched in joy, his excited gallop racing up the driveway each afternoon when the bus pulled to a stop.
I knelt down to take Kisco's head in my open palms, remembering his satisfied puppy gaze after our hour-long sessions. Today though, he strained to stay focused on his family, and I sensed unrest and concern. The family called for my opinion and it was all I could offer.
"Look at his eyes," I said. "They're the window to his soul, and they just aren't ready to let go. Home is where you are -- it's not a place. Take him and let him see you settled. Find a new tree. One day, when his eyes no longer meet yours and his spirit no longer lifts to the sound of your voices, you'll know it's time to let him go."
It was a heartfelt moment, and our paths had come full circle. Driving home, I thought of our oldest dog, a 10-year-old Labrador retriever name Whoopsie Daisy. Envisioning her pepper grey muzzle, her growing incontinence and how she sometimes strains to move, a tear came to my eye. When the time comes, when she no longer meets my gaze, will I be able to let her go? Pulling into the driveway I counted the heads at the window -- four, I smiled, still four.
Letting my three spry dogs out back, I sat on the floor and pulled Whoopsie into my lap. She's been my faithful companion through two births, three moves, ten books and a career that's taken me away from the den more than I'm sure she'd wanted. She'd sat through tears and laughter, always there to offer everyone a Buddhist compassion and joy. Oh, the stories my Whoopsie could tell!
Silently, I promised to continue to help her up the stairs and into her favorite armchair if she would tell me when she'd had enough of the strain. It's hard to image a day when she won't be there.
Though I usually catch myself musing about the similarities between dogs and kids, tonight, I found myself laying in bed thinking of my 90-year-old Uncle's induction into communal living. I grimaced at the inevitable choice. In my lifetime, he's held a parental sway -- an example of how to carve a life worth living. He was a community activist, father of three and passionate about his career. He will always loom large and boisterous in my mind. Now he lies incapacitated, his only arguments with his caretakers and his only complaints, however meaningful, are the way they sponge his backside, arrange his flowers and tuck in his sheets. We talk on the phone, and I will visit -- his life is meaningful, but still -- I wonder what his eyes would tell me if they were allowed to speak? It's hard not to think of my own decline. And to wonder who will be there to hoist me up or wipe my dribbles -- to love me like a dog?