The other day, I was in the kitchen with Adrian, scraping out a can of wet dog food with a spoon.
“Here,” he said, handing me a spatula. “You can get the gravy out better with this.”
I thanked him and did just that, smearing the excess gravy into our dogs’ food bowls.
“Funny, all the things we do for these guys, huh?” Adrian said.
It is funny. A little sad. And very beautiful.
Our youngest dog, Jelly, just turned five years old. Though Jelly has always had us on the run, behavior-wise, in truth, he left puppyhood at age one. He’s not yet in his senior years, but you can see the white hairs starting to gather around his snout. He’s mellowed a lot, too; these days at the dog park, instead of policing every scrap that breaks out, he’s more likely to sidle up to some adoring humans for a little affection.
But Pablo, our oldest dog, at twelve and half, has been considered “senior” for some time now. Pablo has always had issues with his back legs; he had a surgery to fix the damaged cartilage in them when he was just three years old. That helped, but the vet warned he’d likely have arthritis in those joints as he aged. Now, his ACLs are basically shot, as well, and because I don’t want to spend $6,000 per leg to repair them, we just work to manage the pain. Pills, daily exercise, supplements, massage are all part of Pablo’s daily routine.
But, the arthritis has come. Along with slowness and near total deafness. And what we believe might be either anxiety or dementia, which manifests itself in random barks that we cannot quiet, and heavy panting spells that wake me up in the middle of the night.
Is he in pain? Is he upset? Is he just up late, fondly recalling his youth?
“I wish they just could tell us,” the vet said to me on the phone, when I called to report how Pablo had taken to the latest drug regimen. “We have to really guess what the problem is, in many cases. We’ll just keep trying things, in hopes that something eventually works.”
In the past dozen years or so, here are some things we’ve done in service of our dogs:
Did daily post-surgery physical therapy with Pablo, for eight weeks in a row, with heated massage and stretching exercises
Brushed gnarly fangs with poultry-flavored toothpaste, using several kinds of brushes, including a rubber finger-cap with little nubs on it and several long-handled toothbrushes with multiple brush-heads, which all eventually got snapped and broken by the dogs’ overzealousness (they love poultry-flavored toothpaste a little too much)
Bought two different types of “doggie stairs” so Pablo can easily get into a car or a bed
Learned to heave Pablo properly into a car or a bed, to minimize stress on his back legs, when he refused to use “doggie stairs”
Removed approximately one metric ton of dog hair from Pablo’s body, using a tool called “The FURminator”
Bought and boiled two different sizes of muzzle, in order to shape them to fit Jelly’s face for vet visits
Changed vet clinics because original clinic would not service Jelly due to his aggression during routine examination and vaccinations
Learned to drug Jelly into submission the night before routine vaccinations and screenings, during which he must also wear a muzzle smeared with peanut butter and be held and managed by Adrian, an ordeal that happens only every 2 years, if we’re lucky
Invested in myriad supplements and pharmaceuticals to help with arthritis pain and anxiety for Pablo, and high-stress vet visits for Jelly: CBD treats (Diamond MediPets, Pet ReLeaf), Super Snouts Green Lipped Mussel Joint Powder, Dasuquin,® Cosequin,® Gabapentin, Trazodone, Carprovet, plus a bunch of “herbal” calming supplements that our first vet recommended, which never worked
Rubbed Musher’s Secret on both dogs’ paws to protect them from being burned by salted streets in winter
Sent away for a pricey memory foam dog bed for Pablo, who gets livid, ugly calluses on his ankles from lying on the wood floor
Allowed Jelly to take possession of the pricey memory foam dog bed, which Pablo won’t go near
Experimented with several types of tranquilizers and “calming” supplements to make car travel with Pablo less stressful for him (none have worked; he pants like he’s in the desert dying of heat stroke any time he’s made to get in a car)
Paid significant sums for puppy classes and in-home training sessions for Jelly when he wouldn’t stop running away and biting everyone
Consulted dog massage websites to get tips on soothing Pablo at 3 in the morning when he wouldn’t stop panting and being agitated
Bought nightlights so that Pablo can see where he is when he wakes up in the middle of the night, in case his vision is going the same direction as his hearing
Had Adrian install adhesive strips on the stairs to make it easier for Pablo to climb them
Replaced several area rugs that Pablo destroyed with diarrhea
Spent way too much money on vet visits before realizing Pablo has a kind of weak stomach and gets diarrhea pretty regularly
Bought countless 89 cent cans of pumpkin to remedy said diarrhea
Pay $15 monthly for BarkBox subscription toys, which we then watch Jelly tear apart, strewing bits of fluff and deactivated squeakers all over the house
Much of this is commonly expected when you bring a pet into your life. Our dog trainer Neil always reminded us that when you take puppies away from their parents, you now must become their parents. You must provide guidance and leadership and protection. That means things like the above list are now your job: buying armloads of discount canned pumpkin after the holidays, going to high-stress vet visits with a dog wearing a peanut butter-smeared muzzle, cleaning up a backyard full of poop every spring when the snow melts.
Being a dog’s parent means hauling bags of kibble out of the store and into the house, vacuuming bales of dog fur out of your sofa, walking for miles and miles with them while they pee on and sniff everything. Doing this in all weather, every day, all year long.
It means hand-feeding Jelly bacon bits to distract and entertain him, while Adrian clips his claws. Learning how to use a styptic pencil for when you clip the claw too close to the quick and there’s blood everywhere suddenly. Holding your dog immobile while applying pressure to his spurting, bleeding paw for an hour and realizing that paying $18 for a professional nail trim is money well spent.
It means lots of conversations with the vet about what’s “reasonable” as far as treatments for Pablo and his blown-out ACLs. What we can live with and what we cannot.
It means cuddling Pablo, curling myself around him until he stops shaking and begins to snore.
It means inserting tiny treats into a million squeaky toys for Jelly so he can problem solve and have fun and stop bothering everyone.
These days, it’s easy to forget, with dogs wearing raincoats and rhinestones and sleeping under the duvet with you, that fundamentally, it’s a bit weird to keep animals in your home. Or at least, it’s weird to think that you can keep animals in your home and then expect them not to shed and scratch and pee and cough up disgusting things in the worst possible places, at the worst possible times. But not long ago, people used to bring their pigs and cattle and sheep inside their homes; when the temperatures dropped, it was imperative to do so in order to keep stock and flock alive.
So, this? We asked for this. We created it. It’s not like dogs didn’t have families of their own. There was a time when a dog pack did just fine without a two-legged ape standing there hollering and pouring pellets in bowls, necessitating the need for barks in response (only dogs bark, which is a learned, adaptive behavior; wild dogs and wolves do not). Canids have always had their own culture and systems. The mother keeps her babies warm and fed in a den, with the father bringing her food so she can survive while tending to them in their earliest weeks. Then the pack lives and hunts together, helping each other out, keeping each other warm, playing with each other.
Thousands of years ago, dogs and people began to live together, symbiotically. To thrive, even, in each other’s company. Some scientists consider nonalignment with canids to be part of why the Neanderthals died out. Regardless, we’ve interrupted the family systems of dogs, and now most people can’t, don’t want to or aren’t permitted to keep a growing family of them in their lives. So, it’s not really a stretch to think that they’d need so many things from us.
(One of the few goals I have in my life? To be able to watch and live alongside an entire dog family, parents and puppies, just to see how they’d all interact.)
As their parents, then, not merely their owners, we have responsibilities. We must groom and feed and care for them when they’re sick. We must prevent them from charging FedEx trucks, eating toilet paper off the roll and swallowing toads they find in the yard. We must warm them, literally, with our bodies and our presence, to remind them that they are not alone, that we are a family, even in our odd simian ways, with our penchant for face-to-face communication instead of hip-to-hip, our desire to hold our beloved to our chests instead of coiling around them in lateral circles of heat. Despite these incompatibilities, we have made each other family.
I recently read an article on the discovery of dog skeletons buried 7,000 years ago, near Lake Baikal in Siberia, with necklaces made of elk teeth. The image of this still shakes me.
Imagine that time. The cold. The stark need. The demands of infants, still kept at the breast or close at hand. Yet, upon the death of the dog, those humans near Lake Baikal stopped to honor this partnership, of dog and human. They had been going after elk together, side by side, using the same canid hunting methods that later humans would adapt to herding livestock— circling, flanking, tiring out their prey. These humans near Lake Baikal, despite privation and the punishing demands of survival, stopped to collect elk teeth, find a cord of sinew and string up a funerary adornment. Then, they dug a hole and laid the dog gently to rest, wearing the finery of another animal that had nourished them both. I like to think they said a few words. Sang a song. Closed their eyes. Said goodbyes.
Spatulas, kibble, cans, green lipped mussel powder, memory foam beds, muzzles smeared with peanut butter, pills stuffed into blocks of cheese, collars and ointments and off-leash permits. These things seem new, but they represent something ancient, the modern version of those elk teeth necklaces. Our way of saying, while our dogs can still trudge beside us on the path, I love you, I care for you, I will be with you until the end.
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