Sunday, January 19, 2014

It's a dog's life-watching your best friend grow old

She sleeps a little longer and a little more deeply. She snores and dreams so richly that she wakes herself up barking, only to look sheepish when she realizes she was dreaming. When I'm sitting still she cuddles in a little closer, looks for a little more love.

My puppy isn't a puppy anymore.

I remember when I brought Shy home. I had spent six months recovering from losing my previous dog, Pru, to cancer. She was a beautiful, loyal Staffie, and losing her crushed me.

The night I made the decision to say goodbye to her at the vet was one of the hardest of my life. I wasn't dying to do it all again.

But, as any dog owner knows, that moment does come when you're ready for a dog again. When you just need to have one back in the house, and back in your life.

"Three month old dog, free to a good home" the ad said.

"First to come get her, takes her", said the girl on the phone. I could almost hear her shrug.

I enlisted a friend to drive me to a 'rougher' neighborhood to pick her up. When we went in the house, Shy was tied to a doorknob in the hallway with her food in a bowl next to her. She crouched and shied away when I approached her, hence the name.

Despite the request to be my voice of reason, my friend nudged me and whispered, "Take her. Take her!" as we eyed the dirty diapers and trash all over the floor.

So I did take her. She sat on my lap on the way home, afraid, shaking, so quiet and well behaved.

She had me so fooled.

The next few months, hell, the next few years, were challenging to say the least. As someone who had been around, and worked with dogs on and off my whole life, Shy was a whole different ball game.

I knew she was a "Shepherd" mix when I got her. Over time learned that the "mix" part was Border Collie, with possibly a little husky for good measure. For someone who hasn't owned a Border Collie, it's an experience that is hard to explain.

She bit ankles. She ran around the house and cleared tables like a freight train. She chewed walls. And floors. And chairs. It would be easier to list the things she didn't chew. She nipped. She did all the things a normal puppy does. Times one million. At warp speed. For years longer.

Border Collies are the smartest breed of dog. Shy could play chess (if I knew how myself, and could teach her), I have no doubt of this. But without a job to do, that energy and that intelligence can turn  neurotic, stubborn and insane. Generally, behavior that would try the patience of Mother Theresa.

Border Collies are the only breed of dog that use their eyes to control other animals, and not blink while doing it. Shy's eyes can bore holes into you when she wants something (which she does frequently to my father when my parents dog sit, driving him nearly insane trying to figure out what she wants. I think she does it to entertain herself until I get back...)

Three different obedience courses, daily walks that exceed an hour or more, swims and anything else that will tire her out, nine years later, she is just now starting to act like a "normal" dog. Although those who don't know her think she is still a hyper puppy, as she runs manic circles on her lead.

She still wants to chase buses, butterflies, bees, anything that moves. She herds the cats, is afraid of the  waves, sand, loud noises and she refuses to let strangers touch her. After years of research, I'm comforted knowing these things are pretty standard in the Border Collie world, the breed that thinks there is a bear behind every tree.

Thus, they are one of the most ditched breeds at shelters, along with Staffies/"pitbulls", huskies, and most other high energy, intelligent breeds that people get for their looks, without realizing that, if you don't have an active lifestyle and a strong understanding of the breed, they will drive you to the breaking point.

Like having a hyper active, gifted toddler that never grows up.

Its taken a lot of years, more than with any dog I've owned, and a lot of chewed pairs of shoes, but Shy and I are bonded. She is my shadow. People have come and gone but she's still there. She keeps me active (it's hard to laze on the couch with her face inches from mine, staring, unblinking, willing me to get up and go outside). She's awesome to cuddle with and she makes me laugh at least once a day, usually more. She's a clown and she's there in moments that no one else is, demanding but understanding.

That's why it's so hard to see her grow older. I know she's slowing down, where other people don't see it. I see her becoming just a little needier, a little stiffer, a little less active, a little less sure. A few months back, I made a three am visit to the vet because she was in pain and woke me up. She recovered quickly but I suspect arthritis is beginning to creep in. For such a active dog, and my hiking and walking buddy, I wonder how this will look as time goes on.

I know she likely has lots of years left. She'll have the best food, and the best regime to keep her healthy and comfortable, both natural and prescribed. I know she'll let me know when she's ready to go the same way Pru did, it's something you see in their eyes. But it doesn't stop me from cuddling her just a few minutes longer, giving her just a few extra pats and maybe a few extra dog treats.

That's what we do as pet owners. We keep letting them back into our lives no matter how many times we swear we won't go through the heartbreak again. As they get older, we make them comfortable and do whatever needs to be done to keep them happy and healthy for as long as possible.

It's hard to watch your shadow grow old but as I write, Shy has laid her head on my lap, with her tail wagging hopefully and her sticky, smelly rope toy dangling over my laptop. She doesn't dwell on her past, or worry about her future, she lives in the moment, enjoying every second and teaching me to do the same.

We have some good times, and hopefully some good years, left together and she's constantly reminding me to spend less time looking forward, and more time enjoying what's right in front of me.

So if you'll excuse me, I have a game of tug of war to play.

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