Tribute to an Old Dog
by Kate Connick
In an attempt to help a client find a new dog to add to her home, I was scoping out the area pounds and shelters. My meanderings led me to the North Shore Animal League, a bright, well-funded, user-friendly, private animal shelter on Long Island, New York. It's a warm, comfortable shelter that always seems to be full of young, handsome, utterly adoptable dogs.
I drifted from pen to pen, making mental notes that one dog would be too active, another too bold, another very appropriate for the family I had in mind. So many young, outgoing dogs... and the I saw her. Amid all these youthful bundles of fluff and mischief was an elderly Boxer.
"Candy" stood at the front of her pen, greeting passers-by with goodwill but minimal expectation of adoption. Her muzzle grizzled, boney skeleton visible, coat sparse and well scarred, she presented a stark contrast to the dogs that surrounded her. Needless to say, I was intrigued. I poked my fingers through the chain link and said hello, and an amiable volunteer then led us both to a visiting area to get acquainted.
This was a confident, sweet, sociable dog. I doubt that anyone had ever mistreated her. She had been found tied to the fence one morning. Several tumors were growing on her, and my guess is that her family could not afford to provide veterinary treatment or face the prospect of euthanasia. Sadly, the private shelter cannot accept dogs this way, so they took the sorry old Boxer to the municipal pound down the street. They didn't forget about her, however. When her time was up, they broke down and retrieved her.
By the time I met her, Candy had lived at the shelter for about six months, endured three surgeries, and had been adopted and returned (because the person who had taken her home found it too sad to keep her). Her many health issues, aside from old age in general, included cardiomyopathy (for which she took medication), hypothyroidism (the source of her baldness and "grave" facial expression, for which she also took medication), untreatable mast cell cancer, and some arthritis. The shelter volunteers were quite forthcoming about her medical status. They didn't expect her to live more than a few months.
One of the staff veterinarians, Dr. Mimi Fitchett, had a serious soft spot for this dog. She took her home for a few overnight visits, but she was unable to permanently add another dog to her household. Nonetheless, she was able to report that Candy was fine with other dogs and easy to have in the house. Given her age, she needed to go out more frequently than a younger dog, but she didn't have any apparent behavioral concerns. I was given the following write-up:
"Candy is a delightful, approximately 8 year-old (KC's note: My guess is that she was significantly older) spayed female Boxer. Like many other older dogs, and Boxers in particular, Candy has a few medical problems.
The most serious problem is a skin cancer with multiple masses called mast cell tumors (MCT). Candy was abandoned at our shelter with a large MCT on her side. The tumor, as well as several others, were removed. Because she had multiple tumors, she was not a candidate for radiation therapy. She experienced side effects from the chemotherapy which made her very uncomfortable, and so the chemotherapy was discontinued. Candy's lifespan is expected to be short (possibly 6-8 months). We hope that she will find a loving and compassionate owner who will enjoy spending quality time with this wonderful creature.
Candy also has a heart condition, not uncommonly encountered in Boxers, called cardiomyopathy. This makes her heart beat erratically at times... Candy has a hormonal condition in which her thyroid glad does not produce enough hormone... She is a bit arthritic in her hips and is occasionally lame in her left foreleg...
She loves car rides and sleeping on the couch (she sleeps very deeply and it takes her a few minutes to get up once she has woken up), watching T.V., ("Oprah" and "X-Files" are particular favorites) and any type of treat (flavored rawhides make her happy). She gets along well with other dogs and cats. Candy likes frequent (every 3-4 hour) walks to urinate and defecate. She will make a loving and devoted companion for someone willing to open his or her heart and home to her..."
Although North Shore Animal League is a nice shelter, and although the volunteers all expressed a genuine concern and affection for Candy, I hate to see an old dog spend the last leg of its life in an institution. This old Boxer had probably been somebody's much-loved family pet, and she deserved to spend her last weeks or months in a family setting. I desperately wanted to take her home, but I feared that my three young, rambunctious dogs (2 Boxers and 1 Scottie) would overwhelm her. Somehow being knocked over and tormented by overly playful young thugs didn't seem preferable to being in a shelter where at least she had some peace to relax.
With a heavy heart, I left her behind... but I returned the next day to adopt her. I wasn't sure if I was being kind or being reckless, but I had to try to give this old dog a comfortable hospice in her remaining time. My friends thought I had taken an utter leave of my sensibilities, and I can only imagine the facial expressions on my veterinarian's staff when Candy's encyclopedia-volume of a medical record came through on their fax machine.
When I returned with my sister to North Shore to adopt Candy, the volunteers were both delighted and dismayed. They kept asking me if I was sure I had read and understood her medical record. After clearing their reference check, I was the new adoptive owner of a terminally ill Boxer. I can still remember driving home with Candy in the back of my station wagon, licking our cheeks with vomit-scented breath, happy to be part of whatever adventure we had in store for her.
I decided that "Candy" was too young and Britney Spears'esque a name for this old dog. If she were a human, I imagined she'd be a bit like Julia Child - somewhat doddering yet confident and competent, brilliant in her eccentricity and alive with humor and uniqueness. Who is the epitome of a tough but sweet old lady? Her new name became Grandma.
Grandma moved right in and made herself at home. She quickly established that she wasn't going to tolerate any disrespect from my dogs, much to my tremendous amusement. My big brindle is a tough, physical, dominant dog, and he politely deferred to the old lady much like a pro-footballer might turn into a soft-spoken boy around his grandmother. There were no issues with dominance or competitiveness. My dogs simply knew that she was on a pedestal, and they all adjusted easily.
She let me bathe her and trim her nails, and she fell into a sound sleep in a comfortably padded crate that first afternoon. And then old Grandma picked out a favorite chair (after systematically testing out the relative comfort of all the furniture, of course), and that was the last time she saw the inside of a crate.
There's something wonderfully liberating about adopting an elderly dog, especially one that you know is on borrowed time. As a dog trainer, my mindset is always focused on setting limits for young dogs, teaching them acceptable behavior, wearing them out physically and mentally. With this old Boxer, all I had to do was spoil her rotten and make her happy in her remaining time. That's it. It feels great to be able to do nothing but give to a dog and never ask for anything.
Grandma adapted easily. She accompanied me for car rides, came with my dogs on pet-therapy visits, watched me teach obedience classes, gnawed on rawhide, took a daily run on a Flexi-leash at a local park, and slept soundly and happily when nothing else was going on. The beauty of an older dog is that they don't chew things up or soil floors. Grandma knew how to live as a housepet, and she slid right into my home like she'd been there all her life. While she lived with me, I slept on the sofa so that she wouldn't have to negotiate stairs. She was very much the center of my attention, and yet she was undemanding in her needs.
Through it all, she was a cheerful trooper. The only curveball she threw me was the Chocolate Cake Affair. I blush just thinking about it. You see, Granny was such an easy dog to live with that she had total freedom in my home. If I'd go out, she'd remain loose, and I'd crate my other dogs to ensure her peace and quiet. One day I left to visit my mother, and old lump o'Boxer was contentedly snoring on her favorite chair as I exited the house. I found her in the exact same position when I returned. The only thing is that I found an empty bakery box on the diningroom table.
I must have been a sight. I saw the empty box (which had contained a painfully rich, decadent, completely untouched fudge bakery cake). Then I looked at the snoring dog. I looked back at the box again, not fully grasping the situation. I looked at the other dogs, comfortably sequestered in their crates. Back at Grandma. There was no icing anywhere. No crumbs. The dog was too arthritic to have stood on her hind legs and sucked a cake out of its box, not to mention leaving no crumbs or icing anywhere to be seen. But she did. I shook my head and burst out laughing. The old dog still had some mischief left! (Note: I'm aware that chocolate can be quite toxic to dogs, but Grandma didn't even burp after eating that cake. If the cardiomyopathy, hypothyroidism, and cancer couldn't stop her, no cake was going to do it either).
That was Grandma. Old and sick and full of life all the same. Damn, I miss her.
Although she initially gained weight, grew hair, and developed more energy and spark, she began to fail almost two months after I'd adopted her. I took her to the park one last time, but she was too weak to take a run. She took a walk on unsteady legs, snarfed down meatballs, and I said my teary goodbyes. I took her to the vet for the last time on the day before my 31st birthday.
I don't think I've ever been so emotional about a dog's death. Often one can find comfort in the long and good life that's been shared between a dog and oneself. Even though it was inevitable that Grandma wouldn't live for long, her death came too soon. She was a wonderful dog, and I wanted more.
That being said, I'd do it all over again. I didn't keep this dog simply out of pity. Grandma Boxer enriched my life at least as much as I did hers. I look now into the wide eyes and grey face of my oldest Boxer. I don't love him in spite of his age and infirmaties. Rather, he's dear to me because of them. We share a history that makes him very much a part of me in a way that Grandma was, no doubt, a part of her original family. Even though they weren't able to see her through to the end of her days, I'm glad that I was. I hope that anyone who has ever had to give up an older dog will take comfort in this tale. And I hope that somehow I've inspired someone somewhere to at least consider adding an old, ill, or otherwise less adoptable dog to their home.