The Zen of Old Dogs

Just before sunset, we set off for our late afternoon walk, the Little Bear and I, his human foster mum. It’s about 10 centigrade, around 5 if you factor in the wind chill, my fingers sticking out of the (for poop-bag handling purposes) fingerless gloves are freezing before we’ve reached the end of our road. The Little Bear made me run with him to the edge of our neighbour’s plot, and now, having pretty much exhausted his physical capabilities regarding speedy forward movement, we’re walking at a more leisurely pace. In fact, we’re crawling along at a snail’s pace. Walk a few steps, stop, sniff, sniff some more, double back to sniff the bit previously missed, turn around a few times to find the best angle for marking whatever secret communications spot he has discovered, walk another few steps, repeat as before.

This is the Zen of Old Dogs. It makes you part of a rhythm of movement that allows you to study an individual blade of grass, say, or the intricate weave of a chain-link fence – not because you particularly want to but because, if you don’t, you’ll end up screaming and tearing your hair out. The Little Bear, on the other hand, is simply blissed out and focused on his afternoon stroll. His superpower is to remain totally unmoved by my half-hearted attempts to speed up his progress just a tiny bit. His other superpower is to love his walks in spite of his obvious impairments.

And who am I to deny him the pleasure of slowly, oh so slowly, sniff-walking his way around the neighbourhood? Almost two months past his 16th birthday, beset by arthritis, glaucoma, diminished hearing, stomach issues, and a temperamental pancreas, he is the bravest, most wonderful Little Bear ever, and we are totally in love with him. We became his human foster parents just over half a year ago, though I’m not sure whether the term ‘parents’ applies, seeing as his age, in human terms, would make him our own parents’ generation. He is currently snoozing, post dinner, on his sheepskin lair next to my desk, snoring gently.

He looks like a mixture between a fox and a small bear, with the thick double-layered pelt of someone used to living outdoors. Turns out he’d been on a chain outdoors for many years and was riddled with shotgun pellets when he was finally picked up by animal rescue, given medical treatment, and adopted by a lady who loves him dearly and gave him a new, happy life until her circumstances changed, and she reluctantly had to place him in foster-care. By the time he found us, he had been through several placements. He was polite and well-mannered, but it felt as though he was just going through the motions, as though he expected nothing anymore. But as the weeks passed and he grew to trust us, his real personality began to emerge – a joyful, noble character with a quirky, gentle manner that melts my heart.

When I asked him if he had any questions or worries, he wanted to know just one thing: Do I have to leave again? I said, no, this is your forever home, you’ll never have to leave here. And he gave this huge sigh and went to sleep on his side with his legs stretched out. There were more of these brief question and answer sessions: How come you freak out when we meet other dogs? – Can’t help it, I just do (an image of straining at the end of a chain, charged with fending off potential attackers). And: What’s your problem with cats? – HATE them! Taunt me. Scratch me. And: I hear you’re scared of the vet, how come? – Smell. Terrible smell. Smell of pain. Scared. Don’t go there. – Oh. But we’ll have to go there eventually; you’ll need more medicine for the pain in your joints. I’ll stay with you, nothing bad will happen. And: What was it like when you were on the chain? – Not-now. Don’t go there.  

‘Don’t go there’ is his stock answer to whatever he considers irrelevant, or whatever he doesn’t want in his life. ‘Not-now’ is the past. Not-now is not important. Evidently, we can learn a thing or two from our canine Zen master…  

One of the first things he did was inspect the garden, which he found sadly lacking in secret pathways in-between all those plants and bushes, but no worries, he could sort that out for us. And he did. On the plus side, we had (unwittingly) provided some rodent colonies for him – how thoughtful! He loves to chase rodents. He often disappears in his garden in the evenings, and we hear him thrash about in the undergrowth until he comes strolling back in, looking very pleased with himself.

However, there is no denying that he is nearing the end of his current lifetime. For a while, his many physical challenges were eased by sessions with a lovely physiotherapist he was pleased to visit, but now he doesn’t want to anymore, and I am reluctant to force him. He has a mind, an intelligence, of his own and he has the right to say, no more. We registered him with our vet and went there once, for an initial check-up, so we’d have a base line. Surprisingly, he was OK with it. He kept eye contact with me the entire time: You promised to stay with me (I did) and you said nothing bad would happen (it didn’t). Even the blood-taking went easily, without him freaking out or needing to be restrained. The results confirmed what we already knew and added the elevated pancreas values as a new concern; we’ve adjusted his diet accordingly and so far, he seems to be coping alright.

And yes, it has its challenges, caring for a very old canine gent who sometimes seems within spitting distance of the rainbow bridge. He has good days and bad days, but he still likes his food, his walks (which have shrunk from 20 to 15 to often just 10 minutes), his belly-rubs, he’ll sidle up to me when I’m in the kitchen, ever vigilant in case anything might drop on the floor, and he loves to snooze on any one of his four dog beds. Every so often he seems a bit spaced, and we talk to him softly until eventually he lies down and dozes off. There are times when I feel desperately overwhelmed and panicky: What if I get it wrong, what if the pain killers no longer work, what if his legs give out or the pancreas situation gets out of hand, what if what if what if. That’s when Mr. W. reminds me that we’ve been through this process before with our own dogs and cats; they’ve always let us know when it was time – the Little Bear will be no different.

I very much hope he will be able and willing to stay with us for a while longer and continue to be our resident Zen master, garden redesigner, rodent chaser, and provider of the peaceful joy that comes from listening to the gentle snoring of a Little Bear snoozing on his sheepskin lair by my desk.

4 Replies to “The Zen of Old Dogs”

  1. Oh what a beautiful story and lovely dog. So, so happy he found you and gets to live out the rest of his time with so much love and dignity.
    I teared up when you asked him if he had any questions and he wanted to know if he would have to leave again.
    He is your zen bear and you are his trust pilot. Wishing you all many more happy days together 💞

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your lovely comment. We just love him so much. Sometimes I wish he had found us much, much earlier, but hey, right time, right place: All is well ❤ Have a great weekend!


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