“Dogs’ lives are too short. Their only fault, really.” — Agnes Sligh Turnbull
Each time I have brought a new puppy into my life, I have held their little heads in my hands, inhaled sweet puppy breath, gazed into their still cloudy-blue eyes and – just for a moment – become filled with the dread of eventually having to say goodbye. Before we’ve shared a single walk, puppy class, car ride, camping trip, table scrap, or vet visit, I already know they will leave far too soon.
But I think we all make a pact with our new dogs. Mine’s a pretty standard contract, really: I will train you the best I can. I will provide you with quality food, ample exercise, and professional care. I will take more photographs of you than has been taken of the first 30 U.S. presidents combined. And when the day comes for you to break my heart, I will not be selfish.
My first dog was a yellow lab named Jasmine, an obedient, fun-loving Frisbee dog and companion of the highest order. Years later I added a second dog, a German Shorthair named Sierra. While walking them around my neighborhood I ran into a pretty blonde woman walking her two Jack Russells. Our fondness of dogs is how we met and why we became friends, and that bond has helped carry us through 20 years of marriage.
When Sierra was still a young pup, Jasmine died from cancer at age seven. In my inconsolable rage I remember declaring, “Dogs should live to be ten. Period. Any less is unjust. Any more is gravy.”
Over time, we said goodbye one by one to what we call our original four ‘charter’ dogs. All but Jasmine made it well into those gravy years.
I now have two Wirehaired Vizslas. I got Winnie as a pup and Finn came along a few years later as a three-year-old, so they’re about the same age. These dogs changed everything for me. They have been responsible for immersing me in the outdoors. My time with them on hikes, kayak floats, and camping trips, plus my passion for capturing moments along the way with words or a camera, has changed how I view and interact with the world. My life is far richer for having them in it.
Now that Finn is ten and Winnie will turn ten this summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about our time together. It’s not as if their age snuck up on me – almost two years ago I added Winslow, a Wirehaired Dachshund puppy, to the team to bring some youth to my stable of bearded dogs. I think he has made us all a little younger.
But time marches on, and I see the signs. Finn, bless his heart, has lost his hearing in the last year. He knows basic hand signals but I’m having to retrain him to watch for me to give them. But training time is quality time, and we both enjoy it. An unexpected benefit to his hearing loss is he has never slept better. I also notice he’s starting to get a little creaky when he first gets up. So, we have that in common.
It’s interesting to watch Winnie age because she has felt like an old dog since she was born. She’s always been quietly observant, and it gives her an old-soul quality. Her favorite warm weather activity is to stand chest-deep in water. That’s it. Not swim or splash or chase minnows or toys. She just stands there. God, I love a weird dog.
We measure time by the dogs in our lives. I don’t know the year my wife and I met, or bought our first house, or when we moved to our current little slice of paradise. But I can tell you which dogs were with us when those things happened.
Right now we’ve got a crew of five (the aforementioned bearded dogs, my wife’s Jack Russell, Gromit, and her Basenji, Petey). Together we’ve had dogs big and small, easy and hard, young and old. I try not to think about them getting closer to the end. All we can do is keep them fit, safe and healthy, and embrace our time together, no matter how short.
Ten years is not a magic number. I’m not entitled to it and it wouldn’t be enough if I got it. Every day is a gift. Every year is gravy. And when the time comes to hold their heads in my hands that final time, to look into their eyes once more and breathe in their last breath, it will not be with dread, but with gratitude.
Originally published in The Piedmont Virginian, April, 2018