When Your Heart Dog Is a Senior

I adopted Boots when he was 2ish and I was 19- his adoption fee was my 20th birthday present to myself. I had grown up with dogs, but had never had one of my own. My childhood dream was always to have a little dog who was constantly by my side- a dog who would sleep in the bed with me and go with me everywhere. By the time I met Boots, that dream had long since been pushed to the back of my mind, but still, I knew he was my dog. The minute I saw him for the first time, I knew.

Since then, we have grown up together in every sense of the word. It’ll be 8 years in July and each one of them has taught us something new. I was a little bit of a wild child when I adopted Boots- I was spreading my wings for the first time as an “adult,” and I can’t say I was the most responsible in my first few leaps from the nest. Boots didn’t make me become responsible- I don’t necessarily believe anyone can make that happen. But what Boots did was love me and show me that I was valuable to him and within our bond. The bond with him changed me.

Boots is inching closer to 11 now, and I’ll be 28 this summer. In a lot of ways, we’ve both slowed down and mellowed out a bit, though in others we’re just as tightly wound as we were back in 2011. Boots’ eyes have the blue haze characteristic of a dog his age, and I’ve begun fielding questions about when Chris and I will start trying to have human babies. Things have changed in big, big ways.

And it’s hard. I can say with 100% certainty that I have never loved another being in the way that I love Boots. I don’t mean that to offend my fiancé or my family or Ranger, though I know that they all understand it. Boots isn’t my “fur baby” and he’s not just my best friend- to describe it more accurately, Boots is more like a piece of my soul who just happens to live outside my body. He’s my Heart Dog.

Last night we had a bonfire and Boots, for the first time in almost 8 years, chose to remain on his blanket inside, watching us out of the sliding glass door instead of coming and sitting outside. He gets tired at the end of walks sometimes these days, and I don’t attempt more than a 3-4 mile hike anymore. He has a dental cleaning coming up and the idea of putting him under anesthesia is terrifying to me, despite knowing it’s what’s best for his long term health. It’s both difficult to recognize and impossible to avoid the knowledge that he is getting older, but I’m trying so hard to make every step of our journey good for him, no matter what. I think that sometimes we can’t let go of not only who our dogs were when they were young, but also, who we were. Neither of us is who we were 8 years ago.

There’s no message to this blog post today- maybe it’s just me shouting into the void or trying to see that I’m not the only one who’s ever made this transition with their Heart Dog. If there is a message, maybe it’s to honor your pup’s dogginess, honor what makes them who they are for their whole lives, not just when they’re young and active. Be there for it all, as they are for us. I think that’s the best thing we can do.

What It’s Really Like to Be a Dog Person

To start off, I want to clear something up from the get go- there is a difference between “owning a dog” and being a dog person. People who own dogs (hopefully) provide all of the necessities for a dog to live- food, water, and shelter- the things that the law says must be provided, and sometimes not much more. Dog people, dog guardians, dog moms and dads, we’re different. There are varying degrees of crazy dog person- I’m well aware that I’m at the higher end of that spectrum, and I’m 100% okay with that. 

A good friend of mine pointed out that so many of us dog people post hundreds of photos of our pets on Instagram and gush about them, but we don’t illustrate the real and sometimes difficult aspects of being a good pet parent. I think that how we deal with the things that aren’t warm and fuzzy dictate the kind of dog moms and dads we are, so we should talk more about those things! 

Boots is my soulmate and my best friend, and he also regularly wakes me up in the middle of the night to go outside. Is he going outside to pee or just to sniff? That’s really not clear to me, and thankfully I now know that if he gets a walk every single day, the odds of him sleeping through the night are much higher. I’m a super light sleeper, and it was really really hard when he was waking me up at 2:00 am every single night for months on end. When he had urine crystals, it was sometimes 2-3 times a night despite him getting aggressively treated for them immediately. I’m not someone who functions well on a funky sleep pattern and I can admit that as much as I love my dog, there are times I’ve wanted to cry because I’m so tired and he needs to go out again

Dogs also really like to eat things that aren’t food. Chris loves to garden, and he loves to add both Southwestern and Cajun elements to our garden to represent both of our heritages- one of those was a very old, sun dried steer skull that he bought from a yard sale for $5. The idea was to grow succulents out of it, but Ranger did not agree with that aesthetic choice and instead decided to eat it. I didn’t realize he’d actually consumed any of it until the middle of the night when he jumped off of the bed and started throwing up pieces of it all over the bedroom floor. I had never felt more like his mother than I did at that moment, and never been more worried about him. I stayed up watching him all night, ready to drive him to the Emergency Vet in an instant. Thankfully, he was just fine. We definitely had to pay for carpet cleaning when we moved out of our rental home because we never could get that vomit stain out of the floor, but I’d pay it a hundred times over for Ranger to be okay. 

Both of my boys are behaviorally special needs in different ways, and that’s been it’s own adventure. Boots and I hyper bonded with each other pretty much immediately when I adopted him. When I was in college we rarely had to be apart and that only contributed further to our closeness, which manifested in Boots’ screaming when he wasn’t able to get to me. When I was in the shower, he’d sit outside the door and alternate between whining and screaming, much to the displeasure of everyone I’ve ever lived with. He still whines and occasionally screams when we’re separated, and he does not like to share my attention. While I’ve accepted that that’s who he is, it has strained some of my human relationships… but that’s just life with a dog that you love. If they can’t hang with him, they’re not going to be in my life. Ranger, on the other hand, was very under-socialized when he came into the shelter. Chris has done so much to counter his early months, but that said, Boots, and Chris and I, are Ranger’s anchors. He functions like a well adjusted pup when we’re around, but he does revert back to his very fearful roots when we’re not or when any piece of the puzzle changes. He doesn’t like strangers, and he’s terrified of bearded men to this day. If anything in the house moves, he panics a little bit- moving with him was incredibly difficult for that reason. He hates cardboard boxes!! All that said, Ranger is our baby boy and we adore him. He’s such a special dog. 

Caroline Knapp’s book, Pack of Two, sums it up perfectly- “I once heard a woman who’d lost her dog say that she felt as though a color were suddenly missing from her world: the dog had introduced to her field of vision some previously unavailable hue, and without the dog, that color was gone. That seemed to capture the experience of loving a dog with eminent simplicity. I’d amend it only slightly and say that if we are open to what they have to give us, dogs can introduce us to several colors, with names like wildness and nurturance and trust and joy.” Reality with dogs is taking the good with the bad. It’s recognizing that their presence changes things, and that sometimes accommodations have to be made. Life as a dog person means that you can’t necessarily jump on a plane to another country at a moment’s notice, but you can take a walk and encounter a whole different world through their nose and eyes. It’s understanding their needs so that we can enrich their lives as much as they enrich ours, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.