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. 

Let’s Talk About Enrichment!

What is Mental Enrichment? To me, it’s the process of making an animal’s environment interesting and stimulating so as to decrease boredom and provide outlets for species normal behaviors. It’s letting your dog be a dog in all of his or her glory!

If you had asked me in 2011 when I adopted Boots what enrichment was, I really would have had no idea. And for college me and baby Boots, that shockingly worked out alright because he was getting TONS of environmental enrichment without me realizing it- going everywhere with me that I could possibly take him, being walked often, interacting with many people, going for rides. Now that I work a 40 hour week in a job where he and Ranger can’t come along, I prioritize getting them out for their walks and adding other mental enrichment to their lives. I realized recently that like me at 19, many people don’t know what enrichment is, or how to start in an inexpensive way, so here’s my cheap and easy introduction!

Use Puzzle Feeders instead of bowls! Your pup can solve a puzzle to get their food instead of quickly eating it out of a bowl! Not only does this provide mental stimulation, but it also slows down hasty eaters. Some great puzzle toys are Kongs, the Kong Wobbler, and snuffle mats, but you can also DIY it and use a muffin tin as a puzzle bowl! My boys were shocked and dismayed when I introduced puzzle feeders for the first time because they weren’t used to having to figure something out to get their food, but they quickly got the hang of it, and yours can to! Now they’re excited when the Kongs or snake toy come out.

Take your dog on a Sniffing Walk! Think about how much time you spend watching TV, scrolling social media, and reading books- sniffing novel things is the canine equivalent! Next time you take your dog for a walk, let them lead the way and sniff whatever they want to their hearts content. If you want to learn more about the amazing way that dogs use their noses and why sniffing is so vital for them, check out “Being a Dog” by Alexandra Horowitz! I used to worry that people would think ~tHe DoG iS wAlKiNg YoU tHoUgh~ and you know what, they are! It’s THEIR walk!! Let it be!

Play hide and go seek! This can be done with people or treats and is a blast either way. If you have a helper, have them take a treat and hide in an easy location, then ask your dog to “Go find the person!” When they do find your helper, they should give them a treat and praise. You can also do this one on one using just treats- with your pup confined, hide one treat in an easy spot. Ask your dog to “Go find it!” and they’ll be rewarded by eating the treat when they do. As they get better and better at finding hidden people and/or treats, gradually increase the difficulty of the hiding spots. We don’t do this as much as we used to anymore because Boots has a hard time when it’s not his turn, but I definitely want to reintroduce this game when my fiancé and I have a less crazy schedule so he can help me!

Practice Good Manners! Running through the cues that your dog knows, like Sit, Down, Shake, etc. is not only mentally enriching for them, but also helps them to be better citizens of our human world. Using positive reinforcement like treats and affection to train is fun for both humans and dogs! You can also work on new and fun tricks with books like “101 Dog Tricks & How to Teach Them” by Kyra Sundance or by finding a force free, positive reinforcement trainer in your area to take classes with. A good way to find someone credentialed is by searching on the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers website, or on the Karen Pryor Academy website. I’ve loved being in training class with Boots, and Chris is dying to get back in another class with Ranger, but even without class, there’s so much to learn and do at home and through Youtube videos!

I hope you go down the rabbit hole into the wonderful world of Canine Enrichment! It will make you and your dog’s life so much happier, I swear!

Til next time,

Our First Hike Up La Luz!

Hiking the La Luz trail up to Sandia Crest is a goal I’ve decided to conquer in 2019. La Luz is a beast, and seemed like an insurmountable goal for years- especially when I was first diagnosed with asthma at 19 and was told that I only had 73% of the lung capacity that I should. I’ve come a long way since then with my health and my fitness, but I tend to get off track without a specific goal in mind. My triplet sister, an incredible endurance athlete who runs marathons, suggested a hiking goal, and I thought it was a great idea!

Chris, Ranger, Boots & I about 2.5 miles up the trail.

I was never much of a hiker until a few years ago, after going through a bad breakup and finding it to be an empowering thing to do on my own, just me and Boots. I’m drawn to basically any activity where I can bring him along, so I was sold pretty quickly and began to do easy little day hikes with him. I always brought too much supplies and over-packed, but I did and still do consider it a great responsibility to take care of us both. Chris and my first date was a hike with our pups, and I credit that date as a big part of what built a solid foundation for our relationship. There’s nothing like just walking and talking in nature with dogs by your side!

Now that Boots is getting older, I do get a little more worried about what he can and can’t do, or about whether I’m pushing him too hard. For his part, Boots has always been able to keep up pretty well, despite his small stature! It has been really hard for me as we’ve entered his senior years to realize that he may not always be able to be as active as he was when we were younger. Hiking isn’t important to me without the dogs, though. So part of my goal for La Luz is to hike with Boots as far as he can make it, then let him ride in this super sweet carrier backpack so we can get to the top together! The together part is what’s important to me.

The majestic Boots surveying his kingdom.

Ranger is an absolute pro at hiking and has great off leash skills, though it’s super important to us to respect other dogs and their families by staying on leash in leash law areas. Knowing him as a scared, flighty puppy, it’s crazy to me to see how far he’s come and how confident he is both on and off leash while hiking. Chris started with him as soon as he was old enough to physically handle it, and it definitely shows.

Ranger is a pro on the trail- he always knows when it’s time to settle & take a rest!

After spending the last two years day hiking with these boys, I feel like we’ve got a system down. Is it like having kids in that it takes us twice as long to prepare to hike and we have to carry twice as much gear and water to ensure all of our safety and success, but I wouldn’t have it any other way!

I’m no pro at any of this outdoorsy stuff, but if you’re going to start hiking with your dogs, here are my tips for doing so:

  1. Bring twice as much water as you believe you’ll need. Really & truly. There is nothing worse than being out on the trail and not having enough water for yourself and your dog to stay comfortable!
  2. Tell someone where you’re going, even if other people are coming with you. The Find My Friends app exists for a reason!
  3. Carry first aide for yourself and your dog- the thought of being caught in an emergency with no way to help my dog is a terrifying thought for me.
  4. Be respectful of other dogs and their people! Fearful and reactive dogs deserve to get out and explore nature without months or years of training being ruined by off leash dogs rushing at them.
  5. Hike your own hike! If you’re slow, that’s okay! If you and your dog have to stop and rest often, you’re doing right by both of you! Don’t let anyone judge your speed or ability- everyone starts somewhere.
  6. BRING TREATS! Of the human and canine variety! Hikes are more fun with snack breaks!!

The best hiking treat – a trail beer! 

Hope we see you out on the trails!

Hey there!

I’m Jessica, and I’m not totally sure what I’m doing here, but isn’t that how many great things start?!

I’m a Certified Professional Dog Trainer in New Mexico with the two most incredible dogs in the world, in my professional opinion. Boots is a 10 year old terrier mix, and Ranger is a 3 year old hound mix of some sort. I’m also lucky enough to have a pretty amazing fiancé, Chris, who loves our boys just as much as I do.

Chris, Ranger, Boots, & I, shortly after we got engaged – June 17, 2018.

I started an Instagram for Boots years ago, before Chris and Ranger were ever a part of our lives, under the handle BootsAndJess. As our pack grew to include the two of them, I felt that we needed a more inclusive Instagram name, and after weeks of searching and finding that everything I wanted was already taken, I stumbled upon the idea of TheDogMomChronicles– I mean, I already chronicle our life to a large degree on the ‘gram, so why not call it what it is? After that, the idea of a blog popped into my head, and I decided to give it a try.

So what do I hope to get and give in this space? Community!! For so long I felt like the only crazy dog lady out there and worried that I’d never find my people. I’ve been lucky enough to find many of them in real life, and would love to continue to find them on the internet. Boots is entering his senior years, and I hope I’m lucky enough to connect with other senior pup parents, as I know these years will bring both joy and challenges. We’ve also just entered the wonderful world of Rally and will be entering our first trial in March- I’d love to hear from other rescue pup parents involved in dog sports.

While I do work with dogs for a living, I want to use this space to remember the pure joy I get from my dogs and the life that we share together.

Cheers to the start of something new!

Peace, love, and dogs,